AL Letson, Penumbra: Live at Henrietta’s at 9th & Main, Jacksonville, FL (2005)

Al Letson, photo by Billie Anderson

Al Letson is a poet, playwright, performer, and radio and podcast host. This article first appeared on Bill Ectric’s Place in June 2005. Since that time, Letson has hosted and produced the show State of the Re:Union for National Public Radio. He now hosts Reveal, a podcast from PRX and Center for Investigative Reporting.

Top photo by Billie Anderson. Text and other photos by Bill Ectric. Except for the one of Al and me. Does anyone out there know who took that one?

For dedication to his craft, innate talent, and hard work, Al Letson deserves the title of consummate professional, and I don’t use those words lightly. His delivery is precise, the emotion is fresh – Letson never seems to be on autopilot.

“Penumbra,” Letson explained to a full house, means basically “in between.” This night consisted of a mixture of poems and performance pieces that he has done in the past from different shows, as a kind of pause before he begins to put out new work, and to introduce himself to those who have not yet seen him.

Al Letson with Drummers

Al Letson with Drummers

Letson’s live performance, which began at 9:00 PM, was a diverse and exhilarating selection of poetry, acting, and monologue, sometimes accompanied by three percussionists near the stage. Interspersed among the live performances were two of Letson’s videos on a large screen backdrop. I believe we will see more poetry & spoken word videos and Al Letson is already helping to set the standard. Following an intermission, we all reconvened in the theater for a big screen viewing of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam – the 2nd episode of the season, featuring our man Al Letson as the first guest! He had recently taped the episode and this night was the first time he, or anyone had seen it.

My favorite piece of the evening was called “Eunice.” It’s about a young black girl, a child in 1943, playing her first piano recital after much practice. During the recital she is distracted by a disturbance in the audience. Her parents are being told to move to the back of the room to make room for a white couple. Through this debacle she must keep playing, as her father mouths the words to her, “you know what you suppose to do.” Near the end of the poem we find out that this is a true story and the young girl, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, later changed her name to become famous as the great Nina Simone.

When he wasn’t on stage, Letson was in great demand by fans, friends, reporters, and members of his crew, so I mostly had to ask him questions on the fly. “Who did your videos?” I asked him. “I do most of my own video work,” he said. “The two you saw tonight were filmed by Don Solomon from Jacksonville Beach, but I do all my own editing and effects. I know quite a lot about video production and I enjoy doing it.”

We watched a short film by Letson

Watching one of Al’s videos

I said that I could easily see him acting in films. Someone spoke up and said, “He writes good plays. One of his plays will be on Broadway someday!”

Al Letson and Bill Ectric

Al and me

I asked him, “If you could travel into the past, what historical figure would you like to meet?” As he thought about my question, a young woman approached us, saying, “Al, we need you backstage for a minute.” Turning to me, Letson said, “Excuse me, I need to see what they need,” but as he walked away with the lady, he looked back at me thoughtfully and said, “Kennedy.”

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

We got a special treat before watching Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry. Because of last minute complications, the local cable company refused to hook up HBO directly to the club (typical), so someone had to record the show and bring it to Henrietta’s for viewing. To fill in the time delay, Letson performed an electrifying, beat-filled theater piece from one of his plays, called Griot. He was joined onstage by Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh, two other performers from the play.

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot


Letson was first up on Def Poetry. You can read more about this performance on Literary Kicks, which is reviewing each episode as they air.

Poetic Justice: Madison Cawein and T.S. Eliot

Spencer Cawein Pate stands beside a bust of his distant relative, Madison Julius Cawein in Louisville, Kentucky

Spencer Cawein Pate says, “For those readers who are not related to poets, rest assured that it is a unique and satisfying experience to learn that T.S. Eliot plagiarized from one of your distant relatives.  In my case, the relative was Madison Julius Cawein (pronounced “CAW-wine”), a prolific Kentucky poet who was acclaimed and popular in his day (b. March 23, 1865, d. December 8, 1914) but is now all but forgotten.”

click here to read the entire essay

G. M. Palmer – Renew, Dear Spring, the Beaten Path of Verse

G. M. Palmer

How well I remember the awe and exhilaration that possessed me upon first reading Shelley’s Ozymandias or Tennyson’s Ulysses, some thirty years ago. With the guidance of a good English professor, I witnessed the impermanence of power in Shelley’s vision of a toppled statue in the sand; my spirit soared with the irresistible quest for adventure of Tennyson’s Ulysses.

How quickly the gods of antiquity gave way to angel-headed hipsters and 20th Century everyman. And while these modern and postmodern incarnations are natural and inevitable, and very much my forte, I recently read a book that makes an excellent case for turning back to the classic forms.

Reading G. M. Palmer’s book of original poems, With Rough Gods, is like utilizing a precision slide rule or a pocket-sized handbook of knowledge. Palmer’s concise, confident verse is enhanced by the glossary of Greek mythology in the back of the book. For example, Before reading the selection on page 16, called “Apollo and Daphne,” I turn to the glossary and learn that Apollo is “the archer god of the arts and the sun” and, among other things, “his seductions of Amalthea, Coronis, and Daphne went poorly,” and that Daphne was “a nymph; when Apollo mocked Eros’ archery skills, Eros swore revenge. He shot Apollo with an arrow of love and Daphne with an arrow of hate…Daphne was pitied by Gaia who turned her into a baby laurel. Still infatuated, Apollo then made the laurel his sacred tree.” Now I understand more fully the lines in Palmer’s poem as, “My broken words return / in splintered shards of sound” and “With branches snapped and rough / Impossible to please”. It’s a fun way to read verse!

With so many modern poets eschewing rhyme and rhyme schemes (ABAB, ABBA, etc.), it’s refreshing to read verse that adheres to a specific structure. What makes it refreshing is that Palmer does it so well. I attended a reading by G. M. Palmer a couple of years ago. I remember him saying that poems were meant to be understood. David Yezzi, Executive Editor of The New Criterion, says, “In With Rough Gods, not only are the ancient dramas kept very much alive; they are made young again.”

The title of this blog entry is taken from the introductory poem to With Rough Gods by G. M. Palmer