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Performance poet Sekou Sundiata

He is one of New York's most notable spoken-word artists. He blends lyrics of urban dwelling with music. Born in Harlem, Sundiata is a professor of English literature at The New School for Social Research. He's released CDs of spoken word including The Blue Oneness of Dreams and Urban Music. This week, Sundiata premieres his new one-man show blessing the boats. It's about the year his kidney failed, he went into dialysis and then had a kidney transplant. That year ended with him breaking his neck after he crashed his car in a snowstorm on the way to his "comeback" concert. He is fully recovered now.

29:32

Other segments from the episode on November 20, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 20, 2002: Interview with Sekou Sundiata; Interview with Katea Stitt.

Transcript

DATE November 20, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Sekou Sundiata discusses his recovery from kidney
transplant surgery and a broken neck to continue performing;
Katea Stitt discusses her decision to donate a kidney to Sundiata
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Sekou Sundiata, is a poet, performer and one of the fathers of the
spoken word movement. Greg Tate wrote in The Village Voice, `Sundiata is to
contemporary African-American poetry what Marvin Gaye was to modern soul.'
Sundiata has a new one-man show about the period he had kidney failure,
dialysis and a kidney transplant. Toward the end of 1999, after his
transplant, he was on the way to his comeback performance, driving through the
snow in New England, when his car slid off the road and he broke his neck. He
spent the following year recovering from surgery. Fortunately, he has no
paralysis or disability.

He says his show is about a personal look at the world from a forced
withdrawal, and exile from the self he had come to know. His new show is
called "Blessing the Boats." The title is taken from a poem by Lucille
Clifton, who also had a kidney transplant. "Blessing the Boats" premieres in
New York this Friday, at Aaron Davis Hall, and will tour to several cities
next year.

Sekou Sundiata, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Can you perform a short excerpt
from your new piece?

Mr. SEKOU SUNDIATA (Voice Performance Artist): Sure. This is from a part
called--a section called "The Part That Hurts."(ph)

Here I am, a middle-aged brother with the shakes who can't stay awake, who has
to hold on to the wall because his head is spinning like a gyroscope, a poet
who can't make poems, because there's too much distance between his mind and
his body. And anyway, his mind is so slow and confused that ideas just bounce
around and reverberate like a sound effect. Where's my witty? Where's my
sovereignty? And most of all, where the hell is my cool? I was no longer the
self I thought myself to be.

How do you just wake up one day, and not be who you think you are? I'll tell
you how. The body is a lowdown, dirty sneak. It remembers every physical or
psychological insult it ever suffered, and each insult leaves a scar, and that
scar is a map to the insult that just lays in the cut like a memorial, and
should you delete it from your memory, your body will retrieve the data and
bring it back up just when you're trying to go to sleep, or just when somebody
tells you that you're cute, or just when you tell yourself how cool you are,
here comes the big payback. Your body will break you down. It will make you
beg. It will make you change your priorities.

For example, I was surprised to find out the size of the kidney. The kidneys'
job is to regulate a delicate balance of chemicals and minerals and water in
the body. They clean the blood and regulate blood pressure. Big job, big
organs--simple as that. But most kidneys are the size of a small fist, and
they're located in the back, off to the side. I had taken it for granted that
the most important part of the body was located front and center.

This is what I mean about the body being a sneak. It'll let you believe
things like that until it's ready to tell you the truth. It ain't the heart
or the lungs or the brain. The biggest most important part of the body is the
part that hurts.

GROSS: That's Sekou Sundiata performing an excerpt of his new theater piece,
"Blessing the Boats."

Sekou Sundiata, I really like this piece a lot. Why did you want to do a
performance about your period of medical crisis?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, you know, first of all, in writing this piece, it is
written in a way that is very different from the way I write. I don't write
in a really personal way or an obviously autobiographical way. The first
thing that drove me to write about this was in my experience of going on
dialysis and needing a transplant, I was on the transplant waiting list,
which, you know, can be anywhere from two years to five years or more for
some people, and during that period of time, five of my friends came forward
and volunteered to be donors, to donate a kidney. And, you know, we went
through the whole process of tissue typing and blood testing and all of that,
and four out of the five people were found to be a match. It's very unusual,
very rare, especially for people who are not related.

I was moved by that personally, and you know, to me it was a story that--it
just had so many implications to it in terms of what I call grace, the idea
that for me, you know, I couldn't have done anything to really earn anybody's
kidney. Yet here were these people coming forward volunteering to put their
lives in jeopardy to save mine, essentially. So I was really driven by that.
This, to me, was just some unearned grace that is always a compelling story.

GROSS: This is a very different kind of story for you in several ways. As
you say, your things aren't often personal in that sense and, also, a lot of
your stories are about somebody who's very mythic or very cool or very
revolutionary...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...or very much romantic love or risk-taking, or, you know, you're
writing sometimes about being African-American in America and what that means.
And this is about being vulnerable.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. Yeah, no question. The experience of having what's
called end-stage renal disease and not knowing for quite some time--I'm
talking about three years or more, three or four years--really what was wrong,
you know, thinking that the symptoms sometimes can be some of anything, you
know. There are a cluster of symptoms that can relate to different things,
and they're easy to excuse, especially if you're living a very busy and active
life, which is what I was doing at the time.

So, you know, I felt--by the time I was diagnosed with having renal failure,
it was a new way of thinking about myself and a new way of thinking about my
body, you know. I grew up being very active, being a amateur athlete,
running, playing sports and all those things, and all of a sudden, my body
would not do what I wanted it to do, you know, when I wanted it to do it. So
it was a whole new way of being vulnerable.

GROSS: How did you know something was wrong?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Hmm. That's a good question. Well, you know, the things I
felt was fatigue, tiredness, I was yawning all the time, frequent urination,
those kinds of things. And, frankly, you know, at the time, I was very busy.
I was touring with a show around the country and I thought these things were
due to being just tired and worn out, to traveling so much. You know, at one
point in the piece, I talk about, you know, being in cheap hotels, lousy
venues, breathing recycled airplane air. All of these things, you know, that
we generally talk about, you know, when we get a general--being generally
rundown, which is how I felt.

But what I noticed is that other people would feel the same way, so, you know,
I would say, you know, `Everybody I know is tired and rundown.' But they
would recover. You know, they would rest for a week, two days, whatever, and
they would recover. I could never recover. So it was almost as if there was
this long-running flu that was trapped in my system. That was the first clue.

The event that triggered it is I was having breakfast with a couple of friends
in a restaurant one morning, and they told me that my face had broken out. I
had these tiny bumps all over my face. We finished breakfast and I went
straight to the doctor and, you know, the doctor examined me and I gave him a
urine test. And he called me the next day to say that there was something in
the test that indicated my kidney function wasn't right. So I went to see a
kidney specialist, a nephrologist. That's when I found out that at that point
my kidneys were at 50 percent.

GROSS: What was your initial way of dealing with being sick? Did you push
yourself? Did you become more self-protective?

Mr. SUNDIATA: No, not really. My kidney disease, we suspect, was brought
about by hypertension, probably long-term, undiagnosed high blood pressure.
And when I got that diagnosis from the urine test and I saw the nephrologist,
basically, I began blood pressure--hypertension medication. And so I was
really trying to stay with that, and then I started exercising and eating
better and doing those kinds of things.

But after about six months, I really--like many people, I had an aversion to
the idea of having to take a pill every day. So I started slacking off. I'd
take the medicine every now and then, etc., etc. So I still wasn't convinced
that this was really as serious as it was. Even though the doctor said my
kidneys were at 50 percent, there was the belief that any further
deterioration could be halted once the blood pressure was brought under
control and that, you know, I could live a life at 50 percent kidney function.

GROSS: So did people start reacting to you differently once you became
weaker?

Mr. SUNDIATA: No, I didn't really notice a difference then. I noticed a
difference, actually, after the transplant. People pretty much reacted the
same to me even when I was on dialysis. I think that had to do with the form
of dialysis that I was on, which is called peritoneal dialysis, meaning I
didn't have to go to a hemodialysis center every week. It's something I did
myself. So I maintained a lot of my strength, and I looked--actually, I had
more vitality even in the way I looked than before I went on dialysis. Some
of my health returned.

So there wasn't much of a reaction there. But once I had the transplant, you
know, I guess people are very suspicious of organ transplantation and disease
and all of those things. So there are people I see even now who look at me as
if they're surprised I'm still alive. I'm still walking around, you know.

GROSS: Right. Well, you know, it--you were lucky to have people willing to
donate their kidneys to you and to find one that was such a good match and to
not reject it. I mean...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think that, you know, people seeing me
after the transplant, it kind of triggered something about their own
mortality. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. SUNDIATA: I recognized that some people backed away, you know.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Some people kind of lost contact. And it's a sense--it's very
difficult to put my finger on it because nobody ever says this outright. But
for some people--not all by any means, but for some people, there was a sense
that they had given up on me in some way.

GROSS: Given up on you why?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Just that--well, you know, the end was near for me, you know.

GROSS: I see, yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. Kind of just a way of writing you off.

GROSS: Well, that's kind of spooky, isn't it? Spooky for you?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, it is.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. SUNDIATA: It is, but funny at the same time because, you know, I mean,
I'm still here.

GROSS: Yeah, thank goodness.

My guest is poet Sekou Sundiata. His new one-man show, "Blessing the Boats,"
premieres Friday in Manhattan. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Sekou Sundiata. He's a poet and performance artist,
writer. He has a new theater piece called "Blessing the Boats," which is
about getting a kidney transplant and the period of sickness that preceded it.

There are two ways of getting a new kidney if you have kidney disease. One is
to get a kidney from somebody who has just died who is an organ donor, and the
other is to get the kidney from somebody who you know who is willing to
undergo surgery and donate one of their kidneys to you. You took that second
route. Did you think you were initially going to go the other route of
getting it from an anonymous organ donor?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. I was on the transplant list, and I was on the list for
about a year and a half. And I had no intention of asking anyone for a
kidney. That was just another part of it. I just couldn't imagine asking
someone to give me a kidney. In fact, the nurses who looked after me when I
was on peritoneal dialysis told me that I was the first patient they had who
never asked them for a kidney. And, you know, I couldn't believe it. I
couldn't believe that somebody would just ask, especially essentially a
stranger, for a kidney. So in my mind, it was settled that I would be on the
list until I got that call saying that, you know, `We have a kidney for you.
Come to the hospital.'

But a couple of my friends said just at first casually that, `Hey, I would
give you a kidney.' And, you know, I kind of just said thank you at first,
but, yeah, it was just--they mentioned it more than one time and wanted to
talk about it seriously and wanted to know what it would take. And then
finally, it sank in and I realized that, you know, these people were serious
and they would really go through with the testing and, if they were a match,
would, you know, donate their kidney. And, you know, again, these are
unrelated--these are friends. These are not blood relatives.

GROSS: So who were the people who made the offer?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, one is the woman that I love, I call Kazi(ph), and she
appears in the piece. And the others are friends, you know, just--two people
were friends of hers who became friends of mine, you know, the longer we knew
each other. One person is a long-term friend that I've known. Her name is
Sydney. I've known her for about 20 or 25 years. The other two people were
two men named Bill and Claude. And then my close friend and manager, Katea
Stitt, turned out to be the one who was the match and turned out to be
the--actually, they were all matches, but she turned out to be the donor.

GROSS: Why her? Why not the other people?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, since four out of five people matched, we had discussions
about it, basically over dinners. We would go out and have these great...

GROSS: For all of you, the whole group?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, we would call them transplant dinners. We'd have these
great dinners with great food and, you know, wine and laughter and everything,
and we would talk about the transplant. And finally, we all went to get
tested together, and when the results came in, we had another meeting to talk
about what to do since, you know, all these people matched. And basically,
they ranked themselves. They decided that Kazi, who was the only one with a
child, would be fourth because she had a child and there was some concern
about that. Claude, who had some medical issues of his own going on, was
ranked third. And then Bill, who was in good health and older than the rest
came in second. And Katea, who was in good health, the youngest, volunteered
to be first. And then everyone else volunteered to be backup donors in case
anything went wrong for any of us, you know.

And to me, that was just remarkable. And whenever I would tell people this
story--even before the transplant and after the transplant, whoever I'd tell
that story to was really just moved by it. And so I thought that, you know,
there's something in this story that is just beyond me. It's much, much
greater than me, and it does speak to ideas about love and friendship, but
also just about unearned grace.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that your friends ranked themselves and took
you out of the equation.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, that way the onus wasn't on you to decide who gave up the
kidney.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.

GROSS: That must have been a great relief to have that decision taken out of
your hands.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Absolutely. I mean, even at one point, before we got to that
point, when we were having a dinner with, I think there were three of us
together. We were talking about the transplant and someone being a donor.
And I said, `Well, you know, I don't know if I really want to do that,' etc.,
etc. And I remember Claude saying, `Well, you know, it's really not up to
you,' you know. `If it's meant for you to have this kidney and you have
people here who are willing to give it to you, you're going to have this
kidney,' you know. So the whole time, you know, I felt I was, you know, of
course operating under my own steam and under my own will, but I also feel
that there was something else and work.

GROSS: Yeah. I know if it was me and somebody said, `You know, I'd be
willing to give you my kidney,' I know I might think it's a kind of like
`Let's do lunch' kind of thing...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Right.

GROSS: ...where the offer is made because everybody knows no one can really
take you up on it, you know.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Right.

GROSS: So it must seem like a real impossibility of repaying such a debt.
You know, what can you do that measures up to somebody giving you their
kidney?

Mr. SUNDIATA: I don't think you can do anything, you know. I really don't.
And, you know, I would ask--I asked each of them, and especially Katea, since
she ended up being the donor, you know, `What can I do?' You know, `Just what
could I possibly do?' And, you know, being the people they are, everyone
said, `Well, you know, just get healthy, get well,' etc., etc., those kinds of
things.

In my own mind, I thought that, you know, as a writer and a storyteller, I
thought maybe what I could do is tell this story. You know, I've talked about
this before. I come out of a tradition of testifying and witnessing, whether
that was in the church or, you know, in literature or whatever. And the idea
that in these testimonies, that there is great value in these stories. And
sometimes you can't really see what the value is, you know, at the time that
you're doing it or you're telling it, but you sense that there's some great
value in the story. So if anything--I mean, I don't think of it as repaying a
debt because I don't think that that can be done, you know. But it is what I
have to offer. I've been given this story, and I think that it may be useful.

GROSS: How has your relationship changed with Katea, who gave you the kidney?
Is she still your manager?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, she is. She is. And, we joke about, you know, the--you
know, she'll ask me how her kidney's doing. And, you know, at one point, one
of the transplant coordinators told us when we were being evaluated for the
transplant that she had had reports from kidney recipients that they think
they take on some of the characteristics of their donors, you know. And the
first six months or so after I got out of the hospital with the transplant, I
would cry at the drop of a hat. I mean, just, you know--I mean, it would be a
beautiful day and I would cry. The wind would be beautiful and I would cry,
or anything. You know, something on--watching a soap opera, I would cry. And
Katea's kind of close to her emotions like that. So I would joke with her.
I'd call her up when I started crying and tell her her kidney had me crying,
you know. So it's something that we share, an experience that we share
between us. And I don't know if I feel closer now than before because, you
know, we were very close then.

GROSS: Now, you know, when you have any kind of organ transplant, you have to
worry about autoimmune problems. The immune system often attacks a
transplanted organ thinking that it's an invading foreign body that needs to
be killed. And, you know, there's the medical explanation of that. But it
also can take on great, like, metaphoric value, the idea of the body attacking
itself or the body turning on the precious organ that is saving your life.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Did you think about that both in medical and also in, like, literary
terms?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, you know, first of all, I had a very rough transplant
year after I was released from the hospital. I think I was probably back in
the operating room six or seven times that year alone; difficulties with the
kidney, with the transplant. So, yeah, I thought about that a great deal.
And I was highly compliant--that's the term they use--in terms of, you know,
taking my medications and keeping my appointments and all of this. You know,
I really felt, well, you know, that I wanted to be well, but there was
this--that this was such a gift from Katea to me that I felt that I had to
have just the best and most attentive stewardship of this, you know, organ.
So, you know, that was very prominent in my mind, especially in that first
year.

And then, you know, the idea that when you get an organ transplant, your
immune system is suppressed. And so what would be a normal line of defense is
intentionally weakened. So that was something else to get used to, because it
wasn't just about the possibility of rejecting the organ. It was the
possibility of opportunistic infections, all of these things that I would
never think twice about. Getting a cold, you know, even really getting the
flu or other kinds of things now became much larger and much more serious to
think about, you know. So in terms of vulnerability, it just increased that
sense of vulnerability, I don't know, tenfold, you know.

GROSS: Sekou Sundiata will be back in the second half of the show. His new
theater piece, "Blessing the Boats," premieres in Manhattan on Friday. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more with poet Sekou Sundiata about his kidney transplant
in 1999 and the car accident soon after in which he broke his neck. And we
meet the woman who gave him one of her kidneys, Katea Stitt, his friend and
manager.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with poet and performer
Sekou Sundiata. His new theater piece, "Blessing the Boats," is about his
recent kidney failure, dialysis and transplant. While he was on the waiting
list for a new kidney, with his life in jeopardy, several of his friends
offered to donate a kidney.

Now you mentioned that your lover was one of the people on a list of that
short list of people willing to give you a kidney when you needed the
transplant. And you're lovers. You've been lovers for several years, but
you're not married. And I'm wondering if being in the hospital and being
really sick made you reconsider the idea of getting married? And I ask that
for like all the practical kind of reasons--health insurance, visiting hours?
Often, like an official spouse is cut a lot of breaks in the hospital that the
girlfriend or the boyfriend wouldn't be given, particularly if you don't know
the doctors very well. Last will and testament kind of stuff...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Right.

GROSS: ...a lot of that stuff is sometimes a lot easier with a spouse than it
is with a lover. If this isn't too personal, can you talk about thinking that
through?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, what I can say about that is, you know, you're absolutely
right. It does make a difference under certain circumstances whether you're
married or not. And like many people who are not married, there are times
when we become conveniently married.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SUNDIATA: For just those reasons, you know. And, you know, at other
times, some of the things you mentioned, you know, you don't have to be
married to do.

But I don't--you know, I didn't start thinking so much in terms of marriage;
it's just thinking in terms of how deep the relationship became, you know.
And I didn't necessarily formulate that in terms of marriage, but a deep kind
of devotion and commitment that, frankly, I'd never known before, you know.
And I had so much--I went through so many changes even before I got the
transplant. But afterwards, it was a very difficult year. And, basically,
Kazi was my caretaker, you know. I mean, she just took care of me. And, of
course, she didn't bargain for any of this when she got involved with me, you
know. This just happened, you know.

And she also has a daughter who also was very--you know, she's 11 now, but she
was, of course, you know, five or six at the time--who also took on a
caretaking role, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SUNDIATA: So what I can say is in this case, you know, the relationship
really deepened in terms of commitment and devotion.

GROSS: Katea, your manager who donated your kidney...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...I'm just wondering if she was white or African-American.

Mr. SUNDIATA: African-American. African-American. And I mean, it's
interesting that you would ask that, because I thought...

GROSS: I felt uncomfortable asking. Is that a bad question to ask?

Mr. SUNDIATA: No, no. I think it's a good question, and for a number of
reasons. One is that--first of all, it gives me an opportunity to say what
I'm about to say.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Go ahead.

Mr. SUNDIATA: And that is that, you know, I really did think, as I suspect
many people who don't know anything about the world of transplantation, that
transplants needed to be race--that they was better if they was race-specific
and gender-specific. You know what I mean? In other words, I thought that,
you know, it would be a real difficulty for a black person to be a donor to a
white person or for a man to a woman or--all of those things. And I guess
those are ideas that I import from the social realm, you know. That's not the
case.

And I met adults my age, or in and around my age, who had what they call
pediatric kidneys. You know, kidneys from really very young children, you
know.

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. SUNDIATA: So, you know, apparently, that's--you know, that's not an issue
preventing transplantation, although race does play a part in certain ways.
When I was in--those three weeks when I was in the hospital for the
transplant, one of the difficulties I had is my body--my immune system was
resisting being suppressed by the medication they gave me, and I was on the
highest dosage of one of the immunosuppressant drugs, but my body was not
absorbing it. And the doctor told me that African-Americans have the hardest
immune system to suppress, which I found interesting. In fact, I had
something about that in one of the earlier versions of the script, you know.
And to me, that was an interesting thing just personally, but also, in a
historical--and as a writer I took a great interest in that, thinking about
why that would be and maybe why did that evolve in that way, why did
African-Americans evolve in that way, and what connections that may have had
to the stress of slavery and Middle Passage and all of those things.

So I think that that is--the question you asked is a valid and very worthwhile
question. I think people thinking about donation have those questions.

GROSS: My guest is poet Sekou Sundiata. His new one-man show "Blessing the
Boats" is about his experiences with kidney failure, dialysis and a kidney
transplant. We'll meet his friend who donated her kidney after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: After hearing poet Sekou Sundiata talk about his kidney transplant, we
wanted to meet the woman who donated her kidney. So before we hear more from
Sundiata, we're going to talk with his good friend and manager, Katea Stitt.
Stitt's clients have included Ntozake Shange, Lester Bowie, Defunkt and Sweet
Honey in the Rock. She directs the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz Oral
History Program, and she's the daughter of jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt.

Katea Stitt had known Sundiata for only two years when she offered her kidney.
Not long after her surgery, she met her husband Sven. They now have an
18-month-old daughter. Katea told me more about the transplant dinners; the
gatherings between Sundiata and his friends who had offered to be organ
donors. She said after four of the friends found they had the right blood
type for donation, the tone of the dinners changed.

Ms. KATEA STITT (Kidney Donor for Sundiata): That's when you felt the tension
of, like, `OK, what are we going to do here? Who is really gonna'--I think we
were all willing to step up to the plate, but who was really--OK?--gonna take
the plunge? And I think somehow I said, `Well, I really don't mind doing it.'
And I also think at that time in my life, my lifestyle probably lended itself
to doing it because I was single, because I wasn't a mother yet, because I was
in a very good place with my business and working for myself. I had other
clients, but I had other clients that knew of Sekou, knew that this might be a
possibility and were all being very supportive. So it was just--you know, the
conditions were right.

And I can't remember how we--we didn't, you know, draw straws, or something
like this, but there was a moment when we said, `OK, Katea will do it, and
then Bill will be her backup.' So we actually have a pact that if something
happened to my remaining kidney, then Bill would donate to me. So that's how
we went into it. And then whomever was the donor would also be taken care of
by the other three.

GROSS: And so they took care of you?

Ms. STITT: Yeah, very well. Very well, yeah.

GROSS: What was the process of recovery like?

Ms. STITT: It was not very difficult, believe or not. I mean, there are
sometimes complications for some donors, but I think that's very rare. For
me, it was very easy. I had done a lot of preparing beforehand. I do a lot
of fasting and cleansing, and I'd done a lot of--I do a lot of juicing anyway,
but I had done a juice fast right before, and I kind of had all my homeopathic
things I needed and just had read an awful lot, so I was very educated going
into the process. So I knew what to expect.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STITT: It was--there was a funny moment a few days after the operation.
I was still on the morphine for the pain, and I had gone to visit Sekou.
Sekou and I were on opposite ends of the same wing. And they kept kind of
donors on one side and those recipients on the other for some strange reason.
But I went to visit him. I was sitting in the chair talking to him, and then
I started nodding off periodically. And Sekou kept laughing at me because I'd
wake up and I'd start talking again as if I'd never been to sleep. And I was
like, `What is so funny?' and, you know, he explained it to me.

But other than that, actually, my reaction to the morphine, I was fine. I
mean, it took me about three weeks. I was a week in the hospital, and then I
spent two more weeks in New York recovering with friends. The biggest thing
for me was that I was tired...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STITT: ...for about a month or so, just really tired; like I had to
sleep. And that went on for about a month, and that after that, I was fine.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. How long after you donated the kidney did you become pregnant
with your daughter?

Ms. STITT: Let's see, the donation was January of '99; I was pregnant in
September of 2000. And actually, you know, if I can just say, I thought of
that as the greatest--well, my daughter, becoming pregnant with my daughter,
and actually my union with Sven--I thought of those as kind of gifts that I
received for giving my kidney to Sekou, 'cause I really do believe that. I
felt like giving the kidney to Sekou was a walk of faith, you know, and of
love. You know, you don't do something like that for someone if you don't
love them, or love humanity. You know, you can do it for someone you don't
know, but then you have a deep love for humanity. And I just knew that when
you do something like that, you're bound to get rewarded, you know. And not
in a physical, material way, the way that we think of reward. I mean on a
metaphysical, spiritual--on the subtle level, you're bound to be rewarded.
And Johanna(ph) and Sven are definitely that.

GROSS: So you've said that you think, you know, meeting your husband and
having your daughter were almost like gifts...

Ms. STITT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...in return for donating the kidney. How'd you meet your husband?

Ms. STITT: Sven and I met, actually, about eight years ago now. We used to
kind of hang out at this alternative warehouse where they made environmental
films and, you know, we're going to change the world and that kind of deal,
but we were friends. And then he called while I was recuperating in New York
to see how I was doing. A mutual friend of ours said, `Hey, Katea did
this'--he hadn't seen me in years, and he said, `Katea did this. And I don't
have time to call her, but here's her number.' And Sven said, `Yeah, I'm
going to call her. That's amazing.'

And he did call me a few times to see how I was. And then when I came back to
DC, he actually called again to see how I was doing. And we started just
going out, you know. He'd say, `Oh, you want to get together and go
Rollerblading or hiking or something?' And one thing led to another. So, you
know, it kind of was tied into the transplant after all, because he probably
wouldn't have even thought of me, I don't think, had a friend of ours reminded
him or told him that I done this. And he said, `Oh, yeah,' you know. And we
were always friendly when we would run into each other in the city and, you
know, say, `How are you doing? How are things?' but that was the extent of
it. And, you know, here he is, like, the perfect match, so to speak.

GROSS: That's so great.

Ms. STITT: It was. It was really nice.

GROSS: How big is the scar?

Ms. STITT: Oh, pretty big. You wanna see? No...

GROSS: Sure. Yeah, sure.

Ms. STITT: You want to see it?

GROSS: Yeah, I'll take a peek.

Ms. STITT: It's right here. See it right there?

GROSS: Oh, I can see it. Yeah. It's...

Ms. STITT: It's fairly large.

GROSS: It's on your right side, and it--you're very skinny, I should say.
But it kind of covers...

Ms. STITT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...the side of--like, the midsection.

Ms. STITT: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. STITT: So I guess it looks like it's probably eight or nine inches long.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Ms. STITT: Yeah.

GROSS: But it looks like it healed well.

Ms. STITT: It did heal well. In fact...

GROSS: But...

Ms. STITT: ...our surgeon...

GROSS: Yeah?

Ms. STITT: He said, `I'll try to do it so you can still wear a bikini.' And
I was, like, `Yeah, I'm really worried about that. If I were worried about
that, I wouldn't give my kidney,' you know.

GROSS: But that's the thing. People are always so worried about scars. But
this is probably a scar that you're really proud to have.

Ms. STITT: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I do wear a bikini in the summer, but I
don't talk about it much. You know, sometimes people look or they're very
curious so they ask, even, and I'll tell them then. Yeah, I guess in some
ways, it might be a badge--I don't want to say a badge of honor, but, you
know, of something that we've been through. Sekou and I have been through
many things together, but this is something that will always be there, you
know. And when I'm 90, I can look at the scar even without Sekou, you know,
if I don't have him in my life, and say, `Well, we had a good friendship.'
And I really do feel like we'll be friends forever. We might not always work
together, but will be friends forever.

GROSS: Katea Stitt donated a kidney to poet Sekou Sundiata. She's his close
friend and manager.

Before we get back to our interview with Sundiata, let's hear a track from his
1997 CD "The Blue Oneness of Dreams." This is his poem "Shout Out."

(Soundbite of "Shout Out")

Mr. SUNDIATA: Leia(ph), Imani(ph), Kubijabilier(ph). Here's to the best
words in the right place at the perfect time to the human mind blown up and
refined. To long conversations and the philosophical ramifications of a
beautiful day. To the 12-steppers at the 13th step, may they never forget
their first step. To the increase, to the decrease, to the do to the do to
the did to the did to the do to the did to the done done, to the lonely, to
the brokenhearted. To the new blue haiku. Here's to all or nothing at all.
Here's to the sick and the shut-in. Here's to the was you been to the is you
am to what's deep in deep to what's down in down. To the lost, and the blind,
and the almost-found.

To the crazy, the lazy, the bored, the ignored, the beginners, the sinners,
the losers, the winners, to the smooth and the cool and even to the fools.
Here's to your ex-best friend. To the rule-benders and the repeat offenders.
To the lovers and the troublers. The engaging, the enraging, to the healers
and the feelers and the fixers and the tricksters. To a star falling from a
dream. To a dream when you know what it means. To the bottom, to the root,
to the base--uh, boom!--to the drum. Here's to the was you been to the is you
am to what's deep in deep to what's down in down. To the lost, and the blind,
and the almost-found.

Here's to somebody within the sound of your voice this morning. Here's to
somebody who can't be within the sound of your voice tonight. To a
low-cholesterol pig sandwich smothered in swine without the pork. To a light
buzz in your head and a soundtrack in your mind going on and on and on and on
and on like a good time. Here's to promises that break by themselves. Here's
to the breaks with great promise. To people who don't wait in the car when
you tell them to wait in the car. Here's to what you forgot and who you
forgot. Here's to the unforgettable. Here's to the was you been to the is
you am to what's deep in deep to what's down in down. To the lost, and the
blind, and the almost-found.

Here's to the hip-hoppers, the don't-stoppers, heads nodding in the digital
glow of their..

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with poet Sekou Sundiata. His new
theater piece, "Blessing the Boats," is about his kidney failure, dialysis and
kidney transplant.

You were preparing for a comeback concert in New England, and you were driving
to this concert...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know, after you had gotten healthy enough following your kidney
transplant to start performing again, you're driving in a snowstorm through
New England to get to this comeback concert and you were in a car accident and
broke your neck in the car accident. And from my understanding, you nearly
died in that accident.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.

GROSS: You were trapped in the car for a couple of hours. What was going
through your mind when you were in that car with a broken neck after having
just gotten through this whole horrible period of kidney failure, kidney
transplant, post-kidney transplant surgeries, you finally recover and then
you're in this horrible accident?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, my first thought--I mean, even as the car was sliding,
you know, in the snow, was how absurd this was. You know, it just seemed
stupid to me. First of all, this happened in January of 2000. I had my last
surgery related to the transplant in December. Just--I don't even know if it
was a full month before the accident. So I was still, in a sense,
recuperating from that. So I thought that that was, you know, getting--I was
putting that behind me when this whole thing happened. And I remember
thinking as the car was sliding off the highway that I just couldn't believe
it could all come down to this. You know, it just seemed like such an absurd
and silly thing, you know, to happen.

And then, also--I have to tell you this. You know, I think that there's no
question that my life was in danger. I didn't know that my neck was broken
while I was there, you know, upside down in the snow, and I didn't think
anybody could see that I'd gone off the road. But I never felt that I was
gonna die. You know, I never felt that that was it. And I don't
know--there's no physical evidence to support that idea, because it was a
blinding snowstorm, I had dropped down a slope, you could not see me from the
highway and I couldn't even hear the car--the traffic on the highway passing
by. So I had no real evidence to support that. It was just a blind faith
that I had that somehow this was not it.

At the same time, I'd never been so alone and isolated in my life. And I
don't think I'd ever--I never knew things could be that quiet, either. And
then this woman shows up, kneeling beside the car in the storm and she has a
cell phone. And she starts talking to me and she calls 911 and, you know, she
gets all of that going. And by the time the fire department arrived, this
woman is gone. I never see her again. I don't know her name or any of that,
but she's just gone. And from that point on, you know, the fire department
has it, and they cut me out and all of that.

GROSS: Did you have any idea before all this happened to you that people
could be so good, so decent?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, I did. I did. You know--and really, it's a case of
knowing something for quite some time, and then something happens and you get
to know it at an even deeper and more profound level. I've been fortunate,
you know, in my life to have just been helped and assisted by so many people,
both people I've seen and then people I haven't seen, but I know that, you
know, people have helped me in various ways. And, you know, I've had many,
many examples of this kind of goodness.

Having said that, it didn't diminish in any way the fact that this was
seemingly out of the blue, you know, and very mysterious. I mean, she showed
up and then she was gone, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SUNDIATA: But you know, I think that that's fundamental in the human
heart, you know. And I think it's probably more common than we may perceive
on a day-to-day basis.

GROSS: It's really lucky and amazing that after breaking your neck, you
didn't end up paralyzed or partially paralyzed. You got your full movement
back, right?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. I started--while I was trapped in the car,
first thing I did was wiggle my toes and, you know, try and wiggle my fingers
to see if I had function. Yeah, I was very, very fortunate.

GROSS: So how long did it take you to recover from that?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, quite some time. At first, the doctors said I didn't--I
wouldn't need surgery, actually. You know, I had a huge brace on my neck, and
they thought that if I wore that for 12 weeks, that I would be fine. But it
started to deteriorate, so I ended up having spinal fusion surgery. And the
recovery time there, I think, was about maybe eight weeks. But then, in the
midst of all that, I caught pneumonia, I think, as a result of the surgery.
So in short, it ended up being about--I don't know--six months, seven months.

GROSS: How would you describe your physical condition now?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Now I'm feeling good. I'm still at the point, though, where
I'm still conditioning my body. My body is still very much out of condition.
From the transplant alone--from the time I went into the hospital before the
transplant and the time that I came out, a period of about three weeks, I lost
about 55, 60 pounds. And because I was in and out of the hospital so much
that year, you know, I kept losing weight and gaining a little weight here and
there. And so altogether, my conditioning, my physical conditioning, is not
where I would like it to be. So I've been working on that; you know, physical
therapy. And, you know, after the first of the year, I'll be at least at the
level where I can do some more serious training perhaps with a personal
trainer.

My health overall is very good. I feel fine. You know, I'm doing all of the
things I did before. So I'm doing well.

GROSS: My guest is poet Sekou Sundiata. His new one-man show, "Blessing the
Boats," premieres Friday in Manhattan. We'll be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with poet Sekou Sundiata. His new
theater piece, "Blessing the Boats," is about being physically transformed.
He had kidney failure and a kidney transplant. Just as he was well enough to
start performing again, he was in a car accident in the snow and broke his
neck. He recovered from the accident without paralysis or disability.

In the first interview that you did with us on FRESH AIR, you know, we were
talking about performing. And you said something like, `You know, the
spotlight is the power spot in American culture.' Like, when you're on stage
in front of the microphone, that's the power spot...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...where everybody is, like, more--they're just like--they have more
charisma, they're more important, they're more sexy than anything in actual
real life.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So what's it like to be in that power spot now on stage, but in a
more, like, vulnerable condition; not only feeling more vulnerable, but
talking about that?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, you know, first of all, it still has all of the
attachments of power to me...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SUNDIATA: ...you know--and power to me, I think, stems from a kind of
magic, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SUNDIATA: That--right, it is set aside from normal, everyday life and,
you know, it is special in that way. I think now that--it's about expression
while I'm there, but I also feel just a sense of--you know, an overwhelming
sense of gratitude to be able to be in that spotlight, in the sense that here
I am doing--really, doing my work, you know. That's what I consider to be an
important part of my work; the writing, you know, which I do essentially
alone, and this public aspect of it is something that gives me great joy and
fulfillment aside from whatever value I may think it may have out in the
world.

Personally, I discovered--I don't know--when I was a child that whenever I can
go into my imagination and whatever I can dig up there and then bring out, you
know, is something that gave me great joy and satisfaction, you know. And so
to be able to do that again and to feel healthy to be able to do that again is
a wonderful thing.

GROSS: Sekou, would you be willing to perform another short excerpt from your
show, "Blessing the Boats"?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Sure. This is a poem that comes early in the piece, and it
is--every time I went into the operating room and I started going--when I was
under anesthesia, I'd always hear this music. I mean, really beautiful music.
It wasn't the same music all the time, but it would just be beautiful,
rapturous music. And it was so beautiful and so present that whenever I came
out of anesthesia, I was sure everybody else could hear it. So I'd ask, you
know, the doctors and the nurses and nobody ever heard this music. And in
most cases, they would say--they didn't even play music in the operating room
at the time. So this comes out of that. This poem comes out of that
experience.

(Reading) `Somewhere deep and under anesthesia, the valves of a human heart
open and close, and the black scat syllables of sacred science come pouring
onto a clean page, turning over in my mind. The blues bat their eyes and
rustle their wings. A double reed vibrates in a pure light that means all
things are possible. A bow draws out a round tone across the waist of a bass.
It could be the devil's note the way it cuts through the wood and wind, the
wood and wind, bending the sound right side up, harmonizing the underworld.

`Whoever said the music goes into the air and then it's gone was wrong. It
goes below the flesh and above the grave, where I am flat as a mesa, open as
the great gorge beneath the Tahoe sky. I try to remember the notes by
humming, but humming burns the music out of memory.'

GROSS: Sekou Sundiata's new theater piece, "Blessing the Boats," premieres
Friday and runs through the weekend at Aaron Davis Hall on the campus of City
College in Manhattan. Next year, he'll take his show on the road.

I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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