Watching poet Jayne Cortez perform to the beat of her son Denardo Ornette Coleman’s drum captivated the audience in the Muscarealle Museum of Art.
“I could not stop watching the drummer’s feet,” visiting assistant professor of English Chelsey Johnson said.
Award-winning poet Cortez read her poetry while her son Denardo Ornette Coleman accompanied her on percussion on Feb. 9. English professor Joanne Braxton invited Cortez to perform on behalf of the English department.
“I was reaching back, making a connection with someone who had moved me when I was a young poet in New York,” Braxton said. “I wanted to be moved that way again, and to share the aesthetic possibilities of text and performance with my students.”
The performance included an audience of students and faculty. The drumming added a variation to the readings.
“I think a lot of poetry readings are really subdued and oppressive, and this one was loud and dynamic. There was no chance you were going to fall asleep,” Johsnon said.
Danielle Thomas ’13 attended the reading with an English major friend, but she was not exactly sure what to expect.
“I am a neuroscience major, so it was kind of hard for me to figure some of it out,” Thomas said. “I really liked how when she was telling the poetry the drums coincided with it, so as she got louder and more into the poetry the drums got louder and more intense.”
Braxton was thrilled with the performance.
“The performance was amazing — not only the poet, but the collaboration with her son, master percussionist Dernardo Ornette Coleman,” Braxton said. “It was not merely an aesthetically satisfying experience; it was an explosion of consciousness.”
Cortez, currently living in New York City, has written ten books of poetry and recorded nine recordings of her readings with music. Students in Modern Black American Literature taught by Braxton were able to engage with the author of their homework when Cortez came into their class for a collaborative workshop on the day of the performance.
“When she walked in the room, they greeted her with a standing ovation,” Braxton said. “The class was open to the entire College community, and there were guest faculty and students — even a distinguished visiting scholar from another institution.”
The dialogue allowed the students to ask Cortez about her poetry in an open forum setting.
“We had a really good back and forth conversation with the students,” Cortez said.
Visiting scholar in religious studies Rebecca Perkins was able to attend the collaborative workshop in class and the performance.
“I really appreciate the way she combines activism and the arts,” Perkins said. “The way she works as an artist, she has so much creativity and joy so it makes it possible to face those really difficult issues with life and energy instead of despair. It’s empowering.”
At the end of the collaboration, the students presented Cortez with a gift. They performed a choral reading of her poem “How Long Has Trane Been Gone?” The performance included Jason Durso ’13 playing bass, Renee Kingan MA ’09 Ph.D’18, who is working on a doctoral dissertation on Cortez, and students from the class.
“What they achieved in working intensively and collaboratively in a very short span of time was truly awe-inspiring, and, again, moving,” Braxton said.
Braxton thinks the performance and collaboration allowed students to connect with the subject matter on a different level than their normal every-day class discussion.
“I am completely confident that everyone who was in that university classroom where so much aesthetic and intellectual exchange took place will remember this singular artist residency for the rest of their lives,” Braxton said. “Partly because they, as students, were so well prepared and brought so much to it.”