Poet, performer J. Otis Powell dies at 61

J. Otis Powell
J. Otis Powell
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The Twin Cities literary scene has lost one of its gems. Poet, playwright and performer J. Otis Powell‽ died Monday at 61.

Those who knew him say he was an uncompromising artist, a provocateur and — perhaps most importantly — a mentor to generations of other writers and performers.

And J. Otis Powell‽ lived his poetry. To get a sense for this, you only have to look at his name. That unusual symbol, a question mark superimposed on an exclamation point, is called an interrobang.

"Who could take a punctuation mark and turn it into such a big statement?" asked longtime friend and author Alexs Pate.

The blend of question mark and exclamation point, Pate said, is a perfect summation of Powell‽ — both passionate and constantly questioning. Pate and Powell‽ would often talk on the phone late into the night, reading poems.

"I know this culture is full of poets, but J. Otis lived the life of the struggle of the person who puts ideas and beliefs ahead of everything," Pate said. "I just didn't know anybody else like that."

Powell‽ moved to Minnesota about 25 years ago. Since then he's worked with the Loft Literary Center, Pangea Theater, Intermedia Arts and KFAI, where he was a founding producer of Write On Radio!, a show about the art of writing. He would often sport a vest made from African mud cloth, and in his prime his dreadlocks framed his face like a lion's mane.

Jazz musician, composer and scholar Davu Seru remembers seeing Powell‽ hanging out at cafes in south Minneapolis back in the 1990s.

"In those days, he was one of the few black hipsters out and about," Seru said. "So if you were like me, you were curious as to who he was and what he was up to."

Seru and Powell‽ eventually became good friends, and collaborated on performances that combined Seru's music with Powell‽'s poetry.

"He's not the kind of poet that invites musicians on the stage to back him up as he reads from top to bottom," Seru said. "He is an improvising musician. He is an equal member of the ensemble, and so he'll be grabbing, he would grab from any number of texts — his own and others' — read maybe a stanza or a few lines and then move on to another, depending on where the music took him."

Davu said Powell‽ was a powerful intellect who demanded great things of the young artists with whom he worked. He was born in Alabama and raised to be a preacher. "To a certain extent he fulfilled that call, but from a different pulpit into a different Amen Corner," Davu said.

Another colleague, Arleta Little, described Powell‽ as "a master of the African-American literary and aesthetic tradition."

Little worked with Powell‽ at the Givens Foundation, where he helped launch a writing program for black authors. She says Powell‽ lived with the limitations of being a black man in America, as well as with the physical limitations of his body. He'd been in poor health for years following a kidney transplant. But despite those limitations, he was constantly creating and exploring.

"That's the embodiment of jazz," she said. "Understanding the limitations that exist, knowing the notes, and yet being open to new possibility."

Little said while Powell‽ mentored countless writers and spoken-word artists, he would resist being called a mentor, because he was always aware that he too was learning and growing in the process.

Powell‽ published his latest book of poetry last spring, called "Waiting for a Spaceship." Alexs Pate said it was an allusion to Powell‽'s declining health.

"Often in the last couple of months we'd talk and he'd say, 'Aw, man, I've been waiting for this spaceship — it's late! Like, how long is this going to take? He was impatient, he was ready," Pate said. "The pain he was in, suffering from ... He was ready, and the spaceship was supposed to come and get him."

The hardest thing now, Pate said, will be dealing with the silence.

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