Video from Spitfire Saturday, July 30, 2011, Savaanh, GA
There’s no place like Savannah, Georgia—her ante bellum architecture, manicured squares of oleander and magnolia, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, her warm southern charm seeping from every cobble and crack, lingering like jasmine on the sweet night air. Seductive Savannah. Summers here are usually searing, but this one’s been a real scorcher. When I arrived on July 26, the city was in the midst of a sixty-day heat streak of temperatures over ninety degrees—that’s about thirty degrees warmer than an average summer day in my hometown of Eureka, California. It’s hot in Savannah. But I’m getting used to it, wearing less
clothing and getting more sun. This body still embraces the steamy heat of the deep south.
I went to school in Savannah seven years ago, and back then things were rougher. Crime—break-ins, muggings, stabbings, drive-by shootings—synonymous with downtown. And I lived downtown on Henry
Street—that same Henry Street on which Forrest’s beloved Jenny once resided. It wasn’t yet gentrified: rent was only $250 a month for a one bedroom. Back then, there was no city-wide recycling. No Saturday Forsyth Park farmers markets. No hybrid buses. No Parker’s Market monopoly. I had no car, either, only bike, bus and feet to tread the daily marathon of classes, Gryphon Tea Room and Starbucks shifts, work study and homework. Savannah may have been rougher back then, but it helped make me tough, independent and focused, helped steel me to the art of setting and achieving goals.
I do recall, though, being a little bitter at having to do all that just to go to school. Savannah College of Art and Design is one of the nation’s best and most expensive art schools. It attracts talented students from all over the country, including a good number of students (not so talented?) from very wealthy families. For some, art school was/is an opportunity, purchased by mom and dad, to get a degree without having to deal with the academic rigmarole of traditional college—an
especially sweet deal if you ‘re a rich kid, screwed up your GPA in high school and are unable to get into a decent college or university. SCAD is a fine school, but like most things, it can be bought.
Once during a shift at Starbucks, a co-worker and student complained to me his parents were
making him work to pay for the insurance on the BMW they bought him. Just the insurance, to pay for it. Meanwhile, I, like other co-workers and students in similar situations, juggled Starbucks, the Tea Room, work study, other odd jobs and homework to make it. I was in classes with several students like him—students whose folks footed the bill for most if not all of their college and living expenses so that pretty much all they had to do was go
to class (sometimes), study (maybe) and party (definitely). Bitter much? How to escape it, the bitterness, resentment? My solution: minimize contact. Find other folks.
I sought out people and students like me who relied on scholarships, loans and jobs to make it, and that’s partially how I met Clinton and Ren with whom I worked on poetry and music for Spitfire. (Melanie Smith formally introduced Clinton and me.) By finding and hanging out with other people in situations similar to mine, eventually that bitterness faded to annoyance, gradually dissipated to indifference, and after a
while, I just felt sorry for them. I arrived at the conclusion that surely, though theirs were different, they probably had problems just as real, stressful and painful as mine. At least that’s what I told myself so I wouldn’t hate. Hate, resentment, bitterness are ugly things. And I didn’t want to be ugly. Ah, poor rich kids, c’est la vie.
Savannah, seven years later seems softer, more forgiving, more aware. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m softer.
Way-back in the way-back, Clinton, Ren and I collaborated, writing and performing poetry for elementary kids. This endeavor slowly morphed into Clinton’s Spitfire poetry project. It paid nothing at first. We did it because we loved it. Clinton juggled school and who knows how many jobs; Ren was a new father also juggling school, multiple jobs. We all believed in the power of the spoken (and sung) word to transform young people’s lives and perspectives. To engage and
empower them. We loved performing and the exchange involved in cooperative artistic creation, and we wanted to share this interactive, dynamic process with young people.
Those lean years. They were tough, but they made me (Clinton and Ren, too); they forged and sharpened us to seek excellence in all things. Each time we performed in a school and listened to students’ songs and poetry, we knew we were helping to create something profoundly powerful, empowering young people by encouraging creative self-expression.
It’s been seven months, now, since Clinton Powell passed away, and his dream and
baby, Spitfire Poetry, has a new visionary at the helm. On July 30 Marquice Williams organized the first Spitfire event since Clinton’s passing. It was beyond a packed house—close to 300 people showed up at the Muse Arts Warehouse to spitfire, share music, love.
Rock on, Marquice, you did good. Clinton’s got your back. And Ren’s. And mine. Spitfire’s back and blazin’.
All that toughness, struggle, meanness, strife that was Savannah? It’s mellowed. I’ve mellowed. She and I have softened into our strength, transcended resentment, focused now on forward sight, grateful for the power of positive intent, somehow all those wrongs have made it right, all these songs can’t help but jump and sing pure light. Sight. Sigh. C’est la vie. Forever CP
Reia Chapman, Spitfire Saturday