by Larry Knight
Long before Al Letson became the newest addition to the public radio universe with his project entitled State of the Re:Union, he had a vision; one that entailed utilizing his passion for communicating, and his desire to move the masses. But Letson’s journey from spoken word artist to one of the region’s most seasoned writer-performers has not been without some difficulty. He has made numerous personal sacrifices, experienced setbacks, and tried to stay afloat financially, all while having to work from a city most would say is far from the epicenter of art and culture. But to Letson, being an artist, especially one based in Jacksonville, is filled with a kind of hope, promise and opportunity few of his contemporaries in other cities get to experience. According to Letson, the city and its surrounding areas affords him the right balance of freedom and inspiration.
“You can hear your own voice here,” says Letson. “You aren’t crowded out by people in your field, there is enough here to inspire you, but not too much that you find yourself emulating someone else.”
In a society where artistic style is created, praised, then quickly imitated, packaged and mass produced, being an individualist is often hard to accomplish. Letson’s need for individuality, especially in an industry fraught with so many carbon copies, is refreshing to some. As he sees it, he is simply doing the ‘good work,’ meaning he creates works some say enlivens, refreshes, and inspires. Letson, however, has his own take.
“It’s work that moves people,” he says. “It’s something that goes beyond being technically sound. It’s got heart; it touches people whether it’s through laugher or tears. People need to feel it.”
That guiding philosophy has been the cornerstone upon which Letson has built his six plays, an innumerable catalog of spoken word poems, and a soon to be nationally syndicated public radio program on. But with the excitement of his foray into public radio, Letson often finds his role as artist at odds with being a 37 year-old husband and father of four.
Although his attempts at balancing his personal and professional life occasionally pose a significant challenge, he believes and recognizes the need to celebrate the successes as well as the failures he often encounters. This mix of highs and lows does not seem to deter Letson from his goal, it provides him with something more. “I’ve had a lot of highs that have made me feel like my work is reaching people. But what sticks with me the most are my failures,” he says. “The things I’ve reached for but haven’t quite reached. Those are where the lessons are learned; where you figure out who you are and who you want to be.”
As of late Letson seems to done just that; by racking up more successes than failures. From his 2005 appearance on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, winning the Public Radio Talent Quest in 2007, to a new semi-autobiographical play entitled Crumbs set to premiere locally at Players by the Sea in October, Letson seems to be an artist with a full plate. But according to him the projects would have been impossible without a solid support network.
Letson’s foray into the spoken word poetry scene, according to him, started with a gift. “A friend of mine gave me a copy of Bill Moyers’ series ‘The Language of Life,'” says Letson. “In that series I heard poet Sekou Sundiata, and I was blown away. Up until that point, I felt like I was an artist without an art, but hearing poetry spoken in my everyday language, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” With the viewing of that video, and the Letson and his then business partner Marlon Livers sought to reshape and change the face of spoken word poetry in Jacksonville. According to Letson, the two of them, along with Jones worked together to officially launch the ‘urban spoken word scene’ in the city.
As he moved away from focusing primarily on poetry as chosen medium, Letson branched out into theatre and used some of the same core principles of creativity. Letson’s philosophy was, and still is “do the work and the rest will figure itself out.” But when it comes to subject matter he applies a unique, yet simple standard. “It’s just what speaks to me. My motto is that art without purpose is vanity. So the work I’m attracted to is about telling a story that reveals something about our nature as human beings, or about stories that bring people together.”
Letson also feels that as an artist his allegiance is to the work itself and the message it presents, and not solely to the audience. “I want the audience to like it,” he says. “I’m a performer so I’m predisposed to needing the audience to love my work. That’s why everyone performs. But my focus is to tell my truth.”
As State of the Re:Union moves away from developmental stage and into full production, Letson has not forgotten the love and support the people and communities of the city of Jacksonville have given him. One of the initial episodes, entitled ‘Jacksonville: Bold New City of the South?’ seems to have made that sentiment evident. In it Letson explores all that is good and problematic in the city he calls home, something that connects directly to his career as an artist.
“I think Jacksonville is a great place to hone your craft,” says Letson. “To really build it, because audiences here, on a whole, want you to succeed. I know my career would be very different if I didn’t have the support of this community.”