The Operating System

5th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 4 :: Phillip J. Ammonds on Essex Hemphill

[box]It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]
When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.
Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.
Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]


Essex Hemphill, right, performing with friend and collaborator Wayson Jones in 1986. (Daniel Cima)

Essex Hemphill, right, performing with friend and collaborator Wayson Jones in 1986. (Daniel Cima)

[line][script_teaser]“They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.” [/script_teaser]
In 1992, I arrived on a predominately white campus, in a haze of affirmative action blues—screaming for validation. Black, gay and ready to take the world, I desperately sought voices that spoke in the same angry tenor as my own. I wanted a revolution that would let me love whomever I chose, protect my status, protect it the same if it should ever change—all while afforded the same opportunities to express and develop as my White peers.  Not knowing where to begin, I started with my small tribe of three.
My dear friend and mentor suggested that I watch “Tongues Untied,” a documentary, in its author’s words to, “…shatter the nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference.”  It sounded like the antidote I needed and it just so happened that my college library had a copy of the VHS cassette.  I quickly reserved it and my friend hosted a viewing in his room.
One of the actors featured in the film was a poet and activist by the name of Essex Hemphill. His sinewy body moved across the screen in tandem with words that spoke to my core. His echo of “brother to brother” reverberated into us, opening our minds to each other and the call for love in our community!  I was finally connected to the cause and solution I had been seeking.
It wasn’t long before I found every piece of prose and poetry that I could find by Essex Hemphill. His award winning collection, Ceremonies became my bible; its guttural chants of acknowledgement and inclusion among gay, black men—a prayer.  One poem in particular, American Wedding resonated with me:

From “American Wedding”

In america,
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
No horsemen
bearing terror,
no soldiers of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
They’re too busy
looting the land
to watch us.
They don’t know
we need each other
They expect us to call in sick,
watch television all night,
die by our own hands.
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

The following is an Ode to Essex’s voice.  It is my Last Call:

On the periphery of virtue
Entranced by aggregates of moving bodies
Praying to gods draped
In silken fabrics and pancake make-up
We wait for life’s answers
While drowning in endless libations
Hoping to be validated by
Phallically blessed angels

The tribal sounds of nature
Move the Earth
We sway
Valiantly hoping
The night will end
In the arms of love

[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image] Phillip J. Ammonds, a native son of Brooklyn, New York, began writing poetry and fiction as an adolescent, exploring concepts of family, death, sexuality and gender. Phillip is a founding member of the writing collective, Writeous, with whom he has co-produced three chapbooks.  Phillip is currently curator of “Rainbows Across the Diaspora” the queer text reading series at Dixon Place in New York City. Most recently, his poem, Routine, was published in the anthology Black Gay Genius-Answering Joseph Beam’s call by Vintage Entity Press.
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