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E.J. Antonio: Bio

ABOUT E.J. ANTONIO

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As a child growing up in Harlem, NY, poet E.J. Antonio love for words encouraged her ambitions to be a storyteller and a jazz singer. Her maternal grandmother, Lucille Markum, was the Pastor of Gospel Temple Church of Christ, a small Harlem church off of 130th street and Lenox Avenue that remains there today. She believes her fascination for words and gospel influences were a result of watching her grandmother work on her sermons late into the night and listening to her preach those sermons. The music that surrounded her as a youth was a result of growing up in Spanish Harlem where she could hear afro-Latin and afro-Cuban music coming from La Marqueta on 116th street and Park Avenue, the neighborhood bodegas, and the record stores. “Blues, jazz, r&b and pop music were staples played in my home and in Central Harlem where my grandmother lived,” commented Antonio. “Chores were done listening to Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Shirelles, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many others.”

 E.J. was known in her family as the writer, the visual artist, and the one interested in attending dance and theater productions. Although she only started writing poetry 12 years ago to help relieve stress, this Mount Vernon, NY resident has embraced all aspects of it with fervor. She has participated in several poetry workshops over the last ten years and studied with many well respected poets: Deborah Landau, Matthew Rohrer, Stephen Dobyns, Cheryl Clarke; Erica Hunt, Patricia Spears Jones, Patricia Smith, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Louis Reyes Rivera, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Quincy Troupe, Carl Phillips, Ed Roberson, Cornelius Eady, Claudia Rankine, Toi Derricotte, A. Van Jordan, Tyehimba Jess, and Colleen McElroy.

Antonio attributes her inspiration from poets Lucille Clifton and Sekou Sundiata along with jazz music idols Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. “I gravitate toward the work of Lucille Clifton and Sekou Sundiata because it is accessible. I can read it (or in Sekou’s case, listen to it) and not feel like the poet was trying to leave the reader out. Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn’s voices have always held my attention but after hearing a recording of Nancy Wilson, that I used to listen to as a child, I realized that some of the phrasing I use when reading my poetry I got from all those years of listening to her sing. “

A 2009 fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a recipient of fellowships from the Hurston/Wright Foundation and the Cave Canem Foundation, Antonio continues to write, perform and record her original works. She has appeared as a featured reader at several venues in the NY tri-state area, such as Cornelia Street Café, the Bronx Council on the Arts First Wednesday reading series, the Calypso Muse Reading Series, the Hudson Valley Writers Center, the Harvard Club, WBAI’s broadcast Perspectives, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Bahai Center, Hunter Mountain Arts Festival, the Bowery Poetry Club, the Port Chester Art Fest 2008, 2009 and 2010, the Home Base Project, the York Arts Center, the Latimer House Museum, and the Howl Festival.

Her work appears online at www.thedrunkenboat.com, poetz.com, and roguescholars.com, and has been published in various Journals and magazines; including, African Voices Literary Magazine, Amistad Literary Journal, Terra Incognita, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, Mobius: The Poetry Magazine, The Mom Egg Literary Journal, One Word/Many Voices: A Bi-Lingual Poetry Anthology, and Torch. Her work is forthcoming in The Encyclopedia Project. The Premier Poets Chapbook Series published her first chapbook, Every Child Knows, in the Fall of 2007, and she is one of the featured poets on the CD, Beauty Keeps Laying It’s Sharp Knife Against Me: Brant Lyon and Friends.

Recently, E.J. performed her works with improvisational jazz musicians making her first voyage as a poetry recording artist. She envisioned her debut CD, Rituals in the marrow: Recipe for a jam session, as an “in-the-moment jam session.” This recording is a unique blend of spoken words that dance with the sonic diversity of instruments as they wind their way through the genres of jazz, blues, gospel, r&b, and Afro-Latin rhythms. “I often go to live jazz performances,” spoke Antonio, “and write down the images that come to me from listening to the music and watching the musicians’ physical reactions to the music. I have always had an interest in the sounds words make. Poetry is music to me. It is the music that keeps me moving. After all, what does the soul do when there is no sound?”

The musicians on this project were chosen because of their creative improvisational skills and extraordinary ability to “listen” to each other. Antonio’s concept was to keep an element of surprise and risk, so all the tracks are live collaborations with no rehearsals.  On the first track, renowned jazz artist Christian McBride along with Christopher Dean Sullivan (acoustic bass), Saco Yasuma (bamboo sax), and Joe Giardullo (reeds) resonate together to form the tension egg of sound necessary to make the birthing of the poem “foreign monkey” possible. Trumpet player Eddie Allen becomes the foil in “bluesman/truth be told,” while Tyehimba Jess on harmonica is the “in-your-face” gospel sound bolstering the voice in “Pullman porter.” “Sound rhythium” musician Michael T.A. Thompson (drums) and Joe Giardullo (flute) are complimented by Sullivan who uses his acoustic bass as a percussion instrument bringing home the Afro-Latin sound in the danceable “ballad mambo.” Track number eight was inspired by the music of June Kuramoto and the sounds of the koto instrument. The bamboo sax of Saco Yasuma with the French horn treatment by Mark Taylor add the perfect touch of serenity and introspective to “koto suite.” Every track, with words that drip like honey from Antonio’s mouth, is clearly live improvisation at its best.

According to Geoffrey Jacques on his liner notes for the project, Rituals in the marrow: Recipe for a jam session, “She (Antonio) steps into this milieu with a confidence that is astonishing. Her art exemplifies a mature, highly-developed approach to an art that is as risky as it is rewarding when done well. What makes Antonio stand out is her ability to bring her voice as close to complex song as possible while retaining the speech-like aura of the poems. This is no small feat. Very few can pull it off. And while most practitioners of this art are conventional in their musical tastes, Antonio favors wide-ranging musicians who know both traditional and “free jazz” approaches. It’s a choice that raises the stakes for the artists involved, just as it enhances the pleasures of listening to this collaboration.”

E.J. is also a founding committee member and a volunteer poet for the Poetry Caravan, which brings readings and workshops to Westchester County nursing homes, shelters and rehabilitation facilities. She was a panelist for the 2007 Association of Writers’ Programs Conference, where she discussed her work with the Poetry Caravan. She has lectured at the Jazz Museum in Harlem on the collaboration of Jazz and poetry. “I use my work to bring attention to the commonalities we share as human beings, and to shed a light on the idea that there needs to be a place for a different kind of spoken word; that the collaboration of music and poetry is still a viable art form. Some call this jazzoetry, others call it pojazz, and others call it poemusic or spoken word. Whatever the title, it is clearly not just jazz or poetry, but something that resonates in the heart, something that causes a person to slow down and listen.”

and now, somebody

will sing you a praise song

a revival song

a song

buoyant / full of the blues and the jazz and the hymn

of struggle fraught from one continent to another and back

to the beginning

where the ocean carves

skeletons to gauze / unraveling

it sings

praises to your dead

while you push

on and on and on and on and on...

writing new choruses to Amazing Grace

how sweet the sound…

we sing

sing

sing

(from “pullman porter” by E.J. Antonio)