Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Q. Could you talk briefly about your play "Stubs' Lady" which was produced by Arts Out Loud?
That play was in many ways my first step into the public space of writing under my own name.
I had published a couple of poems as a teenager, fortunately in venues so obscure I can be sure nobody will ever find them now. My writing had continued during the time of my draft service, and as I returned to D.C. and returned to school, I felt it was time to begin submitting my poetry to journals to test the waters. Having no clue how this might normally be done, I equipped myself with a copy of Writers Digest and picked two mags out of the listings editors had placed there. One, The Poet, was published by the Fine Arts Council of Milwaukee, WI, and was a special bicentennial year compendium. For who knows what reason, the piece I chose to send them was an anti-capital punishment poem, clearly an odd choice for the occasion but I have never been an occasional poet. The poem was accepted, and the journal accidentally cooperated with my early penchant for anonymity by printing “(continued)” in the space under my poem where my name was supposed to appear. I have no idea if this confused readers in Milwaukee, but it did make it hard to locate my identity in the volume’s index. In fact, my name appeared there as “A.L. Neilson,” reason enough to further reduce my poetic signature to “A.L.”
Which is exactly how I was identified in the very first journal to publish my poetry, and how it was to appear in journals for the next several years. There are a few people in D.C. to this day who call me “A.L.” because that’s how they first saw my name in print. I was twenty-five years old when my poem “My Brother Came Home” appeared in a Pennsylvania-based mag titled Circus Maximus, volume one number two to be precise. The editors liked my poem a lot, though they failed to warn me about the sophomoric mistake of writing the phrase “very silent.” In my defense, as I’ve said before, I was in fact a sophomore at the time, my college education having been put on hold by Selective Service. I was happy to have a poem in a poetry journal, even had a photograph taken of me with my brother and the cat that appears in the poem. (Yes, I published a cat poem! We didn’t have FaceBook in those days.)
As it turned out, the contributors index for that issue included two other D.C. area writers, one Richard Peabody, Jr., and one E. Ethelbert Miller. I had not yet heard of either, but took note of their nearness. I see that Peabody’s year of birth is missing from both his Wikipedia page and his FaceBook page, but for some reason I assumed him to be close in age to myself. The next year he was to begin publishing Gargoyle, a journal in which I appeared a couple times, and we got to know each other a bit. Miller, it turned out, was a few weeks younger than me and already had poems forthcoming in journals I knew and respected such as Obsidian and Greenfield Review. It was to be a couple more years before I got to know him, but so much time has passed that I no longer recall how we first met in person. I do recall that we had spoken before we met. My classmate David Nicholson gave me Ethelbert’s phone number at some point and told me to call him, which I did from my apartment on Swann Street.
When I came up for my first faculty review at San Jose State in the next decade, somebody mentioned my poetry publications along with my critical work and described the poetry journals as “mostly in the Washington, D.C. area,” a note which served as my first lesson in a certain California parochialism I was to encounter again. D.C. being the nation’s capitol, I suppose the whole country is in the D.C. area, so that’s OK with me.
I was publishing in the Federal City College mag, Slave Speaks, and the first readings at which my poetry was read were events where I did not read. Friends in the theater arts department did a much better job than I could being “A.L.” and I was happy to have them bear the burden of being the not-me. A few years down the road when I published a poem in Poet Lore, the editor who sent me the acceptance letter tried to convince me to use my whole name, adding “we think we know who you are,” but they didn’t know. My poetry continued to appear over the initials “A.L.” till I was well into grad school.
But my writer’s name did appear on the posters advertising performances of Stubs’ Lady. This seemed a good first step to me, as my name could appear before a public without me appearing.
I’d had this vision in my head that clearly was not a poem, but I had no experience in the theater and no idea about working with actors. For that reason, I signed up for a play writing class along with my other FCC courses. Once I had the play done, it was selected for performance in a sort of mini festival being mounted by the Arts Out Loud group and U.D.C. (The merger of FCC with D.C. Tech and D.C. Teachers was underway, and the new university’s name was beginning to appear even as a version of my name began to show up in public.)
The director was Stephanie Clark, who I’d known in high school and who had preceded me in enrolling at Federal City. The play was to be presented in a theater space on the first floor of a building directly across the street from the Martin Luther King Library, a building that had previously been the national headquarters for the same Selective Service that had drafted me. That scene of one of my first street protests was now to be the scene of my first live production.
It may say something about me that the thing about that production that made me happiest was the ingenious stage construction. The action of Stubs’ Lady takes place entirely on the front porch of an older mid-western house and the yard area in front of it. The set designers in the theater department built a real freakin’ house front inside that theater space. When one of the actors got up from the porch and went through the front door, you really believed she had gone inside a house. To accommodate the other plays in the festival, which were both more traditional proscenium arch settings, the entire house front for Stubs’ Lady was attached to some brilliant hinging mechanism so that the house could fold up and disappear against the wall, allowing the audience seating to be rearranged for the other two plays.
Stubs’ Lady is about the madness of race and racism, though the topic is never named. There are only four characters, the two sisters who live in the house, the former boy friend of one of them, and his white buddy. (Not so many white students in FCC’s theater department, but one was found.) The first half of the play gives us the two sisters sitting on the porch and talking. When the two men show up, this leads to a dramatic re-enactment of a traumatic event from the past.
But maybe it isn’t a re-enactment. The effect of the play hinges on the audience’s inability to tell to a certainty whether this event really happened or whether it is the imagining of the female lead character. The other sister has suggested at several points that the lead character is mentally unbalanced, and the audience is supposed to have to decide for themselves whether her current state is the result of that traumatic event, or whether she has been mad all along and has imagined that episode.
And there was the problem that drove me from the theater. The people producing my play had decided that Stubs was real, not a figment of the Lady’s imagining, and so the production leaned towards that interpretation. That reading of the play wasn’t exactly wrong, but it was only one reading, and I had wanted audiences to have to remain suspended between the possible readings. To my way of thinking, that was part of the message about race and racism, that uncomfortable, unending suspension.
Still, it was an effective production, and the audiences seemed to respond powerfully. I really liked the acting, especially the young woman who played the lead. The two actresses in the piece didn’t bear even the faintest family resemblance, but they did such a good job that you believed they were sisters who had lived with each other and with each other’s problems their whole lives.
In the end, I was happy with the way things had gone, but didn’t want to do it again. I wrote a longer play, The Harrowing of Reverend Hill, but left it sitting in my files. I never went back to make the last revision it needed before being produced somewhere, and nobody has ever seen it. Likely nobody ever will.
I have good memories of my play and the fine cast that brought it into being. Sitting anonymously in the audience during a few of the performances, or standing among the crowd on the plaza outside afterwards, I was able to hear people talking about the work, a few of them wondering out loud about the guy who had written it. Stephanie and I had a few good laughs about some of the theories about the playwright we heard people advance. I had a few more good laughs about the theory my then girl friend advanced after seeing the play. (Literalists, it seems, will always be with us.)
But that was it for me as a writer for the theater. From then on it was to be poetry and criticism, and that’s been enough to keep me busy and well out of the limelight.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
I had been eyeing the marquee outside the Brown Theater all week. Then, after Fred Moten's lecture, while everyone else was off to dinner, I stole away for a night with Irma Thomas. With the last chord still in my ear, I grabbed a cab over to the conference after party at Alan Golding's house.
Click here for a front row seat.
Monday, March 09, 2015
The University of Louisville's Conference on Literature and Culture after 1900 has always been a sort of third home for me, a place that makes place for criticism and poetry more consistently than most. This year's program included readings and talks by Joseph Lease, Fred Moten, Jean-Michel Rabate and Tracie Morris. Moten and Morris are both contributors to the forthcoming anthology What I Say, and my co-editor on that project, Lauri Ramey, was also on hand with a presentation on the Heritage Series of African American poets. My own paper was another stage in my work on the cultural background of the Howard/Dasein poets. I could easily go on at length, but instead -- here they are!
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Q. Can you provide a short list of some of the best jazz poems written by American poets?
What makes a good jazz poem? How do we move beyond the process of "naming" and calling a poem a jazz poem because it simply includes the name of a jazz artist?
On one of the occasions when Robert Creeley was asked what he and Charles Olson had in common as poets, he answered with one word, “Bird.”
If you look to a collection like the Kevin Young edited Jazz Poems in the “Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets” series [and why doesn’t the “pocket poets” book contain a single mention of that great player of the pocket trumpet, Donald Cherry?], you’ll find that all but a tiny few of the poems in the volume explicitly mention a jazz musician or a particular jazz composition. And so, for example, Young includes the early Creeley poem “Chasing the Bird,” – interestingly enough, it is a poem most would not have thought to term a “jazz poem” had it not been for the title. (Though one song title appears as a line in the poem, that title is more often associated with Sonny Stitt than with Bird, but maybe that’s why the title is there – Sonny was chasing the bird.)
But this is a question I’ve been hearing in one form or another for nearly four decades. I remember hearing a poet reading at the Washington Writers Center in Glen Echo, Maryland (now in Bethesda – don’t think it was ever in Washington – maybe that’s why “Washington” isn’t part of the name these days), complain that too many poets thought they had written a jazz poem because they had mentioned a musician – that he, unlike them, was doing it the right way. Here’s an example of him doing it right:
Listening to hard bop,
I stayed up all night
Just like good times.
I broke the old waxes
After I’d played them:
Out of Nowhere, Mohawk,
Star Eyes, Salt Peanuts . . .
That was Paul Zimmer (he has a piece in the Young collection too), and while the poem has him literally breaking the mold, I had a hard time seeing the contrast he was claiming. Fast forward a few decades and I find myself hearing the same complaint and claims from the Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, author of the book Hail! Madam Jazz, and again, the poems made much mention of musicians and songs. (And the poet insisted on keeping his audience in the dark – the room lights were extinguished while he read under a lamp light on the podium, resulting in that same effect we’d get when, as children, we’d hold a flashlight under our chin.) I was again hard pressed to hear anything especially jazzy in the poetry, though I had to give the poet credit for sneaking the last syllable of his name into the title of his book. This is clearly not just a white poet thing. The opening lines of Kevin Young’s “Stardust” read:
the reds, whatever
she can find–
changed, a chord–
that’s got his own
Among the usual elements, a drug reference – extra credit from the workshop for the enjambed “short / changed” in short lines giving short shrift to a chord change – To Young’s credit, his anthology does include things like Norman Pritchard’s “Gyre’s Galax,” which you can hear Pritchard chanting on the 1967 LP New Jazz Poets. That’s a poem that approaches the idea via sound structures rather than content.
I am as guilty/creditable as anybody else on this score. Here’s a short-lined poem on the occasion of the death of Miles Davis:
Still in the ear
All these years
From first hearing
To this news
I think of this structure as a little horn, almost a pocket trumpet. It works with sound as much as sense. It alludes to Miles’s famous rests, now become permanent, “In a Silent Way,” without naming that tune. Early poems of mine invoke, sometimes obliquely, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, J.P. Johnson, and so on, in the tradition of so many of my fellow poets of mentioning the music in the process of writing of it. One person said writing about music is like dancing about architecture – another said words don’t go there – in both instances, these become epigrams that we repeat to one another that really don’t do anything more than excuse us from thinking more carefully about the musics of writing.
I suppose some close reader might posit direct formal linkages between the structures of Creeley’s and Olson’s poems and Charlie Parker’s music, much as a few critics continue to scan Williams’s variable feet and insist they can really be counted. I don’t see it. Still – In the chapter of my book Writing between the Lines titled “Whose Blues?” (that title written before I used the line in a poem - in the chapter the phrase is a question – in the poem it is a possessive) I argued that Williams and Kerouac had precious little technical knowledge about the jazz that so moved them; that we should not expect to find demonstrable jazz analogues in their works. But there is absolutely no doubting that jazz helped to form their writing. Kerouac’s “spontaneous Bop prosody” is a metaphor become a practice.
If we want to see what I would consider jazz poetry that isn’t such purely by virtue of its subject matter, we can look to the poetry of Cecil Taylor. This might seem an evasion, since Taylor is himself a jazz musician (one whose poems hold considerably more interest for me than do those of most jazz musicians who write verse – he’s one of the exceptions, along with Joseph Jarman and, so I hear, Herbie Nichols).
fruit happy to the water know
pleasant prick of tongues identities
forage gather’d dentures elastic
response call juices
Though Taylor can allude with the best of them:
Remember T. Dameron
know tender things un-
tamper’d by populous
ne-be hebetudes, tides
I tried not to devote much time to the question of definition when I wrote about jazz and poetry in Black Chant. (And let’s face it, while I absolutely did want to write those chapters, it was a way a still precariously situated literary professor could write about music without catching flack from a dean or department head.) In Sascha Feinstein’s book Jazz Poetry from the 1920s to the Present, published in the same year as Black Chant, Feinstein recounts the experience of a conference panel that tied itself in knots over the question of what constitutes jazz poetry. In Understanding the New Black Poetry, Stephen Henderson arrived at the most commonsensical of definitions of Black verse. Any poem written by any Black poet is a Black poem, and so is any poem written by a non-Black person which is read as a Black poem by Black people. Feinstein arrives at a similarly plain-spoken and workable definition. “A jazz poem is any poem that has been informed by jazz music.” Notice this is restricted to matters of definition, not judgments of value or quality. So many writers attempting to define jazz poetry invoke rhythm, though it’s clear to me from looking at jazz poems they praise that they have a quite different sense of rhythm from my own. It all reminds me just a tad too much of jazz critics who declare that it isn’t jazz if it doesn’t swing, which might have been an acceptable take on an Ellingtonian imperative were it not for the fact that “swing” is every bit as difficult of definition as anything else in this discussion.
There are poems that take the actual sounds and rhythms of a known jazz work as their structure. Paul Blackburn’s “Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot” is a clear example of that approach, which is probably why the poem appears in nearly every jazz poetry anthology extant. I’d like to insist that Jayne Cortez’s “What’s Your Take?” is a jazz poem, and apparently she shared my view since she included that poem in Jazz Fan Looks Back.
If the most extravagant treaty of abuse
sits like an occupying force on
broken body of an abandoned child
I think it would be hard to argue for this as an example of “swing,” but Cortez was perfectly capable of swinging it in performance. Turning to the issue of Brilliant Corners where my little Miles first appeared, I have a hard time seeing anything of jazz in Billy Collins’s
and every time we kiss
reissued on Impulse
reissued on Verve.
Sorry, but that’s just corny and obvious. And risking sacrilege, I’d say much the same of the late Philip Levine’s poem about Sonny Rollins, “The Unknowable.”
After all–a man who stared for years
into the breathy, unknowable voice
of silence and captured the music.
You can almost hear the audience greeting these closing lines with a communal sigh at the depth of it all. But “voice / of silence”? That’s a freshman poetry error. I know because I made a similar error in a poem published when I was a freshman. (More about that in a later post.) I might say my own Sonny Rollins poem is much better, but I would, wouldn’t I? All of our poems seem smaller next to the works Jayne Cortez published in that same issue, poems like “States of Motion” and “Bumblebee, You Saw Big Mama.” But I wouldn’t refuse the definition of “jazz poem” to any of those poems. I’m content with defining the genre as “any poem written under the sign of jazz.” Once we agree on that breadth we can go on to talk about how the poems work, how they signify, how we interact with them.
At the time I wrote Black Chant there was very little work available on jazz and poetry. In addition to Feinstein’s book, we now have Notes to Make the Sound Come Right, by T.J. Anderson III, Tony Bolden’s Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture, Meta Jones’s The Muse Is Music, and Michael New’s dissertation, Instrumental Voices. (Watch for his Gil Scott Heron chapter, forthcoming in Callaloo.) More people in literature need to read George Lewis’s A Power Greater than Itself, which has as much to teach us about poetics as about music.
And the anthologies just keep coming. There was Feinstein’s two volume set co-edited with Yusef Komunyakaa, The Jazz Poetry Anthology and Second Set. Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey edited what for my money remains the best overall collection, Moment’s Notice. More recently there is Experiments in A Jazz Aesthetic.
So, any list would go on longer than a Cecil Taylor solo concert. I would, though, send readers to such work as Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio, which is written next to speakers playing Taylor’s music. And do check out Moten’s new one, The Little Edges.
that’s what rodney asked about,
can you make what we already (do
you remember/how did the people)
have? Let it get around and get on in.
I’d give a listen to Vijay Iyer’s work with Mike Ladd and his performances with Amiri Baraka, who remains a consummate jazz poet. Matana Roberts’s experiments with texts in her Coin Coin trilogy are wondrous. After you read Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball give the enclosed CD a spin. It’s not your usual recorded reading of the book’s poems. And I will repeat; you must listen to Georgia Anne Muldrew’s Olesi: Fragments of an Earth.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Q. C.L.R. James saw Richard Wright's Native Son as not just a major literary achievement but also an epochal moment in American cultural history. During your lifetime have you seen any book by an African American author having a similar significance? Are there any texts that can be viewed as "events' in history?
James’s long-standing friendships with Richard Wright and Paul Robeson are evidence of his ability to sustain lasting and productive relationships with people whose ideology ran counter to his own. James and his wife were good friends to the Wrights and James was a central figure in the group of intellectuals Wright was gathering for a publishing project that fell apart due to lack of financial support shortly before Wright’s departure for France.
During the time I was studying with James there was one cultural phenomenon in particular that James saw as similar to Native Son as a signal moment in American history, and that was the Roots miniseries. Neither James nor I had much admiration for Alex Haley. I had always been deeply suspicious of Haley’s “finishing” of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Haley’s many appearances on television and in print interviews while working on Roots had led me along with many others to believe he was undertaking a project of history. My many suspicions about Haley were compounded by the testimony and settlement around his borrowings from Harold Courlander’s not very good novel. I always believed Haley’d borrowed illegitimately from Margaret Walker’s Jubilee and that she might have prevailed if she’d had a better lawyer.
The problems with the book were if anything magnified by the television series, but that didn’t particularly bother James. What was of interest to him, and I think he was right about this, was parallel to what he had seen with the publishing success of Native Son. Whatever the works’ failings, the fact was that as the Roots miniseries unfolded, millions of Americans were avidly tuning in to this story of Africans in the New World and their legacies for our present.
There may be other instances since then, but the one literary work I can think of in immediate response to your question is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I will always believe Song of Solomon to be the greater work, though I much admire Beloved, and my considerations of the book’s reception will always be affected by the open politicking for a PRIZE for Morrison (which lobbying effort I don’t think she had anything to do with). Still, Beloved became canonical almost instantly, something to be enfolded by syllabi everywhere. The book is even taught in high schools, though I have to believe the teachers are either skipping over a couple of passages or just don’t quite grasp what is being described therein. It’s hard for me to think of a book since Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that has had such a wide effect in American general culture. On a list of books that would include Sinclair’s The Jungle and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Beloved rapidly became a touchstone. I know that James would have been fascinated and moved by the reception of this book, which appeared shortly before his death. James had always been an enthusiastic supporter of Morrison. His late essay “Three Black Women Writers” was about Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. I still remember the day when several of us were in a café on Capitol Hill following a talk James had given on his book Beyond a Boundary. I was having a conversation with the person next to me at the table who happened to mention Sula. James’s eyes lit up the way I had seen so many times, as he said, “Did I hear someone mention Sula? That is a remarkable book.” An entire generation since has come of age reading Beloved, a generation that has mostly not read or seen Roots. (Though I note that the name of Kunta Kinte has lived on in the culture, even among those who have never read of him.)
Another book we might see as having had similar historical import is President Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, and I suspect we could make the case that a generation raised reading Beloved was in some ways a generation not only prepared to read Obama’s book, but a generation ready to vote for America’s first Black President. (And yes, you can ignore what Morrison had to say about Bill Clinton in that regard.)