I don’t remember where or when I first met Clinton Powell, but there’s a pretty fair bet it was eight or nine years ago at The Sentient Bean just south of Forsyth Park here in Savannah. The Bean was brand new and tiny in those days, occupying only about a third of its current space, but it had quickly become a neighborhood hub, a gathering place for local writers and artists and students and various others who enjoyed the progressive atmosphere. In other words, the coffeeshop was popular with a whole range of folks who were irregularly (I prefer the term “creatively”) employed.
Or maybe I even met Clinton before that, at one of the earliest performances sponsored by the Spitfire Poetry Group, which he co-founded with Renazance.
I encountered Clinton dozens of times over the years, and I can’t recall a single time when he was anything less than warm, upbeat, intent on some project that would get young people engaged with poetry and performance. In 2004, he was among the driving forces to launch the annual Savannah Spoken Word Festival. In 2005, I wrote a column about one of Spitfire’s inspiring poetry slams at Club Oz on Indian Street.
Clinton and I were never close friends, but knew each other in that very public way that is possible in Savannah. Once you meet someone in this town, there’s a pretty fair bet that your paths will cross again. The various overlapping social circles and limited size contribute to “the spiral effect of eccentricity,” as John Berendt once described the way in which Savannah encourages idiosyncratic personalities. I had a similarly close but public-rather-than-private friendship with a number of other Savannahians who have died in recent years, including photographer Jack Leigh and entrepreneur Ron Higgins.
In recent years, Clinton would typically greet me with a hug — a good firm one that included a thump of his solid flat fist to my back. It was a warm, comfortable gesture, and I can even remember once exchanging a hug like that as we passed without either of us pausing our conversations with other friends. Maybe his skinniness should have tipped me off to his precarious health, but Clinton was anything but fragile — whether sitting, talking, walking, or reading from the stage, he exuded energy.
Since Clinton’s passing on January 2nd, there has been an outpouring of love, sadness, and joy on his Facebook page. There was an emotional, impromptu memorial gathering at The Bean (I missed it, home with laryngitis). There will be a memorial service mixing poetry and song on Friday, January 7th from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Savannah Theatre on Chippewa Square.
I’m sure Clinton’s close friends, family, and proteges will feel a huge void in their private lives, but for others of us the loss is a public one. With the great support Clinton gave it over the years, I suspect that the local spoken word scene will thrive without his active presence, but will someone else step up to exude that same personal warmth and positivity?
I hope so.