My Night at the White House…An Evening of Poetry and Magic!

by Nina Lyrispect Ball

//Editor’s note: We love their polished fancy chapbook/performance stuff, but Philly writers tell some great stories in their online forums. The Philly Buzz section collects blogs from local writers. Nina/Lyrispect is featured in APIARY 2; she’s a founding member of Spoken Soul 215, Philly’s premier spoken word collective, and of Fourth Wall Arts Salon. She originally wrote this post on Facebook.

Note: I rushed to write this. Proofread once but I hope you still enjoy and that I bring the experience alive. Some details have been omitted because everything ain’t everybody’s business ;)

On May 12, 2011 I arose from a deep slumber, convinced that the night I had before was some elaborate dream … an incision so fresh in my flesh, I still had stitches and medical tape on the surface, and the marks further convinced me that my imagination had outdone itself. I had just had surgery a little over a week ago… but WHO says no to an invitation to the White House??? … NOT ME!!!

I discovered that Denice and I had received the official invitation from “President and Mrs. Obama” to attend “An Evening of Poetry” thanks to some really great people and some really good karma :).  After clearing it  with my surgeon (who probably didn’t believe me when I told him) and saying a prayer, I prepped my mind, body and spirit for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Portrait of Lyrispect in Spoken Soul 215 gear, courtesy SP Photography.

We started off a little stressed because D’s train was so late … but it quickly melted away by the warmth of each person we met as we made our way through the clearances. We were first met by a pleasant young woman with a spray of freckles and funky outfit complete with yellow boots. I had no idea you could dress that way at the White House. lol. She was rockin’ it, though, and I was grateful for her in many ways. She welcomed us and wished us a great night. As we made our way through, all I could feel was anticipation. I had Common on my mind.

I had interviewed him about a year ago for his film “Just Wright” through a production company I work with/for called Reelblack. It was then that I gave him two handmade Spoken Soul 215 “POET” shirts ( one for him and one for Serena Williams). I had also seen him in L.A.  (for the Brave New Voices Competition) where we chatted briefly a couple of times and he told me, “Don’t smoke too many of those” in reference to the cig he caught me smoking as he left the building. I QUIT smoking cigarettes by the way. NOT because Common said so ;P, but because I wanted to, and needed to for myself. I really have never felt better.

BACK to Common… My heart went out to him because I could only imagine what he might be feeling with some groups trying to demonize him and use him against the President and Mrs. Obama, as an  anti-American thug, especially on the heels of that previous Sunday’s news.  Those who are familiar with Common know that this “Thug Rapper invited to the White House” couldn’t be more of an antithesis of that description … introspective, intelligent, gifted, expressive and aware are better words …

So, as I am hiking up this hill with D, who should appear off to the side of the house but … you guessed it, Common. D says “Should we speak?” I’m like uh … yeah! So the second pleasant freckled face of the night approaches me as I approach him. I speak warmly and extend my hand, reminding him of where he might know me from and we chat briefly. I give him a few words to let him know that I support him and that I am glad he is there. We smile and head into the house.

Immediately we are in plush surroundings, paintings on the walls, and all I can remember is the color – a deep red. We ascend a few stairwells and arrive to a wide open room with less than 5 people meandering about. There are turntables to my left, an open bar of champagne, liquor and soft drinks across the way, and I remember some old school soul jam playing in the background. Something like early 70′s male singer. That’s the best I can do, y’all. I do believe it was sensory overload, so I tried to remember as many details as I could.

So after grabbing a glass of champagne (yes I know, but I was at the White House) ,D and I entered the main room. Next to us was  a small roped off cluster of cameras as we entered the space. Throughout the space were young men and women in their military dress uniforms. Everyone I encountered that night was extremely friendly and seemed genuinely happy to see me! lol.  I just felt … good. I totally expected to walk into a room of 250 or twice that … but was amazed to see about less than half that number! The room was already full of seated guests waiting for the performances to begin. D and I found our seats with two women and two men, representing different generations. I didn’t notice the series of doors behind our table. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats!” a male voice says from the loudspeaker. I decide to wait to go to the bathroom.

"My own real-life Princess Tiana"

Less than ten minutes later … “Ladies and Gentlemen, The President and Mrs. Barack Obama” (or something of the like). We all rise to our feet, and as I look around the room for one of my heroes and my own real-life Princess Tiana, I am suddenly taken by a swift wind and all I see are the backs of a tall man in a dark suit with a low cut who is clasping the hand of an equally tall woman in a beautiful and flowing aqua-colored pants suit. The President and Mrs. Obama have just walked past me! And they came from the door just behind my table! After President Obama says a few words about the importance of poetry and the arts, he takes his seat  front and center to enjoy the show with Mrs. Obama. I remember not being able to stop smiling and the uncontrollable amount of pride I felt as he spoke and I watched them.

First up is Rita Dove, who shares two of her poems. I remember that my great Aunt Lucy knows her and mention this to her when I greet her at the end of the night. Once I figure out that each performer is entering from that same door behind me I begin to “anticipate” and peek to see who is next to the stage. We enjoyed a diverse and varied line up of poets and authors throughout the night, including a young pair of performers. A young man performed someone else’s poem, but delivered it so well that it was one of the most memorable of the night for me. The program included Aimee Mann, Moira Bass, Youssef Biaz, Billy Collins, Common, Rita Dove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Steve Martin (yes ,the comedian) and the Steep Canyon Rangers and Ms. Jill Scott!

Common performs at the White House.

When I saw that Common was next I gave him my best Care Bear Stare (sending him positive energy) as he approached the stage. He sat down, his DJ took his place and he began his piece. Something like … “Last night I had a dream I was at the White House…” He delivered calmly and peacefully, his words were on point, his flow was a little like quicksand. I swear he looked over to see my wide open smile and second-nature head nodding. I’m pretty sure he smiled at me with those eyes. Yes Pisces!  I was so proud for all of us ’cause he handled it well.

A few acts later, who but Ms. Jill Scott appeared in the door way, as she was announced and walked past in a killer outfit and stilettos to die for. I gave a subtle “Lets Go Philly” in her direction. lol. She performed 3 pieces (yes, she brodied the third – she was only supposed to do 2, but who was going to stop Jill Scott? It was clear she is a media darling, I saw the most flash bulbs go off when she took the stage). I was tickled…and inspired. She did a piece encouraging poets to write and BE poets, to use our words … and her renegade piece spoke of the beauty and the power and strength of womaness. Jill Scott is a truly eloquent writer. She didn’t need to sing a note.  Dont sleep.

Sooo Steve Martin (yes, the comedian!) closes out the show with a poem set to music, and it was the perfect finale to an inspiring and well-thought-out night. We all watch as the First Lady and President Obama take the stage to personally thank each of the performers. The loudspeaker announces that we are to take our seats as our country’s royalty leaves the room. Of course no one in their exit path did so … and I just happened to be in that exit path!

First off the stage was Mr. Obama and Mr.Lonnie Lynn. First to me, was … you guessed it, Common. He comes over and warmly shakes my hand while thanking me for what I can only assume are the words I gave him at the start of the night and for my Care Bear Stare during his performance. I just remember being gracious and smiling back. Then President Obama is moving in my direction … closer and closer …

***LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, I NEED TO ALERT YOU THAT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT HAPPENED IN SLOW MOTION FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE***

President Obama approached me as I said his name. “I really enjoyed tonight’s program,” I smiled, and shook his soft hand. His skin, the color of chocolate chip cookie dough. A pleasant and genuine face. Then he was gone! No time to breathe, next down the pipeline, Mrs. Obama, an aqua blue vision floating effortlessly from person to person. She was shaking hands with someone just across from me. She was so close I could touch her. I feared I might miss my chance so I spoke up: “MICHELLE!”  and she turned around to shake my hand. “I really enjoyed tonight’s program,” I smiled. I think she said something back, but I really couldn’t tell you because then she commenced to gently  place her hand on my arm or waist or shoulder for several seconds as she leaned past me to shake the hands of a few others surround me. I stood there stunned and overjoyed to be stabilizing the First Lady as she performed her First Lady duties! =). One of the first times in my life I’ve been speechless and in disbelief all at the same time…

***SLOW MOTION OVER…BACK TO REAL TIME***

By now I really have to go to the bathroom. D recommends I stick around to see what happens.We say our goodbyes to the people at our table and I notice that the one woman is preoccupied with something else. I follow the trajectory of her gaze and realize she is preoccupied with Jill Scott, who is only a stone’s throw away at this point. I decide to wait to use the ladies’ room. I say a few words to Rita Dove and thank her for her offering; later she introduced me to her husband.

Jill is making her way towards me and I say something like, “Hey.” She smiles and greets me as a true Queen

Jill Scott shoots her video "Shame" in a North Philly high school gym

would, then there is a moment where her eyes change, her smile becomes even more genuine and she says to me…”I know you…” ( like she’s trying to figure it out)… “I know you.” She pulls me in for a good hug. I smile. I’m glad she remembers me. We’ve had a few memorable meetings ( The Trumpet Awards, a diner in Philly). But she  remembers best the time we spent together in my “Poetry as Performance” class at Temple with Dr. Kimmika Williams Witherspoon. I shout out the call of my poetry fraternity/sorority  TWO FORTY! and she instantly remembers. We talk a little more, then Jill introduces me to her mother who is an equally beautiful, elegant and stately woman. I turn to Jill and say, “She’s beautiful,” she says “I know.” I love it.  I mention to her that I really enjoyed her at The Black Girls Rock Awards and she says that the show left her with a really good feeling … by now a young woman in her military dress uniform is ushering us towards the reception. I leave Jill and her people and D and I grab another glass of champagne before being escorted to the restroom by another young lady in her military dress.

We are recapping the night so far, enjoying ourselves when who walks through the door but … Jill Scott. lol. We talked again, laughed a little more, and then D and I made our way back up to the reception. The food was delicious: shrimp, puff pastries, mini-quiche ,watermelon w/feta cheese and an assortment of small plates and sweets! We mingled, took a few pics in neighboring rooms, looked to our right to see Common hemmed up in the corner by at least 5 women smiling and talking. About the room were the performers of the night;  I passed Steve Martin and Aimee Mann in the hallway. I thanked many of them for their contribution and let them know how much I enjoyed them. By now it was after 9 pm and my awesome brother in-law Kiragu had been waiting patiently with his daughter, my 4 year-old niece, to pick us up. My mother was watching the other two babies while my sis was at work. Getting me to the White House was a truly communal effort and I am so very grateful to my family and some very special people and friends for making this possible for me.  Wanting to respect the time, I asked D if she wanted to part with me, or hang around. Like true riders we came together and left together, but not before saying bye to Jill and sharing one more laugh!

POW!…My night at the White House…Blessed indeed!

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