As a poetry fan who frequents the Movement open-mike set at Bar Nun on Monday nights, I find Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on M’Wile Askari (“Poetic License,” 9/24) to be slanted, full of misinformation, and bordering on slander. Matthew Payne, Munch, Weusi Baraka, and the rest of the core group of the Movement have worked hard the last couple of years to create an atmosphere where poets, musicians, and artists, no matter who they are or what stage they’re at in their creative process, can feel welcome. Poets often come from other cities to participate. The Movement is not about any one person. While it’s true the quality of the poetry can be uneven on most nights, the same can be said about any poetry house, anywhere. However, there are those rare nights when everything comes together and almost every poet who grabs the mike is hittin’, the Sound Poets (the band) are hanging right in there, and all seems right with the world. Far from a Love Jones set, it’s just the kind of place where an improvisational poet like M’Wile Askari can feel at home.
The younger poets who attend the Movement readings treat Askari with the respect afforded to someone who is old enough to be their father, and, in some cases, their grandfather. What I see is young people simply showing their appreciation of the fact that someone old enough to be their father would be genuinely interested in what they have to say and what they’re doing as artists. Askari offers supportive words and often lectures them on the commitment and discipline they need to have if they want to be poets. This is why he is called “Baba” around the Movement. More people of Askari’s generation need to make themselves visible in places like the Movement to help open up better lines of communication.
Everyone who knows Askari knows that when he asks for a little monetary help, it is, for the most part, out of real need, usually for medicine. The fact that he comes to friends for money highlights the shortcomings and poor quality of medical care and assistance in the present system. Askari has diabetes, not sickle cell anemia. Coates would’ve known this if he’d asked Askari.
As far as Coates’ frequent allusions to Askari’s use of illegal drugs at the present time, he has no proof of it, and as any responsible journalist knows, things of that sort should not be implied without proof. What I can’t figure out is why Coates is so puzzled by the fact that most of us don’t care to judge Askari based on his “murky” past. Perhaps it’s because we prefer to keep our judgments based on the poetry.
I truly believe that Coates went into this assignment with good intentions, but somewhere along the way he forgot about balance and objectivity and allowed his initial intentions to be derailed by his dubious “sources.” After reading the article, I was left wondering what the point was supposed to be. If I didn’t know better, I would swear it was just to get his oft-quoted source’s name in big print.