© 2019 . All rights reserved.

Bob Holman reads from Sing This One Back To Me at Saint Marks Bookstore, August 27, 2013 with Salieu Suso on the Kora

Talk about an archive; I just came across an event I recorded in 2013: Bob Holman at the Saint Marks Bookstore where he read from his new book, Sing This One Back to Me, in tandem with Salieu Suso, a native of Gambia, on the kora, their performance together full of calls and responses, an African tradition that would come to the cotton fields of the New World eventually where the work songs of the slaves would fuse with the traditions of their masters to become the Son and the Samba, the Blues, Jazz and Rock and Roll, music that would transform the world.

A reading by Bob Holman is what he has written, of course, but it’s also a conversation with the audience that has moments of improvisation, its own calls and responses. Bob also reads some ekphrastic poems, poems about art, and there are poems to his daughters and his wife, Elizabeth Murray, that become elegies. Bob has always been a master of ceremonies; as director of the St. Marks Poetry Project, the initiator of the poetry slam that came into being at the Nuyorican Cafe during the 1990s, and the Bowery Poets where he continues to support the spoken word, Bob has learned to read with a welcoming ease that has served him well as an ambassador and activist too when he travels to conferences and festivals around the world advocating for the survival of the word. Just like frogs and butterflies, some languages are on the verge of extinction affected by climate change, population growth, and migration. Some languages under attack, like Berber in North Africa where French and Arabic have tried to take over, are really fighting back, while other languages in peripheral backwaters of the world are having a harder struggle. When a language dies, so does a consciousness. Bob is among those trying his hardest fighting off the bullies and calling attention to the endangered, and in that spirit Bob reads a rollicking poem in Welsh as well.

I arrived late—or let’s just say the place filled up earlier than I expected so I did not get a good seat. I was in the back on a high stool, often unable to get a good shot of Salieu Suso, although his voice and the kora are loud and clear and that’s what counts. I’ve edited nothing out of this reading; it ends where it ends and starts where it starts, but anyone watching what I’ve captured will see that the title of the book, Sing This One Back to Me, reflects the reading of its poems, the sharing, the call and the response, the reciprocity of language, which is what it’s all about.



Here I’ve typed out a few poems for you to read along as Bob is reading:


Good morning, Vincent
It is early May, 1889
Time to get up and paint
Wheat Field with Rising Sun
Hurry before all the firmament
Starts to fall apart again
Right now it’s all singing
“Good morning, Vincent!”


It would be great
To eat an apple
But there in the tree
It is perfect

How Kora Was Born

The story begins long long long long long long long ago
So long ago that it was a place not a time
There was a man
He was so alone
The only person he could talk to was Africa
Luckily there was a tree nearby
Even more luckily behind the tree
That is where his partner was hiding
All the sun and all the water were condensed
Into a single tiny block
Which the man planted in the sandy soil
He blew and he blew on that spot
Each time he blew he thought he heard something
What he was hearing of course was his partner singing
The man did not even know what singing was
Because he could only talk
He could not sing yet
So he blew and he listened, blew listened blew listened
And the plant pushed out dark green
And began to twist and grow
A vine reaching for the breath
And stretching toward the song
(Because it was made from sun and rain, remember?)
So at the end of the vine that was the calabash
And the tree it was not a tree anymore
It was the neck and handles
That was when the man’s partner, Saba Kidane
Came out into the open (but that’s another story)
And the breath and the singing and the vine?
Well, there are twenty-one strings, what do you think?
And now you say what about the bridge and the cowhide
And the rings that tie the strings to the neck
So you can tune the kora?
Hey, what about the thumbtacks that hod
The cowhide taut over the calabash
And the resonator hole?
Well you go right on talking about that
I am playing kora now
Next time I will tell you about the cow

—For Elizabeth

Your hand throws out
As you sleep

And brushes
Another body

Lands and settles
On the other body

Except it is your hand
And it is my body

Sing This One Back to Me is published by Coffee House Press. You can check them out here:




And you can see what Bob Holman is up to on his website here:



Bob Holman

Leave a Reply