December / January Journal » Sacred Slam
Steve Junryu Reed
Photo: Roshi Enkyo O'Hara

As Ian Daishi Koebner sees it, poetry is a path to honest communication.

Where lectures or even conversational exchanges often lock the participants into roles, such as that of doctor and patient or teacher and student, poetry and art can remove these walls. It allows people to see each other as individuals.

So it’s no surprise that Koebner has worked with poetry to address issues of youth and alienation, mental illness, religious identity and even international conflict. One of his latest “Sacred Slams” took place at the Village Zendo on October 20th, bringing together young people of various backgrounds to share a night of art.

And it wasn’t just poetry — a flutist played Bach as youth-created artworks from Northern Ireland and South Africa were projected onto the Zendo walls.

“It was mainly performance,” he said. “We had poetry and instrumentation and the multimedia piece, based loosely around the trials and inspiration of being young in this world right now.”

Fostering better understanding through forums like the “Sacred Slam” is an aspect of practice for Koebner, 29, who first came to the Zendo in 1999 as a college student.

A native of Riverdale, in the Bronx, Koebner describes his background as “genealogically and culturally Jewish.” A friend who was a sangha member introduced him to the Zendo, back when it was housed in Roshi Enkyo O’Hara’s apartment. Koebner was interested in meditating, though not necessarily in Buddhism.

“I think it was mainly meditation — I was interested in what that was all about. It was something that felt very powerful to me but pretty unnerving and odd. I just wanted to get involved and had no real way of understanding what the process was.”

Like many first-time visitors to the Zendo, he received beginning meditation instruction from a senior student — in this case, Randall Ryotan Eiger.

“One of the things that really stuck with me, back at Enkyo’s house, was when Ryotan was giving the instruction. The guy sitting next to me said beginning instruction was not very pleasant. Ryotan said he can do what he wants, but cultivating pleasant sensations wasn’t what Zen was about,” Koebner said. “I was very moved.”

After graduating from Wesleyan University Koebner briefly relocated to Washington D.C. for work. He practiced with Thich Nhat Hanh and attended Vipassana retreats, before sitting Tangaryo and returning to regular Zendo attendance in 2003.

“Zen first hooked me from a pop culture perspective — its basic readings and aesthetic. It seemed to strike some kind of balance between intense and somber, and fun and irreverent. All of it was interesting to me.”

Now Koebner lives in Western Massachusetts with his partner Ronit, a filmmaker, and regularly sits with the Village Zendo’s affiliate in Northampton, Zen on Main.

The “Sacred Slam” was born on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Koebner organized a one-time event at the Bowery Poetry Club featuring spiritual leaders from diverse world traditions, from Native American to Judaism to Sufism.

“The idea was to challenge misconceptions of different religious identities through the arts,” he said. “A lot of people came, there was a lot of energy around it, and after talking with some folks, I decided there was enough interest and potential to run with it.” Sacred Slam is now a not-for-profit organization dedicated to challenging misconceptions through the arts.

The format eventually diversified to include events, workshops and curriculum development targeted at specific niche audiences. Artists who identified as mentally ill, for example, performed for 120 doctors, nurses and therapists at a Lower East Side health clinic.

Another series was designed for interfaith youth in places of conflict and post-conflict such as South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

Koebner uses the phrase “poetic performances” to describe the nature of the events, which are as likely to include hip-hop music as straight poetry. No doubt that helps when working with young audiences.

Aside from the world-healing potential of poetry, Koebner notes that the recent “Sacred Slam” event had a secondary benefit as well: “It helped bring new people into the Zendo.”

Lost Between Scylla and Charybdis
by Raquel Ruiz
(In dedication to my brothers)

Spoken by the Author
Village Zendo Sacred Slam, October 20, 2007

Somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis time played tricks with my childhood

the minutes twirled at the center of my palms

the hours glistened in sweat between my fingers

I had lost my faith

somewhere between my father's belt and my face

somewhere between all the times I held a gun

all the times I wanted to pull the trigger

all the while thinking "I don't want to make it to 20"

My brothers and I could not see the light at the end of our tunnel

so each night we made new beds in a different place

we slept on wet mattresses, as our dreams wallowed in filth and our nightmares wrapped around our wrist

bounding us

and there we waited

we waited in the sounds of sirens singing death, bitter women hollering, the sounds of glass shattering the innocence of children

and those who blast their music late at night, as if no one can hear them, as if no one knows that they exist

We waited in the smell of trash, piss and blood, drunken hopelessness

we waited in the smell of loss and being lost

faces came and left

some asked for money for drugs or drugs for money

but we had neither

so each time they came for us, each time we ran

During the summer we drowned in the heat of Bronx streets

during the winter we hid beneath the same concrete streets

and this...well this is dedicated to those lost between Scylla and Charybdis

to those who cannot afford to cry

to those walking down dirt roads with guns at their heads

whether in Israel or Syria

in Jordan or Haiti

in Puerto Rico or La Havana

And I ask Allah to forgive me

if I ever forget what it feels like to be tired and hungry

if I ever forget what it feels like to be bruised and swollen

I say Allah forgive me if I ever forget what it feels like to hate where I sleep or to not sleep at all

because somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis I lost my childhood

and if I found her today, in some dark street drowning in fear, pain, and blood

I probably wouldn't even recognize her face.

Raquel Ruiz is a performer, writer, and teacher. Originally from Ponce, Puerto Rico, she now resides in Manhattan. Her work challenges conceptions of class, gender, and sexuality. She has performed at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Bowery Poetry Club, Brooklyn Museum, and Bushbaby Cafe. An active member of Urban Word NYC, she is Youth Board Coordinator. Raquel has taught several creative writing workshops for local schools and community centers, and currently teaches in a girls empowerment program at Sister Power Organization in Harlem. To reach her:

Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

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