*On January 2, 2011, my friend and colleague, Clinton Powell, passed away. Aggressive stomach cancer quickly got the better of him. Clinton, great heart artist, word inspirer, I honor you here, now.*
Clinton, I’m not sure if I told you, but I’m in China teaching for a year, and were I in the States right now, I’d be in Savannah. I’d be there remembering, celebrating, praising you. But I’m not there. And this makes me feel painfully helpless and disconnected. At the very least, I can praise and love you with these words and memories from my chilly Xi’an, China, apartment.
Melanie emailed yesterday, and from between the lines I could tell the memorial service this past weekend was beyond words, overwhelmingly attended by the people you coached, taught, and inspired over the years. She said that though she’s known you for ten years (Clinton, TEN YEARS!), at the service she felt she hardly knew you. All the people, different ages, different walks of life there to show their love made her realize how small the slice was that she (and I) knew of you. Melanie was blown away by all the lives you touched, Clinton. She also said no one performed your ‘Peanut Butter’ poem, probably my favorite—Melanie’s too—of all your work. But, really, could anyone other than Mr. Clinton D. Powell profess his love of peanut butter with such unabashed joy and genuine conviction without sounding trite, saccharine, or too precious? No one could spit that like you. No one. Yours is a peanut butter flame. The rest of us mere jelly Smuckers.
So, do you remember how we met? I’m pretty sure it was at an open mic, pretty sure it was the one at Barnes and Noble in Savannah back when the store was cool enough to host and promote local events and artists, back when Melanie Smith was the Community Relations Manager. In fact, I’m pretty sure Melanie introduced the two of us and suggested we do something, be creative, do stuff together.
And that was it. The beginning. We got creative.
Clinton, how many open mics you think we did between 2000 and 2003? The Sentient Bean, Starbucks Montgomery Crossroads and Bull and Broughton, Gallery Expresso (for a minute at the tiny place). Didn’t we do Cagney’s at both locations—River Street and down at the new venue closer to the waterfront? And there was another little bar where Jason Bible was playing and trying to get a scene going. What about that weird bar/ club place in mid-town where we did that talent show and totally cleaned up? We did a bunch, all practice for figuring out what material would work best in a workshop-type situation for elementary students, and rehearsal for our own show, You Smell Like Cheese. *Thank you, Taylor Schontz and Islands YMCA afterschool programs—life breathing inspiration into art. Art in turn imitating, poking fun at life. What was that line? “Save the drama fo’ yo’ Mama, ‘cause at 3:00 ya’ll go home. Go home!”
Then, you figured out how we could take this stuff to classrooms and perform it throughout Savannah. And you roped Ren and I into doing it with you. And it was great.
You know, Clinton, performing in the schools with you and Ren are some of the best performance memories of my life; “Chalkboard Races;” “Peanut Butter;” that one about Skittles and spitting words in rainbows; me picking out some chords and getting all avante garde on the guitar while you and Ren free-formed; the kids writing and performing their work. Clinton, remember when we were invited by Savannah Country Day to come and put on a week-long music and poetry workshop? That was it. We knew we made it—the rich kid private school wanted us to do magic with their students. Oh yeah, and we got paid, remember?!
But there were a few near misses. How about that time at the junior high where they wanted you, Ren, and me to do our thing in the school gym without any amplification? In front of 200+ students. That was the performance where some of the female students wanted to beat me up. And none of us wanted to talk about why, none of us wanted to say it was because I was white and female. We all knew it was racial tension stuff, but you and Ren handled everything so professionally and right on. Thanks for that. Yeah tough, that one, and as I recall after that we made sure to state explicitly our performance and workshop requirements.
Clinton, those are great times perhaps the best in my life so far where I felt like I was combining my love of and talent with word and music with doing something very positive and proactive in my community. Those times are the gold standard, and in many ways my endeavors now often seem attempts to get back there where my talents and means of making a living were so perfectly aligned with my purpose. Thank you, Clinton, for helping me see how sweet it can be when it all lines up, when energy and intention are in balance.
Clinton, do think this is possible? I want all these things to line up again—singing, writing, performing, doing good stuff—heart work—in my community. I want to feel like my art is bigger than just my performance at a gig in some bar or coffee shop somewhere. Or maybe touching people with my words and voice, be it coffee shop, bar, or school gymnasium, is all the same in terms of significance with respect to positive effect in the lives of others. Or maybe it’s a balance of all these things further balanced with healthy doses of faith and love, too. Any insight? Sure would love your thoughts on this.
Clinton, you have words. I have words and this music thing inside that I need to get out to inspire. Part of my purpose here is to inspire people with my words and voice. I know this. You helped me see. Tell me it’s possible. Because I know for sure I don’t want to teach English in China for the rest of my days (no offense, but it’s just not being true to my purpose). Oh, the hardest thing is being here and being utterly helpless to get back to Savannah to see you off, to be with all our people remembering your great light. Oddly, though, I know I’m where I need to be right now, to get my priorities focused, get it figured out. I’m in China time-out. To get it right.
Your passing feeds this fire. We know it, you and me—music is it for me. But more importantly, I’ve learned in all of this—leaving Savannah, grad school, Humboldt, crappy office jobs, China—it’s also my words that are important. They were my force in Savannah, and my voice carried it home to the heart. And yes, I believe in the value of these talents—I finally understand my worth and what great gifts I have been given. Your passing and this China-time limbo lights it for me, Clinton. You lived your life as a spitfire artist and teacher so your words could, would be heard because your words should, must be, be heard. All those lives you touched? All of us needed—need—your words, Clinton D. Powell.
Clinton, I get it. If I do not sing, write, share my words and music, my life is diminished in your light. You did it. I can, will do it, too. You just have to do what you have to do. Do it.
Clinton, I know you know, but I got it when you passed, though I chalked it up to taking my vitamin that morning with water from the tap. (Only drink bottled water in China.) That Sunday, which would have been Saturday for you, I lie in bed all day, guts aching, cursing the water. My whole body ached tight and hot. You were in such pain. Monday it cleared, and I found out you’d passed. Rest easy, now. Dear friend, rest easy. Clinton, you showed me greatness and inspiration—you showed me how it is to be done. Help me now. Help me get my words out there, to sing, inspire. Give me hints as you can with what you know now—these healing words are what I have. Help me with what you know now. What you know now.
Rest in Peace, Clinton D. Powell.