Remembering J. Otis Powell, 'fearless' poet and teacher

J. Otis Powell left a rich legacy in his three decades in the Twin Cities.

J. Otis Powell left a rich legacy in his three decades in the Twin Cities. Myspace

Prolific spoken word poet J. Otis Powell passed away Monday in his home in Minneapolis, leaving a Twin Cites arts community steeped in his contributions.

The son of a preacher, he moved to Minnesota from Alabama in 1987, quickly becoming immersed in the arts scene on a "spiritual quest" to seek truth "beyond the dogmas." He founded KFAI Write On Radio! show, advised the Minnesota Spoken Word Association, curated for Intermedia Arts, and served as a program director for the Loft Literary Center.

"J. Otis Powell was a deeply generous teacher, scholar, activist-artist whose presence enlivened Intermedia Arts more than words can say,” said Intermedia Arts director Eyenga Bokamba in a statement Tuesday.

“His willingness to always lead with expansiveness, with possibilities, with excitement about the power of language has forever transformed Intermedia Arts and all of us who were lucky to know him. His legacy is here, but he will be sorely missed."

Some years ago, Powell received a kidney transplant. He continued to contend with health problems, and recently told friends that he had decided to let nature run its course.

"The most recent times I've seen him, he's given me the appearance of being joyful," said old friend Janis Lane-Ewart. "The knowledge that he's not suffering, and that I believe he had no regrets, will help me move faster through my grief. But I can't say that my grief is going to be diminished in the next few moments or days."

As a poet, Powell evoked Afrocentric tradition and lore. He was known to have loved the improvisational "courage" of jazz, which he often paired with his poetry recitations. As a mentor, he was champion as well as devil's advocate, pushing younger talent to learn the history of the Black Arts Movement in order to advance it.

He wrote every day, and was to be presented this October with the Ordway's Sally Award for commitment to the arts.

Filmmaker and spoken word poet E.G. Bailey called Powell his mentor for more than 20 years. He recalls conversations with the older man that would continue into the deep hours of the night, as Powell coached him on how to practice freedom in the pursuit of a unique vision, unrestrained by commercial reception or popular opinion.

"He challenged you to be authentic and be clear about what you were saying and what you meant. And so sometimes he was hard for people to swallow, but if you could stand the fire, you came out richer on the other end."

Powell connected with other artists who shared his pursuit of translating profoundly felt emotions through art "with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of restraint," says friend and fellow radio host Emel Sherzad.

He often spoke and wrote of the idea of "duende," a term borrowed from flamenco, which describes a dark and mysterious creative force that possesses the artist and makes him perform at a deeper level.

"Everything about him was just very full of meaning," Sherzad said. "He wasn't interested in things that were easily accessed."

Sherzad will dedicate his Wednesday night KFAI show, International Jazz Conspiracy, to Powell. But   in accordance with the poet's own philosophy on life and death, he won't lament Powell's loss as "sad." 

"He was ready for his spaceship to come for him," Sherzad said.