In a room on the third floor of the Chicago Children's Museum, Quraysh Ali Lansana is teaching a poem to two little girls. The girls read it silently, then Lansana directs them to the front of the room and asks them to interpret the poem physically. As he reads each line the girls repeat it and act it out, miming a snowflake and a flower. Within ten minutes they're able to perform the poem on their own.
"We broke that poem down so they could wear it, so they could put it on, so they could get inside of it," says Lansana. "In the process they created their own interpretation...put some of themselves in it...and created something new with those same words."
Words brought a new life to Lansana. When he arrived in Chicago 12 years ago he was an unemployed college dropout. Now the 35-year-old Chatham resident is an editor at the downtown office of textbook publisher Glencoe/McGraw-Hill and a board member for the Guild Complex. He founded Kuntu Drama Players, a ten-year-old black-theater group, and Nappyhead Press, which publishes poetry chapbooks. He's traveled across the country, leading workshops in schools and prisons, and for three years he performed with the music-poetry group the Funky Wordsmyths. His most recent collection, Southside Rain, was published last year by Third World Press, and he'll read from his work this Saturday at the National Poetry Festival at Chicago State University.
Lansana was born Ron Myles in Enid, Oklahoma, just north of Oklahoma City. His father managed storage rooms for Southwestern Bell, and his mother clerked at a hospital; Ron grew up the youngest of six kids. He remembers his sisters taping Nikki Giovanni's poems to their bedroom walls, but he was more inspired by the records they played, politically aware soul music by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and War. He says, "I consider Stevie Wonder one of the greatest poets of all time."
After high school Lansana enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where he studied broadcast journalism and wrote for the school newspaper. He also became "a ska boy," wearing black suits and pinstripe ties. "I didn't know who Luther Vandross was until I met my wife," he says. "During that period in the 80s when he was big, I was listening to the English Beat." Most of his black peers were pledging fraternities and sororities, buying preppy clothes and strutting their wealth. "They were the people who would grow into buppies, I guess. And I wasn't like that. Those people gave me more grief than many of the white folks who thought I was odd too."
The frustration fueled his growing interest in poetry. "It was a way to scream on a piece of paper as opposed to screaming at someone. It was a release for me." After landing a job as an assistant assignment editor at KWTV, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, Lansana quit school, but a year later he was fired for tardiness. He'd grown to resent "the spin on the news in terms of black male pathos, the power of images of blacks and crime." He spent a year writing poetry, hiking, and biking around a wildlife refuge near Medicine Park, Oklahoma, while selling suits at a mall in nearby Lawton to pay his rent.
In September 1988, a week after his 24th birthday, Lansana bought a one-way ticket to Chicago. He'd come to visit friends earlier and liked the city. "I needed to move to a literary town," he says. "It seemed manageable and I liked the energy. I wasn't ready for all that New York had to offer." He flew into Midway with two suitcases, a folder full of poems, and $13. He slept on the couch of a college roommate and washed dishes at Vegetaria, a fast-food restaurant near Clark and Belmont. Within a month he'd found more lucrative work through a temporary agency and he got his own apartment at Cornelia and Halsted.
Shortly after moving to Wicker Park in 1992, Lansana began reading at the open mikes hosted every week by Border Line Tap and Estelle's on North, Spices Jazz Bar on Franklin, and the Guild Complex. Soon he joined the Funky Wordsmyths, which included the late Oscar "Bobo" Brown III. The group's original saxophone player, Theodore Witcher, wrote and directed the 1997 movie Love Jones, which was set amid the local black poetry scene. After the Reader reviewed the Funky Wordsmyths in March 1993 the group began selling out Cafe Voltaire.
One night in 1996, while Lansana was driving Gwendolyn Brooks home from a reading at the Guild Complex, the poet suggested that he enroll at Chicago State. Lansana followed Brooks's advice, got a chance to take her poetry workshop, and earned a degree in African-American studies the next year. Like Brooks, he often draws inspiration from the city. He got the idea for the poem "Southside Rain" while walking past a school on the way to Bobo Brown's apartment in Bronzeville. "The shutters were all torn, the windows were grungy and dark. The curtains looked horrible, like they hadn't been cleaned. Granted, it was a gray, rainy kind of day into night, but the school looked very uninviting. I was like, 'Wow, kids have to go into this school every day.'" The building and its glass-strewn playground gave Lansana his first stanza: "southside rain visits darkened corridors / falls through cracks where children dream / falls through cracks of textbook lies / and dampens hungry minds."
Though Ron Myles was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he found himself attracted to the discipline of Islam; the night after the rioting in Los Angeles he was reading the Koran and praying for justice when the name Quraysh Ali came to him. When he converted to Islam in 1993, the imam at his south-side mosque conferred the name upon him. Quraysh later abandoned Islam because he couldn't reconcile it with the knowledge that some of its practitioners sold African slaves. He and his wife, Emily Hooper, took the name Lansana when they married in 1996; it means storyteller in the language of Sierra Leone's Mende tribe. The Lansanas now practice several indigenous African religions, including Yoruba, but they also attend Trinity United Church of Christ. Quraysh still considers his previous faiths part of him: "I'm a spiritual wanderer."
This August, Lansana will begin work on a master's degree in poetry at New York University, which has awarded him a fellowship. Yet Chicago remains special to him. "I became a man in Chicago," he said. "I met some wonderful people here. I met my wife here. My two sons were born here. It's very possible that I will be back."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.