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Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

July 27, 2018 1 comment

One of the more interesting opera programs I’ve seen is the oratorio, Blizzard Voices, with words by poet Ted Kooser and music by composer Paul Moravec.  The dramatic template for the program was The Blizzard of 1888, often referred to as The Children’s Blizzard because of the large number of youths who lost their lives in the great white blow out that smothered the Great Plains.  Years before the opera program Kooser used survivors’ accounts of the natural disaster to create a book of poems called The Blizzard Voices, which was eventually given a dramatic reading at the Lincoln Community Playhouse.  Kooser adapted his work for the oratorio.  The concert used orchestral music, solo and chorus singing, spoken words, lighting, and projected images created by artist Watie White to transport the audience into what I called the great white shroud.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was written before I saw the oratorio, based on interviews I did with Kooser and Moravec.

If you’re a Ted Kooser fan or want to know more about the poet, this blog contains stories I’ve written about him.  Just click on his name in the category roll on the right hand side o

 

Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

January 12, 1888 began much like any other winter day. A tad warm for the season perhaps. A brisk breeze swirled about and a bank of low lying clouds to the north suggested a change brewing. Yet except for a strange electric current in the air and the odd behavior of pets, no real portent warned of the fury to be unleashed on the Great Plains. Nebraska would not be spared.

When the blizzard hit terrible wind and snow spewed forth from the sky and didn’t let up. The temperature plummeted, dropping far below zero. The big blow cut through the land like a giant scythe swung in unrelenting anger. The enveloping storm smothered everything in its path — humans, animals, houses, barns, fences, fields, roads, bluffs, gullies, creeks, rivers. Anything caught unprotected was soon frozen or buried in the great white shroud. Drifts reached 20 feet high.

So concentrated was the storm that day turned to night. Visibility reduced to nothing in the blinding, numbing white-out conditions. Many souls died from exposure across a several state region, among their number — children. It was a school day and some students perished trying to reach their farm homes. Thus, it came to be known as The Children’s Blizzard.

 

©Illustration by Dick Taylor

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. grew up hearing stories of this storm of the century. In the 1980s he wrote a slim book of poems under the title The Blizzard Voices inspired by recorded reminiscences of survivors. His blizzard poems were given dramatic readings by the Lincoln Community Playhouse.

Now, Opera Omaha’s mounting an original oratorio, The Blizzard Voices, based on his poems. The concert hall production integrates orchestra, chorus and soloists on stage. The music is by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul MoravecStewart Robertson, making his swan song as Opera Omaha artistic director, conducts. The premiere performances, Sept. 12 at the Holland Performing Arts Center and Sept. 13 at Iowa Western Community College’s Arts Center, are both at 7:30 p.m.

Kooser’s spare poems, each from the perspective of an actual survivor, describe awesome, gruesome, tragic, heroic events of that surreal experience, one whose extremes still resonate today. “Stories of suffering and survival go back to our deepest origins, I think, and we never tire of them,” Kooser said.

Moravec said by phone from Manhattan he admires how Kooser’s lean poems communicate the intimate human dimensions of this natural disaster in the language of every day rural people, many of them immigrants.

In an artist’s statement, Moravec wrote, “Part of the power of Mr. Kooser’s adaptation derives from his wise decision to allow the ordinary, plain-speaking historical accounts come through their simple, rough-hewn eloquence. The music is similarly clear and direct in its emotional impact.”

The composer’s chosen a selection of Kooser’s blizzard poems that best dramatize the sequence of events. His own research included poring through Nebraska state historical archives and reading David Laskin’s book The Children’s Blizzard. Given that the storm victims were mainly Lutheran he felt it appropriate to write an original chorale that suggests the lamentations of familiar Protestant hymns.

Religious themes are used by Moravec throughout. There’s an excerpt from the Book of Job in the prologue. A psalm. Plaintive prayer-like pleas for mercy. Who could blame people for ascribing the storm to God’s wrath? Moravec incorporates Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem “In Remembrance” to speak to the everlasting spirit of those that died and those that commemorate their loss. He said his composition draws on historical sources, but is thoroughly contemporary.

For the Lincoln dramatization Kooser found skip rope rhymes he used as bridges between the spoken poems and as counterpoints to the raging blizzard.

“I modified some of the traditional ones to resonate with the blizzard experience,” he said. “Others are intact as originally used. These are a part of American folklore, and not attributable to actual writers. American folk rhymes are quite wonderful.”

One of Watie White’s images for Blizzard Voices 

 

 

Moravec’s retained these skip rhymes in his oratorio. The rhymes, in conjunction with the poems, the psalms and the prayers, express a sense of innocence lost.

The composer and poet met once during the piece’s evolution. Just as history informed Kooser’s poems, his blizzard works informed Moravec’s compositions.

“Since then we’ve exchanged a few e-mails, but early on I gave Paul complete freedom to do whatever he wanted with the poems, and the only input he’s asked me for involved minor historical information,” said Kooser.

To convey the blizzard’s power musically the costumed orchestra, chorus and soloists project full-out. To interpret its force and impact in more than purely musical terms Robertson commissioned Omaha artist Watie White to create images for projection on large screens. “I did see the drawings just the other day — and I thought they were just right.” Kooser said. Lighting will also play a role in setting moods. At the heart of it all though are the blizzard voices’ spoken and sung words. Kooser’s eager to see how the complete oratorio gives voice to his work.

“I have not seen any of it during development,” he said. “When I go to the premier it will be as fresh to me as to the rest of the audience.”

He hopes the production’s successful enough that it tours.

 

To all the writers I’ve loved before…

October 10, 2016 1 comment

Being Jack Moskovitz, Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered

 

To all the writers I’ve loved before…
If you’re a longtime follower, then you know by now I like making lists. It’s not that I don’t have anything better to do, it’s just that it helps give my mind a focused distraction from whatever the real task at hand is, which is usually a writing project or two or three or four…Oh, well, you get the idea.

So, the other day I began listing out as many of the writers I’ve written about over the years that I could recall. I knew it would be a long list, but it turned out longer than I expected. I mean, it’s a very broad and impressive group of writers, some of whom don’t make their living as writers, But in any case they are variously journalists, essayists, poets, novelists, biographers, memoirists and in many instances combinations of these things. I interviewed them all and in most cases wrote profile of them as well. In some cases I quoted them as part of more general features related to their work or project or program. I enjoy speaking to and writing about fellow soldiers of the craft. Read their names below and see how many you recognize and if you’ve read anything by them. Most are Nebraska native or transplant authors but a fair number are not from here.

There are some Pulitzer, National Book Award, Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Poet Laureate and other writing prize nominees and winners among their ranks.

Before I release you to the list, please note that the names are not listed in any particular order – just when their occurred to me. And you can find what they spoke to me about and what I wrote about them and their work by visiting my blog, https://leoadambiga.com/:

Ron Hansen
Richard Dooling
Timothy Schaffert
Rachel Shukert
Beaufield Berry
Ellen Struve
Max Sparber
Summer Miller
Denise Chapman
Scott Working
Kevin Lawler
Doug Marr
James Reed
Robert Reed
Bobby Bridger
Ted Kooser
William Kloefkorn
Roger Welsch
Dick Cavett
Milton Kleinberg
Jack Moskovitz
Joy Castro
Zedeka Poindexter
John Hardy
Stew Magnuson
Colleen Reilly
Warren Francke
Sean Doolittle
Alex Kava
David Krajicek
Michael Kelly
Lew Hunter
Alexander Payne
Jim Taylor
Carleen Brice
Tekla Ali Johnson
Jami Attenberg
Scott Muskin
Will Clarke
Faith Ringold
Isabel Wilkerson
Jon Bokenkamp
Nik Fackler
Eileen Wirth
Kurt Andersen
Edward Albee
Arthur Kopit
Mac Wellman
John Guare
Caridad Savich
Kia Corthron
Megan Terry
Jo Ann Schmidman
Larry Williams
John Nagl
Howard Silber
Robert Jensen
Otis Wesselman
Preston Love Sr.
Laura Love
Robert Nelson
Joan Micklin Silver
Howard Rosenberg
Thom Sibbitt
John Kaye
Lou Leviticus
Dan Mirvish
James Marshall Crotty
Matt Mason
Nancy Rips
Bill Ramsey
Betty Dineen Shrier
David O. Russell
Jason Levering
Hawk Ostby
Bob Hoig
Ron Hull
Patrick Jones
Rebecca Rotert

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

March 11, 2015 4 comments

This is a breakout season in the life and career of Omaha slam poetry champion Zedeka Poindexter.  Her work is getting in front of more and more people thanks to her live and YouTube performances, her readings, and her published pieces.  My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about her and her passion for all things poetry related, including the Nebraska Writers Collective and its Louder Than a Bomb Omaha festival, reveals a woman extremely passionate about what she does and supremely confident in her own skin.  Zedeka’s coached several teams in Louder Than a Bomb Omaha, which runs March 17 through most of April, but work commitments are preventing her from coaching this year.  Her heart though will be with the youth competing in the event.

 

 

Photo by Justin Limoges 

©Photo by Justin Limoges 

 

 

 

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

©by Leo Adam Biga

For The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Three-time Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards poet nominee Zedeka Poindexter envies the performing outlets high school-age poets have today. The March 17-April 20 Louder Than a Bomb is a case in point. There wasn’t anything like it when she was in school.

“I was working in a notebook, I always did, but there was no place to go with these things,” says Poindexter, 39, who’s blowing up with her personal anthems about race, family, relationships, loss and blessings.

But as a teen her thoughts didn’t find a voice outside her private journals. That’s a far cry from today’s young poets, who have platforms galore for their innermost musings. Poindexter should know since she’s coached LTAB teams from Blackburn, Westside, Millard West and her alma mater, Omaha North.

“These kids are doing things that blow my mind and all I have to do is facilitate a space for them to do what they were already going to do anyway and help them figure out the best way to present it, These kids are fearless, they will tell you any personal story they have, They are incredibly courageous and just all by themselves so cool. It kind of fuels you as an artist, You’re like, If you’re doing this and you’re 16, what the hell’s my excuse.”

Just as LTAB gives youth an expressive arena, Poindexter uses slam and other opportunities to evolve her own work. For example, her Union for Contemporary Art fellowship will culminate in a new collection of poems that revolve around family recipes and food as focal point and bridge for familial divisions. She plans a May 2 reading and tasting.

“It’s a very different thing trying to write a series of poems that interconnect and relate to one another,” says Poindexter, who’s used to crafting slam’s more instinctive, one-off performance pieces.

In 2012 she became Omaha’s only female city slam champion.

“It has almost always been a white man. I might also be the only person of color who’s won, but I know I’m the only woman, so that’s a huge honor for me. I was a cranky woman that year because there was only one other woman and there wasn’t anybody else brown. I was like, ‘C’mon, y’all, can do better than this.’ I was pissed.”

She represented Omaha at the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, where she was voted an audience favorite.

“It’s all women, it’s all storytelling, it’s very affirming.”

Her work appears in the WOWPS anthology, Alight.

She’s not inclined to leave her slam roots. She has a long history with the Nebraska Writers Collective, whose head, Matt Mason, is the godfather of Omaha slam. He considers her “a cultural treasure for our community.”

“Zedeka is a nationally-known performance poet. You wouldn’t know by meeting her as she doesn’t name-drop or talk about all she’s accomplished, but her work is among the best in the country,” he says. “It’s been great to see her expand her role by publishing more lately as well as taking on the role of running Omaha’s poetry slam. She really does it all. She’s also a great presence in classrooms.”

In turn, Poindexter’s proud of her Collective family. “We’ve been a force for a good long time. We really had a pretty good run as far as accolades in the slam community. A lot of writers have grown beyond that and published work I really love.”

Beyond her Collective circle she’s studied with former Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration poet laureate Stacy Dyson and with storyteller A-Nanci Larenia Stallworth.

Recently, she joined novelist Joy Castro and poet Roger Gerberling for a Backwaters Press reading and paired with Nebraska state poet Twyla Hansen at the Kaneko Feedback Reading Series. Being matched with Hansen gave her pause.

“Being a slam artist is very different than being somebody who’s devoted their life basically to craft and teaching, which I have not done,” says Poindexter, who’s a thesis away from completing her master’s in communication at UNO. “But it turned out to be amazing. I think there are some people who exist strictly in the performative world and some who exist strictly in academia, but there is a lot of crossover.

“I think the bigger separation or chasm I noticed for awhile was a white scene and a black scene. Myself, i just went wherever the baddest ass readings were. They were different things but vitally important to how I grew as a writer and performer. The perception that anybody is not welcome at either place worries me.”

 

 

©photo by Eric David Herrera

 

 

 

She appreciates the diversity of the OEAAs and enjoyed doing her thing at last year’s awards show.

“The fact I got to perform poems really important to me before a roomful of artists and everybody got quiet was absolutely one of the most magical things.”

She often writes about the dynamics of her large African-American family. The Great Migration brought her people from the South to Chicago and Omaha. She mines their rich vein of idioms and imbroglios, delighting in food as a bond that nourishes and heals.

Her poem “Poor Relations” discusses her Omaha family line being branded inferior by their affluent Chicago relatives.

“There were struggles, we had our own personal dysfunctions but we were strong and we were happy. It’s been really cathartic to try to tell these stories and be honest about them.”
Born into a family of matriarchs who were “voracious readers,” Poindexter immersed herself in books and writing from an early age.

“Poetry’s been this thing that’s sustained me spiritually but it kind of existed outside regular life.”

She dabbled in theater and journalism but discovered her artistic home in the emergent slam and spoken word movement.

“I always wrote poems but I kind of started finding a community when Matt Mason ran readings at Borders years ago. There were Pop Tarts for prizes.”

She followed the local slam scene to the Om Center, where it’s still based.

Slam slayed her the first time she saw Def Jam. “I didn’t know what that thing was but I was going to figure out how to do that thing.”

She immersed herself in slam in Colorado, where she moved after losing her grandmother and anchor. She returned to Omaha a few years ago to be close to her spoken word soul sister, Felicia Webster, and to her slam girls, Katie F-S and Sarah McKinstry-Brown.

“Slam has saved me in more ways that I can think of. It feels right. If I migrate away from performance and writing I feel the atrophy of it. I like the fact I have a passion, that there’s this thing that drives me. I don’t know what I would do without that as a rudder.”

She wouldn’t know what to do without her creative community.

“I don’t know if I could function without having that sense of support. It’s afforded me most of the close friendships and safety nets I’ve experienced the last 15 years.”

She’s encouraged by the camaraderie LTAB students display. She’s still struck by what happened a few years ago when a Lincoln High team member lost her mother.

“As a team they decided they wanted to come to finals with all new work, including a piece that the girl who’d just lost her mother had written. And so they scrapped everything. There was no strategy, they were not worried about winning, they were like, This is the work we want to feature. They believed in it and they won, and it was so good. The thing that was so cool was they were willing to sacrifice to do this thing intrinsically personal to them. I’ll take that any time over people who live for the scores and stuff.”

She calls LTAB coaching “the best job ever.”

She feels confident about one day supporting herself as an artist and teacher. She may next pursue a master of fine arts degree,

“I don’t know many artists who value themselves for the work they do because it’s always something that’s never fully supported them,” says Poindexter, who works a corporate day job.

“Being valued for my artistry is something I’ve learned to do a lot better.”
Zedeka hosts the Om Center poetry slam the second Saturday of every month. Visit OmahaSlam.com.

View her performing at buttonpoetry.com.

For Louder Than a Bomb details, visit ltabomaha.org.

Expect plenty of booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival finals; Friendly tournament makes rxpressing deepest feelings safe

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Boom!   That’s the sound of another slam poem being thrown down.  If you haven’t seen a youth slam poetry bout before than do yourself a favor and check it out.  No better time to start then at tonight’s (April 17) team finals of the Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival at the Holland Performing Arts Center.  What follows is my Reader story on the festival and the culture surrounding it.

 

 

Expect Plenty of booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival finals

Friendly tournament makes expressing deepest feelings safe

BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules.

Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. After weeks of competition, the team finals throw down April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Teams competing in the finals are: Millard South, Lincoln North Star, defending champion Lincoln High and Waverly.

Individual finals take place April 26 in Lincoln.

The events are free but donations are accepted.

On the heels of nurturing the local adult slam poetry community and inspired by LTAB Chicago, the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) launched its youth festival in 2012. In that short span the fest’s found a niche at area schools, growing from 12 to 19 to 32 participating teams.

NWC director Matt Mason, who’s led Neb.’s team at the National Poetry Slam, says as more schools have gotten involved from urban and rural locations the work’s broadened.

“You have so many different people and voices and experiences. There is such a diversity of subject matter. You go to a bout and you see four high schools putting up teams, all with different experiences. Some have certain styles, some are kind of all over the place.

“You get poems talking about things in the news today as well as poems about dating, spurned love, successful love, conflicts, being bullied, racism, sexism. You get the universal themes brought in and wrapped up in very personal stories.”

Omaha Central High English teacher Deron Larson, who sponsors the Eagles’ LTAB team, says the work isn’t just about releasing angst or speaking to hard things.”

A couple members on our team have gone out of their way to make people laugh,” he says. “At a recent bout one poet waxed poetic about her collection of socks. There’s a full gamut of things they write about.”

Diversity also shows up in the teams’ composition, where gays and straights, jocks and geeks, are respresented.

“It’s fantastic to see how these teams of very different students come together” to collaborate and communicate, Mason says.

Paid teaching artists hired by the Collective serve as coaches. Sponsoring classroom teachers recruit and facilitate and in some cases co-coach.

World champion adult slammer Chris August from Baltimore, Md. is NWC’s first resident teaching artist. He’s come to appreciate what makes the area poetry scene so vital and LTAB a hit here.

“The Omaha and Lincoln scenes have always been open and embracing and are among the places that put the most energy into fostering their youth poetry scenes. When I think about what an art form like slam poetry can bring to young people, the word I immediately think of is ‘permission.’ Twenty years ago I was a weird, artsy teenage boy in a rural high school with virtually no diversity. Back then, the idea of a safe and empowering outlet for voices of any kind speaking on any truth at all would have seemed impossible.”

Mason says, “I think this is a great outlet for anybody, especially for teenagers, to process what they’re going through and to give voice to it. They’re permitted to have a venue to get this across rather than just bottling it up and dealing with it.

“It’s about teaching these folks to write and to get this performance experience and to be comfortable in front of people and to vocalize what they’re feeling.”

Everyone associated with LTAB hails the supportive environment at practices and bouts. At the “friendly tournament” poets celebrate other poets, even those on opposing teams. The safe space created by LTAB is particularly important because students often expose their most intimate, vulnerable selves in the work.

Mason says the slam form lets students articulate personal issues weighing on them, including gender and sexual identity issues.

“It is maybe this more than any other element that allows slam poetry to so lovingly respond to a need so present among so many young people,” says August.

NWC education director Andrew Ek says the Collective has done “a lot of deliberate work making sure our students feel like their stories, ideas and experiences are being honored,” adding. “A lot of that involves letting them read and not getting in the way of that process.”

“It’s a very positive space,” says Bellevue West 10th grader Ari Di Bernardo, a first-year participant. “No one feels like an outcast because that’s not what LTAB is about. It’s about connecting through this very beautiful thing we do. For me it’s the feeling of belonging. Like I finally have a safe place to just open up and give up all the feelings I’d been harboring. I can be honest. I’m not afraid to say what I need to now.”

“It’s uplifting to have everybody there have your back,” says Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln senior Francisco Franco. “The feeling is just warmth and good vibes. It is a competition but everybody’s there to support you, nobody’s there to put you down. Of course, there’s scores but it’s your words, your poems, so you can listen to the scores or believe in yourself. I choose to go up there and to have as much fun as I can.”

“It’s good to be in a competitive environment where everybody roots for everybody instead of against everybody,” says Franco’s teammate, Chanel Zarate.

Matt Mason says it’s not just the high energy, communal love-in that gives LTAB a following but the work itself.

“Yeah, people are yelling and cheering for poets, but the poems are also interesting, funny, beautifully put together. It exceeds your expectations of teen poetry. These kids are smart, creative. It would not surprise me if a lot of these poems get published in magazines or eventually books.”

Central High teacher Deron Larson is impressed by how much work his students put into making poems as powerful as they can be, doing draft after draft, all under the guidance of teaching artist Greg Harries.

“They become invested in words in a way I don’t get to observe every day in the classroom. They make a commitment that goes beyond doing homework a teacher assigns. They make their own homework and just conquer it and take it 10 steps beyond where they thought they were going to go.

“The mentoring poets that duck into my classroom and share their love for words really touch the students in a way I can’t do. As much as I love words there’s a process over the course of the year where they get tired of hearing the same thing I have to say. If a 20something comes in they’re much closer to my students’ experience. The message carries differently and then the students just run with it.”

Larson’s pleased slam poetry has found a footing in schools but he’s not sure it would benefit from being a formal academic program.

“If we put it into a curriculum it almost feels like we might change it an elemental way. As an after school club and extra that definitely deserves our support it feels like it might work better. If we try to write it into lessons I think there’s a possibility we might kill something that’s so vibrant right now.”

NWC artists also work with youth at a Lincoln juvenile detention center. Audio recordings of these youths’ poems will play at the finals to allow “their voices to be heard,” Mason says.

For festival details, visit ltabomaha.org.

Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area

May 20, 2013 3 comments

The following cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a group of artists looking to take things to the next level at the Carver Bank cultural center and residency program in North Omaha has received some nice buzz. The four artists couldn’t be more different from each other. Each is doing his or her own thing and having success with it but they themselves and others feel there’s room for them to grow and to make an even bigger splash.  It will be interesting to observe what they do individually and collectively from this point forward.

 

Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.

Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama‘s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.

Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition

The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.

Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”

Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.

Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.

Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.

Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.

Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.

 

shannon marie

Shannon Marie

 

 

Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.

“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”

If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.

“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”

She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.

“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”

Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.

Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’

“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.

But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”

A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.

She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.

“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”

Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”

She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”

She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”

 

 

Dereck Higgins

 

 

Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.

“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.

Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.

“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”

Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.

“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”

He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.

“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.

 

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Bart Vargas

 

 

It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.

Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”

Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.

“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”

Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”

A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.

“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”

Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American muttness.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the walls in my little corner in Yeses. To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”

 

 

Portia Love

Portia Love

 

 

Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.

“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.

She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.

She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.

WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.

Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.

“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”

Moving artists along is part of the idea.

“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.

Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”

Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.

Carver events are free and open to the public.

For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.

 

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Slam Poetry Festival: “the point is the poetry, the point is the people”

April 11, 2013 2 comments

 

If your usual reaction to poetry is along the lines of “Ugh” or “No thanks” than be prepared to undergo a conversion when you attend a slam poetry event.  It’s hard to imagine not being carried away by the sheer exuberance, courage, passion, and talent displayed at one of these celebrations of words and ideas.  The Louder Than a Bomb  Omaha Youth Poetry Festival is a prime example of all this and more at work.  My story about it in The Reader (www.thereader.com) is repurposed here.  Check out the team finals this Friday, April 12 at Creighton University.  The individual finals are April 21 at UNL.  Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you’ll find yourself getting hooked and cheering and applauding poets the way you do musicians or actors or athletes.

 

 

 

 

 

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Slam Poetry Festival: “the point is the poetry, the point is the people”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As the Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival draws to a close after weeks of preliminary bouts and last Sunday’s semi-finals, it appears slam poetry is a new outlet for that rite-of-passage known as adolescence.

The 2013 team finals pitting defending champion Duchesne, Lincoln North Star, Lincoln High and Omaha Central are April 12 at 7 p. dm. in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium at Creighton University‘s Harper Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Poets serve as coaches of participating teams from public and private, inner city and suburban schools and community organizations.

“I love the mix of different schools and geography we have represented,” says Omaha poet and festival director Matt Mason.

He also loves how slam poetry brings together cool kids and nerds. “There’s the football player and the chess player and the golf kid, all lined up on the same team helping each other,” says Mason. “Teachers report this is an approach to poetry that reaches students not reached very much in classes. Asking them to write and perform and tell their stories really opens something up in them and makes them appreciate what’s happening at school rather than sitting there with a bad look on their face.”

Teams prime themselves for a season of poetry concentration.

“We treat this as if it were a sports activity at a school where teams start practicing, getting ready for competition, doing workshops and scrimmages in the fall, and then there’s the big tournament (festival) in the spring,” he says.

There are scores and standings but Mason says it’s more a celebration of creatively expessing ideas and feelings.

Duchesne team member Gina Keplinger repeats a festival slogan “the point is the poetry, the point is the people,” adding, “Poetry is bigger than stages and pages and microphones.”

The often achingly intimate poetic reveries explore love and loss, identity issues, social woes, and everything human. Westside team member Lia Hagen’s “Inappropriate” is a satirical critique of gayphobia. Lincoln North Star team member Shatice Archie’s “My Two Inch Thick Mattress” is about homelessness.

“The thing that continually impresses me is the way the students so directly and honestly address the most challenging issues in their lives…nothing is out-of-bounds or too personal for them,” says Westside and Central coach Greg Harries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fest is put on by the Mason-led Nebraska Writers Collective, which sends poets into area schools. When a documentary profiling a Chicago youth slam poetry competition caused a buzz here he rode that impetus to organize the first LTAB Omaha slam in 2012. Twelve teams competed then. The field grew to 19 teams this year, for him a signal of slam poetry’s growing popularity.

“I think more and more it is getting into the culture. It wasn’t just the movie that got kids onto slam poetry teams. YouTube made more people aware of it. What we did last year created a kind of momentum, so that we’ve got students trying to get LTAB teams into their schools because they’ve got friends on a LTAB team. So it’s spreading now from the kids themselves. They are the best advocates because they’re excited about it and their friends see how excited they are.”

Slam’s competitive aspects are real but not paramount. Judges award points for individual and team performances. Performers with the highest cumulative marks keep advancing. Audiences are encouraged to express their appreciation and do so with applause, finger snaps, cheers. Mason’s impressed that competitors don’t seem as caught up in the winning or losing as they do in the shared experience.

“What’s really exciting for me is to see how these students support each other and support other teams. They’re cheering for their own team because it’s a competition but when somebody from another team does something they like they’re the first ones on their feet.

“These kids just want to see good stuff and so they get excited when they see it.”

Keplinger says, “Being cheered on, complimented and genuinely congratulated by poets who were not members of my team was a welcome surprise.”

“There’s a competition but there’s also a recognition and acceptance of each other’s talents,” says Lincoln High English teacher Deborah McGinn. “The camaraderie is based on words and language. The energy is just sky high.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mason’s enthused the fest is growing the state’s poetry community.

“We’ve held poetry slams for students for years in the area and they’ve been decent, we’ve seen some good work, but it hasn’t had anywhere near this level of talent and just really polished work. I mean, the talent level is just through the roof. I think that goes back to our coaches working with schools for months, not just coming in and doing a one-off workshop.

“A fair amount of our coaches are coaching a team for the second time. I think the work shows that these kids are growing and really speaking about issues the audience responds to and doing it in a way that really brings them alive.”

The individual finals are April 21 at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, For details, visit ltabomaha.org or http://www.facebook.com/ltabomaha.

 

Harsh Life Revealed in Memoir Gives Way to Growth: Ruth Marimo Comes Out of Silence to Assert Her Voice

February 14, 2013 1 comment

The provocative cover of Ruth Marimo’s 2012 memoir, Freedom of An Illegal Immigrant, pictures her sitting nude, her legs drawn up to her chest and her arms crossed just below her knees, a hood covering her face and a GPS tracking device affixed, like a shackle, to one ankle.  It’s a powerful and unsettling image of bondage.  Beyond the metaphor and symbology, the image represents the reality that was Marimo’s life as an orphaned and undocumented immigrant from Zimbabwe who suffered through an abusive marriage with a man that did produce two beautiful children but that nearly cost her her life and her freedom.  Amidst all of that, she discovered and embraced her sexual identity as a lesbian.  As she describes in the article that follows, she went through hell and back before finding liberation and the life story she began writing in jail became a successful self-published memoir that’s sparked new opportunties for her as an author and inspirational speaker. My profile of Marimo will appear in a coming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Harsh Life Revealed in Memoir Gives Way to Growth: Ruth Marimo Comes Out of Silence to Assert Her Voice

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Four years ago Marimo sat in the Cass County Jail contemplating suicide. The mother of two and then-undocumented immigrant from Zimbabwe, Africa was there because her estranged husband, whom she says verbally and physically abused her, reported her to authorities.

In the space of 30 days behind bars she seemingly lost everything. Her children, her home, her job, her will to live. She feared deportation and never seeing her kids again. It was all too much for a woman whose mother committed suicide when Marimo was 5 and whose only sibling died as a toddler. With things at their darkest Marimo began writing. Amid tears of despair she put her story down with a pen on the back of jail activity forms. She filled up dozens of sheets.

“I just kept writing and the pages kept adding up,” she says. “It was almost like something pushed all of these words out of me.”

Flash forward to today, when Marimo’s 2012 memoir Freedom of An Illegal Immigrant is a self-published success story that’s propelled a new career as an author and inspirational speaker. Marimo, who fought court battles to win sole custody of her children, is recently returned from her most prestigious speaking appearance yet, a Feb. 8 address for the IvyQ Conference at Yale University. The gathering of students and scholars from all the Ivy League schools seeks to empower young people in owning their sexual identities.

Marimo, who came out as a lesbian in the aftermath of her failed marriage, is a LGBT activist often called on to speak at equal rights rallies. She’s also a popular spoken word artist at Verbal Gumbo, where a poem of hers she performs there, “Who Am I?,  asserts her complex identity.

She next shares her momentous personal journey Feb. 20 in the Nebraska Room of the Milo Bail Student Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her Noon talk is free. A Q&A follows and Marimo will also sign copies of her book.

 

 

Ruth Marimo

 

 

The happy, confident woman who addresses audiences these days would not exist, she says, without the crucible of her tragedies and traumas.

“Those are the things that helped me become the person I am today. Even in those times I want to feel sorry for myself there’s so much I am grateful for.”

The memory of her past struggles, she says, “is what pushes me to speak, to be passionate, to even want better for my kids,” adding, “That’s where I think my drive, my activism comes from,. Everything I’m doing now is very purposeful because I can’t forget who’ve I’ve been and what I’ve been through.”

She’s pleased that her story inspires others. “I’ve heard from people all over the world saying that my story’s touched them.” If more women would leave abusive relationships because of her story she’d be pleased but she despairs most will choose to stay put. She empathizes.

“I think for a long time I was that person that stuck around in the wrong relationship.

I had this husband, I had these two beautiful kids, but I was so lonely and miserable. I knew I was in the wrong marriage, an abusive marriage. He would choke me and then we would be out holding hands and everybody would see this totally different picture. There are so many people stuck in abusive relationships and they don’t have the courage to take the next step. They don’t have that drive to be willing to get out and risk everything.

“Of course, there’s a thousand reasons why you stay. I could have easily stayed in my marriage but it would not have changed anything. Even though I went to hell and back and lost everything, the peace of mind I have to be able to freely express myself is so much worth it.”

She shutters to think how different her life would be if she hadn’t left the marriage.

“You wouldn’t know this Ruth, I wouldn’t have written a book, I would still have been stuck in that mundane, everyday life of pleasing the world and not pleasing myself and not facing who I really am.”

Freedom is in the title of her book for a reason.

“It was a very purposeful naming. For me it refers to the freedom of me actually accepting and owning up to who I am – an undocumented, gay, African woman

who was orphaned. All this stuff I was trying to hide is who I am.

“We have all of these layers of who we and society thinks we should be or how we should act. A very small number of people are lucky enough to strip away those layers at some point and reveal for themselves who they really are. That I think is where the freedom was coming from.”

Life is good for Marimo now. She’s content raising her kids. She has financial security from the cleaning business she owns and operates. She’s fulfilled by her speaking gigs and writing projects, including completed manuscripts for a children’s book entitled But What is Africa Really Like?, a teen book of African folk tales, a poetry volume and an adult erotica novel. Omaha artist Gerard Pefung is illustrating the children’s book. She eagerly awaits getting her Green Card so that she can travel abroad and participate in the international seminars she’s invited to.

One day she fully expects to return to Africa, but she says it will need to be cautiously as her gay and women’s activism makes her a target there. Nothing though will get her to remain silent again.

“Peace of mind and inner happiness I’ve discovered are more important than anything,” she says. “To me, if you’re unhappy you’re essentially dying a slow death and you’re the only one that knows it.”

 

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