"Fool's Gold" by Mike Smith
The Black Lector: James Tokley by Paul Guzzo
Saturday Night Dead by ED Tucker
SuperDuper Bowl .... Politico .... Rondo by Matt Drinnenberg
Oscars .... Grammys .... Passing On .... Rocket Misfires .... .... .... .... .... And The Oscar For 1989 Should Have Gone To... by Mike Smith
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At Friday's TFR, for the second time in three months, we will be showing a film based around poetry by James Tokley, Tampa's official poet laureate. This month's film is Central Avenue Remembered: WEDU’s Emmy-award winning documentary on the heyday of Central Avenue in Tampa, the onetime center of the African American community in Tampa. He also lent his voice to the film Good Samaritan, also showing this month.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky to have the opportunity to sit down for coffee with Mr. Tokley:
He has physically lived in Tampa for three decades, but his soul has inhabited the city for close to two centuries.
James Tokley is known throughout Tampa as the city’s official poet laureate, but those who can look past his flesh and bones and see his spirit know he is much more. He is the black lector, the reincarnation of Tampa lector Facundo Accione.
“I learned about Facundo Accione while doing research for a poem,” explained the 59-year-old Tokley while seated at a table in La Tropicana Restaurant, the photo of Roland Manteiga, son of Victoriano Manteiga – the founder of this paper and one of Tampa’s most famous lectors – fittingly hanging on the wall just over his left shoulder.
Taking a break to collect his thoughts, he dipped his Cuban bread into his café con leche and winked at a waitress who has been his close friend since his first trip to La Tropicana almost three decades ago and about whom he has since penned a poem entitled, “The Most Beautiful Waitress in Tampa.” As he prepared to finish his history lesson on Facundo Accione, seemingly every patron in the restaurant, even those seated at the furthest point in the establishment from him, ceased their own conversations and turned their heads to eavesdrop on Tokley’s story. His voice is impossible to ignore.
When he tells stories, at times his voice can become so powerful and filled with bass that if you were to close your eyes and simply listen, you would swear it was the voice of a Greek god booming down from the sky to his loyal subjects. At other times you’d think it was the voice of an old blues man singing his songs on the back porch of a home in the bayou of Louisiana, for when he gets excited his stories often flow from his mouth in beats so melodious you have to fight off the urge to tap your feet along with each word.
“Accione was the only officially defined Afro Cuban lector,” continued Tokley, nudging his golden spectacles back to the bridge of his nose. “When you talk about epic heroes, superstars, lectors were all that. Once I located the name of a lector I could identify with, I wanted him to be my narrator, my alter ego, in all my stories.”
Facundo Accione has become more than alter ego for Tokley, the two have seemingly become one, as Tokley perhaps personifies a lector more than any other individual in Tampa Bay. The lectors made their living entertaining the cigar workers in the cigar factories by reading stories from novels and newspapers. They were some of Tampa’s most respected citizens because of their education and their desire to inform the workers of current events and public policies that could affect them. But the lectors were still highly approachable, men of the people.
Tokley fits the description of the lector to a tee. His booming and charismatic voice can turn a word into a reality. The regal manner in which he carries himself tells every passerby that he is a man worthy of even a king’s respect, but he also has a man-of-the-people persona that makes it impossible for him to sit in a restaurant without having numerous people approach him for a handshake and pleasantries. His ability to see the soul in every man, woman AND object provides him with a power over the written word that few in Tampa Bay can match. And, he desires to use his gifts to educate the public both on issues crucial to today’s Tampa Bay and historical aspects of Tampa Bay he wants people to never forget.
“A friend of mine who has since passed on once introduced me to the word ‘edutainment.’ I thought it was a hokey word at first, but I’ve grown to love it,” said Tokley. “It’s a combination of education and entertainment and I’d like to think some of my poetry – not all of it because I have written about everything, including maggots and toe nails – attempts to inform and educate as it entertains.”
As Tampa’s official poet laureate since 1996 he’s been commissioned to write poems on all aspects of Tampa. He has written poems for mayoral inaugurations. He has written poems to commemorate ground breakings for major developments. He has written poems to console families of fallen police officers. He has written poems about historic and long gone communities such as Central Avenue, the one time center of Tampa’s African American community; and forgotten historic institutions, such as St. Benedict the Moor, which educated mostly Afro-Cuban children of workers in the cigar industry of Ybor City and West Tampa. He has lent his poems and his voice to countless documentaries on Tampa, and many of his poems are etched into plaques of stone or bronze throughout the city.
Tokley is also often privately commissioned to write poems by members of the Tampa Bay community. A poem he was commissioned to write on the Biltmore Hotel in Clearwater is credited with helping to save the century-old hotel from demolition.
He recently wrote a poem on the importance of saving Tampa’s cigar factories, “The Ladies of the Brick,” in which he describes Tampa’s famous cigar factories most beautiful qualities as though they were women. He then invites each woman to a grand dance at the Italian Club, where they will be joined once again by the lectors.
“I wanted to humanize the factories,” he said. “They are so important to our culture here in Tampa and I want everyone to realize how beautiful and important they are and why they need to be saved.”
He has even written a poem about a Cuban sandwich.
“I was inspired by La Tropicana Restaurant,” he explained, “because this was the first place I came where I ever had a Cuban sandwich … and I wrote the piece, ‘Epic of the Sandwich Cubano.’ It’s about an African god who is ready to obliterate humanity for having enslaved his African people and just as he was about to do it, in walked his imperial waiter with a Cuban sandwich on a silver trey and the god munches the sandwich and it is so delicious he postpones the obliteration. Through this story, I am able to teach the reader about the sandwich, how it is made, what kind of meat is on it, how long it has to be pressed, and all that goes into it.
“I’d like to believe I have become a drum major for everything that is grand and magnificent and mysterious and poignant about this place I live,” he continued, and then began talking about his new venture, a book, “Purl,” which is about a dying African American hitman who calls a young reporter into his hospital room to document his life story. The book is completed and he is currently searching for a national publisher.
“The hitman looks at the reporter and says, ‘I am gonna bust hell wide open, but before I do you are going to tell my story,’” said Tokley, while explaining the premise of the book. “The hitman has lived a fascinating life, but he needs the reporter to help him to get his story out to the world.”
With that, Tokley smiled and sipped his café con leche. Realizing the irony of his words, he launched into his own life story, starting with the night he was conceived.
It was 1947 and Tokley’s father was visiting New York. Tokley’s mother was in New York learning to be a seamstress. The two met at a Billy Epstein concert and, according to Tokley, “I was conceived that night.” On April 26, 1948, James Tokley was born.
His parents never married and were both world travelers, but did not travel together. His father toured the world with the Navy, while his mother did so simply because it was the type of extravagant lifestyle she craved. So Tokley was raised by his grandparents on their farm in the small integrated farming town of Atlanta, Delaware.
“They grew taters, and corn and cucumbers and watermelons and everything else,” said Tokley, invoking his “red neck” accent.
Tokley paints a wonderful picture of his grandparents. Full of life and laughter, they provided him with a good moral upbringing. They were adults he could look up to both morally and professionally.
“My grandfather was the first black president I ever knew,” said Tokley. “He was president of the church board, so I grew up in a world in the 1950s and 60s in which black people could become a president.”
His grandfather also taught him about the fragility of life. Besides raising crops, they also raised chickens and hogs. When a chicken wasn’t sold, it was usually because it had a physical defect, which meant it had to be killed. Tokley said he’ll never forget the day his grandfather handed him a stick and told him he was old enough to do the dirty work. He had to knock each chicken over the head with one hard shot so it died on impact. There were 100 chickens to kill in all. The first few chickens were easy to kill, but Tokley said after he’d killed three or four he lifted his head from his task and gazed upon the other chickens waiting to be put to death.
“They were looking at me with such horror,” he said, stressing horror in the same manner as Col. Kurz in Apocalypse Now. “I couldn’t kill them all.
“Killing hogs was even worse. I’d have to grab them by the ring in their nose and the hog is looking right at you because he knows you’re going to kill him and over to the side would be my grandfather with a .22 getting ready to shoot him between the eyes. As soon as he shot the hog, I’d have to slice the hog’s throat with a butcher knife … Hog flesh feels the same as human flesh … Killing the hogs and chickens taught me compassion in a very convoluted way. It showed me what the fear of death looks like.”
It was also on the farm that his love for literature blossomed. His grandmother gave him his first set of encyclopedias when he was 7 years old and he said he read the entire set by the time he was 8. And, while his mother didn’t raise him, Tokley gives her a lot of credit for his fascination with rhythm and beats.
“My mother always came to visit me from exotic places,” remembered Tokley. “She’d arrive on the farm wearing furs and looking like Greta Garbo. They were fake furs, but I didn’t care. She always looked like a movie star to me. She always arrived on the farm like a whirlwind, taking me in her arms, calling me her baby boy.”
During one visit, she gave him a book on cats. The book contained two words that stood out to him – cantankerous and rapscallion. Just a little boy at the time, he said he’d never seen such complicated yet beautiful sounding words. He read them aloud again and again, breaking the words up into syllables, chanting them like beats from a bongo drum.
When he told his mom about this love he was forming for beats of words, she supported it by purchasing him an acoustic guitar at a pawn shop when he was 10 and an electric guitar when he was 12. Dreaming of becoming the next Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry, he taught himself to play the guitar and later learned to play the clarinet and saxophone.
“The music helped develop my creativity,” said Tokley.
By the time he was in junior high school his classmates realized that Tokley was the most creative student in school, and boys would pay him a nickel to write poems for them to give to girls.
“I was writing roses are red and poems like that,” he laughed. “But I was getting paid to write and realized I could make a living off this. But It wasn’t until I met a woman by the name of Harriet Sparks Nichols that I began to believe I could really be a writer.”
Nichols was his 10th and 11th grade English teacher and she taught her classes about Shakespeare and other great writers. She became a mentor to Tokley and helped his writing to mature. He continued to write about love and happiness, “Because I lived such a happy life,” he explained,” but gone were the cheesy rhymes, replaced by Shakespearean sonnets.
Upon graduation in 1966, he enrolled at Delaware State University and majored in English, where his writing continued to flourish and his charisma began to flourish.
A self described “hick” who grew up in a happy integrated farming community, the anger and enthusiasm of the counter culture and the Civil Rights movement seemed exciting and sexy to him and he quickly got caught up in it. His Beatles and Elvis Presley albums collected dust and listened to Clyde and the Family Stone and other blues and jazz musicians. He joined a blues band led by Bill Cosby’s younger, Bob. He took part in Civil Rights sit-ins and marches. He no longer wrote Shakespearian poetry on love. Instead, he wrote angry free verse poetry on African American causes. And he pledged a fraternity – Alpha Phil Alpha.
“But I was the only member of my pledge class that semester, so I had to do everything on my own,” he remembered, which included being the only act in the fraternity’s annual pledge talent show.
Nervously, he took the stage at the talent show. All eyes on him, he read one of his poems and performed the alto sax. The next day, a female student stopped him on campus and said she had taken her son to the talent show and upon seeing Tokley perform her son looked at her and said, “I want to be like him when I grow up.”
“That’s how I developed my courage to recite my poetry in public,” said Tokley.
He graduated Delaware State, enrolled at Temple University, earned his master’s degree in secondary education and took a teaching job at Delaware State University in 1972. Throughout those years he continued to write poetry, but it wasn’t until he relocated to Tampa in 1978 to be closer to his father that he truly found his voice.
“I wanted to get to know my father so I came to Tampa to be near him and we became close friends,” remembered Tokley. “We were more like brothers than father and son ... He said if I wanted to become a writer I needed to come to Tampa. He said Tampa had a thousand stories but the people with the stories were dying and once they were gone the stories would be lost. He said he wanted me to come to Tampa and tell their stories.”
Upon arriving in Tampa, he read his father one of his free verse poems. Rather than reacting in a typical supportive fatherly manner, his father told him, “That’s horrible.”
“He said people don’t want to listen to that crap. People want to listen to rhythm and rhyme. So, I took him on his word and began working on rhythm and rhyme. I was living above the Red Top Bar on the corner of Nebraska [Avenue] and Cass [Street] and wrote a piece called ‘Red Top Jive at Five’ about what occurs on that corner at five o’clock,” said Tokley, who then recited the first few lines of the poem, chanting them like he did the words cantankerous and rapscallion as a kid – like beats coming from a bongo drum:
“Boogie Man walkin’ in the Red Top Bar
“Boom Boom Lackie Lackie
“Boom Boom My God
“With flip top britches & a black cigar
“Boom Boom Lackie Lackie
“Boom Boom Hot Dog
“Seen Arthur Lee drinkin’
“From a Mayonnaise jar
“Boom Boom Lackie Lackie
“Boom Boom My God”
In 1979, this poem changed Tokley’s life. His friend, Grace Sherman, asked him and his fellow poet and friend, Otis, to come to her bar, Grace’s Place, and read poetry. She yanked the plug from the jukebox and told her patrons, who were angrily murmuring about the music being turned off, that they better shut up and listen to the poets she invited to the bar to culture them. As the music on the record slowed to a distorted halt, Otis began reciting his poetry, which was greeted with boos. One patron was ready to toss a beer can at him before Grace stopped him.
As Tokley prepared to read “Red Top Jive at Five,” Otis whispered in his ear that he would hold the door open so they could make a quick getaway when he was done. But there was no need for an escape. They loved the poem, specifically the beats, rhythms and rhymes that Tokley had incorporated into it. The patrons began singing the “boom boom lackie lackies” in the chorus. As Tokley’s confidence grew, his voice grew louder, and so did the bar patron chorus. It was at that moment that the underground legend of James Tokley was born.
“And my love affair with the City of Tampa was born,” he said.
Throughout his first decade in Tampa, Tokley worked in a variety of fields, for the private sector and the City of Tampa and as an adjunct professor at UT, HCC and USF. He found success in every field in which he has applied himself, but his true passion continued to be poetry, specifically poetry documenting life in Tampa. He wrote poems about Tampa’s famous men and women, and he wrote poems about the unknown bums sleeping on the corner. He wrote poems about historic events and places, and he wrote poems about little known bars most people would never visit. He wrote poems about the beautiful sunsets over the Tampa Bay, and he wrote poems about maggots he saw crawling on discarded food on the street.
“A true writer doesn’t need to wait to be inspired. A true writer is inspired by everything and sees a story in everything and everyone,” he said. “Stories are everywhere. A true writer knows what they are.”
He would read his poetry in any bar, cafe, club, or event that would allow him. The more people who heard his poetry, the larger his following became.
Steve Otto of the Tampa Tribune caught wind of this underground hero and wrote a full length feature article on Tokley that included verses of his poetry. Tokley said it seemed as though everyone read the article. Everywhere he went people recognized him.
Suddenly, the underground poet became a citywide phenomenon. He went from reading poems to bar patrons to writing poems for dignitaries throughout the city. When former Mayor Dick Greco was married on the steps of Plant Hall, Tokley wrote a poem for the occasion and read it at the ceremony, bringing Mayor Greco’s wife Linda to tears.
In 1996, when the Tampa City Council and Mayor Greco wanted to appoint a poet laureate to compose and read poems for Tampa’s historic occasions, Tokley was the natural choice. Since then, rarely does a major event pass in Tampa without Tokley commemorating it with his poetic words.
“God has given me the gift of spoken word as well as the written word,” he said. “They are not mine to claim. They are God’s gift, which means I must share them with the world.
“It is a gift I am proud to possess because words are powerful. There is a word that is very similar to W-O-R-D,” continued Tokley, pausing between each letter for effect, “and that word is ‘world.’ Words are worlds and when you can put them with a voice and your voice can further harmonize the meaning of the word, you disappear and the word becomes supreme and the impact of the word becomes supreme.”
And he hopes these worlds he has created through his words will exist for centuries to come.
“I hope when I am gone people remember that there was a man named James Eugene Tokley who endeavored to be a poet. I hope that though I may not be the best poet, I have done enough that people remember that I was here. What I don’t want is for people to say he may have been here. I want people to say James Tokley WAS here.”
When Tokley’s time does come years from now, it is certain that an up-and-coming writer will read one of Tokley’s poems and become inspired to carry on his tradition. And when that happens, the spirit of Tokley, like the spirit of Facundo Accione through Tokley today, will be reincarnated and tell another generation of Tampanians all of this city’s beautiful and fascinating stories.
"Filmlook" is ©2008 by Paul Guzzo. All graphics unless otherwise noted are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.