The word is out
Lenelle Mose gives voice to her Haitian-lesbian identity with some powerful poetry.
Wed Jul 4 2007
Photograph: Vanessa Vargas
On the title track of Lenelle Mose's new CD, Madivinez, the smoky-voiced spoken-word artist manages to take the Haitian Creole insult for "lesbian" and turn it into a proud and luscious term.
"Even though it's derogatory—it's actually the worst thing you can call a woman—it's so beautiful: madivinez, my divine," says Mose, on the phone from her home in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she lives with her partner of seven years. Still, she doesn't fail to see the message behind the epithet. "There is no real word for lesbian. And if your language doesn't have a word for lesbian, then you have to work a little harder to find your value."
The slam-style poet, playwright and actor, who brings her one-woman show, Womb-Words, Thirsting, to the Culture Project as part of the Women Center Stage Series this week, has certainly labored hard to find hers. Just 28, the Smith College grad has already had work commissioned by various theater companies, including the Next Wave of Women in Power (for a 2004 produced by Eve Ensler and Jane Fonda). Her work has been published in numerous anthologies, and her grants and awards have included the James Baldwin Memorial Award in Playwriting and an Astraea Loving Lesbians Award for Poetry, which she used to create Madivinez, produced by women's-music legend June Millington.
Though she chose to record her CD as both an experiment and a way to collect her works, poetry, for this writer, typically equals performance.
"My earliest memory of poetry was seeing it," she explains. "My uncle was a poet—and a big influence on me when I began writing at 5. He would recite in church, and extend his energy through the entire room."
That idea has also been
cemented by the highly visual language of Creole, which Mose learned after being brought with her parents to Cambridge from Port-au-Prince at the age of 2. "Haitian Creole wasn't ever written, even up until about 50 years ago, so to communicate any meaning you really do have to be there with someone," she explains. "To this day, when my family sends letters home, they will often send cassettes."
Mose writes on subjects from race and class struggles to love and feminist-fueled anger, her verses tumbling out in a delivery that's like smooth notes of jazz one second, rapid-fire bullets the next. In the passionate "Ave Maria," for example—"A girl like a white light converted me faithful to the good church of queer..."—she recalls her first female lover, from college. "She was a bisexual photography major who smoked cigarettes and was very theatrical and seductive," the writer recalls; "The Fuck You Now Manifesto," meanwhile, is as pissed off ("I'm sick of this shit, this be polite shit...I am reclaiming my right to call a racist a fucking asshole...") as it sounds. But, the poet insists, the anger is not something she carries around with her. "I passed through it," she says. "Once I wrote that, I was able to let it go."
In addition to bringing plenty of drama into her delivery, Mose has recently added song—courtesy of her own powerhouse voice. Her singing came as a surprise to her, she says, and was discovered when a character she played in a grad school production had to belt out a tune. "I was petrified," she recalls. "I'm a word girl." Soon, though, the self-described "jazz-head" settled into the idea; her Madivinez includes several bits of her soulful singing and scatting, including in a funky snippet from "We Shall Overcome" that appears in her own "Second Coming."
Mose also experiments with direct interaction with her audience. "I'm really interested in breaking down the fourth wall of theater," she says. "And one of the ways is just by saying, 'I can hear you, I can see you. We're all in this together,' and trying to create a casual ceremony with the audience." Mose will often call "Krik!," to get the response, "Krak!"—a Creole tradition without exact translation, which is basically the storyteller getting permission from her listeners. "If you imagine being outside in the dark," she explains, "Krik is like the lighting of the match, and krak is the flame catching."
Womb-Words, Thirsting is Thu 28 at the Culture Project. See daily listings and also lenellemoise.com.