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Talking the Blues at the Brooklyn Book Festival

September 17, 2017 By Stephanie Kotsikonas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Booklovers filled Cadman Plaza on Sunday afternoon during the Brooklyn Book Festival. Eagle photo by Kathryn Cardin
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How blue can you get?

David Mills, actor, writer and Langston Hughes disciple, delved deep into art of the blues at the Brooklyn Blues Festival on Sunday during “Langston Hughes Performance and Blues Poetry Workshop.”

Taking out a handkerchief and hoisting his leg up on a nearby chair, Mills dusted off his shoe and held closed the lapels of his blazer.

“America was never America to me,” Mills recited, assuming the persona of the social and racial outsider of Hughes’ 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again.”  

His performance couldn’t have been more timely:

“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.”

Using Hughes’ work as a lens, Mills discussed the foundational form and rhythm of blues poetry as a whole.

“Repeat and rhyme seems simple, but the spirit of the blues is what’s more complex,” he said.

As he passed out copies of Hughes’ “Midwinter Blues,” Mills made clear that the poet never intended to set the rhythmic and repetitive lines to song. Based on the basic 12-bar blues, Hughes’ lyrical form served as the missing instrumentation, bridging the gap between poetry and music.

The blues are not as simple as someone moaning and groaning on paper, he explained. Blues writers often use humor in their work as a way of dealing with pain.

And there indeed were bursts of laugher when it came time for participants to write and share their own blues poetry. One attendee “ate the blues for breakfast” while his cornflakes sat soggy in his bowl. Another, stressed out about work the next day, titled her few stanzas “Monday Blues.”


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