For about 28 years, I worked with minerva, but it wasn't all work. There was the Stanley Clarke show at The Belly Up Tavern, sitting up nights at her church in North Park when it opened as homeless shelter, and watching her zip-line at the Safari Park. She loved teaching her students and passing along what she'd learned as a girl in Philadelphia, which she always called Philly, and I will, too, in loving memory of her.
One time, the poet Terry Hertzler, my son Jesse and I were helping minerva move in San Diego (I think it was from 7th to 32nd Street). Jesse called me, "Pappy," and minerva picked it up.
l-r: minerva, Brandon Cesmat, Gabriela Anaya
Valdepeña, Lisa Stouder and John Oliver Simon
at a CPITS workshop at Casa Familiar in SanYsidro.
As most of those who knew her as minerva, we also knew she used the lower-case m out of deference to the goddess Minerva. Consequently, she acquired the nickname "minnie," which some of us in her extended family call her, even now.
And minnie had a lot of extended family. minnie had lost her mother and father when she was young. Soon after her mother passed, her father told her to go to her fellowship in Italy. He died soon thereafter. He did not tell minnie that he was terminally ill; he sent her away with his blessing. She mourned in Italy while continuing with the education that so mattered to her father. minnie felt her sister Patsy never forgave her. After returning from Rome, minnie followed her niece & nephews lives, first from Washington D.C. and Baltimore, then San Diego, then Burbank.
When The Victory Theater took proposals on the theme of "The Kids Are All Right," minnie's was selected. In her poems, Charlie Mingus watches out for her, perhaps a bit like a father; the jazz drummer Roberta Morrison becomes part of minnie's family in "Mother Downbeat." Between the two poems, listen to some backstory minnie wrote for television series. minnie asked me to help her work on her story about about Natalie Ebony, a young woman who had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts and is taking her on play to workshop in New York, but on the way she gets held up in Philadelphia with her grandmother.
I loved writing with her. She wanted me to help with pace and plot-points. She had all the characters and a grasp of settings. Here's a monolog she wrote as a way of developing both character and as a way of closing the distance with her grandmother:
minnie & I met around 1993 as poet-teachers in California Poets in the Schools. Our professional relationship grew as we critiqued each other's poems and eventually trusted one another enough to collaborate on screenplays.
|minnie in one of the books she edited for |
In her screenplay Those Ebony Girls, Natalie is on her way to New York to workshop her drama thesis. At a stop in Phillie, as Natalie calls it, her grandmother and sister discourage her from going, and when a broken leg delays the move to New York, only Grammommy Sis' friend Aunt Gal gives Natalie secret encouragement.
In the first draft of the Those Ebony Girls, Aunt Gal was a real aunt, but one day minnie told me that she'd learned that although her grandmother and the real Aunt Gal lived together as sisters, they were not.
"What do you think about that?" I asked.
"There might be something there," she said, "because my grandmother asked me about my roommate, like there was something between us. Do you think she was talking about herself?"
"Could be," I said. "The good thing about writing fiction, though, is that it doesn't matter whether there was or not. It would be a good way to understand a character other than Natalie. In fact," I told her, "it's more suspense in the plot if Natalie doesn't know."
There is one other element of Those Ebony Girls that stands out to me. Besides prolonged time with her grandmother and sister, Natalie comes to depend on the doorman to her grandmother's apartment. There is a romantic spark between the two characters, but the distance in social classes was something that set up a longing. It seemed to me that with her sister's cajoling, Natalie would finally tell the doorman how she really felt about him.
|Marshal Allen and minerva|
While her poem "Requiem for a Nubian Jazz Bass King" speaks to what Mr. Charles Mingus meant to
her, minerva's album with jazz bassist Rob Thoreson is worth the listen. minnie played the flute, grew up in a neighborhood where she could hear Sun Ra practice, took flute lessons from Marshall Allen, who made her weird woodwind-&-stringed instrument. It was the music of her voice that often set minerva's poetry readings apart. She took every line as it came. It was in "The Church of What's Happening Now," not the overlay descending pitch, line endings arbitrarily broken.
|The instrument Allen made for|
minerva, with sheet music.
Consequently, she believed in the initiative Focus on Ability, which strove to let disabled people tell their own stories. You can see that part of Natalie's story beginning to emerge in Grammommy's monolog.
At minnie's celebration of life, one of her old friends told how minnie had confided that she struggled with depression and said that it was part of being a writer and facing things most people look away from. I loved to hear minnie laugh. I love the part where she breaks up the audience with the Grammommy's line, "Don't writers want to be alone anyway?"
Oh Grammommy, if you only knew, and minnie always prayed that one day she could tell you herself, that she wanted a family world with all of us in it. So here the three of us are, four if we count the reader, and I'd like to take this moment to thank you for my poet-sister who changed the way I teach, the way I write and even the way I walk down city streets. The distance between Phillie and VC is vast, but it isn't so big a distance that someone couldn't write from here to there.