He’d grown up in Kansas City, not far from 18th and Vine, knowing the poverty and violence and daily despair that marred far too many Black lives, here and across the country.
Stanley Banks had managed to beat the odds against him, steering clear of trouble as a kid, graduating from college and finding a voice as a poet. But the world seemed to keep pushing back. He went through a divorce. Graduate school was a struggle. Much of America – him included – was convulsed over questions of racial inequity and injustice arising from a Black man’s brutal encounter with police.
she knew jazz great Count Basie so well, “he could have been your granddaddy.” | Shelly Yang SYANG@KCSTAR.COM
Banks poured his fears and frustrations onto the page.
Will we ever let America
Be true to her huddled masses?
Why do we glorify myths,
stereotype the least amongst us,
get outraged only by some atrocities?
That was 30 years ago. The atrocity in this case was the beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles policemen. “I think, at that time, I was feeling that there were no security blankets for me, my race, the country, or the world,” says Banks, now an assistant professor and artist-in-residence at Avila University. “Sounds familiar, I know.
“I’ve given readings over the years,” he says, “and I’ll often have a couple of them where I say, ‘I hate to read this poem again, but it’s still relevant to what’s going on today.’ It’s, like, where are we? Are we making any progress?”
That poem, “America Are We Safe, Were We Ever,” is among the selections Banks included in his second book of collected works, Blue Beat Syncopation: Selected Poems 1977-2002. It’s a frank meditation on the Black experience in Kansas City at the time, addressing street violence, untimely death and “never-to-be dreams” but also celebrating resilience and finding room for hope, for not giving up on dreams.
No matter their circumstances, Banks gives his subjects – drawn from family, acquaintances and other memorable characters from his past – depth and humanity.
“America Are We Safe” is hardly the only one of the 59 pieces that just as easily could have been written today.
The slim volume, released in in 2003 and reprinted in 2009, is the Kansas City Public Library’s latest “book of the moment” FYI Book Club selection. It’s also one of the suggested titles for the Library’s 2021 Summer Reading Program, themed Homegrown Stories, which is tied to this year’s celebration of Missouri’s Bicentennial and highlights Missouri-related titles, authors and themes.
Banks, 64, has authored five books of poetry, most recently Blue Issues in 2013. His first collection, On 10th Alley Way, won the Langston Hughes Prize for Poetry in 1981.
A difficult early life lent plenty of source material. Second-oldest in a family of 10, Banks was in college when his father and a younger brother were murdered just seven months apart. “They were both street guys,” he says matter-of-factly. He’s the only one of four brothers still living, one having died at birth and another of a recent heart attack at age 55. Six sisters still are going strong.
Banks’ grandmother was the pistol-packing operator of bootleg beer house at 10th and Vine streets, though hers turned out to be a positive influence. She gave him an appreciation for Kansas City’s rich history of jazz and blues, which were staples in her joint (and course through “Blue Beat Syncopation”). She also passed on the strength and resolve – the character – that saw Banks through his hardships.
“Whatever they put on my tombstone,” he says, “it should start with ‘the grandson of Georgia Banks.’ ”
Banks wrote the earliest of his poems in Blue Beat Syncopation as a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees and was honored in 2008 with the school’s Defying the Odds Award for alumni. The first of the book’s four sections leans to music, including a tribute, “Mapping Blue,” to Banks friend and Kansas City-born jazz and blues musician Clarence Martin “Sonny” Kenner, who died in 2001.
When a gifted soul
like Sonny Kenner played
with wicked abandon,
whether there were cameras,
the press or crowds,
where Sonny and his music was
the air was filled with
pure KC jazz
and as Sonny would say,
The second grouping is chock-full of the colorful and often-tragic figures who were part of, or passed through, Banks’ youth. Teen mothers and gun violence victims. An “Old Street Pro” who “brags about his twenties / when he was the ‘baddest’ hustler in town.” His dying grandmother mumbling in her final days, “Don’t grieve when I die, ’cause I lived.”
Then come sections in which Banks writes of personal experiences, pain and anguish and finally vents his emotions, from exasperation to anger to sadness. “At some point,” he says, “you’re like: OK, this is harder stuff you want to put out there and have the universe respond to you.”
Banks is approaching his 25th year at Avila, where he teaches African American literature and all forms of creative writing. He recently spoke with The Kansas City Star about Blue Beat Syncopation, its inspirations and its relevance to today.
Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: Has your worldview changed since Blue Beat Syncopation was published in 2003? Would you write many, or any, of these poems differently today?
A: As an educator, you’re always evolving. The more you know, you think, “OK, maybe there’s a different way of looking at an issue. Maybe there’s a different way of trying to feel about things.”
I don’t think I’d change any of the poems. Once you stamp a time, once you stamp a moment, once you stamp something as really concerning to you, that moment is gone. If you let it marinate too much, you let it stay too long, you go back to it and say, “What was it that led me to write those lines?”
Q: How much does it bother you that that you could write about the same concerns, the same tragic life cycles, the same despair today?
A: Every artist is faced with that question: Have things been made better, has life been made better? Some things just keep coming back over and over again. And they seem to hit harder the second and third time around.
In my grandmother’s bootleg beer house, there were so many characters I look back on and go, “Do these people not die?” Every generation, I see them – from my sisters and brothers to kids I’ve taught in the past. And I’ve been teaching for 30-some years, all levels. Elementary. Middle school. High school. Junior college. Juvenile detention. Penitentiaries. It’s like those characters never go away.
Q: What do you think kept you straight?
A: The thing I go back to is the toughness that my grandmother put into to me to think beyond what I saw happening at the moment. Because what I was seeing was not good, especially the males. They couldn’t get jobs. My father, my uncle, were hustlers. A lot of down-and-out guys.
I’m learning this lesson, ironically, from the bootlegger.
Q: So, she also turned you on to Kansas City jazz and blues?
A: She told me stories. We once learned about this guy in school, William “Count” Basie, and I thought, “OK, Grandma mentioned this guy.” I came home, and said, “Grandma, Count Basie. He was cool, wasn’t he?” And she looked at me and said, “Yeah, that fool changed his name to Count.” Then she tells me – and this blows my mind – “William, he could have been your granddaddy.” I thought about it and said, “Well, you should have made that happen, Grandma.”
Q: What led you to poetry?
A: I’m in the 11th grade at Southeast High School. We’re doing “Macbeth,” some Shakespeare, and I remember the line: “Life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And then the Langston Hughes poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?” And I’m like, “Wow, do I have any dreams?” And, “I’m the idiot that Macbeth is talking about.” And I made the connection. That was kind of therapeutic for me because I had to find something I could hold onto that I wanted to do. I started writing.
Then, they made the terrible mistake of asking me to write the prom poem. As you can imagine, it was not the kind of prom poem they expected. They had a meeting with me – the two vice principals, my teachers, I think the counselor – and said, “Stan, you know, your poem … whoo! It’s tough, the murders and the suicide possibilities. A prom poem is supposed to be upbeat. Could you do it over?” So, I gave them the “march on with pride” stuff. But that original one, they had to have an intervention with me. It was like: Are you OK?
Q: You were hooked?
A: “I loved it. The process of writing poetry kind of becomes therapeutic for dealing with stuff. … I wanted to be a writer, whatever that meant.
File photo by Mike Ransdell THE KANSAS CITY STAR
Q: Does your wife Janet still write poetry? Someone once called the two of you the Bonnie and Clyde of poets because your “words hit so hard.”
A: Yeah, she’s written three books of poetry of her own. When it comes to (the Bonnie and Clyde reference), it’s like: whatever gets the public interested in coming to see or hear you.
I don’t take myself super seriously. I’m writing about tragic, sad, terrible stuff. But I’m not trying to get up in front of an audience and just depress the hell out of people. I want them to enjoy and, by the end of it, come away with something. Even though you’ve dealt with all the terrible stuff I’ve given you, I want you to feel like, “Man, if those characters can deal with it, I can deal with stuff.”
Q: On your Facebook page a year ago, you posted a reading of your poem “Racial Profiling (On a Visit to Emporia).” Another example of writing about your own experiences?
A: It was after a poetry reading at Emporia State three or four years ago. Kevin Rabas (of Emporia State, who was Kansas’ poet laureate from 2017-19) invited me down for a reading, and we had an audience of a couple of hundred people. Just a great time. Janet and I are feeling good afterward.
There were two roadways out of the parking lot, and we headed out … and a policeman makes this crazy U-turn. We pulled over immediately and were like: What’s going on? Did something just happen here? The officer came to the car, and I went through the whole protocol – hands up, and I said “what would you like us to do, officer?” I pointed to a sticker that said “special guest” and told him, “I just came from doing a poetry reading.” The guy didn’t take the frown off his face. He had his hand on his gun. And he said, “Give me your driver’s license.”
He went back and made us sit there, as much as we could recount, about 20 minutes. One of the thoughts in my head was: Should I just take off and go back to the university, get them to come out and say “this guy is OK?” I didn’t. We just sat there, really afraid. The guy finally comes back, and I say, “Did we make a wrong turn out of the parking lot?” And he said, “Yeah. Have a nice night.” … Didn’t give me a ticket.
Q: What did you take away from the encounter?
A: I don’t internalize it like I think my father and my brothers and my uncle would have. I’m living proof in a sad kind of way that you can survive it and keep moving on. I’m doing that. I use it as – this cliché term – a teachable moment for students and people whose first reaction is to just be enraged. I’m like: Can we just make things better, man?
Q: Your last book was eight years ago? Do you have another in you?
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a senior writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.