I’m in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO’s groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny’s living room is like an art gallery — no, it’s like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I’m here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn’t seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn’t born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny’s friends, who would gather and perform open mic’s at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny’s original passion) in the early 1990’s.
As many people who’ve put on friendly poetry shows know, humble experiments can have big ripple effects. “We did shows at the Nuyorican, at a place called the Brooklyn Moon Cafe, at a gallery called Annext on 105 Hudson Street in Manhattan,” Danny tells me. “Then we started doing bigger shows. But one of the best early shows happened right here in my home.”
He points to a wrought-iron spiral staircase behind me. “Suheir Hummad read a poem right there. That’s where it all started.” Simmons came up with the idea of asking his younger brother Russell about extending the “Def Jam” name in a new direction, and after many more live events and showcases Danny and his associates Stan Lathan, Bruce George and Bob Sumner managed to launch “Def Poetry Jam” as both a cable show and a Broadway play. “Russell told me, ‘Don’t fuck up my brand!'” Danny recalls with a laugh.
The remarkable Simmons family also includes Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons of Run-DMC, and all three brothers understood the value of poetry because they grew up with it. “My father was a poet,” Danny says. The elder Daniel Simmons, a school administrator and teacher of black history at Pace University, wrote poems that were “personal, political, about civil rights, about feelings of alienation.” This had a big effect on all his three sons, though one was a rapper, one a businessman and one — Danny — a visual artist. But Danny kept coming back to poetry, kept listening to The Lost Poets (a seminal poetry crew whose early vinyl-era records helped plant the seeds for the coming spoken-word revolution), and kept thinking about how to take the form to the next level.
I asked Danny which performances he likes best on the show now, and he quickly answers: “The new kids. The young kids. The more seasoned poets, they’re okay, but these kids are more direct, talking more out of their own experience.” But when I ask for a single favorite performance, he names last year’s Oscar Brown Jr. reading (the irascible singer and provocateur passed away not long after this show was taped).
Then he remembers another favorite, a touching moment with Caroline Kennedy, and the oddness of this juxtaposition strikes me as emblematic of the great open-mindedness that Def Poetry exemplifies. Looking around Danny’s apartment at the great artwork packed in from all sides like the 7 train during rush hour, I spot African influences, nods to French Impressionism, beatnik Greenwich Village influences, and of course tons of Brooklyn/hiphop/graffiti style. It’s the mix that makes it all work.
You can experience Danny Simmons’s own style of poetry as well as his bold artwork in his new book, I Dreamed My People Were Calling But I Couldn’t Find My Way Home, which was published by Moore Black Press last month.