For Derrick I.M. Gilbert, being a poet means walking a tightrope between the spoken and the written word. “The spoken word has played an important role in black letters,” he says. “It’s something we’ve always done. When we didn’t have pens or didn’t know how to write, we’ve had preachers sermonizing, people gossiping on the corner, spirituals, all that. On the flip side, nowadays some people get trapped in the spoken-word thing and don’t advance as writers.”
After great success as a spoken-word performer, Gilbert found himself falling into that trap. Within a year of his first open mike, the young poet had performed at the NAACP Image Awards, released a CD (All That and a Bag of Words), and read one of his poems in John Singleton’s 1995 film Higher Learning. The next year he toured with Peter Gabriel and Earth, Wind and Fire as an opening act. But stardom almost ruined his art. “It’s too easy to get caught up being a performer and forget about the careful discipline of writing,” he explains. “People will see me on a music stage or at the Apollo or a comedy club where you see ‘regular’ entertainers, and then they’ll come up to me and say, ‘D, I liked your flow, and this is the first poetry book I ever bought.'”
The book in question is Catch the Fire!!! A Cross-Generational Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry. Gilbert collected the poems to demonstrate the depth of the written word that accompanies a performance, to show not only the commercial but also the literary dimensions of a poetic heritage that crisscrosses generation, medium, and venue. “Black folks can do haikus just like they can rap, and this book is part of that continuum of poetry. It shows that this is not a renaissance, that people have been writing for a long time, and here’s a showcase of all that talent.”
Gilbert’s first experience of the oral black literary tradition came through the jazz musicians who cooled it with his father. “When I was a kid, people would look at me funny because I used the word cat, like jazz lingo,” Gilbert laughs. “I got that from my father, who does straight-ahead jazz and runs a club in Japan now, but back then we were one of few black families in the area we lived in.” Raised in Long Beach, California, Gilbert attended an integrated high school, where he played sports and eventually got into rap. “I thought rap was funny,” he recalls, “but I didn’t see the complexity of it as a literary and political force until I got to college and heard Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy.”
As an undergraduate at Berkeley, Gilbert became a serious student and an avid reader. “I was very straight-edge in college, very analytical,” he says. “I debated and wrote theoretical essays, but never really put my words into poetic form.” In 1993 a friend invited him to a reading in Los Angeles. Gilbert didn’t know what to expect, but the word hooked him immediately. “I think what caught my attention was the music in poetry. I was getting frustrated with the lack of innovation in R & B and rap lyrics, but when I went to the reading, I saw poets doing things with words I had never seen before–but with musicality and rhythm.” His friends had begun calling him “Knowledge” because of the effort he put into his studies, and an emcee at an early open mike introduced him as “D-Knowledge.” The name stuck as his poetry handle and creative ego.
Even as his career was taking off, Gilbert began working on a PhD in sociology at UCLA, and a cross-generational study of poetry in the LA area reconnected him with both the written word and the African-American tradition of poetry. He assembled Catch the Fire!!! to solidify the connection. “Many of the poets in this book were introduced to poetry at readings, movies, where young people hang out,” he says. “These are people who have had to refine their craft to get it published. But this book has poets both legendary and unknown, young and old, performers and academics, ranging all kinds of form, from haikus to sonnets to hip-hop flow. I wanted poets from everywhere, from as many different places as possible. Every now and then, someone will come up to me and ask, ‘How come homegirl ain’t in your book?’ Like I said, this book is part of a literary continuum and cannot be comprehensive. But I hope readers will catch the fire of poetry like I did at my first reading.”
Gilbert–appearing with local poets Rohan Preston, Angela Shannon, and M. Eliza Hamilton–will read from his work twice this week: Wednesday at 7 at 57th Street Books, 1301 W. 57th, 773-684-1300; and Thursday at 7:30 at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells, 773-642-5044. –Benjamin Ortiz
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Derrick I.M. Gilbert photo by Davis Barber.