Beware of the dog
Local poet Indigo Moor rose to national prominence thanks to discipline, a big prize and something about an unchained dog
Around two dozen of us are crammed on rickety folding chairs in a space between book displays on wheels in the lower level of Moe’s Books in Berkeley. We’re here to be read to by newly renowned Sacramento poet Indigo Moor. We nod agreeably as he begins talking about hummingbirds.
“I had this ideal of hummingbirds,” he says, his low-country drawl deceptively soft. “We got a hummingbird feeder in the backyard; it was fine as long as food was there. They were very welcoming to each other.” Moor has given us a gracious image of hummingbirds, and those gathered are ready for a pretty poem.
“But when the food ran scarce?” he continues. “Oh my God, they suddenly became the most vicious little bastards.”
Once the laughter slows, he reads “Hummingbird’s Clothing”:
Lean close to hear my buzzing
revelation: I am an Anger God!
Poetry is not pretty, but oh, it is beautiful.
And the hummingbirds just gave us some insight into Moor’s poetic style. He knows his way around a full-fleshed image, all right, but he’s also got a gift for bringing into crisp clarity the darker truths of life.
Moor’s reading tonight, from his prize-winning second book Through the Stonecutter’s Window, marks another stage in his progression from respected Sacramento-area poet to a writer of national prominence. The new book just won the coveted 2009 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. His first book, Tap-Root, created a whisper; the second has risen to a shout.
Moor has a history of more than a decade in Sacramento as a spoken-word artist and a poet, both under his pen name and his birth name. He’s served as an officer with the Sacramento Poetry Center and been involved in many of its projects. But on this particular evening in mid-June, things haven’t started well for him.
For starters, he follows a poet who suffers from the mistaken belief that every word in every line has equal importance, leading to a relentless reading. As a result, it takes extra effort for Moor to warm up the room.
Also, it doesn’t help that he’s nervous. A couple of friends he hasn’t seen in a while are present for the reading, as well as a pesky reporter with a digital recorder aimed his way. He is tired, too. The reading comes as a footnote to a full day of work at Intel in Folsom, where Moor works in computer-chip design. Also, he drove here from Rancho Cordova on the first truly hot day of the season in a car with a busted air conditioner.
He also tries something new tonight, alternately reading from one, then the other of his two books; it leads him to stammer a bit and start over, which is a rare thing for a poet who began his career learning the ropes at the open-mic nights at Luna’s Café & Juice Bar in Sacramento a dozen years ago.
Finally, two poems into his planned program, he uses the hummingbird poem to get us in the palm of his hand. It stays that way, too, for the remainder of the 25-minute reading.
Moor’s got a sonorous voice that’s made for singing, though he swears if he tries to hold a note for longer than a beat or two, something goes bad. But it does have a gorgeous baritone musical quality, and he does not fall victim to the ba-DUM ba-DUM sing-song cadence of a bad reader. He’s got skills, which are particularly marked when he reads three of a six-poem series based on Aspects of Negro Life #62: Song of the Towers, a painting by Aaron Douglas. His speech changes cadence and timbre, taking advantage of the poems’ language shifts to match each character in turn, transforming the reading into a performance.
Moe’s has stocked extra copies of Through the Stonecutter’s Window, and after the reading, Moor signs them for his audience as fast as he can. The event has all the hallmarks of a successful reading: His throat is sore, his hand is cramped, he’s hungry with a touch of euphoria and the books are sold out.
On the ride back to Sacramento, windows rolled down, we talk about the contract between poet and audience. “You’ve got to build some trust,” he says.
“They’ve got to trust that if you take them to a dark place, you’ll bring them back safely, and once they trust the poet, they’ll follow him anywhere.” He mentions one of the poems he’d read earlier, “Mississippi Barbecue,” written after seeing one of the many postcards from a lynching in the exhibition Without Sanctuary (see sidebar, page 25).
“It’s hard to hear,” he says. “Harder to see, and I don’t even want to know what it would be like to live through, but it is hard to hear.” That doesn’t mean it should be avoided, but that there’s got to be some work done with his audience before he can take them to such a dark place.
“It’s one thing to know the history, that lynchings were the kind of event that the whole white community got invited to, and they packed up Grandma and the kids and brought a picnic,” he says. It’s another thing to be asked to experience it as art, and the poet has to be “strong and trustworthy enough to bring his readers along.”
It takes some training to do that.Express yourself
Indigo Moor was born Joel Grier in 1964 in North Carolina. He grew up in a part of Charlotte that was semirural, where the new houses were built before the sidewalks, which never followed, and right out the back door were woods filled with an opportunity to explore. He played football in school, joined the Navy, got an education, got married, had three children. The family moved to Sacramento in 1999, when Intel hired him right after he left the service.
Moor still works there. Even established poets need a day job, especially if there are kids to put through college.
About 12 years ago, he started writing poetry—and reading it—as part of an incredibly busy and diverse poetry and spoken-word scene that was emerging in Sacramento at the time.
That’s the short form of a very long story. Many local poets have similar stories, and they usually play out with a poet publishing some poems, maybe a chapbook or two, then becoming a regular at local readings and workshops, and eventually becoming a stalwart of the local poetry scene. Maybe they’ll even garner some attention from the regional press.
And at some point, they realize that they’re not going to be one of the great poets of their generation. Instead, they meet the great poets on reading tours, buy books and get them signed, and keep on loving poetry. It works well for most American poets.
That is not how the story is unfolding for Indigo Moor.
Around the same time that he’d become enough of a fixture on the Sacramento poetry scene to be featured in an SN&R story (see “Grier verses Grier” by Chrisanne Beckner; SN&R Feature; July 12, 2001), Moor was sent to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a long-term work assignment for Intel.
On his off hours, he explored the poetry scene in the area, and it was alive with bookstores, readings, workshops and poets attached to one of the many universities in the area as teachers or students, or working on their own. His exposure to poets with deep roots in a variety of literary traditions was eye-opening.
“That was a huge jump in my evolution as a writer, because I realized that I could either keep writing just the simple, confessional stuff that I was writing, or I could step up and try to achieve some of the levels that they did,” he says. “It opened up my eyes to a different level of writing, something that I hadn’t seen before.”
Moor was determined to take his own work to another level, and that meant more education. He read even more: Yusef Komunyakaa, Martín Espada, Cornelius Eady, Italo Calvino, Patricia Smith. Moor lists the used bookstores in Cambridge that carried good poetry with the same glee a foodie uses to talk about restaurants and wine lists.
“And instead of always reading for enjoyment, I started actually reading poetry to see why it was enjoyable, why it was effective and the way it was effective,” he says. “It was stimulating to try and pick up how to use the tools—how to use language, how to use metaphor. It was like coming alive in a new way, this learning how to do things. All of a sudden you realize that all the ways you want to express yourself, you’re now able to, because you have so many different techniques you can use.”
In 2001, he took the pen name Indigo Moor, for deeply personal reasons. “I did it very carefully and deliberately,” he says.
Then along came Cave Canem, an organization devoted to supporting and developing the talents of African-American poets.Beware of the dog
The number of major American poets involved with Cave Canem is mind-boggling. Faculty includes Komunyakaa, Eady and Smith, as well as Toi Dericotte, Cyrus Cassells, Harryette Mullen and Carl Phillips. That list includes poets who’ve won every major award in poetry. It’s the literary “home” of some of America’s greatest poets; among Moor’s predecessors as a prize winner is Natasha Trethewey, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The phrase cave canem is Latin for “Beware of the dog,” the warning found outside a poet’s home in the ruins of Pompeii.
Moor became a Cave Canem fellow in 2003, attending writing retreats and residencies with other fellows as well as former fellows and established poets.
After several years working with Cave Canem, Moor sought out a graduate writing program and has been, for the past two years, in the Stonecoast low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Southern Maine. The program requires graduate students to do short residencies of two weeks on campus twice a year; the rest of the time, they work on their own, maintaining contact with faculty advisers and mentors.
It is a solitary way to earn an MFA.
“You have to be self-motivated,” Moor says. But for someone like Moor, who has balanced a full-time job, family obligations (he is divorced and shares custody with his ex-wife) and writing, discipline isn’t a foreign concept.
Stonecoast and Cave Canem have some things in common, according to Moor. The programs are designed to support writers in becoming the poets they want to be. “I’m there to try to change how I’m writing,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they let me continue down a path that’s not going forward, but they help strengthen me in where I’m trying to go, and I love that.”
Talking about rivalries within the poetry community—spoken word vs. “literary” styles, slams vs. workshops and readings—leads Moor to suggest a simple answer: cooperation, not competition. When it comes to talking about American poetry—or Sacramento poetry—as a single entity, well, Moor says, we can try, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be successful at it.”
Poetry is, he says, “mirroring where society is going.”
“Oftentimes, people are becoming very defensive about what’s going on with their writing,” Moor says. “It’s as if their type of writing can’t be successful if they can’t talk about how someone else’s isn’t succeeding.” The idea that there’s “only so much to go around” leads people to be unnecessarily critical of what others are doing.
“I don’t think spoken-word or on-the-page poetry—however you want to put it—I don’t think they have any beef with each other,” Moor says. “They’re different facets of the same diamond, so of course they’re going to be different, and they can’t necessarily be compared to each other.”
Basically, Moor is willing to adopt a more-is-better approach, at least when it comes to poetry.
“What I want is to be surprised. I want something given to me in a way that I’ve never thought of before.” Nothing else matters. For such a simple statement of aesthetics, it’s also a pretty useful approach.
And it’s flexible, which is necessary, given that Moor’s doing a great deal of genre-jumping these days. Some of the work he must do is determined by the demands of the MFA program, but Stonecoast has allowed him to add a section on scriptwriting so that he can work on a stage play. But, in addition to that, he’s dabbling in screenwriting, working on a novel and beginning what he hopes will form the heart of his next collection of poems.
“It’s a series of conversations between Paul Robeson and Othello,” he says, explaining how he’d been reading what he thought was a character study of Robeson, and it turned out to be about Shakespeare’s tragic hero. It led him to look at the similarities in their lives and times. His excitement in talking about what he’s discovered—how Robeson is perceived as a hero for his stand against McCarthyism, “but it’s a lot of him just not being able to get out of his own way”—builds palpably as he talks.
This rise to national prominence in the poetry world isn’t what Moor expected.
As a child, he was a daydreamer, he says, but there was “nothing to make me think I’d be a writer.”
“I think I had a clear view of where I didn’t want to be. So all I thought about was being in a different situation.”
Like joining the Navy, becoming a technical engineer and embracing fatherhood, writing poetry became a necessary act for Moor.
“I think a lot of what I’ve done has been out of necessity,” he says. “You feel the drive, you have the fear of not being in a certain place—or of being stuck in a certain place—and you do what you have to do.”This story has been corrected from its original print version.