Festival Headliner Regie Gibson: The Voice of Harvest, Magnitude and Bond

by Nicole Terez Dutton
This is the eleventh in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
ttend Regie Gibson’s event at the Festival.

Regie Gibson is a hard cat to pin down. Remix and collage is a staple of Gibson’s work, and he is as comfortable lecturing to a university audience about the correlations between The Iliad and gangster rap as he is singing Shakespeare’s sonnets over syncopated funk beats with the eclectic, six member band, Atlas Soul. But then, perhaps this is because Regie Gibson is a poet interested in making connections between disparate things. He is keenly interested in building new language from the oldest sources. Seeking to honor and expand the traditions in which he works, his poems are a palimpsest of thousands of instruments and voices.

One of two singers in the band Atlas Soul, Gibson also plays the djembe, conga and darduka. Rooted in the North African Raï tradition from the 1930's, Atlas Soul infuses Moroccan grooves with jazz, funk, rock and hip hop. Just as his literary interests are far-flung, the musical expression of his poems also lands itself on thoroughly hybridized ground.

Gibson is currently at work on a manuscript called The Life and Times of Mozart Brown, which considers a life— not unlike his own— as much influenced by Mozart as James Brown.

All the work Gibson does bears his familiar fingerprint: passionate expression, a melding of many modalities, dialects and traditions, and an exuberant expression of hope. He is able to draw from a wide range of influences as he brings “high” and “low” art into exquisite harmony. Because he understands that poetry is meant to be sung, that the voice is old as memory, that it has the strength to carry us through the trials and victories alike, that its stories assemble the particulars of our being within time and place.

There is something powerfully and beautifully disruptive in acknowledging the places and moments where we come together in strength and celebration. “We’re bound together in community based on love, not just what we fear. What we run toward not just what we run away from,” Gibson says.

Gibson sings the fingerprints and registers of the people who raised him poet, son, father, teacher, troubadour. He sings Chicago mentor Kent Foreman’s words—poems that Kent himself refused to write, but which Gibson learned and continues to carry from microphone to audience to a new world of listeners. We hear the trappings of Gwendolyn Brooks (“Lady Gwen”), whose arrival in the classrooms of his primary school in Chicago marked the beginning of an impulse to set a world to words, to create a language big enough to contain the multitudes of people and experience, tastes and influences.

Gibson builds poems where Hamlet and Jimi Hendrix rub elbows with Whitman, where the broken-hearted soldiers returning from Afghanistan meet with the hot combs and stories from his mother’s 1970’s Chicago beauty shop. In his poems we hear the jook and rage of Mississippi goddamn filtered through the 739 miles and three generations of great migratory distance to Chicago, affectionately dubbed "Mississippi North" for it's wealth of richness of southerners and lively, persistent southern culture. We hear the dogged, no-nonsense straight-talk of his father and the orishas’ brightnesses, the throb of Celtic drums in his poems. His poems, in the way they gather the tribes and represent a convergence of tongues and continents, never fail to remind us of the best in ourselves, that we are, as Gwendolyn Brooks, said “each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond.”

And inevitably his poems sing toward the bright center that gathers and holds us together. “We have so much stuff that makes us want to not be here that I think I want to continue to give people a reason to breathe. I don’t mind dealing with darkness, but my work tends to move toward the light within us, toward what is more celebratory. I’d like to be seen as a person whose art makes it possible to envision a better way of being a human being.”

Nicole Terez Dutton's work has appeared in CallalooPloughshares32 PoemsIndiana Review and Salt Hill Journal.  Nicole earned an MFA from Brown University and has received fellowships from the Frost Place, the Fine Arts Work Center, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her collection of poems, If One Of Us Should Fall, was selected as the winner of the 2011 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts where she serves as the city’s inaugural poet laureate, and she teaches in the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program.