“Philly has always been top-heavy with poets,” says Danny Simmons, the local painter and Rush Arts leader (and brother to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons).
That will be especially so this Friday when the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Great Stair Hall hosts a reunion for performers from HBO’s late, great Def Poetry Jam, which Danny Simmons cofounded in 2002 and coproduced during its five-year run.
Def Poetry Jam alumni who are scheduled to perform include Sonia Sanchez, Ursula Rucker, Black Ice, and Vanessa German, among others. A set by Philly-based DJ Rich Medina will follow. The Art Museum expects around 600 attendees to fill the Great Stair Hall for the sold-out reunion.
“The idea of bringing Philly’s finest performance poets was very compelling for us,” said Emily Schreiner, curator of public programs for the museum, where Danny Simmons is a newly appointed member of the African American Collections Committee.
The very idea of a poetry jam seemed outlandish back in the 1990s, when Danny Simmons says he first approached his younger brother, Russell, with the idea of starting one.
Russell retorted, “Ain’t nobody checking for poetry.”
In an attempt to prove that people would find value in the spoken word, Danny Simmons organized one of the first Def Poetry Jams at Philly’s African American Museum before touring it around the country.
Aside from drumming up a national audience for black poetry, he had to convince many people that the idea of a televised poetry jam was viable. With Russell’s buy-in, he organized a large showcase at the Brooklyn Museum, where he served on the board of directors.
Philly native Stan Lathan, the director of Def Comedy Jam, was invited to attend. “We flew Stan in, and he was a little late,” Danny Simmons recalls. “[Stan] came in right when Sonia Sanchez went on, and her performance brought him to tears. It sold him on the show."
Sanchez, the Philly poet who’s revered for her involvement with the Black Arts movement of the ’60s and ’70s, remembers that day well. She said she agreed to Friday’s reunion at the Art Museum because she believes in Simmons’ mission to take poetry out of academic spaces.
“Brother Danny [and his team] proved that there was not only an audience for it, but also, there were a number of younger people who were practicing this craft, this thing called poetry," Sanchez said.
What can the reunion audience expect from Sanchez on Friday?
“I don’t know,” she said. Sanchez has recently had dental work done, and speaking may be difficult. “I will be there even if I have to dance the poem, rather than speak it.”
Germantown-based poet Ursula Rucker appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam twice and is debating what to perform at Friday’s event. “I might write a new poem,” she said.
The museum will close at 5 p.m. and reopen at 6 p.m. for ticket-holders, who will also have access to select exhibits, including “Whitman, Alabama,” “The Impressionist’s Eye,” and prints by the Japanese master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The Art Museum has teamed up with VisitPhilly.com to livestream the event.
Naomi Wallace Baxter of South Brunswick, N.J., is looking forward to seeing the show in person.
Wallace Baxter comes from a family of poets and has loved to scribble poems in a spiral notebook since she was a kid. When she came across a Facebook post advertising the Def Poetry Jam reunion, she immediately bought tickets.