This year Hakim Bellamy and Lisa Gill were voted best poets in the Best of Albuquerque round-up in the Alibi. It’s nice to feel part of popular taste for a change. I’ve already written about Lisa’s work, so let me say something about Hakim now.
His list of achievements at a tender age is considerable: two-time National Champion in the Poetry Slam scene, three consecutive University of New Mexico LOBOSLAM titles, former Poetry Club coach at South Valley Academy, honorable mention for UNM’s Paul Bartlett Re Peace Prize for his work as a community organizer and journalist. His work has been published in various anthologies. He currently works for the Office of African American Affairs.
I’ve heard Hakim perform on three occasions, twice when we were on the same bill. The first time was at the Harwood Arts Center in 2008 as part of Bryan Konefsky’s “Let Me Say This About That” installation for National Poetry Month in April. The second time was at the tribute for poet, playwright and scholar Maisha Baton. And, most recently, Hakim collaborated in a trio that included Erin Adair-Hodges and Carlos Contreras as part of the exhibit, “Artificial Selection,” at 516 Arts gallery. I first saw Hakim as Maisha and I passed him at the then-extant Out Ch’Yonda performance space in Barelas. She and I were going into the studio to be recorded on a CD engineered by poet Mitch Rayes as he was heading out.
On all those occasions, I saw and heard a different Mr. Bellamy, but what was always consistent was something like a radiant presence as if he was lit from within, an indwelling light. Lisa Gill has that selfsame quality. It’s something you’re born with, I believe, and call it what you will—grace, charisma, aura—but he’s got it. As Hakim tells it, few words were exchanged that blustery day (you can hear the tin-rattling wind on the recording) at Out Ch’Yonda, but Maisha leaned into him and said in that throaty, unforgettable voice, “I like your work.” Because Dr. Baton’s reputation had preceded her he felt elated by the remark.
And why wouldn’t Maisha say that? Everybody loves Hakim. How many people his age would even remember much less reconstruct sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ mournful Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics as a massacre of students on Tlatetlolco Plaza was occurring? At Harwood Hakim also performed “Rockwell,” a piece I love. It updates the idealized image of the American family inscribed in Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. Bellamy’s contemporary family lives in poverty and war, with toilet seat askew, in a one-bedroom apartment, the parents repaying student loans. They teach their child to respect and question and protest if need be, and to entertain the possibility of failure in order to know success.The child
may grow up to be a voracious learner and “eat books.” It’s a same-sex, different-sex or even “lots of sex” family. In place of the traditional (white) nuclear family, we have a biracial family that “rock(s) well.”
Now I don’t do slam, so let me tell you what I heard in my own sweet way. Hakim was delivering his words at such an accelerated tempo but with such perfect articulation that sound and sense began to blur and cohere at once, and during those riffs one felt the airborne lift of a John Coltrane solo or the pure music the French Symbolists wished to attain to. That was at Harwood.
Earlier this year at the three-hour Maisha Baton tribute, “Do Remember Me,” in the UNM student union’s sub-basement, Hakim delivered an extemporaneous talk about that chance encounter with Maisha, but it felt to me like really good conversation, warm, informal, well-mannered, alert. There was no pretension or distance. He had nothing to hide. Hakim didn’t pretend to know Maisha well, but the poem of hers he read, “My Men Folk Never Had (for the Black male poets I have known),” showed an appreciation of her work like he knew it all his life. Like he had lived the poem (and I believe he did). I swear. After I read my poem for Maisha and was heading for the, uh, euphemism, Hakim was lavish in his praise, but was slumped down in his cushioned seat in the auditorium seemingly to escape notice and looked small.
But on stage he’s a big presence as he was that night at the Harwood—which isn’t the same as hostile, bragging, egotistical or aggressive. It means that he projects himself with all the feeling he’s bringing to the piece. So I start to feel, as I do about Lisa, that Mr. Bellamy is something of a shape shifter his own dreadlocked self.
This is a curious thing about poets. When I knew him in the San Francisco Bay Area, Victor Hernandez Cruz had this magical ability to appear at your side, and you wouldn’t even notice he was there. My CCA colleague Michael McClure could levitate three inches off the ground as he walked—or glided. Carolyn Kizer said Michael was the handsomest poet in the area. Damn, life’s unfair. When she read, June Jordan phrased as beautifully as Billie Holiday, her head bobbing and weaving, snakelike, and enchanting me like a snake. I mean, I’m talking about the loveliest snake imaginable. Ever. At Nuyorican Café I got to shake my booty on the same dance floor as June . . . Come to think of it, maybe life isn’t so unfair after all.
The last time at 516 Arts on May 15th Mr. Bellamy was running late, having been delayed at a function attended by the new Mayor and was pulled away from the rubber chicken dinner to do his poetry thing. While we were waiting, Carlos Contreras muttered, “I’m always waiting for him. I may as well be married to him.”
When Hakim showed, he was immaculate in a double-breasted navy-blue suit with shiny gold buttons (I’m inventing here, because I don’t know a damned thing about clothes and have a less than faultless memory about such details), and acted sheepish about the tardiness. I believe both Carlos and Hakim were a bit unaccustomed and ill at ease reading from the page their poem-responses to the art in the exhibit, but, hell, that self-effacement was appealing. And that gets me to a quality that both Hakim and Carlos, in his own unconventional song of himself, possess. These are young, post-macho brothers who don’t have to brag or flaunt it, because they know themselves, know their talents and are secure in them.
When Hakim performed a piece about good fathers and bad, confessing his own occasional inadequacies, you wished for the world that every father in these United Snakes, as Amiri Baraka calls it, had heard that piece and stored it in their hearts—and I’m not being a critic of poetry here—because it’s my belief the world would be much improved if every father admitted his imperfections as Hakim, for all his incredible accomplishment, does. If Hakim were a singer, he’d be Smokey Robinson, vulnerable and humane.
Lisa Gill called him a sweetheart. Of how many men can that be said? Certainly not me. And she’d be right. Everybody loves Hakim.