Savannah has a habit of losing its most talented sons and daughters to the magnetism of bigger cities with bigger opportunities. That wasn’t the case with Clinton Powell.
Rather than chase the personal glory his talents would have assured him elsewhere, he made the decision to stay and help others, particularly young people, to learn how to express themselves through poetry and spoken word.
Along that journey he transcended the moniker of poet to become a teacher, director, organizer, friend, muse and catalyst. He was a co–founder of the Spitfire Poetry Group, the organizer of the Savannah Spoken Word Festival and an inspiration to every person who had the pleasure of his acquaintance.
Although he’d been battling illness, Powell’s death on Jan. 2 still came as a shock. His loss is a loss for Savannah, and his life has been lovingly remembered and celebrated by a large, diverse crowd that is testament to the breadth of lives he touched.
Clinton appeared in the pages of Connect Savannah countless times over the years, and as a tribute to his life and work, we asked people who knew him to share their memories of that skinny dude with dreadlocks who helped shape Savannah’s poetry scene.
• Ralph “RenaZance” Dillard: At the time, when we became Spitfire, there wasn’t a lot going on in the poetry scene. What we wanted to do was create a platform in Savannah so that people could express themselves.
Clinton was always a fan of the stage. It was something he naturally had a passion for. The spontaneity of spoken word and the genuine quality of people’s poetry – digging deep within themselves to think about things they probably hadn’t considered before sitting down with a pen and pad – that was where the passion lay for Clinton.
He wanted you to deal with these things. He wanted them to become clear to you, and maybe by you expressing them to other people you could help other people. He was the mortar between the bricks of the poetry scene in Savannah. He was the person that brought everything together and held everybody together.
There were so many poets that probably never would have graced the stage if it hadn’t been for him. There were so many people that would have never dealt with some of the problems they had, kids that never would have talked about some of the things that were going on in their lives, without Clinton prompting them and pushing them to tackle these emotions and thoughts.
• Kesi “Epiphany” Shaw: Clinton was the reason I became a spoken word artist. He and RenaZance were hosting the first open mic I ever signed up to be a part of. That night (12/14/03), after leaving the stage, he pulled me to the side and thanked me for sharing. He told me he saw something in me and wanted to help me share it.
As a result of Clinton’s presence in my life I have written two chapbooks and recorded two full CDs. I have toured the east coast, conducted poetry workshops in various school systems, and had featured performances on regional and national television. I owe my entire poetic career to Clinton D. Powell, if it had not been for his thanks and insight, Epiphany would not exist.
• Anthony Faris: I’d written poems about him and the creaking chairs off 37th street where he spoke. People sat still as the lights from the street lamps crept through the blinds – an occasional pause for an ambulance to pass – and then the melodic beat of his voice making its way across the room for all of us there, listen’n. He was elastic and loud – a high pitched presence with the power to draw each eye forward and make you want to write and read and speak and spit fire. He was as permanent as the bricks and when we all eventually moved away – to this land or that, away from the streets and statues of Savannah – he stayed because he was altogether too loyal. There is no need to make some long list of the days, the people and the places that bear some mark made by this man. There is no need to push this joy or his words or these memories into some paragraph that fits neatly on a page. If you need some soundbite, some torn piece of paper to keep in your wallet to remember him by – it might as well be this – Clinton was dangerous because he dared to think of the rest of us before himself.
• Kim Gusby: I’ve known Clinton since he was a little boy. He was like a member of my family. In fact, he was at more family functions than most of my own relatives. Sometimes, he’d show up and he wasn’t even invited! I could tell you a million “Clinton stories,” but the one that sticks in my mind happened in May of 2008, when my oldest daughter graduated from Hampton University.
Clinton drove us eight hours in the pouring rain to Hampton, Virginia because he knew that I don’t like bridges, I really don’t like bad weather, and I HATE that tunnel that runs under the Chesapeake Bay. It was a rough ride because he was good at a lot of things but driving wasn’t one of them! He occasionally crossed the center line, he wouldn’t slow down, and he kept stopping every two hours for coffee. Nevertheless, he refused to give up the wheel.
The next two days, Clinton was right there with me for the family picnic and the parent appreciation banquet because he was just like family. You don’t find many friends like that. Clinton was truly one of a kind. I feel really blessed that God allowed him to be a part of my life for the short time he was here.
• Leslie Adele: I met Clinton by chance or fate, whatever you want to call it, in 2004. I was teaching at Ellis Elementary and I took my kids on a field trip to the Telfair Museum. We were leaving the museum to have lunch in the square when one of my kids came to me complaining of a homeless guy trying to get their attention. I saw this very skinny guy with holey jeans, locks under a scarf, and a tweed blazer.
He introduced himself as a poet and a teacher and asked if I ever thought of introducing spoken word into my lesson plans. I invited him to slam for my students the following week.
My students and I put on our best version of a poetry slam and invited the entire school. Clinton showed up in his best hobo chic outfit and did the peanut butter poem. The kids were giggling, smiling and hanging on his every word. You could see a man that was so in love with his art, and his passion for sharing that love. We all left inspired.
I professed to Clinton that I was not a poet but a musician. He reminded me that a poem is just a song without a melody. So the little poem I wrote, I performed it like a song. He told me that everything in me lit up when I was performing and if something as simple as singing a 60-second poem could do that, then a performer is what I needed to be everyday of my life.
I doubt he knew it at the time, but Clinton set into motion the chain of events that led me to being a full time musician. I can honestly say he changed my life. There may not be A Nickel Bag of Funk if that chance meeting with him never happened. He was truly an inspiration, a dear friend, and a constant supporter. I’m not sure how I’m going to sing a Prince song at my shows and not see his face singing along at the top of his lungs to every note. I’ll miss him every day and I owe a great deal of my success and future success to him.
• Corey Houlihan: Clinton Powell was a walking life lesson. If your encounter with him was the length of a handshake, somehow, you were left a better person. Clinton was one of the first people I met in Savannah. We couldn’t be any different — white Yankee lesbian and a straight Southern preacher’s son — but the bond of poetry created siblings of us. Upon our introduction he gave me his contact information, a poetry slam later I became a member of the Spitfire Poetry Group.
Clinton and I shared stages and laughs. The lesson he left me through his openness and loving nature is that religion and homophobia are not always related. We exposed one another to worlds the other had never seen.
Clinton spent countless hours introducing Savannah’s youth to poetry. Alongside writing he taught them the meaning of integrity, tolerance and self respect. His greatest gifts to Savannah have yet to be revealed.
• Kristin Russell: One of the many roles that Clinton Powell has played in Savannah has been as a primary influence on The Sentient Bean as a venue. I’m pretty sure that had Clinton not found us (which he did before we were even open), we would not be what we are today. He and Ren as the Spitfire Poetry Group were among the first people to perform on our stage; I believe Clinton performed at our grand opening in 2001. I’m not sure I had even heard of spoken word prior to meeting Clinton.
When the Bean opened, my partner and I knew that we wanted it to be an open space for community use, but we didn’t really have a plan for accomplishing that ... Clinton did. He was a natural at bringing diverse people together; he did it everywhere he went. He packed the house with students and parents alike time and time again until the Spoken Word Festival wouldn’t fit anymore.
My personal relationship with Clinton grew alongside our professional one and in the last couple years I stopped thinking of Clinton as an artist. I really just saw him as a friend ... one that will be sorely missed.
• JinHi Soucy Rand: Right now, there is still such sadness and loss that I find it hard to speak – funny that a man of words would inspire such a hush in me. So, I will speak of the thing about him that I am the most proud of, and the thing that has given me the most comfort in this time of sorrow: His devotion to children.
He taught our young people to speak. He taught them that they have something important to say. He unlocked all of that young emotion, and energy, and hormones, and whatever else. He taught them how to bring it up, write it down and spit it out. He taught them to respect themselves and to respect others.
He taught them these things throughout the day, not just during classes. He was there to listen whenever they called. He was there to witness the important times in their lives. He was there to inspire them to continue through the hard times. He was incredibly proud of them, and they know it. He truly was hands on and steadfast: Poet, teacher, example, leader, friend, father figure, big brother.
I know that right now there is a lot of focus on this hole that has been left in the Savannah cultural scene, but what really takes my breath away is how much he has left with us in our children.
• Martina Allen: I’ll say a poem for you amidst prose and sweet similes that will hit the heavens for your ears – taking each solid word from your mouth as a blessing to curse away our fears.
It’s sad that this will make me pick up a pen again, but I’ll write the words that only bittersweet metaphors can express through the stratosphere. I only wish flowers were given to you above ground so you could savor each scent, but since the garden couldn’t produce any as beautiful as your character, here’s your poem ripened just for you.
If poetry needed a muse it would combine paper from your notebook to create its masterpiece, create rhymes with intellect from the tips of your dreads to the bottom of your feet. It will master your imagination and develop a rhyme pattern that only you had.
You’ll make it your lullaby because only you can cradle an art form that some of us haven’t even conceived yet.
Not even a mic can withstand how much power was within one voice, so the stage was your pulpit delivering sermons to spectators who concurred with each of your statements, because you only preached what needed to be practiced.
Amongst claps and whistles, I’ll listen again and request that one about black eyed peas and ham because you were my soul and your words were my food that nourished each poetic fiber within me.
Take the stage skinny man, take the stage.