Western Philosophy asks the perennial question: Is there a soul? The poets in the anthology Soul Sister Revue: A Poetry Compilation, give a resounding yes to this question. For them, soul is found in verse and song. Poet and writer Cynthia Manick serves as editor of the anthology. In a blog post that first appeared on the Poets and Writers website, and that is reprinted in the anthology, Manick asserts the need for diversity in the performance space. She writes, “And more troubling, I didn’t see people who looked like me on stage or in the audience. People of color were hard to find…”
This realization caused her to curate a series of readings starting in 2013 that featured artists of color and staged at different venues in New York City, including the HiFi Bar, and Cornelia St Cafe. The show now takes place at Von or Le Poisson Rouge. The anthology celebrates the series, and Manick’s love of Soul music (she is a fan of Nina Simone and James Brown, among others), by publishing the work of past participants.
In addition to a poem by each participant in the series, the anthology also contains their response to the question posed by Manick: Favorite Soul performer or song? The usual suspects–Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green–show up. It was refreshing to read Noel Quinones’ confession that he has not “listened to much original Soul music” but that he is “an avid fan of Neo-Soul.” It is in this vein that other poets mentioned Beyonce, Sade, and Raphael Saadiq. But there is a degree of substance in knowing what preceded and continues to influence the present. Keisha-Gaye Anderson writes, “We been around long enough to know that no man put salt in the ocean/that Nat Turner was speaking to God himself as himself/and then made those two selves agree to proceed with an overdue lesson” (To My Sisters). This recognition aligns with the poet’s task of remembering.
In analyzing her poem, Commute, that first came to her in the verse “I remember remembering,” Candace Williams declares, “After I thought of that phrase, I began to remember memory lapses that had occurred that week.” This poem has a serious yet playful tone to it. Did she leave on the stove, after pouring hot water from the kettle? She does not remember passing the subway station where her old gym is located but do remember that the gym is next to a Shake Shack restaurant and that she would probably eat a cheeseburger for lunch. Williams writes, “I remember giving up my rush hour seat/to an older lady in a tan trench coat/who looked down on me like she did not expect me to rise for her/I remember watching her realize her own disbelief/a moment after it hit her face/hearing a mumbled Thank You/as she slinked down to her seat.”
Pamela Sneed’s When the Rainbow is Enuf pays homage to Ntozake Shange, the black playwright and poet who died in 2018, and who was a friend and mentor to Sneed. Sneed writes, “…’Zake’s words were the first to unlock an experience in literature/a pool/a mirror by which black girls could see themselves/I guess like Tubman/She freed a lot of souls.” This is praise for the power of literature to connect to lives in meaningful ways, especially when the reader or hearer sees her life reflected on the page or in the words of the speaker. Literature affords a common ground where the self is acknowledged and valued.
In Chosen Family, Rachel Eliza Griffiths ruminates on the people that traverse one’s life. She writes, “When you find your people they’ll tell you to use any bathroom you want/marry anybody you want/work side-by-side together for long hours in close quarters without any fear of being harmed.” Griffiths eloquently describes the nature of the space that Manick and her fellow writers seek to establish.
Contemporary politics and social dynamics call for the efficient utilization of literature. Yesenia Montilla fears she is contributing to the gentrification of her neighborhood in Hamilton Heights Starbucks. She fights against this phenomenon by befriending an older, long-term resident. She writes, “Last night/I had to bring my 80-year-old neighbor my leftovers because these days her foot don’t work too well/& her children have forgotten her name.” Montilla discovers that the neighbor “used to be a pianist/She played at Lincoln Center/her whole life dedicated to her brown elegant fingers touching white–”
Jose Olivarez plays with the term in Gentefication, “It is happening on our block/& maybe it is happening on your block.” In the poem, the people survive the push to dislocate them. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s Huevos Rancheros & Frozen Margaritas holds a similar sentiment. A white newcomer to her Brooklyn neighborhood threw water on her as she walked on the sidewalk beneath his window. Furious, Boyce-Taylor writes, “I order him down/offer to whip his six-year-old ass.” In reflecting on the poem, Boyce-Taylor declares that at the core it is about “…how a beautiful walk in nature to calm one’s soul can quickly turn into a negative experience. The outcome is always in your own hands.”
Her favorite Soul song is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? One wonders if the performance space, like that curated by Manick, allows for positive outcomes. It is there that the self is honored and celebrated in diverse and genuine ways. It is great that Manick and her cohort of writers have seriously taken to this task.