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A Poet With Words Trapped Inside

Posted on November 1, 2013 at 1:25 PM

By JOHN LELAND

Published: October 25, 2013~ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/nyregion/a-poet-with-words-trapped-inside.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1&;



Can computers talk black vernacular? This is a question that haunts Ntozake Shange.

 

On a recent evening, three days before her 65th birthday, Ms. Shange sat at the front table of the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village, listening to rich vernacular lines pouring from three characters who were all versions of her. Ms. Shange, best known for her 1970s verse play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” wore a red dress and sat in a wheelchair facing the stage, her hands and feet dancing involuntarily in front of her. The show, called “Lost in Language and Sound: Or How I Found My Way to the Arts,” was her first new theatrical work in more than a decade, and the words onstage were unmistakably hers, attuned to the rhythms of the jazz musicians and dancers on stage.

 

“I can’t count the times I viscerally wanted to attack, deform and maim the language I was taught to hate myself in,” one of the characters said. “The language that perpetuates the notion that causes pain to every black child.” No one else writes like that.

 

But for Ntozake Shange (pronounced en-toh-ZAH-kee SHAHN-gay), who once made a point of writing a poem every day so she would have fresh material to present at readings, the new lines came laden with an unfamiliar struggle. For the last decade, health problems have buffeted her relationship with language. First a pair of small strokes left her temporarily unable to read; then, in 2011, a neurological disorder called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy took control of her hands and feet, leaving her unable to type or write without difficulty. Until recently, she could not even stand or walk.

 

In between, Ms. Shange moved from the West Coast to Brooklyn to be near family members who could care for her.

 

“I can’t work on a computer and I can’t write very well, either,” she said the other day, her words still slightly slurred from the strokes. “It sort of feels empty, not like I’m swollen with words. I feel like there’s an astringent being applied to my body so that everything is getting very tight and I can’t release it right this minute.”

 

All of this has shaped the new work, which she calls a “choreoessay,” in the same way that “For Colored Girls” was a “choreopoem,” said Claude Sloan, a longtime friend and director who shares a brownstone with her in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “Her body is conspiring against her,” Mr. Sloan said. “Her art has always told the story of people who are suffering, and given meaning to their struggle. Now she’s looking back and asking, ‘What is art going to be for me in the body that I have now?’ ”

 

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Sloan wheeled Ms. Shange into the house of a neighbor, Evette Lewis, where she drank soda and talked about her adventures with voice recognition software.

 

“Spell-check ruins my work,” she said. “It fixes all my slang and dialect into standard English. So I’m caught in a tangle of technology that feels very foreign to me. My characters don’t talk necessarily in a normal American way of talking. They talk a little different. So I’m having a struggle with the grammar.”

 

The day before, Ms. Shange had walked upstairs for the first time since her illness; earlier, she said, she tried dancing to a mambo song on the radio and was in pain for two weeks.

 

“But I’ve still got my characters in my head, and I can still hear them,” she said. “When I go to the grocery store I hear them. Or we went to the San Gennaro Festival a couple weeks ago in Manhattan and I could hear all those voices again, and that invigorated me, because I said, ‘Wow, they’re still here, I can do it again.’ So I feel optimistic about my writing career. I just was not capable of doing it for some years.”

 

“Lost in Language and Sound,” which Ms. Shange adapted from a collection of her essays, represents her next step back into the world — an experiment to see if the essays held together dramatically, and to test the interest of producers.

 

Ms. Shange, the daughter of a surgeon and a social worker, has lived a life as bumpy as those she writes about. After the explosive success of “For Colored Girls,” which she developed during poetry readings in San Francisco, she struggled to find her way.

 

Fame hit her hard.

 

“It was pretty arduous,” she said. “I never intended to go to Broadway. I was very happy being in an Off Broadway theater and having an Off Broadway life. What it did to me is try to fit a round peg — that’s me — into a whole bunch of square buildings. I just didn’t fit. And some black men had made really wretched statements about me, so there was all this controversy going on that I was trying to stay out of. It was difficult and very unpleasant to do interviews, because they always were trying to paint me as a woman who hated black men, and I didn’t and don’t. But that was a difficult time for me.”


She battled bipolar disorder, substance abuse and a publishing world that expected her to repeat a successful formula, said the writer Gerald Nicosia, who is working on a biography of her. At one point, described in “Lost in Language and Sound,” she nearly joined the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Since moving to Brooklyn, she has given occasional readings at colleges and has been befriended by neighbors who bring her meals. Bedford-Stuyvesant, she said, is rapidly changing outside her windows, but she sees many of the same problems — racism, family pathology — that have informed her work for decades.

 

“I see a lot of children with no one taking care of them,” she said.

 

Before the nerve disorder, she wrote a novel with her sister, the playwright Ifa Bayeza, called “Some Sing, Some Cry,” that received warm reviews, but nothing like the success she had with “For Colored Girls.”

 

A theater around the corner recently staged her play “A Photograph: Lovers in Motion,” but the group did not contact her, and by the time she learned about the performance, it had passed. She still hoped to adapt her 1994 novel, “Liliane: Resurrection of a Daughter,” into a stage show, she said. She writes a few words in her journals, in script that she says she does not like to look at.

 

For Ms. Shange, these are the pieces of a life.

 

“I thought I was being punished because I hadn’t kept doing the writing I wanted to do,” she said of her illness. “Then I decided that it was just fate, and my aunt had Parkinson’s, so even though one side of the family was having heart attacks, the other side of the family was having nerve disease, so I got the worst of both sides, I guess.

 

“I thought, I’m just going to be this way for the rest of my life. Which isn’t that bad, now that I’m used to being numb all the time. But it’s such an inconvenience. It’s very inconvenient not to be able to use your hands.”

 

In “Lost in Language and Sound,” a character played by Mr. Sloan asks, “What if poetry isn’t enough? What you gonna do then? Paint? Dance?”

 

Three days later, at a birthday dinner in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Ms. Shange sat with a few friends and considered the question: What if poetry isn’t enough?

 

“You have to keep acting like it is enough,” she said. “You have to keep affirming it, and bringing yourself to it. You have to keep hoping that it will move the mountain.”

 

She stood from her wheelchair and beamed over the table.



Categories: Poetry

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