Archive for the ‘keli stewart’ Category

By Keli Stewart


(Because all art is connected and I left their performance as a possessed woman with a desire to write more of us. Thank you Tidal Basin Review for allowing me to blog. I’ve enjoyed it fully.)

The Ladies Ring Shout (LRS), a Honey Pot Performance, exists as a performative mining of the contemporary black female experience. Both, field holler and block call, this group of women offer a much needed exploration into the black urban female narrative by bridging our communal stories with personal narrative, filtered through an artistic, yet sociopolitical lens. This is what you get when black women perform black womanhood boldly, a mixture of ritual and rite, something from the gut, something beautiful, electric and pulpy that nests in your marrow, then floods your flesh.

I am immediately struck by the opening scene from their newest piece, which premiered at Joseph Ravens’ Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery here in Chicago early August 2011. It begins with a moan that starts out faint enough to suggest the day in and day out of the black female experience. You hear your grandmamma in their throats, your wild auntie, folk magic, all night jackin’ at a Chicago house-party, sorrow and surrender, a “this is how we got here” vibrato that is fluid and guttural. They translate four hundred years of story into a wicked cacophonous church-house moan that fills the room as an offering, an ancestral outcry of sorts.



Currently, LRS comprises three core members Felicia Holman, Abra Johnson and Meida McNeal whose movement to ”Black Betty” and “Brown Girl in the Ring,” resonates with collectivity and kinship as their bodies call and respond to one another with emotional threads. We are somehow “brought back” through their work and updated. The combination of ritual, text and movement fills in the present-day gaps of our experiences that go unvoiced and unheard. They perform all things commonplace and magical: memory, identity, mental
health, the politics of being black, female and educated, loss, sexuality and illness, violence, the black female image in media and culture and single motherhood, while challenging un/popular ideas of history and myth.

The Ladies Ring Shout continues to bring our stories from margin to center. Borrowing from the tradition of performances that fully embrace the complexity of  black women, I left the performance feeling as if I’d entered a circle of women garmenting weapons for battle. While one woman sang a meditation on my life, another woman prayed over me.

If you want to get more information about The Ladies Ring Shout:

Booking info for The Ladies Ring Shout
Co-devised by Felicia Holman, Abra Johnson & Meida McNeal

Meida McNeal
Artistic Director, Honey Pot Performance



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By Keli Stewart


          Wednesday is Family Day, ½ off everything. We are in the thrift-store again, walking between aisles of eclectic clothes and unwanted objects. I think of plans, strategies, lists, poem titles, full stories down these rows with baby in tow, and a nine-year old who touches everything. I let him. This isn’t a museum or store among the many art galleries near my quaint college town. This is better than going to the flea-market and looking, but not wanting your child to handle each item in fear of breakage and the unpleasant eyes of vendors. This isn’t like our birth-city, Chicago, where “You break, you buy” is taped on the door of the local variety store.  In the thrift-store, every item has a story and can be touched.

          Last week we found a mini djembe we play while we dance around the house, a modern abacus to teach multiplication, and six pair of brand new basketball pants that the cool boys wear. I think this is creative, searching, finding, budgeting, needing, dreaming.  JD searches the shelves like a treasure hunt.  It is. He explores various items, running to me for explanation or approval. Cheaper than any admission, we come here sometimes just to look at its ever-changing landscape. We are here because economically, we have to be.

          For me, each hanger’s whish is a rhythm to be kept with the flick of my wrist. Sometimes, it’s quick, upbeat, when I have twenty minutes to myself before picking my eldest son up from school. Sometimes it is a surly dirge, when I am depressed and wanting to find a wonderful book or something beautiful for mama for twenty cents, all that I have in my pocket next to my EBT. This rhythm mama makes sometimes in lieu of writing, when words don’t come that easy and my mind is filled. The thrift-store is a way to keep my hands busy, through the struggles of motherhood, pacing ancient rows of discarded items, pushing this cart, looking for a winter coat, a batik print to piece a quilt, a pair of boys long-johns without knee rips or poop stains, or an item for my little antique booth I have to bring a little extra money home.

          Sometimes, it is like a spa day. Quiet. Monotone. The water I think I hear isn’t a Zen fountain or cd but the toilet in the tissue-less restroom running. The music is from the college station and sometimes they play the blues, oldies or instrumental jazz that I have strangely found a place for.  These things I have found inspire my creativity so that I have enough time, patience, dreams for my children.

          When I was young and fresh to motherhood, I struggled to find a simple way to cook dinner, wash, go to school, and write. At twenty, I worried a lot and asked a feminist writer about her process and mothering and how it was possible for her and what to do.  I wanted her to tell me that she’d gotten a nanny, or husband or grant or that I should WRITE! WRITE! Damn it! No matter who or what!  She did not. “Keep your hands busy,” she urged. I felt like I’d asked her for a Red Ryder BB gun and she kicked my face down a slide with her shiny black boot.  It wasn’t until after I was pregnant with my second child and feeling anxious, blocked and depleted that I heard her speak.

          In the thrift-store, I am reminded of these words. I am reminded that I am creative, will always be creative. Being poor makes you find useful purposes for many things. Being an artist helps you see the beauty. Being a smart mama teaches you to use your resources and “make due/do” an age-old lesson of many women.  I think of art that has arisen out of utilitarianism. I think of my grandmother’s advice to “always have a little extra money in your pocket.” I think of my mother, nineteen when she had me, who took me “thrifting” as a child. I returned home with various items, a 1950’s checkered dress, a Lucite purse, a rainbow braided leather belt, things my child’s eyes thought to be magical. These things I now sell in my booth of artifacts, objects that are recycled from the thrift-store. I think of the treasures JD finds, and the many stories he creates.

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living with the soot

By Keli Stewart


everyday i drive past my childhood home, a 6 unit brick building i lived in as the landlord’s daughter for over eighteen years. this is the home my twenty-ish young parents brought me to plant roots. i see from the main street its yellow charred brick and plywood boards nailed to every place sunlight could get through. the third floor, like a bird’s nest straight to sky. sometimes i look. most times i look. who doesn’t want to see tragedy? after the fire, we were such a spectacle, faces like chimney sweepers following behind a red cross flashlight, clothes soaked from water raining through the floors. passers-by slowed cars to take pictures. i remember the busted back of the house and how odd that much october breeze felt on my face from my blown out kitchen window, barred and never opened. i see my father, gazing out at two planks of charred back porch still smoking.  i hear the neighbor girl calling for her dead cat my cousins found three days later, stiff underneath a dresser. there were tenants who just grabbed a plastic bag of clothes and left the potentiality of salvaging anything, a picture or a dish.

the last time i’d left, a few weeks after the fire, my burnt farmhouse table was tossed into one of those big metal bins you see outside abandoned houses full of other folks things. i bought that table with a man i once loved to fit our growing family. we took off its legs and strapped it to the roof of my old dodge neon and headed up a new england highway home.

as soon as the workers began emptying my apartment, i knew i would never come back. through loss, you learn not to attach yourself to “things,” but can’t help but to know that those “things” reflect your identity. for a writer, my bits of paper, altars and objects were sacred manifestations of my mind space. what about my kids things and keepsakes still left in our half move? what to say of all my books, journals and writing  i’ve kept for twenty years? like other writers, i’ve always fantasized about the “early works of keli stewart.” this is the third family fire on my mother’s side in sixty years, excluding a roofing and freak thunderstorm mishap that destroyed my grandmother’s home in 2009. we should be used to wreckage.

today, my brother called to tell me they were at the building almost a year later, my father, post heart attack, and a bunch of male cousins working for scrap metal. it is my great grandmother’s sewing machine i think about when i walked passed the cousin who trashed it for scrap. i still can hardly look at him in his face.

my kids are outside playing pirates. the yard glitters with the glass i still hear firemen breaking as the building smoked. today one of my cousins found a green parakeet with clipped wings walking down the street that they caged inside a plastic milk crate. my father’s hoarded pots are gathered by the walkway, dead tropical plants like weeping willows hang pale in the front yard. i want to find an earring or something that used to be mine. i already made peace with the twenty years of writing.  

the building is black as mold, whole walls and ceilings vacant of 100 year old paint, plaster and wall-paper. wooden floors buckle inches off the floor, holes in places the firemen let the air through, now rotting and weakened over the hard winter and spring.  my apartment is completely empty except for a few unfinished paintings covered in soot, chipped pots and a small box of papers and textiles somebody found and put off to the side. i rush through the box, filled with moldy files and folders. when i get to the bottom, i see a few metal rings, notebooks, journals with sunflowers and bright curly=ques, the one i kept after i’d moved from my parents house, a grade school notebook turned to love poems, a black post-partum leather journal, charred and mine.

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By Keli Stewart


i jumped double dutch this weekend, after an impromptu facebook call for grown women jumpers. we put on our “white girls” and good bras, flexing within a dollar store double rope. it wasn’t easy, relearning a rhythm and synchronization from fifteen to twenty years ago. surely the way a grown woman’s body fit within those thin white lips differed from the lean legs, beads and braggadocio of yesteryear! we reminisced about songs sang (ourchicagosongs were always filled with double entendres and love warnings),“digging potatoes,” double-handedness, braiding the rope and ways to enter.

i briefly remember in girlhood, running all the way down the street to the fire hydrant and back, only to stop at the rope like a brick wall, my arms carving a small space in front of my body summoning energy to enter. what happened if you failed to enter right? a welt like a belt across your legs, raised flesh, long as a keloid burning your cheek, the shame of not being able to compete as a top jumper, sitting curbside underneath a hellish sun waiting for your next chance. and you would jump again, rarely were you allowed to give up.

after a few trials at entering holding two hefty mama breasts, i did it. i jumped for two whole lines sung inside my head. the slight bounce and girl swagger of jumping inside a “good” turn emerged just as surely as feet adjusted to a slow or fast turn. “ya’ll turnin too fast!” but this time, unlike all-day childhood jumping, my arms grew tired. after i got out the rope, sweating like somebody’s mama trying to jump rope, i started to remember more of my black girl self. why was it that i wanted to jump today with this handful of grown women anyway? so entrenched in mothering two boys, i rarely think back to the girl i was, my desires, how i expressed them.

in our small world of jumping rope no bigger than a city parking spot, the big girls taught the smaller ones, you were both turner and jumper equally, you communicated how fast or slow the rope went for your turn, you expressed anger, and cried when you wanted to. you were expected to give as good as you got.

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Photo: toni j photography


Keli Stewart’s stories, plays and poems have appeared and are forthcoming in Quiddity, Meridians, Naugatuck River Review, Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas, Letters to Fathers from Daughters, Torch Poetry, Hip Mama, On Becoming, Muzzle Magazine, Calyx, Reverie: Midwest African American Literature and Spaces Between Us. Keli has received artist fellowships from Hedgebrook, where she was awarded the 2010 Adrienne Reiner Hochstadt Award and the Augusta Savage Gallery’s Arts International Residency Program. Selected by Illinois poet laureate Kevin Stein, she was awarded the first place 2010 Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award from the Illinois Center for the Book Emerging Writers Prize. She is a double recipient of the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation Scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center and also an alum of the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation and Callaloo Summer Writing Workshops. Recently nominated for a Ragdale 3Arts Fellowship, she received her BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College and an MFA from Chicago State University. She is the mother of two sons and has recently completed her debut poetry collection.

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