It wasn't until 1995, when he moved from New York to Los Angeles, that poet Jerry Quickley came to the attention of a major athletic-shoe manufacturer. He asked the Weekly not to name the firm because he's tired of dealing with its lawyers in a controversy that erupted after the company's ad agency asked Quickley to write a poem for one of its commercials. The requirements seemed pretty straightforward—make it less than 90 seconds long and FCC-compliant, and use the name of the company and the product twice—in exchange for "several thousand dollars," Quickley says.
A newcomer to sneaker politics and big money, Quickley "hadn't given much thought to what my position was." Then, looking through a newsmagazine, "I saw a picture of an Indonesian child chained to a workbench, sewing soccer balls for this company. They said, 'We didn't know about that.' Bullshit, that's no excuse.
"I didn't like the arrogance from the outset, their 'aren't you lucky we found you?' attitude, and this thing in the newsmagazine. I tried to distill my political views into this short poem, just to get it out of my system. As per the terms of my contract, this was perfectly acceptable."
The poem draws comparisons between pre-emancipation slave labor in Mississippi and the Asian sweatshops these manufacturers use. It also uses the word "nigger" a lot. The company responded—first by trying to sweet-talk him into rewriting the poem and then by threatening a lawsuit. When the dust settled, Quickley received a check for $1,500.
Controversy follows Quickley, or perhaps he follows it. In the past five years, he has become famous for his energetic poems and performances and for his readings at the National Poetry Slams and abroad. But his first modest act of civil disobedience came at age 8, when he refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school, pointing out that the country was built on slave labor and that the majority of black Americans still suffered from discrimination.
"I barely understood what I was saying," Quickley says with a laugh. "But I guess I was always interested in politics . . . addressing it in my poems just came naturally."
Unlike many political poets, Quickley's work is surprisingly page-oriented, riding a precarious line between mainstream literature and hip-hop, and laden with cultural references. In the poem "Goat Dreams," he writes, "Monasteries offer no hope/I like the noise of the subway/drowning out the screams and the pain/I am both Abel and Cain/Cocaine angels sing from the street corners again/and offer promises of Phoenix." A meditation on the horrors of religion ends with this sinister admonition: "do not forget/who you serve."
For Quickley, speaking up is paired with action. His work with Mumia 911—an effort to grant Mumia Abu-Jamal a new trial on charges he killed a Philadelphia cop—earned him a spot on the boycott list of the Fraternal Order of Police (along with such luminaries as Salman Rushdie, Paul Newman, Reel Big Fish and Rage Against the Machine). He also runs a monthly poetry reading at Fais Do Do in Hollywood and is recording for Ozomatli's forthcoming album. He has also continued his tradition of performing readings and poetry workshops for LA's incarcerated youth.
"I'm happy with any audience, whether it's a 60-year-old millionaire with a packing company or a 16-year-old kid with a double homicide," he says. "But when it's kids on the shortest stick with very little hope, I'm so much more grateful for that. I really feel the prison system is grossly unfair and so outrageously racist. . . . If you go to Central Juvie, about 60 percent of those kids are black and brown, and what they have in common is that about 95 percent are poor.
"There's a tremendous problem with law enforcement in this country," he says. "If it were an aberration, it wouldn't have the systemic pattern that it does. Fundamentally, the Mumia case has come to represent whether the poor will ever be given a chance at justice in this country." Until then, Quickley intends on speaking his mind.
Jerry Quickley reads at Club Mesa, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-8448. Wed., 10 p.m. Free.
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