Category Archives: Poetry

Geoffrey Holder’s Last Dance


Originally posted by Karyn Parson on Facebook:

Leo Holder, Geoffrey Holder’s son, wrote the following beautiful letter detailing his father’s final days and hours. It is a moving tribute to a remarkable man. I have been told that it is okay to share.

Please keep Carmen, Leo, and their friends and family, in your thoughts and prayers.

“From Leo Holder: This Is A True Story (Please feel free to share widely)

Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014

October 5th

A little more than a week after developing pneumonia, Geoffrey Holder made a decision. He was calling the shots as always. He was done. 2 attempts at removing the breathing tube didn’t show promising results. In his truest moment of clarity since being rolled into I.C.U. he said he was good. Mouthing the words “No, I am not afraid” without a trace of negativity, sadness or bitterness, he sincerely was good with it. He had lived the fullest life he could possibly live, a 70 + year career in multiple art forms, and was still creating. Still painting, a bag of gold (of course) fabric and embellishments in his room for a new dress for my mother, sculptures made out of rope, baseball caps and wire hangers. New ideas every second, always restlessly chasing his too fertile mind. A week of breathing tubes and restrained hands had forced him to communicate with only cryptic clues which I was fortunate enough to be able to decipher at best 40% of the time. The fact that we all struggled to understand him enraged him to the point that he could sometimes pull tantrums taking up to 4 people to restrain him from pulling out the wires. He was head strong (understatement), but he was also physically strong. Iron hand grip that no illness could weaken. 9 days of mouthing words that, because of the tubes, produced no sound forcing him to use his eyes to try to accentuate the point he was trying to make. But this didn’t mean he wasn’t still Geoffrey Holder. This didn’t mean an end to taking over. Holding court as he always did. Directing and ordering people around. Choreographing. Getting his way. We still understood that part, and the sight of his closest friends and extended family brought out the best in him. Broad smiles in spite of the tubes, nodding approval of anything that met his standard (which was very high), and exuding pride and joy in all those in whom he saw a spark of magic and encouraged to blossom. The week saw a parade of friends from all over the world checking in to see him, hold is hand, rub his head, and give him the latest gossip. But he was still trying to tell me something, and although I was still the best at deciphering what he was saying, I still wasn’t getting it.

Saturday night I had a break through. After a good day for him, including a visit by Rev. Dr. Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church who offered prayer and described Geoffrey’s choreography as prayer itself, which made him beam, I brought in some music. “Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra”, one of his all time favorites. He had once choreographed a piece to one of the cuts on the album… a throwaway ballet to fill out the program, but the music inspired him. From his bed, he started to, at first sway with the music, then the arms went up, and Geoffrey started to dance again. In his bed. Purest of spirits. Still Geoffrey Holder. Then he summoned me to take his hands, and this most unique dancer / choreographer pulled himself up from his bed as if to reach the sky. It was then I broke the code: he was telling me he was going to dance his way out. Still a Geoffrey Holder production. If it had been up to him, this evening’s solo would have been it. The higher he pulled himself up, the higher he wanted to fly. I had to let him down. Not yet. There are friends and family coming in from out of town. He resignedly shrugged his shoulders, closed his eyes and went to sleep.

I got it. Really. I got it. I walked out of the hospital elated. Ate a full meal for the first time in days, slept like a baby after. The next day would be his last. I was not sad. It wasn’t stressful for me to deal with him in this state. It was an honor and a privilege to tend to anything he needed. This impromptu dance was his dress rehearsal.
Next morning, I show up early. Possible second thoughts? Should we wait? What if he changes his mind? Did he understand what we were talking about here? Thoroughly. Mind as clear as crystal. “You still game for our dance tonight?” A nod, a smile, and a wink, with tubes still down his throat.. We’re still on. But he still wants to do it NOW. NOT later. He’s cranky. Sulks a while. Sleeps a while. Eventually snaps out of it.

From noon on, a caravan of friends and family from all over the globe comes through the ICU wing. Ages 1 to 80. Young designers and artists he nurtured and who inspired him. Younger dancers he encouraged to always play to the rear balcony with majesty. The now “elder statesmen” dancers on whom he built some of his signature ballets. His rat pack of buddies. Wayward saints he would offer food, drink, a shoulder to cry on, a couch to sleep it off, and lifetime’s worth of deep conversation and thought. Closest and oldest friends. Family.
They know they are here to say goodbye. He knows they are here to say goodbye. He greets them beaming with joy to see them. By this time I’m reading his lips better and am able to translate for him as much as I can. The last of them leave. It’s time for his one true love to have her time with him. His muse. Her champion. This is their time. 59 years distilled into 5 minutes of the gentlest looks and words as she caresses his noble brow one last time. She puts a note she wrote to him in is hand. She leaves.
Everyone is gone except me. My moment. I will be with him as he goes.
One more time: “you good?” Nod & faint smile. ‘you ready?” He is.
I have asked the doctors to not start the morphine drip right away, because I want him to have his solo on his own time. Knowing him, he might stop breathing right after his finale. For dramatic effect. He’s still Geoffrey Holder.
They remove the tube that has imprisoned him for the past 9 days and robbed this great communicator of the ability to speak. I remove the mittens that prevent his hands from moving freely.
I start the music, take his hands and start leading him, swaying them back and forth. And he lets go of me. He’s gonna wing it as he was prone to do when he was younger. Breathing on his own for the last time, Geoffrey Holder, eyes closed, performs his last solo to Bill Evans playing Faure’s Pavane. From his deathbed. The arms take flight, his beautiful hands articulate through the air, with grace. I whisper “shoulders” and they go into an undulating shimmy, rolling like waves. His Geoffrey Holder head gently rocks back and forth as he stretches out his right arm to deliver his trademark finger gesture, which once meant “you can’t afford this” and now is a subtle manifestation of pure human spirit and infinite wisdom. His musical timing still impeccable, bouncing off the notes, as if playing his own duet with Evan’s piano. Come the finale, he doesn’t lift himself of the bed as he planned; instead, one last gentle rock of the torso, crosses his arms and turns his head to the side in a pose worthy of Pavlova. All with a faint, gentile smile.
The orchestra finishes when he does. I loose it.
They administer the morphine drip and put an oxygen mask over his face. and I watch him begin taking his last breaths.
I put on some different music. I sit and watch him sleep, and breathe… 20 minutes later, he’s still breathing albeit with this gurgling sound you can hear though the mask. Another several minutes go by, he’s still breathing. Weakly, but still breathing… then his right hand starts to move. It looks like he’s using my mother’s note like a pencil, scratching the surface of the bed as if he’s drawing. This stops a few minutes later, then the left hand begins tapping. Through the oxygen mask the gurgling starts creating it’s own rhythm. Not sure of what I’m hearing, I look up to see his mouth moving. I get closer to listen: “2, 3, 4….2, 3, 4… He’s counting! It gets stronger, and at it’s loudest sounds like the deep purr of a lion, then he says “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4….”
I called my mother at home, where she was having a reception in his honor. She picks up. There are friends and family telling Geoffrey stories simultaneously laughing and crying in the background.
“Hi, honey, Are you alright?”
“Yes actually… he hasn’t stopped breathing yet.” I tell her about his solo, which brings her to a smile and a lightening of mood. I continue:
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure Honey. What?
“Who the hell did you marry?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not gonna believe this. He’s got a morphine drip, going on over half an hour, an oxygen mask on, his eyes closed, AND HE’S CHOREOGRAPHING!”
This brings her to her first laugh of the day. She now knows we will be alright.
He continues on like this for quite a while, and a doctor comes in to take some meter readings of the machines. I ask the doctor if this is normal. As she begins to explain to me about the process, his closed eyes burst open focused straight on us like lasers and he roars with all his might: ”SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!! YOU’RE BREAKING MY CONCENTRATION!!!!!!!”
We freeze with our mouths open. He stares us down. long and hard.
Then he closes his eyes again, “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4…”
He continued counting ’til it faded out, leaving only the sound of faint breathing, slowing down to his very last breath at 9:25 pm
Still Geoffrey Holder.
The most incredible night of my life.
Thank you for indulging me.

Love & best,

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Knowledge is Power: Broken Worlds by shono

Knowledge is Power is a mobilized and conscious attempt to combat and re-articulate the stories of communities that have been targeted, vilified and simplified by mainstream institutions of power in the city of Toronto.  We recognize that our work is part of a larger attempt to address the violence, trauma and need for healing.  We are young people, elders, artists, activists, students, educators…human beings…demanding accountability.”

The following piece is a reflection on the June 2nd, 2012 shooting at the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto that resulted in the deaths of two young men named Ahmed Hassan (age 24) and Nixon Nirmealendran (age 22). The piece speaks to the ways in which young men with dark skin are vilified and dehumanized by the general public and the complex ways in which violence structures the lives of all of those who live in Toronto.

Broken Worlds

This weekend the heavens opened up and the city exploded in a burst of light. I’m sure it happened, the gusts of wind told me so. And of course the headlines of the daily newspaper agreed, as they swept their ominous messages across the city of Toronto. Somewhere an army of voices declared a war on blackness and violence and darkness, and the city exploded right before our eyes, and no one could do anything of it. The newspapers spoke hushed words, spreading into the minds of the people, warning the law-abiding citizens that evil lurked among us, gangs of blackness and violence in the heart of the city. The newspapers said sternly and without challenge that this evil, like all darkness, must be purged from our lives, once and for all.

However, the choruses of voices that came hurtling forth wrapped within the wind spoke stories that the newspapers would never dare to print. Stories that screamed of sadness, and urgency, stories of violent neglect and stories of a world spiraling out of control. The winds shrieked, saying that it takes a broken world, for a broken man to pull a trigger, for he is never alone, it is a collective and communal process. But the newspapers would never say this, because then we’d all realize just how accountable each one of us is. The winds implored us to remember all that we had forgotten to do. For we had forgotten to mourn the death of a man, and we had forgotten that men break when they have been broken. We had forgotten that cities and people explode when they have no other choice, and finally we had forgotten that darkness is not evil it is sacred.

And as the city exploded, the only question that most asked was, how do we keep the darkness from our lives? When instead we should have asked how have we become so far gone, that we can’t mourn the life of a young black boy killed from broad daylight, in the busiest mall in the busiest city in this country.  And as the winds thrashed the streets, and the rain soaked the people, they begged me to listen, for when the city explodes, it is always a collective process. For men break, when they have been broken.

This weekend the police were on high alert, for the newspapers assured us that explosions in the city must come from darkness and blackness. All to get blown up in bursts of masculinity – ticking time bombs, ticking time bombs. The wind warned of a danger much deeper, but the police were still on high alert searching and silencing, searching and silencing.

And I am left with a thought, a reality of this world:

“I am scared of the darkness, but the darkness is sacred.”

shono is a spoken word artist and storyteller. lost in history, he sees the need to recover forgotten words, so he writes. (

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Checklist for the Critical ArTiSt and ARt LoVeR

In 2010 I had the privilege of being selected as a playwright-in-residence at anitafrika dub theatre where I was mentored through the process of creating my one-woman play 32C by the pioneering and boundary breaking artist d’bi young. Part of this residency included an in-depth look at what it meant to interrogate the integrity of artistic practice and creation.  The amazing Tomee Sojourner came in to help facilitate this journey of internal interrogation with a series of oppression awareness workshops.  Looking over those old notes, I realized how crucial so many of those questions were to my process and remain in my mind not only as a creator of art but also a lover/viewer/spectator of art:

How does oppression get replicated in the creative process? What is the importance of authenticity? Who do I speak for? Do they have access to this space? What is my responsibility in the characters that I create? Are they whole people? What is the cost of sharing these stories?

As my imagination begins to hungrily call for creative expression, I am once again asking myself many of these questions.  In a couple of weeks, I will be sharing the stage with Ania Soul and Afrakaren at the  T-Dot Renaissance Series: Poetry is Not a Luxury being held at Accents Bookstore and as I was reflecting, I realized that these questions are consistently in my mind even when I think about the artists I want to collaborate with; this theme of integrity that comes with the privilege of holding a public stage – what do you choose to say and how do you choose to say it? I collaborate with these ladies and with the artists of T-Dot Renaissance because what they choose to say and how they choose to say it speaks directly to the love, light, pain, joy, beauty, depth, resistance and healing that I feel in my spirit and I hope gets channeled through my artistic voice.

I read the following passage by pioneering African-Canadian documentary filmmaker Roger McTair in his book The Black Experience in the White Mind: Mediations on a Persistent Discourse some time ago.  It came to mind recently as I was creating class lesson plans and I decided to share some of it here, firstly because I think this man is incredibly brilliant and secondly because it is an amazing outline/check-list for not only the critical viewer of art, but also for the artist grappling with the question of integrity when creating.  So as you are watching a film, writing a play, considering your storyboard, please consider the following:

“It is essential in critiquing cultural artifacts to look for the manipulation of the medium.

  1. What is the ultimate claim of the story? In Birth of a Nation the ultimate claim of the story is, that emancipation was a mistake because black people were incapable of civilized behaviour in all realms.
  2. Are the characters well rounded and have strong roles or are they stereotypes?  Does the story emphasize the exotic?
  3. Which characters hold the foreground of the story? Which characters are merely background?  Or are stereotypes to some degree or other.
  4. Whose subjectivity is explored? Whose point of view is foregrounded?  Does the dominant point-of-view reinforce the ideology of the conventional main-stream view? Which group is the intended audience?
  5. Are the characters an upgrading of a traditional stereotype? Or are they fully realized?
  6. What is the power relationship between different racial groups of characters?  Who gets to speak?  Is the traditional non-white voice native, black Latin, East Asian, marginalized?
  7. Is the plot constructed to erase the traditionally marginalized and their history and leave the stage or screen to the traditional Anglo-American, and male, hero?
  8. Is the story sentimental? Is the medium sentimental? For instance are musicals anything else but entertainments, or as Brecht said, culinary theatre, commercial theatre products, middle brow and suburban?
  9. Does it show characteristics and the societal situation in a dramatically revealing light.  Is the artwork a sensitive reading of history?
  10. Is there equal dialogue and equal exchange among characters given the dynamics of the story.  Or is their a racial and conventional hierarchy of voices?
  11. When repression, either historical or contemporary is portrayed are the unequal, or repressed characters accommodationist and loyal, or do they, through tone of voice, silent responses or gestures show that disagreement with their powerlessness?
  12. Who controls the creation and production and exhibition of the artifact? Does it wrestle with real issues? Does it avoid the real tensions in the story? And if based on true events does it sensationalize and trivialize the personal, emotional and historical record?

These are just some of the questions to be asked by a critical viewer of any artwork.  A work must not simply avoid the cliches and conventions of overt racism.  That approach ignores the structural underpinnings of how power and privilege, inclusion and exclusion works.” – Roger McTair

Mr. Roger McTair’s checklist can also be supplemented with questions that deconstruct stereotypes of gender, hetero-normativity, ableism and a host of other arenas.  This is merely a starting point of interrogation 🙂

Please check out the promotional video for our upcoming Poetry is Not a Luxury series which features the timeless words of the brilliant, critical and always poetic Audre Lorde:

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Banksy on Advertising

I saw this post on Tasha TheAmazon’s Tumblr page and I felt compelled to re-post it here:

“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.

Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.” ~ Banksy



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My Layered Love for Kanye the Artist

Post written: January 5th, 12am.

Sooooo I was supposed to be editing my essay right now but instead i am following Kanye’s epic rant currently occurring on Twitter.  Why is this more important than editing an essay on the community organizing of African Diasporic women in Toronto as part of my application to Graduate School (deadline in two days)?  It’s not.  But I’m caught up.  And Kanye has inspired all of this creative energy that academia cannot currently satisfy.

The magic and twisted sickness of social media that allows you to feel connected to someone you have never ever met and probably never will…is scary…yet…boundary breaking.

It is so crazy that Kanye is ranting like this hours after I started and then deleted a post I was preparing to write about my love for him (instigated by my avid fascination with his VOYR video diaries – a behind-the-scenes look at the Watch the Throne tour).  This is a love for Kanye the Artist, not Kanye the Man.  I cannot speak on Kanye the man, because I have never met him and  maybe never will, which is totally ok. I am not particularly interested in speculating on who he sleeps with, how he feels or why he does what he does, in a gossip-column/reality-tv style which although sometimes entertaining (I am definitely guilty of watching more than a few segments of Wendy Williams’ Hot Topics) often leaves me feeling as though I lost brain cells between the time I started and the time it ended.

But I do retain the rights to my initial intention for posting.  I love Kanye.

I think it is a generally agreed upon fact that he’s a love him/hate him kind of figure in pop culture.  But I know that a lot of people – especially people who try to create simplistic categorization in Hip Hop like “conscious vs. mainstream rap” (which I hate – maybe that’s a rant for another post) – generally assume I would be on the hate him bandwagon due to my affinity/identification with Black feminism, community activism, alternative education, critical analysis, etc.

Nope. Wrong Assumption.  I love him.

The adrenaline is running…I don’t know if I can even get to sleep now…from Wall St. to the London riots to Chicago murders…I sit everyday and ask what can I do to make a difference…” – Kanye

Now don’t get me wrong.  It is a critical love.  It is a turbulent love.  It is a love that comes with pain and sometimes…a little embarrassment.  But it is also an inspiring love.  A love that can sometimes provide me with motivation.

And that to me is what makes Kanye so special.  He invokes sooo many feelings inside of me because he brings such a layered, nuanced, complex and raw way of being that I cannot compare to anyone else in current Hip Hop/popular culture. 

I mourn the departure of College Dropout Kanye and recognize with sadness that he will never and can never return to that person again.  I also screamed and rhymed along with every song until my voice was hoarse for Watch the Throne Kanye two months ago at the Air Canada Centre.

His video for Monster made me cringe and hurt inside, wondering why he would conceptualize female bodies as lifeless props and reflecting on where all of this twisted misogynistic hatred for women inside of him derives from.  However his performance of Power on Saturday Night Live left me speechless; captivated by the beauty, brilliance, passion and simplicity that he created utilizing the female form through ballet.

His infamous interruption of Taylor Swift made me embrrassed inside for him as I saw him stumble and stutter.  His interruption of Mike Myers during Hurricane Katrina made me raise a fist in the air nodding encouragement through his stumbling and stuttering and whispering affirmations of “Yes Kanye…tell them!” at my TV screen.

Kanye’s 2009 short film made with director Spike Jonze “We Were Once a Fairytale” left me feeling so sad and disturbed me for days wondering about his mental health and the risks of creating on the edge as an artist.   His 2011/2012 VOYR video diaries leave me with energy and inspiration that make me forget small things like my need for sleep as I become more comfortable answering my desire to create, create and create…

I’m on a pursuit of awesomeness.  Excellence is the bare minimum.” – Kanye

What is the purpose of an artist if not to invoke feeling? To challenge? To push? To go to the uncomfortable places and expose the beauty and the ugliness and everything in between? So much of Hip Hop and mainstream media in general is boring because it is about superficial commercial nothingness – it sold out to the institutions that continue to demand the dehumanization of the population in order to maintain our acquiescence to the status quo.  As a result FEELINGS – real feelings, real expression of the layered and raw feelings we all have all the time, feelings that push us into action and movement – they are not given space to breathe…they are dismissed as crazy…maybe it is crazy to want to feel in this world.

It’s crazy and its delusional before it comes to fruition. You always gotta see the end goal. Everything else, just fill in the blanks.” – Kanye

So yes.  I love Kanye.  It was at the Watch the Throne concert in November as I watched him run from one end of the stage to another in a black leather kilt that I realized I could no longer deny our love (yes I said our love not because I’m crazy but because I believe he has put love out and I am returning it into universal energy…and maybe because I am crazy).  Jay-Z is  a legend.  His following is cult-like and his swag is out-of-this-world-undeniable as only someone with his story can own and wear.  But Kanye…he just had me going WITH HIM.  He invites everyone to come with him on the epic emotional rollercoaster of raw creativity that is his artistry – for better or for worse.  As Shad K said on Kanye in a recent Watch the Throne Concert review: “He just cares more.”  ❤


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