By Brittany Lynch
He wrote his way to the world, through the world, and back out of it again.
The life of J.Otis Powell‽ ended the same way that his name did, in an interrobang, and his mark will forever be stamped on the Twin Cities and beyond.
J.Otis Powell‽ was a “bluesician” and soldier of words and jazz who fought fiercely for their protection and preservation.
“We don’t just write, language is something we do. Language is political. Language is activism,” he said. He shared this philosophy in his life, work and facilitation. Throughout his many years as a professional writer in the Twin Cities, he facilitated classes and workshops for the Loft Literary Center, The Humanities Center, Intermedia Arts and countless others. He was awarded by the Spoken Word Hall of Fame, published hundreds of poems, several books and a few musical compositions. Still, Powell‽ led with humility and passion. He sat in a circle with those he taught, demonstrating he had as much to learn from them as he had to offer. Demonstrating the necessity to be critical of space.
Powell‽ encouraged writers to love their voice, to protect it while it developed, and to practice often. He provided feedback with conviction and an expectation of improvement. He had this way of stringing his words together that pierced you to your core, the same space from which his words originated. He led with love and listened with the desire to truly understand.
“Of all the things J. Otis Powell‽ taught me about, how to find a new way of listening is the primary lesson,” said friend and colleague Lisa Marie Brimmer.
From Huntsville, Ala., Powell‽ was raised to become a preacher, but early in life realized he “graduated” from his upbringing and with conviction pursued becoming a writer. Writing was his Red Sea, and he would unapologetically channel spirit to create a path for writers on the margins to be pushed center page. He was an interdimensional traveler, exploring jazz and language. He encouraged writers, especially Black writers, to see themselves in space. To see themselves beyond white supremacy, patriarchal constructs, and to be as free as they could write themselves to be. The interrobang in his name was as important to him as any other letter. Any omission or “mis-ordering” of characters would be improper.
“I had to become my name to be a man
Nothing short of a sea change
Could have made me possible
People have trouble with my name
I’m not sure why
It’s American English
It’s not difficult to pronounce
The sounds don’t seem to go together
Until one puts them together
Americans like nicknames
Too many syllables are too much trouble
They’re lazy and often don’t regard the importance
Of what a person wants to be called
What they feel like calling you should be good enough
I find that disrespectful and won’t settle for it
In a world where I enjoy few privileges
Being called by my name doesn’t seem
Too much to ask”
– “Innocent Technologies,” J.Otis Powell‽ 2017
Respect was never an option for Powell‽, neither was equity. He worked until the day he died fighting for both.
“Writing is healing. Write through the pain,” he said. “If I can walk, then I can write. That doesn’t hurt me. Even if my body is betraying me, my soul and spirit are fighting for me.”
He released his final book, “Waiting for a Spaceship”, earlier this year, but despite it’s ironic title the book wasn’t written to allude to his kidney failure and projected passing. Named after his poem, it was an ode to Afrofuturism, Sun Ra and the spaceship like strips of light that would appear in his home during sunset. This irony was Powell‽ at his essence. He would speak and write in entendre that took years to develop and understand. He was the definition of an interrobang; Black, unapologetic and holding the duality of question and exclaim. On Aug. 28th, a historical date in Black history, it was announced that Powell‽ had passed, leaving behind friends, family, colleagues and a community rich in poetry and jazz.
“I won’t be able to listen to Hancock’s ‘Crossings’ or Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme’ without thinking of him … probably Coltrane period. He brought the ancestors with him wherever he went and now he’s one of them,” said Brimmer. “Somewhere, on a spaceship I suppose, one of them has said, ‘Welcome Black brother.’”