Retrospective: the art of J. Otis Powell!

The firebrand wordsmith singularly impacted the arts 

J. Otis Powell! (Courtesy of MySpace)

On the page, J. Otis Powell! articulated fluid, powerfully emotive prose-poetry fueled by a fierce attitude to sustain a strongly distinct pen throughout his career. On-stage, principal in sewing seminal ground, founding performance ensemble Sirius B alongside Louis Alemayehu and E. G. Bailey, he helped presage spoken word’s enduring preeminence on the Twin Cities scene.

Powell! held forth at readings in a style his own that could well be called funk oratory, accentuated by a percussive cadence and defiantly provocative posture that winningly engaged audiences. His was a voice with which to be profoundly reckoned.

His mutually rewarding association with Intermedia Arts began in 1990, strengthening his profile while enhancing the establishment’s legitimacy with his avant garde performance, and debuting his essay, Gods Must Be Pimp, that was backed by brass and bass drums. That same year, he began curating with his piece Endangered Species: Men of Color and was credited into what became an enduring relationship between himself and Intermedia Arts. As a founding producer, Powell! was instrumental in launching KFAI’s venerated show Write On! Radio. He also put in a stint at the Loft as a program director and community liaison.

The prose poem THEOLOGY: Love & Revolution, originally produced in association with the Minnesota Dance Alliance, was performed at the Knitting Factory (NYC). Also in New York, Powell! performed with The David Murray Orchestra and read at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

His writing has appeared in DrumVoices, Hungry Mind Review, Ruminator Review, A View from the Loft, Colors Magazine, the Star Tribune, Public Art Review, Performance Twin Cities, the Arts Midwest Jazzletter and the poetry anthology Bringing Gifts, BringingNews (Downstairs Press). He produced a critically lauded volume of poetry, My Tongue Has No Bone (Porter Publishing), and the chapbook Pieces of Sky (Rain Taxi/ Minnesota State Arts Board).

BALM (TruRuts/Speak Easy Records) was issued through his relationship with Minnesota Spoken Word Association founders E. G. Bailey and Shá Cage. His work was released as well on the CDs The 2nd Annual Chicago Calling and The Ghost Dog Tour with Stir Trio & Forward Energy and on the DVD News as Abstract Truth. Powell! was named a 2001 interdisciplinary McKnight Fellow and was a fellow in the 2014 Creative Community Leadership Institute.

His vastly accomplished career closed with 2015’s outing, as co-editor with Alexs D. Pate and Pamela Fletcher of Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society/Minnesota Humanities Center), culling a who’s who of Twin Cities Black lit with contributions, among others, by Robyne Robinson, Rohan Preston and Mary Easter.

J. Otis Powell! passed away August 28 in his Minneapolis home at the age of 61.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403