Some people evoke shock and grief when they die, and that’s true for J. Otis Powell, the influential writer and mentor who was a cornerstone of the Twin Cities spoken word and performance poetry scene. But his passing also has drawn an outpouring of gratitude for a life worth celebrating.
“He was passionate, caring, funny, contrarian, unpredictable and very inspiring,” said author and educator Alexs Pate, his friend of 25 years. “His legacy is not just what we have in terms of the intensity and depth of his imagination in poems. It’s in the seeds of all the writers, the poets, the artists who he nurtured and influenced.”
Powell died Monday in his room at an assisted living facility in Minneapolis after a long struggle with kidney disease. He was 61, although many friends did not know his age or the name of his first wife, a Minnesotan whom the Alabama native met while teaching in Pensacola, Fla.
“J. Otis was very private and non-possessive,” said Arleta Little, program officer for the arts at the McKnight Foundation. “He didn’t just write poetry or perform poetry onstage. He lived it.”
A high priest of spoken word, Powell practiced his art in many forms, performing with bands and recording albums with titles such as “Balm” and “Theology: Love and Revolution.” He published four poetry collections, the latest being the symbolic “Waiting for a Spaceship,” which he launched with a jazz-poetry performance June 1.
He also broadcast his works, and those of others. Powell had a decades-long association with the community radio station KFAI, where he co-founded “Write on Radio.”
“He had a big heart for community and was a big influence on me,” said poet and former radio host Jules Nyquist.
Powell also worked with the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, hosting writers such as Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, and with performing arts organizations such as Pillsbury House Theatre and Intermedia Arts, all the while mentoring scores of artists.
“He never really liked the word ‘mentor’ because he got as much as he gave in those relationships, and he also never wanted to let people off the hook for their own learning, or self-betterment,” said Little, who also writes.
James Otis Powell was born Nov. 25, 1955 in Huntsville, Ala., where he was raised by a single mother, nurse and minister Susan Slaughter. His maternal grandparents were Riley Slaughter, Sr. and Sudellar Jackson Slaughter, a legendary preacher who was known as a prayer warrior. “She was connected to something beyond this world and could summon the spirit with her words,” said Oluyemi Thomas, Powell’s first cousin and an established jazz musician.
Powell studied telecommunications and philosophy at Alabama A&M, moving to Florida for a teaching job. He moved to the Twin Cities around 1987, according to saxophonist and frequent collaborator Donald Washington.
“He was really a musician who used his voice like an instrument,” said Washington.
For many years, Powell put an exclamation point behind his name. Later, he changed that to an interrobang, a combination of both the exclamation and a question mark.
“He was always searching for what’s next, always evolving,” said E.G. Bailey. “He was a father figure in my life, calling me to be my best, most sensitive, fiercest self.”
In one of his poems, Powell wrote: “We ain’t free. We just loose.”
“He amplified the intellectual and imaginative life for a lot of us who used to think we had to leave the Twin Cities to find that kind of brilliant black culture,” said drummer/composer Davu Seru, who often performed with Powell.
In another poem, Powell exhorted: “We have to practice freedom. Don’t wait to start. Start now.”
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 • @rpreston