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Observing the Wider Universe Through Hip Hop: A Look at Jonathan Moody

A true son of Afrika Bambataa's Planet Rock, Jonathan Moody's poetry is a mixtape to his son, our broken world, and Tupac

Let’s go back, say, ten years or so, and check in at Nico’s Recovery Room in Bloomfield. That’s where on any given night, while the motley crowd gathered at the rails of the bar, puffing determinedly at Camels and ‘boros and indulging in mid-shelf liquor and watery local brews, carried on a shouting call and response with the lottery drawing taunting them from the TVs mounted above, somewhere in the back room nestled in the recess of an undersized booth, you could find the poet Jonathan Moody and myself engaged in beerspillingly intense discussions about those things which so generously offer us an entryway into the deeper mysteries of life–namely comic books, old film noirs, and our favorite records.

And being young men of a certain peculiar persuasion, we also spent our many hours–here measured out in pints rather than teaspoons–in earnest deliberation, often to the point where our basket of fries had become a frigid landscape of congealed grease and crusted yellow cheese, about the mechanics of poetry.

Jonathan Moody

Jonathan Moody

The puddles of beer we left on those knotty, overly lacquered tables bore witness to our mutual fervor. We were acolytes and poetry was our religion. Bob Kaufman, Frank O’Hara. Speaking their names was to invoke their spirits. The books we had scattered around the table might as well have been a Ouija board brought forth to summon dead writers to our booth to share a drink. We must have been a sight, gesticulating and roaring with laughter and tossing chapbooks around. Eventually, though, Moody finished his MFA at the University of Pittsburgh and moved with his wife Shadé to Houston where he teaches high school English classes.

The publication of his second poetry collection, Olympic Butter Gold, winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize, brings Moody back to Pittsburgh on January 16th for an evening at the East End Book Exchange (not far from Nico’s, actually) as part of the popular Versify reading series.

Olympic Butter Gold is impressive work. It is at once an ode to Hip Hop and rap music’s golden age as well as the poet’s coming-of-age story. The history of the music intertwines with the history of the man so that the kid who “made loot on the side teaching / Germans at Rhein-Mein Air Base / the art of B-Boying” grows into the man teaching the poetry of Byron and Tennyson to a disinterested classroom finally connecting with his students through the poems of Tupac Shakur. It feels like Moody is completing a circle when he writes,

Dear 2Pac, Daniel, the youngblood

chilling in the back, cracks open my copy
of your book. He admires the page the way
he admires his Cool Grey Jordans.

Dear 2Pac, Daniel, who yesterday refused
to copy notes on enjambment
& end-stopped lines, handwrites your longest

poem word for word.

–from “Dear 2Pac”

The music that started in the housing projects of Brooklyn has traveled through time and space to arrive in this Houston classroom to facilitate mutual understanding and connect Daniel to a continuum of language and art.

My work doesn’t have the power to fire a police officer or shut down government but it can bring about awareness
I asked Moody about that poem which was based on a real incident. “So much of the poetry that gets shoved in the face of teenagers, at least in Texas, is poetry that they need an expert to explain. Depending on the MC, though, a student might not need me to interject. Teaching poetry to public high school kids has been an adventure to say the least. The majority of the kids I’ve taught fear it because they aspire towards attaining a certain level of authority that isn’t practical: knowing specifically what the author intended to say in every line. I encourage my students…that there’s value in uncertainty.”
And why Tupac specifically? “Tupac deals with issues that some of my students have dealt with: particularly with watching a loved one succumb to addiction. But to be perfectly honest, the main reason why my students relate to Tupac is because his poetry rhymes.” Moody summed up the experience with a wink. “You would be amazed at how much difference it makes if you hand high school students a copy of a free verse poem as opposed to a rhymed verse.”

Moody’s first collection of poems, The Doomy Poems (a self-deprecating play on the author’s own name) centered on, well, a doomed relationship between the speaker and a woman named Irina. There is a mixtape sequence in that collection that brilliantly condenses the relationship to a track list. Music has always been a golden key to Moody’s poetry. If his earlier work used a short-lived romance as a lens with which to look at the world of the speaker (both an interior world of emotional upheaval and an outer, but still very personal world of literature, film, and music), then his latest poems trade the microscope for a telescope and via the lens of rap music, the poet observes a much wider universe.

Moody cracks open this larger world in biblical fashion with a genealogy connecting the speaker to the gods who preside over Olympic Butter Gold:

I am the son of DJ Kool
Her-Her-Her-Her Herc,

weighing in at two turntables
& a microphone.

Son of a goatskin drum
speaking patois

Son of a milk crate loaded
with nickel bags of funk

–from “Son of a”

That’s the sound of Moody dropping a needle on a cosmic groove. The ‘I’ is the same I who sang Whitman’s body electric boogaloo, the same I whose dreams were deferred right along with those of Langston Hughes in that grand Harlem shuffle. In the beginning, there is the glowing light of the On switch and the silence is banished by the crackling static of a James Brown jam.

Olympic Butter Gold

Olympic Butter Gold by Jonathan Moody

Moody’s own Hip Hop genesis happened overseas. “I can’t recall which came first, me hearing Kurtis Blow’s ‘Basketball’ playing on my father’s brown radio-jukebox hybrid, or me attending a carnival and witnessing German teenagers partaking in the four Hip Hop elements (rapping, dj-ing, b-boying, graf writing). I do remember, though, that I was six years-old and living in Frankfurt, Germany, near Rhein Mein Air Base.” He was a true son of Afrika Bambataa’s Planet Rock. “I do remember that both events took place in 1985, which was also the same year I saw that seminal scene in Breakin’ when Turbo’s A.D.D. causes him to dance with a broom instead of sweeping the sidewalk like Ozone asked him to.” Moody interrupts his own reverie to observe, “The wild irony that went over my African ficus-like Afro was that Turbo was b-boying to Kraftwerk’s ‘Tour De France.’ The deeper cultural significance of a young black man from the projects dancing to a track by a German art rock outfit is no longer lost on the poet.

“I grew up an only child, so I had no hip older sibling who guided my musical palette,” Moody recalls. “I was a military brat and didn’t spend time with any extended family during my formative years. It wasn’t until I lived in the States again (Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, to be exact) and became a teenager that I developed a solid rapport with my cousins from Georgia and Alabama, a relationship in which we prided ourselves on having not only the best collection of rap cassettes and CDs, but also the most obscure – ranging from Ice Cube’s Death Certificate to Kilo’s debut, America Has a Problem.”

That insatiability for new sounds is on full display in Olympic Butter Gold where the lines skip, break and scratch across the page in wild displays of ingenuity. It’s no coincidence that the poet Adrian Matejka said that reading the new collection was “like rediscovering your favorite mixtape only to find out the thing has been reworked by Madlib.”

Jonathan Moody is a father now and as much as Olympic Butter Gold can be understood as a paean to Hip Hop, exploring the culture from its humble beginnings and its growth outward into a real Planet Rock, the book is also a very intimate epistle to his son. This is the tender voice of a father setting his son straight on how it was for him coming up, and all of the hopes and fears boiling inside as he looks into the eyes of his child:

I’ve passed down my fear
of the police to my baby boy
who always sleeps, frozen,
with his hands in the air.

–from Paranoid

Paranoia, fear, helplessness. How do we protect our children from a world that feels all too often like it wants nothing more than to hurt them? Years ago hiding out in a dark corner of a Bloomfield dive bar, Moody and I filled the smoky air with endless words that tried, but were ultimately ill-suited, to conveying our dreams. Language is like that, always trying and failing to conduct the electricity of our hearts. Words are the tools of a poet, but what can we hope to accomplish with them?

I encourage my students...that there's value in uncertainty.
“My body of work doesn’t have the power to fire a police officer or shut down the government,” Moody admits. “My poetry can, though, bring about awareness, “ he says with both resignation and hope, “which is all we can expect a poem to accomplish.”

If the work of poetry is to create empathy (and I believe it is), to place the reader inside the soul of another human being and create a new understanding, then Jonathan Moody, as a poet, a teacher, and a father, in every page of Olympic Butter Gold, is a man on a mission.

**
Jonathan Moody and Kristofer Collins will be featured as part of Bob Walicki’s Versify Reading Series on January 16 at the East End Book Exchange.

About the Author

Kristofer Collins is the Books Editor at Pittsburgh Magazine, as well as being a frequent contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is the publisher of Low Ghost Press and Coleridge Street Books. He also manages Caliban Book Shop in Oakland (and owns Desolation Row Records located inside). He lives in Stanton Heights, a hidden gem in Pittsburgh’s East End with his wife Dr. Anna Johnson and their three cats.

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  • vadimfv

    Interesting piece I’ve stumbled across here. There was no irony back then in Turbo breaking to Tour De France. Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Gary Numan, Human League, etc were reinterpreted by young black Americans to create electro,
    house (which incorporated disco) and techno. Then those strains filtered back through Europe to create the rave scene of the 90s, which became today’s EDM. This is exactly why “cultural appropriation” is such a meaningless overly PC term.

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