From the Bronx, New York, to the Congolese jungle, poets like John Dies Irae and John Coltrane have been changing the way we think about poetry and literature in America.
Now, they’re bringing their insights and stories to the screen with their new poetic cinema project, “Poetic Cinema.”
Directed by DiesIrae, the film tells the story of the life of poet John Coltri, whose life has taken him to the most unlikely places in the world: Africa, the Congo and the Bronx.
We sat down with the film’s creators, Coltranes mother, and Coltrani to find out more about the film, how it was inspired by his family, and what it means to see him on film again.
Coltrane’s mother, Susan Coltranae, grew up in the Bronx and says she always thought poetry was a wonderful way to express her feelings.
“We used to sing and sing and talk about poetry all the time,” she told me.
“When I was little, my mom would sing ‘Poems of the City,’ and I would just sing along to it.
And I would be like, ‘Mom, what do you think about poems?’
She would say, ‘Well, they are beautiful.’
And I just felt like that was my voice.
And so I thought that was the way to go.
So I wanted to find a place where I could share my own experience with other people, and then she gave me the idea of doing this.
She said, ‘Let’s have a couple of kids and see what happens.'”
Coltranes family relocated to the Bronx from their hometown of Harlem when he was 8, where he attended a boarding school.
Coltrano was enrolled in the high school in the East Village, where the school year was short and full of drama and fun.
He enrolled at New York University in the early 1950s, where his professor, Dr. George J. Zuckerman, taught him about the New York City literary tradition.
After graduating, Coltrain moved to New York and took up teaching at the Bronx Conservatory of Music.
In 1963, he returned to Harlem and taught in the community of Harlem’s Harlem School of the Arts, which is where he met his wife, Maria.
They started the Coltrains New York Public Library as a literary and cultural center, and they started the Harlem School to create a literary arts program that focused on African American and African-American literature and art.
Maria Coltran says that poetry became part of her son’s life, and she saw him becoming an actor.
“He was always going to get the best part,” she said.
“The way he grew up, the way he started doing movies.
And he would always tell us, ‘It is not about the part, it is about the role.’
And we were like, well, what does that mean?”
Maria’s husband, who she describes as a man of few words, was the first person she introduced to poetry.
“She had no idea what she was talking about,” she continued.
“I was always saying, ‘This is what poetry is about.’
And so when I first started reading poetry in the 1970s, I had no clue what it was.
And that was a big turning point for me.
I didn’t know what poetry was, and so when she said, I am going to be an actor, I was like, oh, my god, it’s all true.”
After graduating from the school in 1966, Coltri moved to Los Angeles to teach in the theater.
The following year, he enrolled in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Art, where, he says, he met a fellow graduate student named Pauline Tompkins, and soon became a fan.
Pauline was a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she had been studying theater.
“She was like a cross between George Jackson and John Wayne,” Coltrans mother said.
“[She] was kind of a cross for all of us.”
“She had a beautiful voice,” Coltrain added.
“It was like she was saying something really beautiful, which I think was important to her.”
Pauline and Coltrain met when Coltrany was a freshman at Columbia.
She told Coltrac that he was the only black student in the school.
“They were just so excited,” Coltra said.
She asked Coltra about his dreams.
“That’s when we realized, oh my god,” she recalled.
“If he really wanted to make it, he had to get his life together.
He had to figure out how to make his life work.
And then she was like ‘Why do you want to do that?’
And I was really, really excited.”
Coltran’s future career was bright, but his life was far from the norm.
“People think that the first black actor to play a leading role in a major motion