It’s been a tough winter for Columbus’ poetry community. In December, Writers’ Block Poetry Night as the city’s premier open mic series. And on February 7, the renowned and revered Columbus poet Is Said (Charles Lyons) died after a period of declining health. He was 88 years old.
Is Said was a foundational part of Columbus' now-vibrant poetry community who became a respected elder. For more than 50 years, he published chapbooks of his poems, performed his work solo or with the backing musicians of Advance Party, blended the recitation of poetry with African dancers, wrote and produced plays, hosted poetry slams, and mentored dozens of younger poets.
Poet and former Columbus resident Barbara Fant, now a lecturer, consultant, and the editor of the Antioch University Los Angeles journal Lunch Ticket, was one of them.
“He was central to my growth as a writer,” Fant said. “He told me, ‘To develop a voice, you need to listen to other voices.’ So, I went to Writers’ Block, the Poetry Forum, slams, anywhere poets were reading. His guidance helped me find a true, authentic voice.”
Fant also acted in one of Is Said’s plays. “He said it was important to learn other art forms as well," she added.
Born in Atlanta, Is Said moved to Columbus as a teen, graduating from East High School. He did a stint in the Air Force, then returned to the city. In Columbus, he met and married Anita Goines, his wife of 48 years, and quickly became a prominent influence in the local literary community.
Is Said performed regularly at local poetry venues, as well as at the Columbus Arts Festival, the Hot Times Festival and ComFest. In the 1990s, he organized and hosted eclectic and inclusive seasonal readings by Columbus and regional poets at the Frank W. Hale, Jr. Black Cultural Center at Ohio State.
Candy Watkins, local festival organizer and a collaborator on both volumes of Listen for the Jazz: KeyNotes in Columbus History, first encountered Is Said at an early Hot Times Festival.
“He was a soapbox poet, a street poet, a people’s poet,” Watkins said. “To me, it was always more engaging to see him on a lawn or a stage than at a podium.”
Watkins was always impressed by his generosity of spirit. “Is Said was focused on his community,” Watkins said. “He educated people through his workshops and performances – kids and senior citizens, too. He saw the greater good. His poetry showed he was a social activist, but a quiet one.”
His work was known for its celebration of Black culture, its social consciousness and commentary, and its humor. He recited poems such as “Product of Africa," "Everybody Will Be Equal After the Bomb" and "Gimme Something for the Head" throughout Columbus and on the streets of New York. He also traveled annually to Africa, maintaining a connection to African history and to the dynamic elements of modern African culture. Both his language and his delivery were rhythmic, lyrical and unique.
I first met Is Said at the first Community Festival (now ComFest) in 1972, where I bought one of his “Gimme Something for the Head” T-shirts – featuring artwork by Walt Neil – and began a five-decade friendship with a man who would truly become the godfather of Columbus poetry: wise and humorous, and a polestar for the city’s younger Black poets. He inspired me as I developed my own poetry, and over time we became good friends supporting each other's work and events.
I know I’ll continue to hear his voice in the poems of many younger poets.
Steve Abbott is a founding member and continues as a host of the Poetry Forum.