Joel “Fluent” Greene reciting one of his poems tentatively titled “Very Fine People.”
Detroit, devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, joined nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality this week. On Thursday, I met with Detroit poet and author Joel “Fluent” Greene to discuss what this moment means to the city.
Greene has spent most of his life nurturing the poetry and arts scene in Detroit. In the 90s, he was host of the legendary Cafe Mahogany and is currently a creative writing instructor at Mariner’s Inn, a shelter and treatment center.
Fluent identifies as an, “African, Black, male, soul, spirit, father, lover, citizen of Detroit or Detroiter, member of this universe, your brother, your kinfolk, your friend and not your enemy.”
The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
So this poem you just read, tell me about it. What inspired this piece?
It’s these two things happening at the same time. There are people taking to the streets and people engaged on their screens, really sharing information.
All around the world, people are marching. In every state across the United States people are marching and taking to the streets because of George Floyd and what happened to that brother, being murdered by police.
I wanted to write something that was really of the time. I’m not really a reactionary poet. I like to stay away from writing a poem about this thing that everyone is talking about. I like to do it a little bit differently. But with this one, I wanted to be honest with how I was feeling. I mean you’ve got people who are protesting outside of government buildings holding rifles because they want to get haircuts and go on boats, all while people are dying.
Real people are dying. I know people who have died from Covid-19, and people are losing their lives at the hands of police.
“We’re just asking for peace of mind, and to go about work and our lives without losing our lives. You know, we want to be husbands and fathers and live our lives in peace.” – Joel “Fluent” Greene
So I’ve just been thinking about what’s actually important right now, and I’ve been thinking about the civility of Black men. We’re just asking for peace of mind, and to go about work and our lives without losing our lives. You know, we want to be husbands and fathers and live our lives in peace.
So I thought about that contrast between us asking for simple things, things we’ve been asking for for years. Meanwhile other people want to have their guns and scare people and spout their hateful rhetoric, it’s just such a crazy difference. And I just wanted to write something pretty and relevant for right now I’d say.
Does this poem have a title?
No, not really. If I was to title it, I’d call it “Very Fine People.” But I hadn’t really put much thought into naming this one yet.
So I just have one more question for you. As an artist and a creative, what does it mean to be creating this art at such an unprecedented time?
Man there’s a James Baldwin quote that I wish I had memorized so I could have used that as my answer. Just turn it over to Baldwin, you can’t go wrong. But in my opinion, look, I’m a poet. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m proud to say I’m a Detroit-based poet. I’ve performed other places but I represent the Black male perspective from the city of Detroit. Not even just the Black male, the Black citizen, the soul, the person who feels what it is here. So I feel like it’s important to talk about how we feel about these things.
Right now in our city, with all the things happening, we’re protesting for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor. These things are happening right now and it’s up to us to talk about it.
I’m not going to depend on another news source to talk about it. I’m not going to depend on someone else to tell my story. It’s up to me to tell my story, and you, my brother, I’m sure you can relate, or my sisters or someone who lives across the street or around the corner can relate to what I’m saying. Because they know about the same experience I’m having.
It’s odd, you know, today I saw people marching in the middle of Woodward. I’ve never seen that before. Even when the Women’s March was here two or so years ago, which was awesome, they were walking along the sidewalks.
“People were marching in the streets, escorted by police in the streets. Woodward shut down. It was beautiful to see that.” – Joel “Fluent” Greene
People were marching in the streets, escorted by police in the streets. Woodward shut down. It was beautiful to see that. And I just feel like if I don’t tell these stories and I don’t talk about these times, you know, there are other poets who will do it, other artists that will make songs, other rappers or people like you journalists, aunties and uncles who will talk about this time to their nieces and nephews, you know. It’s our job, and as a poet I write these things down and take feelings into consideration.
These are the things that matter to me. It’s not just top of the head, it’s really wanting people to feel something and to resonate with people. And so, it’s just my job to be a storyteller and to be a voice for myself and hopefully for others as well.