A successful poet in New York for decades, Sekou Sundiata didn’t write anything autobiographical until his 2003 piece about kidney disease, blessing the boats.

Based on his response to inquiries about his personal life, it’s easy to see why.

“Yeah, I’m married, I got a couple kids,” he says, giving a cellphone interview while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. “I kind of resist these sorts of questions. Why is all this important for the article?”

If a one-man show about a kidney transplant doesn’t sound like exactly the sexiest thing to see this year, well, Sundiata isn’t exactly willing to do a song-and-dance to fill the seats.

Maybe he doesn’t need to. The Village Voice says he is “to contemporary poetry what Marvin Gaye was to modern soul.” Ani DiFranco says he taught her “everything I know about poetry.”

In 1997, Sundiata was feeling fatigued, with mild flu-like symptoms. Rest didn’t seem to help. After fainting on an elevator, he was diagnosed with kidney disease. He spent a year and a half on dialysis, a life-support treatment that duplicates the kidney functions of waste and fluid removal. Patients often undergo it several times a week.

Five friends stepped forward and offered their organs, and Sundiata received a transplant in January of 1999. He spent a year in and out of the hospital before the new kidney stabilized.

“The underlying story is my experience with being diagnosed with kidney disease, but having said that, it’s not really a chronicle,” he says. “It’s more of a contemplation of some of the themes and some issues and encounters I have along the way.”

While there is some video projection and a soundtrack, the strength of the show is in its simplicity, Sundiata says, adding: “It’s really about language.”

Sundiata was born Robert Feaster in Harlem in 1948. His father’s family is from Charleston and his mother lives in Florence County. He visits his many relatives here often, although he’s never been here at Spoleto time.

He attended City University of New York and has a Master’s from Columbia. Despite having appeared on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam and having a regular backing band, he refutes any spoken word categorization.

“People think that if you perform poetry that makes you a spoken word artist.

“I see a lot of spoken word poets; some are comedians, entertainers, jugglers, actors. I think [spoken word is] mainly about expression. Poetry is mainly a different matter. It’s an art with an ancient tradition, a history. It’s a discipline, a field of study.”

Sundiata’s show takes its name from a short poem by Lucille Clifton, perhaps best known as the writer of “poem to my uterus.”

At one point during his ordeal, Sundiata looked around and saw himself and his fellow recovering patients like travel-weary vessels stoically returning to sea, and he thought of Clifton’s lines: “may the tide/ that is entering even now/ the lip of our understanding/ carry you out/ beyond the face of fear.”

“I think the more skillful any artist is in being particular,” Sundiata says, “that at some point the particular turns into its opposite. In being particular it gives it a kind of grounding to a truth that resonates beyond that specific thing.” —Jonathan Sanchez

blessing the boats • Spoleto Festival USA • $25 • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 26 at 2 p.m. and 9 p.m., May 28 at 8 p.m., May 29 at 6 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theater, 54 St. Philip St. • 579-3100