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THE MANY FACES of Phyllis

The body: round and unrestrained, like Mother Earth in the fullness of summer.

The hair: a dense forest of coiled serpents that cascade past the shoulders, wriggling with life.

The face: an acrobat's stage where eyebrows jump heavenward and the mouth splits into a wide, joyous canyon as laughter spills out.

The voice: soft Southern vowels, smooth as sourwood honey.

Phyllis McEwen, poet laureate of free spirits everywhere, gazes across the Hillsborough River.

On the opposite bank is a familiar friend, the bleached, ghost-white skeleton of a long-dead cypress.

"See that tree? It glows at night," she says, quiet wonder in her voice.

In McEwen's world, most everything glows.

"I'm just real happy bein' on this planet," she says.

McEwen, her bare feet decorated with toe rings and a shell anklet, tiptoes along the seawall a few feet from her back porch. She's looking for a small gator she calls Allison that hides in a drain pipe at the water's edge.

Allison doesn't make an appearance, but McEwen is just as delighted to see a water snake exploring the shallows, dragonflies mating in midair. Very little escapes the writer's eye.

"I guess this might look like free time to people who don't understand the process," she admits. "But if I try to force myself to write, it won't happen. My poetic self doesn't operate under domination."

+ + +

McEwen used to work a nice, respectable 9-to-5 job. She raised a son for years as a single mother. There were marriages, mortgages, divorces, friendships. Life seemed to chug along on its own steam.

Inside her, though, always, was a stirring, a dream that needed to get loose.

"I do have this thing about being baaaaaad," she says, chuckling. "I just got to a point where I couldn't stand it anymore. I developed high blood pressure tryin' to do things that weren't me. I didn't like myself."

Medusa was ready to rise and shake out her dreadlocks.

In strong, often graphic language, McEwen the poet lays bare her joys and rages:

The earth she has been lonely

for my knowing her like a bad

Woman should

she has been asking for me in

All her secret places

Wetting herself ready to feel me

(This is so long overdue)

While she shakes out the

Magical menses and shouts about

Rites of passage from good girl

To Bad WOMAN

OOOO Yeah.

She writes about hysterectomies. Adultery. Herbal healing. Women coming into their power. There's a poem about learning to love the blues and one about being a housewife. ("That didn't work for me.")

From the beginning, Hans Juergensen, a retired professor of humanities at the University of South Florida and McEwen's mentor, felt that her work had a distinctive rhythmic pattern. The poetic voice came later, he says.

"I would sometimes criticize her for maybe being a little sentimental. I tried to toughen her up. Now that she's more sure of herself, more mature, she can lash out. She's very strong."

Uwezo Sudan, education specialist at the Museum of African American Art in Tampa, admires McEwen's honesty.

"Most of us are afraid to be naked, to confront the difficult places in our lives. But Phyllis will go there," he says. "Her poetry is well-balanced. It's sensitive but uncompromising."

Last time it came on him

he took a young woman

to love:

Taught her to

press her hair

Worship him

Stay thin.

This time you do not worry:

You grow dreads

Ignore his calls

Become huge and pregnant

with yourself.

When he asks for something kinky,

You show him your hair.

"You have lost it," he says.

"Look at the monster

You have become!"

And you say yes and yes

as you fondle the

stem of your feelings

as though they were

finally finally

your very own.

McEwen, 45, arrived here in 1980 from her native Atlanta. She's been a fixture in the artistic underground ever since.

"I call her the diva of culture in Tampa Bay," says Derek Washington, a St. Petersburg painter who inspired McEwen's tough-talking poem, Black Art.

She was an early member of the Tampa Bay Poets, a group of literary mavericks who read their work in shopping malls and bars, long before the days of poetry slams and coffeehouses. She published a small book of poetry, Hystery and Other Tools for Women, now out of print. Every now and then, she popped up on stage in student productions at USF, where she was a reference librarian.

But it was all for fun. She never would have been so brazen as to call herself a poet.

One day in a USF hallway, she bumped into Juergensen and struck up a conversation. When Juergensen found out she wrote poetry, he invited her to a workshop and asked to see some of her work.

Juergensen liked what he read. He told McEwen she shouldn't waste her talent.

"He lets you know how serious it is to be given the gift," she says. "He looks you right in the eye."

She kept writing and gave occasional public readings. Still, her art was mostly on the sidelines.

Then two things happened. Her son, Gus, went off to college, giving her the free time she had been craving.

And Zora came into her life.

In 1990, at the request of the Florida Humanities Council, McEwen developed a one-woman performance as Zora Neale Hurston, the Florida novelist whose masterful storytelling chronicled Southern black culture in the 1930s.

McEwen had long been a fan of Hurston. Her monologue is an affectionate, funny portrait of the folklorist. She sashays around the stage in a black suit and fur stole, her dreadlocks tucked in a bandana, lecturing the audience in a broad drawl and leading sing-alongs of old railroad songs.

The show first toured the state along with several other historical characters commissioned by the council. Then McEwen as Hurston started turning up at folk festivals and arts conferences. She performed the piece at American Stage in St. Petersburg and Stageworks in Tampa.

Last year, McEwen's association with the humanities council turned into a job. She resigned her post at USF, leaving behind a library career of 22 years. She became resource director at the council, working in a quaint second-floor walk-up office in Ybor City.

Still McEwen's muse was restless. In December, she had a dream. She was showing off an infant to friends, but the child was dirty and unfed.

The meaning, to McEwen, was clear: "That baby was my art. I love it so much, but I had been neglectin' it."

A week after having the dream, McEwen resigned her full-time job at the humanities council. Now she works as a consultant there three days a week. Friday through Monday belongs to her.

Usually she holes up in her comfortably cluttered apartment near USF, where patterned cotton throws drape the sofas and Bob Marley squints down from a poster on the wall. There's musky incense in the air and anemic-looking plants on the screened porch. Two gaily painted suitcases, props for her Hurston play, sit in the hallway. A fat golden cat snoozes on a doormat.

McEwen keeps inspiration close at hand. She reads her favorite poets _ Marilyn Waniek, Toni Cade Bambara, Bob Kaufman _ or watches videos from a series called Poets at Work.

If she needs to get the blood pumping, there's a huge library of African-American music in all genres: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sade, Alice Coltrane, Judy Mowat, Yusef Lateef, King Sunny Ade, Baaba Maal.

"I let myself do whatever I want to do," McEwen says. "And I don't have to answer the phone."

Eventually, into that free space, a poem will creep.

"You know that feeling you get when you're not really hungry but out of nowhere a thought of food comes into your head?" she asks. "It's like that.

"You take that little thought of one particular food, then you start thinking of how it would fit into a meal, then you think about how to make the whole meal."

She has written, she guesses, a thousand poems: "They're hidden all over the house," she says, grinning like a mischievous child.

It's not always easy. McEwen has dark nights when the poetic voice drops to a whisper and depression takes over. But her deeply positive nature usually wins out.

"She goes through the same ups and downs everybody else does, but it seems like it's all in technicolor," says Gianna Russo, a close friend of McEwen's for 15 years.

Russo directs the Writer's Voice, an educational program at the Tampa YMCA. She asked McEwen to lead a poetry workshop that uses dream imagery as poetic inspiration.

"She is the embodiment of what I think a poet should be," Russo says. "She lives poetry."

A poem, in McEwen's hands, is a wild thing not to be caged.

"To me, words should be incredible animals that can do whatever they want."

Words waltzed into McEwen's soul early on. Her father, Homer, was a Congregational minister who encouraged his children to think for themselves.

"Bible verses were poetry in our house. And I always loved nursery rhymes and limericks."

She went to Barnard College for a couple of years, then returned home to Atlanta to graduate from Spelman. She married at 19; had a son at 20; earned a master's in library science at 22.

During four years in Gainesville in the late '70s, she worked in the law library and even tried law school.

"I took five courses, but I haaaaaated it," she says, wrinkling her nose. "What they do to words is obscene. They scrunch them up. Make them puny."

She met her second husband in law school. They eventually moved to Tampa, and McEwen went to work at the USF library. In 1988, that marriage ended. When they finally divorced last year, McEwen dropped his last name, Taylor, which she had used for years.

Her identity is now solidly her own.

"Me being an African-American person is not any more or less important than me being a woman," she says firmly. "You can't separate me.

To her the world is black "unless somebody tells me it's not. I mean, I go to a poetry reading and I might be the only black person there. But I feel like I'm there so it's a black event, even though all these white people are there. That's a healthy way to be, I think _ centered in yourself."

A McEwen poetry reading is a theatrical event. She sprinkles her performance with anecdotes and bits of personal history. Sometimes the truth gets stretched a little, she acknowledges. Doesn't matter.

"How many times have you gone to a poetry reading and it was bore-ring?" she asks. "The person says stupid things and you've wasted your time. Well, I really want to connect with people _ and people connect with stories."

In August she has several poetry performances on her calendar. And Hurston takes the stage again in September at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Off Center Theater.

If her budget allows, she'd like to phase out the part-time job at the Humanities Council to give her even more time for writing.

The important thing _ the crucial thing _ is to be doing what she wants to be doing.

"I cannot survive not bein' myself," she says. "I want to haaaaave life. I want more of it. It's magical, if you let it be."

This summer, McEwen is working on her next volume of poetry, My Criminalization. A new poem of hers will be published in the spring issue of Tampa Review.

A smile slinks across the Bad Woman's face.

"It's about how your body betrays you and leaks and drips and smells."

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