IN WHICH WILL BE FOUND WHAT IS SET FORTH THEREIN

Monday, July 21, 2014

BLOWING THE BLUES IN WUHAN


One of my colleagues at Central China Normal University this summer was Steven C. Tracy, author of Langston Hughes and the Blues, Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City and many other works. Steven and I had first met two decades ago when we were both on an MLA panel in New Orleans on the subject of William Carlos Williams and music, but we had not really seen much of each other again till we met last year in Wuhan. Knowing how much our students were hearing about the music in my American Poetry seminar and his course on the African American image, I thought it might be fun for us to do a workshop for the grad students and some faculty. The catch was that I didn't have a guitar with me, just a few harps. A few hours before the workshop was scheduled, one of the students brought her guitar to me so that I could use it. I'll never forget the decal above the sound hole that read "China Pop Guitar," seemingly promising very different treatment from what I was about to do to those strings.

At any rate, with no rehearsal and no time to talk about what we would do, Steven and I, who had never played together before, wound up spinning out more than two hours of music and dialogue as refreshments and tea were passed around.





One of the graduating students, pictured here, later sent along cell phone video she had recorded. You can watch the segments by clicking on these links:








 One day I'll edit the audio recording of the workshop and post that -- Till then, enjoy . . . 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tyrone Williams Reviews A BRAND NEW BEGGAR

Nielsen's Brand New Bag

James Brown and the JBs
A.L. Nielsen, A Brand New Beggar (Steerage Press, 2013), 99 pp—Among the academics he circulates as a peripatetic conference participant, Aldon Nielsen is probably best known for his literary criticism and cultural studies work. He is, after all, the author of one of the most significant books on African American poetry, Black Chant. However, he has been writing and publishing poetry all along, and it seems that in recent years he has ratcheted up the production. His most recent collection is his most fully realized book yet. In these typically pun- and wordplay-filled poems and titles (including the title of the book itself), Nielsen holds up a mirror to everything he is other than the sartorially suave professor so many have come to know. Still, anyone who knows him will not be surprised by the subjects here—scholar Anna Everett (his wife), photography (has anyone actually seen him without a camera slung around his neck?), and music. Framed by train poems, the quientessential blues metaphor of solitude and stoicism, A Brand New Beggar paints a picture of an itinerant, long-distance spouse reveling in the consolations of memory and imagination (“To think her on the fly”), in the supple powers of poetry (“It is a poem that conceals its leanings/As it reveals itself/There against the darkness/ Of a turned shoulder”) and in photography (“Some nights I run through these slides/Try to animate by rushing the least/Flickering show of you…”). For readers of Nielsen’s past books of poetry, the “love poems” reveal a more intimate, more romantic, man, but this collection also includes Nielsen’s more typical snappy homages to blues, jazz and r & b music and musicians. For example, in the section “from Kansas,” Nielsen imagines early jazz as a response to the call of its geographical matrix: “Kansas’s hawk riffing/With the wind/The roar in wings/When Jay’s hawk answers.” True to Nielsen’s wide-ranging tastes, there are, in this section, homages to, and putdowns of, Frank Zappa (“It was/For them/An invention”) and Gertrude Stein (“There’s no/Their there”), as well as Stan Brakhage and Gil Scott-Heron. A Brand New Beggar is Nielsen’s most personal, warmest, collection of poems yet. Worth checking out.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

GONE TO CHINA

























Dear Friends:

I have gone to China to teach a seminar.  The blog will resume mid-July.

See you then!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

NEW BOOK ON C.L.R. JAMES IN ENGLAND



































Just out from Duke University Press's C.L.R. JAMES ARCHIVES series is this important new book from Christian Hogsbjerg. Christian's first volume in this series was an edition of the original script of James's play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. This new book is the first to offer a full examination of James's years in England following his departure from Trinidad in 1932. In the few short years between his arrival in England and his departure for the United States, James published Minty Alley, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, World Revolution, A History of Negro Revolt and  Black Jacobins, all while keeping up work as a cricket writer and participating in the work of the African Service Bureau, International Friends of Abyssinia, and others. These years are vital for understanding James's evolution as a thinker and revolutionary, indispensable for understanding the work that he would do in the United States.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

THE DAY LADY REVIVED



































A few minutes into the movie Lady Sings the Blues, I figured out how to watch the thing. If you stopped thinking about Billie Holiday, forgot there had ever been such a person as Billie Holiday, it was really a pretty good movie. 

You don't have to go quite to that extreme to enjoy Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, but it's best to ignore the book and just enjoy it as what it pretends to be, a late performance in Philadelphia by Lady Day. Holiday, of course, would never have spoken so openly about her life and trials to strangers, and much of what we hear in the spoken interludes is purest fiction. If you can put that aside, which is not always easy to do even with the lights down, even with the well structured illusion of a night club evening (members of the audience down front sit at cafe tables and interact with Lady), this is one of the finest concerts of the year.

Audra McDonald, I have to say, mimics Holiday masterfully, singing in a voice that is not her own. This did not work as well for me when she was speaking, but the singing, which takes up most of the show, is masterfully done.  You may have seen McDonald on The Colbert Report recently when she did a number from the show, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." My first impression watching on TV, after having seen the show at Circle in the Square, was that McDonald was overdoing the impression. Or, I thought, maybe it's just that TV exaggerates what seemed natural in the theater.

But then I did the obvious thing. I played a few very late recordings of Billie Holiday singing the number live, and McDonald had nailed the performance. 

So -- don't go to this show looking to learn anything about Billie Holiday from the script. Still, there is so much about Holiday to be learned from the singing.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

RAISIN IN THE SUN

Like President Obama and the First Lady, I scored tickets to the new production of A Raisin in the Sun at the Barrymore Theater.  I have to say, this is the best cast I've seen since the long ago movie version (which made cuts in the script). It would be hard to top, or even rival, a production that included Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands, with early and memorable appearances by Ivan Dixon and Lou Gossett.

This revival was to have featured Diahann Carroll, and I'd been curious to see how she'd play the role. But when Carroll dropped out of the show well before opening, she was replaced by Latanya Richardson Jackson, who turned out to be an inspired choice.  Given Denzel Washington's age, they had to make some adjustment, and so Walter Lee Younger is here 40, as opposed to Sidney Poitier's 30 -- which in turn would seem to make Beneatha (here played by Anika Noni Rose) either much younger than her brother, Walter Lee Younger, or a wonderful late bloomer. But once things are under way, nobody in the audience is thinking about the age of anyone in the cast. Sophie Okonedo plays Walter Lee's wife.

One touch I much appreciated at the Barrymore was that a recording was played in the time before the curtain of a late interview with Lorraine Hansberry. I dare say that most in the theater that evening had never heard Hansberry's voice. It was powerfully moving to hear that voice again, and it's an intriguing interview.

The play runs through June 15 -- Forget about the Puffy version of some years ago -- (and how many even remember the American Playhouse broadcast in 1989, with a cast that included Danny Glover and Esther Rolle?) -- This is the one to see -- 



Saturday, April 26, 2014

New Books from Jacques Derrida

 My hard working colleague Jonathan Eburne, in his work on workaholism, points out that Derrida, like some still publishing dead rappers, is publishing at a faster rate posthumously than most of us do while still living (at least, living after our own fashion). Here are two volumes newly issued in English.

The first is one I've been eagerly awaiting, the next release in the project of publishing all of Derrida's seminars. This book gives us the first half of Derrida's considerations on the death penalty (mostly published here for the first time). 

Like me, Derrida has a strong early memory of his life long concern with what we so charmingly term capital punishment. While discussing Genet's writing, Derrida quotes, "Weidmann appeared before you in a five o'clock edition . . . ," and Derrida remarks:

"I pause for a moment on this first sentence. I have to say that I remember this photograph myself."

In my own case, my early recollection of deep revulsion at the prospect of capital punishment is of the Charles Starkweather case, a case that has been turned into more than one feature film in the years since my Nebraska childhood.

In neither case, Weidmann's or Starkweather's, was there any question about the condemned man's guilt or about the heinous nature of their crimes. No, the problem was what the cases told us about ourselves. Eugen Weidmann was the last man executed in public in France. A film of the execution was surreptitiously made from a nearby window, and the behavior of the public at the execution was so horrid that public executions were thereafter banned. (As in the U.S., where we are now so much more discreet when we kill our criminals.) Starkweather's 1959 execution was not carried out in public, but the public spectacle surrounding the event caused me to recoil from my own society.  In each case, the representations of the death penalty were themselves a damning comment on what capital punishment does to a society.  I have been opposed to he death penalty ever since.

This is a deeply thought through and historically grounded book. Part two should be available next year.

Also, from Fordham, comes For Strasbourg, bringing together three late essays by Derrida and conversations he held in 2004 with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy.








Tuesday, April 15, 2014

AMIRI BARAKA @ 80 - LONDON

That was the plan anyway, but instead it was "AMIRI BARAKA: A RETROSPECTIVE," co-sponsored by the University of Kent (well represented by conference organizer Ben Hickman) and The Institute of Contemporary Arts. I'd been planning to go from the first announcement as it would have meant helping to celebrate the approach of Baraka's 80th birthday (would have been this coming October) beginning at the Black Arts conference at U.C. Merced, picking up a month later in London, and then into the home stretch.With Baraka's death I felt even more compelled to join in. I'd known Amiri for over 35 years, and had been reading him even longer. This was just a one day symposium, but it made a good opening for the many symposia and panels to come.






The symposium was also a chance to reconnect with several friends: Jean-Phillipe Marcoux from Canada, Amor Kohli from Chicago, Wei Yan from Wuhan, China. And as rushed as things were, I got to meet some of the British participants, including Colin Still, whose short film of Baraka reading poetry while Craig Harris improvised an accompaniment was screened at the evening program. Jean-Phillipe and I were a two person panel on Baraka and music. Jean-Phillipe spoke on ideophones and jazz vocalisms. My paper was another section of my growing work on Baraka's recordings. At the first session, on poetry, Ian Brinton did the important work of  introducing Yugen and Floating Bear to an audience who mostly had never seen copies of those publications before. Paul Gilroy delivered a keynote which detoured through Obama's foreign policy for a while before getting back to Baraka.  That night, following Colin's stunning film, there was a poetry reading, culminating in a now rare appearance from Linton Kwesi Johnson, who spent much of his time sharing emotional memories of his contacts with Baraka over the years.

















[additional photos by Anna Everett and Wei Yan]

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

COLLEGE LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION 2014 - NEW ORLEANS



This year's CLA also marks the eighth birthday of this blog -- And my first return visit to New Orleans since Katrina -- The flash flood warnings that came to my phone the first morning were a bit worrisome, as was the lightning (AND there was that alarm that started sounding during breakfast, apparently in response to a lightning strike on the tower), but the panels inside the hotel kept my mind off the storm and things were warming up by the end of the weekend. I was there to present work on Amiri Baraka as part of a panel on literature and music. Last year the airlines didn't get me to the conference until after my panel. This year's flight delays were on the other end.  I was in New Orleans in plenty of time for my panel on that first morning, but didn't get back to State College after the conference till two in the morning.





The Langston Hughes luncheon featured a poetry reading by Brenda Marie Osbey, whose name, as mine often does, seemed to shift pronunciation as different speakers spoke it. I first met Brenda at the initial Furious Flower conference back in the 90s.  One of the great things about CLA is the family atmosphere as brethren of the text meet together. Friends too many to mention singularly, though I must mention the Tom Dent Birthday party Jerry Ward held at his house over by the campus of Dillard.










 I'd just seen Eugene Redmond in Merced at the Black Arts conference. In the week between, he'd been to Howard, just a day after I was there, to appear at their Baraka tribute.





The conference banquet featured Edwige Danticat, who read from a new essay.










Once the conference was over, I finally had time to get down the street to Mulate's for that serving of crawfish etouffee. The nice mother who stood next to me at the bar to order her drink while her eight-year-old exchanged jokes with me was followed by two parents with their eighteen-year-old son, who were told that law required the son, being under nineteen, to sit farther away from the bar, which he did.

Oh, I will mention that those three people you see at the iron table are Penn Staters Susan Weeber, Laura Vrana and Earl Brooks, who delivered great papers.