Hari Sky Campbell Reads at Divoll Library
by Diana Davis, Walrus Contributor
When Walrus Publishing asked who would be interested in attending a reading by the renowned St. Louis, black Poet, Hari Sky Campbell, I did a rapid-fire e-mail back to the publisher. “I would, I would,” I said, like an enthusiastic child bouncing up and down in her seat while wildly waving her arm at the grade school teacher. I was thrilled about this because Hari Sky Campbell is my friend – a friendship which started during our MFA studies at University of Missouri – St. Louis where I studied creative writing, and Hari specialized in poetry. Knowing him, his work, and our friendship, I was sure that this event would be fantastic – I was not disappointed.
Hari Sky Campbell is a master showman, and his performances are reminiscent of the reading style of the great Maya Angelou, whom he personally met when she did a reading at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Both bring an appreciation of black culture by telling about the mundane events in life in such a way that it is proves either profound or highly entertaining. The St. Louis City Library was so right in inviting Hari to read as part of the Library’s celebration of Older Americans.
Hari started off the evening remarking that St. Louis was not a big poetry town as some other cities are. For example, when he, Quincy Troupe, and other poets gave a reading at Lincoln School next to the Chicago Public Library, the place was packed. At 7 p.m. on a Friday night, there were students, bus drivers, office workers, cabbies, businessmen and women, teachers and so many others in attendance. The same thing happened when he did readings down in the little town of Shelby, Mississippi. With a total population of just 3,000, people still managed to fill the community rooms where the readings took place. St. Louis just does not seem have that same kind of man-on-the-street following. Hari laughed that in St. Louis he might give a reading to four people and 60 chairs.
However, it doesn’t matter where he goes people always come to him and say, “Well, I’d like to write poetry, but I don’t know how to come up with ideas. Where do you get your ideas?” Hari’s response is always “Why, poetry is all around us. Just open your eyes and ears, girl. We live in it. My goodness, child, we live in it.” He elaborated on this pointing out that older poets have lived long enough, experienced enough to sing about love and pain, joy and strife–in short, to sing about life. This is the type of insight that fills his poems and makes his readings such an adventure.
His chapbook Shawmaul’s House is just one example of his life in words. Shawmaul’s House was named after his grandmother, Helen Buckner, who was a major influence in his life. Everyone went to Shawmaul’s house when there was trouble. Hari’s mother was in trouble. Her husband had just been killed and Hari was only a toddler. She took refuge in Shawmaul’s house. It was there that Hari met a lot of people who did a heap of living.
His grandmother’s name is important. It’s her love name. Hari stated that black people have love names for their grandmothers or others who were near and dear to them. He asked the audience to supply some. Audience members mentioned their love names: “Charmin’ Big Rose,” “Mary Ma’Dear,” and “Big Auntie.” Hari’s grandmother was called, “Shawmaul,” which is a variation of (Sha-Mah), a leader of a tribe, village or family and translates into keeper of the family and keeper of the faith of the generations. Hari read:
“Shawmaul didn’t pray;
she had business meetings with God each and every day.
She talked about food, rent, women and men
and the evilness of gin, about that devil insurance
man and the hole in the ceiling up in the front room.”
Shawmaul was the glue that held the family together as she sat in her rocking chair with her Bible open on her lap…
“Listening to the sounds of feet
on long wooden stairs that would
bend and stretch with the coming
and going of us all…
and at the kitchen table, if you were quiet, real
quiet…You could hear God talk to her.”
Hari’s writings flow smoothly from the mystical to the urbane, as in his poem, “Abstract Sculpture,” where he shared his thoughts on seeing a woman at the Family Dollar Store.
“In the bend of her left arm,
her skin spot-welded like
Bits of her soul folded, twisted
and grown over. Beige, brown, black
coffee needle points to lonely nights.
Worn smooth headstones
sitting in a graveyard
of dead blood veins.”
As sophisticated as Hari can be, he also has a childlike sense of awe. For example, he told a story about waiting for the bus at UM-St. Louis with his backpack on his shoulder. A pigeon flew around a tree, as if the tree was an offending obstacle, and landed on the walk, then flew up to sit on the head of a statue. He mulled that over and decided he could not remember ever having seen a pigeon land in a tree, or sit on a branch in a tree either, so he wrote the poem, titled “Pigeon” where he expressed astonishment that the winged creatures,
“Perched in corners
of the city,
in cracks of life,
on roof tops,
on heads of statues,
but not in trees…
They will hotfoot dance
on the edge of a giant
stand stoically on Gothic
heads of the insurance building
He stopped here for a minute and asked the audience, “Did you ever see a pigeon sit in a tree?” Everyone thought for a minute and then shook their heads, and we all laughed.
Among his credits, Hari was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2006 and was recently awarded First Place by the St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice in the Spoken Word category. He was named Writer Laureate by the St. Louis (business) Black Pages in 2003 for his work. He sits on the Citizen Advisory Panel of the Regional Arts Commission in St. Louis. When considering his accomplishments, Hari is reminded of what his mentor and teacher Howard Schwartz told him to do – graciously accept every honor bestowed.
In spite of all he has accomplished Hari remains a modest man. He always looks for ways to give back especially when it comes to the next generation. He is working now as a Teacher Specialist with Springboard to Learning, a multi-cultural “hands-on” arts, sciences and humanities educational program conducting poetry workshops in St. Louis area public schools.
Hari’s Chapbooks are still for available from the author. Send a $12 money order (no checks or cash please) to cover the cost of the chapbook, shipping and handling to: Hari Sky Campbell, 5370 Pershing Avenue, Apt. 715, St. Louis, MO 63112.