Speaker portrays musical quality of poetry

Kara Burritt

Poet Sekou Sundiata, a nontraditional artist who is interested in poetry as a spoken art form, read from his work Tuesday as part of the Literary Festival. Sundiata focused on the live performance and oral delivery of poetry, often pairing words with music.

“They [the poems] can live well in time,” Sundiata said. “You won’t be satisfied encountering them on paper.”

He has released CDs of his poetry, including “The Blue Oneness of Dreams” and “Long Story Short.” He also tours, appearing on his own, with artists like Ani DiFranco and in shows like “Def Poetry Jam.” This month, he’ll conclude the tour of his one-man performance, “blessing the boats.”

Sundiata cited Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez as early influences on his work, saying they helped him to see the poetic content of daily life. Though many of Sundiata’s poems have political or racial themes, he is primarily interested in the human condition.

He says his poems have dealt with “not only what it meant to be black, but what it meant to be human.”

Sundiata’s contemporary art form revives the tradition of oral literacy. His personal anecdotes throughout the reading revealed that this was a natural path for him.

As a teenager in Harlem in the 1960s, Sundiata gathered with friends nightly in a local park to listen to records and read poetry they had written. This assigned his work an oral nature from the beginning.

“To do it out loud was what was expected,” he said.

The teenagers often beat bottles with sticks to emphasize the poetic rhythm, which is a musical influence obvious in Sundiata’s poetry today.

He usually tours with a band that infuses his poetry with the sounds of jazz, calypso and blues. But the lack of music at the University reading only emphasized his range of vocal talent.

As Sundiata read, he scaled octaves, played with tempo and improvised from original poems. He attributed this scat-like ability to physical memory.

“In terms of poetry, there’s a rhythm there that my body remembers,” he said. “What I like about it is it’s kind of built for improvisation.”

Sundiata’s next endeavor will be “The America Project,” a music-theater production that considers what it means to be an American citizen in the post-9/11 world. It will combine music, song, text and images produced by various artists to create what Sundiata calls his “personal poetic State of the Union Address.”

The Literary Festival’s final guest reader of the semester will be Jacob Slichter, a rock-star-turned-memoirist, on April 19.

This former drummer for the band Semisonic wrote 2004’s “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star.”