Tuesday, July 19, 2016

3099 Que Street

I didn't see much of teachers and friends from Wakefield High School after age 17, when I graduated and headed into D.C. to get schooled. I did run into Mr. Haygood, the Algebra teacher in 10th grade who had shared his recordings of Lightnin' Hopkins and Sonny Terry with me, at a Muddy Waters show in Georgetown's Cellar Door. And I saw a lot of the beloved musicians with whom I'd worked in a band all through high school.  As I kept moving around in D.C., it seemed most of the people I had known moved either farther out in Virginia or out of the area all together. So it wasn't until we all got onto social media decades later that I started to reconnect with a few folk.
Recently some of us were remembering the experiences we'd had our senior year in an amazing Art - English - Music seminar we'd been in, and that led, as these things do these days, to googling our 12th grade Art instructor, Joann Crisp Ellert. William Kaffenberger and I made the discovery that she was listed as the author of two novels, and we both immediately ordered up copies.

[paintings by Washington Color School artist Ken Noland]

I wish I could say Ms. Ellert had proved to be a compelling novelist. Let's say that in the same sense that I am a poet/critic who probably doesn't have a future in painting, she was a painter/sculptor/educator whose fiction is probably not destined for the syllabi of the future. Just the same, I'm glad that it was her second book that arrived first. 3099 Que Street may not be Fitzgerald, but it is a valuable look at the D.C. art world in the second half of the twentieth century.

The book is a roman a clef set among the artists of the Washington Color School and the gallery scene from the late fifites through the nineties. Many of the gallery owners and journalists appear under their real names, but the primary painters, like the protagonist, have pseudonyms.  I kind of wish the publishers had added identifications. Even without them, I think I knew a couple of the painters who make brief appearances. 

The writing isn't great. (Four of the women we meet are "angular," including the protagonist.) And there are odd slipups. The description of Gallery 10 correctly places it across from the Dupont Circle Metro stop, but then says you can see Wisconsin Avenue from the window. That's Connecticut Avenue reflected in the gallery's door you see depicted here. And the narrator describes walking down the "Exorcist Steps" to Wisconsin Avenue. (What is it about her and Wisconsin Avenue?) -- As legions of fans who have made the trek from all over the world will confirm, walking down those steps (as opposed to being thrown down them by Satan) brings you to M St.

The novel takes place among a social class about which I know little. This is the world of people who subscribe to and might get profiled in Washingtonian magazine.  The rest of us were always from "D.C." -- 

But even though folks like me didn't get invited to Georgetown soirees, radical art is radically available.  I've been to all those galleries. I've seen those shows, even been in the room as some of them were hung. I got to meet many of those artists.

Reading the book, though, I wonder how it is that I never again met Ms. Ellert. With several of my musician friends, I'd played at a party Ms. Ellert held at her Virginia home, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in the years before she lived in Georgetown. But over and over again in reading this book I realized that I had been in many of the same places (Kramerbooks, The Old Ebbit Grill, the Corcoran, the Hirshorn, Luigi's restaurant, Washington Project for the Arts, the Childe Harold [first place I saw Bruce Springsteen, Pinetop Perkins, Emmylou Harris, so many . . .] ). At one point in the book she is standing outside the Harriman house, in whose basement in those days lived Rick Peabody, publisher/editor of Gargoyle Magazine. At the end of my D.C. time I was living just a ways up the street from the house whose address provides the novel's title.  I remember, even in the years before my short sojourn in Georgetown, walking past and seeing that mischievous mannequin head she placed in a fourth floor window.

Since I was part of what the narrator terms "a lower strata of a metropolis," I wasn't going to run into her at one of those fancy parties she and her husband attend in the book (and unlike the main characters, I don't own a vacation home outside town with a second studio in it, nor do I get invites to Virginia hunt country), but D.C. is a compact space, and it would not have been at all unusual to run into her, as my own college students often ran into me around town.

But this may be the only novel that really depicts the D.C. art world in any detail at all, and it's a fascinating picture.  Putting two and two together, I gather she must have been doing her graduate work when I knew her, and the connections to the Washington Color School that I now know about probably explain how she was able to get the then young Sam Gilliam to visit our school and show us his work.

There was one other shoe to drop, though. This book lists the small number of Ellert's publications, and that's how I learned that not long after I graduated from Wakefield, my art teacher published an essay in the Journal of General Education (published by Penn State, where I now teach), titled "Bauhaus and Black Mountain College."  If only I'd known back then. I remember sitting in her class and reading poems by Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, the whole Black Mountain poet crowd I was just discovering, originally by way of their New York cousin LeRoi Jones. It would have been lovely to talk with Ms. Ellert about Cage, Albers, Black Mountain.

There is now a gallery named for our art teacher in Florida, where she and her husband had gone before their deaths. One day I hope to visit her paintings. And in the meantime, I hope I can search out that profile of her in Washingtonian and the Post's reviews of her shows. I was never going to be a painter. (a fact which somewhat exasperated her -- I have found over the years that people who can draw and paint are puzzled by those of us who cannot. Thank god I have cameras.)  She was never going to be a poet. But there is still a lot of what she gave me in my work, for which I am grateful. 

Tuesday, July 05, 2016


September 7, 2012, I was sitting near the front of the River Run Centre in Guelph, Ontario, Michael New nearby, for ROVA's reimagining of John Coltrane's Ascension, performed by the expansive Orkestrova. 
I had known the program was to be filmed. Lyn Hejinian had earlier alerted me to the fund raising campaign ROVA was mounting to make possible an ambitious film project around the piece.
The hall was even more than usually well lit with a striking blue design, and there were five cameras on hand. (We were particularly impressed by the overhead dance of the boom camera, which often swung just over our heads for a view corresponding closely to our own.)

Available now from Rogue Art, the package includes three disks, with an accompanying essay by Stuart Broomer. Disk one contains a standard DVD of the concert, and the documentary Cleaning the Mirror, by John Rogers. The second disk, the one I played first, is a blue ray disk with full surround sound in Dolby 5.1.  This came about as close to the experience I had in the concert hall in 2012 as one could hope for. Disk two also has a distinctive feature which allows the viewer to feature a particular musician, raising that performer's audio for closer study. Disk three is a standard CD with the concert audio.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The Spring semester having ended, I was able to turn my attention to the growing pile of books on the living room floor that I had been wanting to read for some time. Over the years, I've read most of the biographies of Ezra Pound, and I'd been looking forward to having time to work my way through the three volumes of A. David Moody's Ezra Pound: Poet - A Portrait of the Man and his Work, looking particularly for information that might not have been available to earlier biographers. But as I proceeded through the volumes, I found myself increasingly suspicious of Moody's use of his sources, especially those sources touching on Pound's antisemitism, his racial thought, and his activities during the second World War. There were moments when assertions made by Moody (such as his suggestion that we think of Pound as having worked through the Italian Fascists rather than for them) seemed directly contradicted by quotations from the primary sources just a few pages later.

and then I came to this:

"'Elder Lightfoot' is celebrated in canto 95, as being 'not downhearted' and observing 'a design in the Process'; but a possibly tone-deaf critic has found in that abbreviation of his name evidence of anti-African-American racism." Moody counters that tone deaf assertion of Pound's racism by recounting stories of Pound's good treatment of individual Black people, all but testifying: "Some of his best friends were Black."

As some will have recognized, and as readers learn from Moody's notes, I am that possibly tone-deaf critic.

Now we could spend time wondering just what exactly tone has to do with anything in this context, but more to the immediate point, this is simply a lie.

In my first monograph, Reading Race, I supplied the full name of Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, suggesting that Rev. Michaux was the likely referent in canto 95, and not, as the widely read Guide to the cantos had it, a fellow patient at Saint Elizabeth's hospital who had a theory that evolution was running backwards. Nowhere in that book do I suggest that Pound's abbreviation of the name was an act of racism, though I do in that volume offer ample evidence of Pound's life long racist thought and expression.

I returned to the subject of Elder Lightfoot's appearance in Pound's work in an essay titled "Ezra Pound and 'The Best-Known Colored Man in the United States,'" which appeared in the Pound studies journal and in a volume collecting essays on the subject of Pound and African American Modernism.  One of the goals of that essay was to explore the complexities of Pound's racialist thought. The only comments I make regarding the suppression of Michaux's last name have to do with the absence of that name from the existing scholarship. On the first page I remark simply that the extant scholarship yielded little useful information on the identity of Elder Lightfoot, the chief exception being George Kearns' 1980 guide, which supplies the full name and notes that Elder Michaux had broadcast sermons on Washington radio. Nowhere in that essay, or anywhere else, do I in any way suggest that the absence of Michaux's full name from Pound's Cantos is evidence of his racism; there is plenty of evidence of that to be had. (I do mention Pound's misspelling of Dunbar's middle name, though Moody takes no note of that.) To the contrary, my essay clearly takes critics and scholars to task, not Pound, for the abbreviated name.

I go on in the essay to document and discuss Pound's troubling mapping of culture onto race, of primitivism onto eugenics. I have long held that there is no such thing as a simple racism, that no poet is "merely" racist, and that if we are to understand and learn from our history of slavery and race, we must engage with the full complexity of these issues in the thought of Pound and other cultural workers.

Moody, it appears, is so bent upon not engaging fully with Pound's thought on race that he feels required to misrepresent the scholarship of those of us who believe such evasions ultimately damaging even to our understandings of Pound.

Perhaps not a matter of tone, but surely a certain mode of deafness.

Monday, June 27, 2016


This was my fourth visit to China, my third year of teaching graduate seminars in Wuhan. This year's topic was Asian American poetry, and enrolled 33 MA and PhD students. I was delighted to find that some of the students selected some of the more "difficult" work (Tan Lin!) for their presentations to the class. (I learned from the students that one of Tan Lin's Chinese relatives is as well known in that country as Maya Lin is in ours.) I was also impressed that students presented on poems that raised sticky political questions for citizens of the People's Republic.

As he had done last year, my host, Lianggong Luo, organized a major symposium on poetry that gave the Americans on campus (Carmaletta Williams, Lauri Ramey, Steve Tracy, Martin Ramey) a chance for intellectual exchange with scholars and poets in China. Steve Tracy and I once more blew the blues for our hosts. I'll be putting a recording on YouTube.

My seminar students on the fourth floor terrace of Teaching Building No. 3 -- 

I also had the opportunity to go to Guangzhou, where I had a wonderful exchange with English faculty at Nanfang University in their coffee shop.