Twenty-eight years ago, Glenis Redmond was a clinical counselor for the state of South Carolina and the mother of twin toddler girls when she learned her excruciating condition had a name, Fibromyalgia.
After absorbing the ramifications of her diagnosis, she recalls thinking of a prescient line of verse from the poet Lucille Clifton.
“‘Everyday something has tried to kill me and it’s failed,’ and it was an awakening of sorts,” Redmond recalled. “That poem made me think, ‘Well, if you’re going to be sick, if you’re going to not feel well, what’s going to make you want to get up in the morning?’”
Redmond had come from a family of storytellers, and she first wrote and performed poetry as an outlet of personal expression.
“I was worried about getting whatever toxins—mentally, emotionally, psychologically, culturally—I was bent on getting that out of my psyche, out of the vessel of who I am,” she said.
Before long, she evolved into one of the country’s eminent voices connecting contemporary Black experience to Black lineage. Remond lives in Greenville, but she said she grew her wings as a poet in Asheville.
Her latest connection to Asheville is a collaboration with the visual artist Julyan Davis. He reached out to Redmond to compose and recite verse inspired by the folk legend of the South Carolina water spirit “Cymbee,” which has roots in West and Central Africa.
Redmond said the “Cymbee” legend is connected to her work. While there are plans for the text of the poem to come out in a book, Redmond’s performance of it is only being released on vinyl. She is performing the poem Aug. 26 at Citizen Vinyl in Asheville. (Note: Citizen Vinyl is a business sponsor of BPR).
“I have my record player right here. I love vinyl,” she said. “What a way to weave a thread between the worlds from Africa to the United States, which is the core of my work, and so it’s embodied in this vinyl.”
Redmond, whose father was a jazz-blues-gospel pianist, helped develop the poetry slam scenes in Greenville and Asheville. The form reminded her of the energy of Black Baptist churches, but she saw her own poetry coming more from the tradition of Griot storytellers. She performed in domestic shelters, boys-and-girls clubs and schools, meeting an early goal of five public readings each month.
“The introvert was the poet who looks inward,” she said. “And the extrovert was the teaching artist, the literary citizen, who feels put upon to give away what I have received.”
Performances brought Redmond all over the country and abroad and elevated her into a Kennedy Center teaching artist.
“I was walking the world like an able-bodied person, but I was disabled,” she said. “Even though I had the passion and drive for poetry, it was wracking my body. It was killing me.”
She cut back her travel a number of years ago but has continued a strong presence in this region. She said new poems continue revealing themselves inside her.
“My poems are lined outside my door. Earlier in my career, I was answering the door for who knocked the loudest,” she said. “When you first start writing, you’re young in your practice, and so I was doing these anthems. As I have advanced in my career, I have more patience and time to listen to the poems outside my door that are whispering.”
Earlier this year, Redmond was diagnosed at Stage 3 with a form of blood cancer that hospitalized her for a month. She said she will be on medication for it the rest of her life.
“The pain that I’m in related to the cancer is some days insurmountable. I live a very pain-riddled life,” she said. “I try not to let it get in the way of my living but, to be truthful about it, it’s a rough life to live.”
Redmond moved from Asheville back to Greenville 10 years ago, and as her poetry saved her life nearly three decades ago, she said it’s doing the same for her today. The poems Redmond recorded for the “Cymbee” project will be part of a book of her poetry she expects to be out in 2022.
I think that return to South Carolina rooted me in a way to tell the ancestral story that has not been taken,” she said. “I’m on a path that there’s no way I’m gonna run out of material. I’m gonna run out of life before I run out of material.”