Smooth sweet honey on your temples

Straight from the Big Apple's poetry bars, Dana Bryant exalts the ordinary
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The Independent Culture
"For me, it's a bit like, 'Hey, you're doing all this talking, but what are you really saying?' I think the importance of rap is more the intent. It's a general expression of where American youth is at. The limitations point directly towards how society has failed people."

But the speaker, Dana Bryant, admits a debt of gratitude to hip hop. When New York's recent explosion of performance-orientated poetry events - cafe and bar-room jams and slams - was reaching a peak, it was helped along by a rap revolution that had primed a new generation for spoken word. A graduate herself of poetry nights at the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe and the Public Theater, Bryant has become one of the movement's most popular figures, and a cult name in the jazz-funk scene. Her second album, Wishing From The Top, looks set to carry her much further.

It was the black American poetry tradition, and the work of Ntozake Shange in particular, that led her to abandon a short career singing jazz. Her poetry's own relationship with the music that accompanies it is natural but different. Dramatic monologue rather than rap, but intoned in a rich and lively style, her verse rides across the beat, using funk and jazz to build atmosphere and fill pauses.

Like Maya Angelou, she appears gifted with the ability to communicate the black female experience to just about anybody, and her best lines almost vibrate with energy, begging you to hit the rewind button to hear them again. From "Heat", a brilliant, eroticised mock-reminiscence of old ladies sweating demurely at a Southern Baptist church meeting ("she can tolerate extreme heat, welcome it even, surrender herself coyly to it, and only seem to sweat where her breasts try to meet") to her touching, candid love poem "Bone Simple" ("I will smooth sweet honey on your temples, wid sticky fingers, making sure I'm extra gentle, 'cause, baby, I love you"), this is subtle, enchanting writing. "Heavy Mellow" is an extraordinary, deeply funky, bass-heavy and humorous catalogue of climes contrary to the code of womanhood: "If my ears fill with wax the minute you whisper you love no other; if I speak too obtusely splattering my food as my friends stare on wonderingly... it does not follow ... that I am less of a Woman when I'm enjoying more of me."

"I worked once in a clothing store, and it was a very chic sort of store, so we had a parade of what I considered gorgeous women coming in," she says. "These women were perfection personified, and then some. They had the faces, the hair, the boobs, aerobicised asses. They were long-limbed strippers, but still talking about that invisible little bit of cellulite. I'm not totally knocking it, you have to be kind of philosophical about it - go with the flow and embrace it as part of the female experience - but there are times when it gets exhausting. There are times when you don't want to do it."

Like much of the best modern poetry, there's a challenge inside Bryant's work, and so far she's enjoyed the artistic freedom to keep it there. Now signed to a major label, and poised on the brink of further popularity, does she fear that "going with the flow" is something she might have to consider more often?

"I think I went as deep as I could this time, and I would go even further. I know that it is a challenge to listen to a spoken word or a hiphop album from beginning to end. It does challenge the listener to take some time out. But I like a challenge, sometimes."

n 'Wishing From The Top' is released on WEA next week.

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