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Kaminsky, Harjo, Kingfish
Three Giants Of Sound

Karren LaLonde Alenier

Within five days in the month of September 2019, the Steiny Road Poet experienced three different artistic giants: September 18 poet Ilya Kaminsky reading from his book Deaf Republic, September 19 poet musician Joy Harjo performing with her band by playing her alto saxophone and recorder flute as well as reciting her poetry, and September 22 Christone “Kingfish” Ingram delivering his original music and words wrapped in the sonic influence of B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix.


Before an American University group of mostly students, Ilya Kaminsky, a poet who immigrated to the United States from Odessa, Ukraine, when he was sixteen, read  from his latest poetry collection Deaf Republic. His first collection of poetry The Blessed City was published in Russian before he left what was then the Soviet Union.

To say Ilya Kaminsky read September 18 from his 2019 collection Deaf Republic at American University is an understatement. Typically Kaminsky sets up his performance with the disclaimer that he is hard to understand because he speaks English with a Russian accent. Often he projects the poems he is delivering or he hands out paper copies. (At AU, he did both.) Then he launches into what he himself characterizes as a living version of his poems—his delivery is a cross between the voice-modulating chanting of the great Russian poets (think Vladimir Mayakovsky and Joseph Brodsky) and a davening Talmudic scholar.

While he describes himself as a hard-of-hearing poet, before he and his family arrived as refugees from persecution as Jews, he lived as a deaf person from the age four to sixteen. In the United States he was fitted with hearing aids.

Deaf Republic blends the whole universe of experiences that Kaminsky has lived. At times the setting is the United States, at other times, he places his story in an unnamed Eastern European landscape or more colorfully a fairytale where “the blue canary of my country/pick[s] breadcrumbs from each citizen’s eyes…” What launches Kaminsky’s deaf republic is the killing of a deaf boy named Petya who is watching a puppet show, a puppet show that is mocking the government, a puppet show interrupted by a soldier who Petya spits at in disdain. When the spat-upon Sergeant shoots and kills Petya, the entire town goes deaf and refuses to hear the commands of the army. The poems are chilling. Let us not forget that Kaminsky’s life began in Ukraine which is now the focus of high crime in the American White House.


Here is how Deaf Republic opens:

We Lived Happily During the War
                                 by Ilya Kaminsky

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was

in my bed, around my bed America 

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.



Exceptional does not extend wide or large enough to  express the September 19 inaugural presentation of the 23rd United States poet laureate Joy Harjo. After two Native American chiefs made introductory remarks, she appeared on stage wearing a saxophone around her neck and welcoming her band Arrow Dynamics—three seasoned musicians to join her in a performance that included a seamless flow of Native American music infused with jazz and her original poetry, some of which was sung, chanted, or spoken. Steiny would call the music Native American jazz.


An example of Harjo playing sax and reciting/singing started with:

    My House Is the Red Earth
                                by Joy Harjo

    My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world. I’ve heard New York, Paris, or Tokyo called the center of the world, but I say it is magnificently humble. You could drive by and miss it. Radio waves can obscure it. Words cannot construct it, for there are some sounds left to sacred wordless form. For instance, that fool crow, picking through trash near the corral, understands the center of the world as greasy strips of fat. Just ask him. He doesn’t have to say that the earth has turned scarlet through fierce belief, after centuries of heartbreak and laughter—he perches on the blue bowl of the sky, and laughs.

Then moved to:

    Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit
                                  by Joy Harjo

    Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.

These two poems show how Harjo’s work is rooted to the natural and mythological worlds and simultaneously includes our contemporary world. Harjo’s commentary between the poetry and music carried the audience along with bits of her personal story and wisdom she learned along the way, such as: “poetry is that place beyond time, beyond words, where you find yourself, the ancestors, stones that speak…” and “poetry taught me to listen.” 

The program was delivered to a capacity crowd (about 500) in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium with two overflow rooms where the program was live streamed. It was a stellar, historic night for poetry. Even Gertrude Stein could have managed to present before this audience—Stein who refused to allow audiences that were greater than 500. Otherwise, Stein felt she could not communicate with the individual and that her presentation would become a spectacle. All of this points to how a poet keeps the presentation authentic and intimate.



On September 22 at the 8x10 Club in Baltimore, Maryland, Steiny rushed into the tiny music venue to grab one of the few seats available and then hunkered down to wait for the 20-year-old blues music genius Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. He plays acoustic and electric guitars. He makes both sing, moan, and celebrate what can’t be understood in just plain words. Except even his words  are above average.

Take these song lyrics “Been Here Before” in which he mentions Guitar Slim, a New Orleans blues guitarist who produced distorted overtones on the electric guitar a full ten years before Jimi Hendrix.

    Been Here Before

    some days I feel so different
    it’s like I don’t fit in
    some kids like the greatest hits
    but I dig Guitar Slim
    some days I wake up grateful
    some days I’m not so sure
    I can still hear grandma saying
    child you been here before

    I don’t know where I came from
    or how I got this way
    Momma said the sky lit up
    with lightning on my birthday
    I’ve always been different
    that’s one thing that’s for sure
    I can still hear grandma singing
    child you’ve been here before

    looking back I wonder
    ‘bout all the things I’ve done
    no one seems to be sure
    where I came from
    I can still hear grandma praying
    and she’d be talking to the Lord
    she’d say child if I know one thing
    you’ve been here before

    I can’t find the footprints
    I can’t even find no tracks
    I don’t have no proof
    how I made it back
    people always tell me
    boy you know you’ve got an old soul
    I can still hear grandma singing
    child you been here before

    I might have been no rooster
    I might have been no goat
    I might have been the king of the jungle
    a long long time ago
    all I know is that some blessings
    follow me everywhere I go
    I can still hear grandma singing
    child you been here before

    one day down the road
    when I get to heaven’s door
    I hope I hear grandma singing
    Kingfish you been here before

Looking like a Black Buddha, Kingfish can play a flawless number while walking through the crowd. On the night Steiny heard him, he strolled right by her stool and she reached out and patted him on the shoulder in sheer appreciation.


He is a performer who gives 100 percent to his audience. Catch him if you can during his November tour to promote his first album “Kingfish”: Nov 7 The Hub Music Hall, Monroe, LA; Nov 8 Stickyz Rock’n’Roll Chicken Shack, Little Rock, AR; Nov 9 The Vanguard, Tulsa, OK; Nov 10 89th Street—OKC, Oklahoma City, OK; Nov 12 San Antonio, TX; Nov 13 Gas Monkey Bar N’ Grill, Dallas, TX; Nov 14 ACL Live, Austin, TX; Nov 15 Continental Club, Houston, TX; Nov 16 House of Blues, New Orleans, LA; Nov 21 9:30 Club, Washington, DC;  Nov 22 DoubleTree by Hilton, Reading, PA. Pretty soon, Kingfish Ingram will not be playing the small clubs.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her Blog.
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check the Archives.

©2019 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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