Just my luck, General Hershey had transited me right out of D.C., Selective Service had selectively landed on my number , and so, while I had already been to the Community Book Store to buy books in my community (I had been living above Dupont Circle on Corcoran Street), I wasn't in the neighborhood when Michael Lally and company began their groundings in the upper room.
But over time, once returned to my city near war's end, I was to connect with nearly everybody who'd been part of that grouping, and the Folio Book Store fasicle. I used to see that crew through the window as I walked past the store on the way to my night shift job. Bernard Welt had been at Wakefield High School with me, though being a bit younger he missed the worst of the drafts that blew me out of town. Jim Everhard was a co-worker in the registrar's office at GWU. Lynne Dreyer was working as a life guard at Haines Point alongside a friend of mine. ETC.
So I was especially grateful when Bernard Welt messaged me about the Mass Transit reading held at Rhizome Sunday afternoon. I stayed over an extra day after ASAP to witness this present-past-participial enacting itself. Bernard afterwards hosted us all at his nearby home. Looking back, it's amazing that so much lasting poetry came out of D.C. in that short spell. Looking back yet more, you realize that there has always been amazing poetry coming out of the nation's capital, generally from people with little political capital.
It was a mad dash from Montpellier to Changsha, where I joined the contemporary literature conference already in progress to present part 27 of the Gil Scott-Heron work. I was delighted to meet up with old friends, including Yunte Huang, Yi Feng, Laurie Scheyer, Brian Reed, and to meet UK poet Karen Woolf for the first time. I was sorry to have missed the first day's proceedings, but there were reports in the closing ceremony from the previous day's break-out sessions so I was able to get an idea of the conference contours.
Gil Scott-Heron enjoyed an enthusiastic reception in France throughout his career. Even remarked upon it in song:
Me and the bothers no parlez-vous. French was way down on my list. (But) the Africans said "Merci beaucoup!" 'cause the rhythm's what they missed.
The people got the message from the music that we play. It really shouldn't a been no surprise that we all got down that day.
and so it seemed more than fitting that we would gather in Montpellier in the summer of 2019 to explore and honor the life and work of this artist. Kudos and thanks to Claudine Raynaud and Vincent Dussol for convening the group, and for their own powerful scholarship. I had first met Claudine, a major figure in European scholarship of African American letters, at one of our conferences at Penn State.
I was scheduled to deliver the opening keynote, but my usual travel bad luck intervened. The driver I'd hired to deliver me dropped me off at the wrong campus. But in the spirit of jazz improvisation, they rearranged the schedule, Claudine oversaw a first session, and Vincent headed off in his car to my rescue. My stroke of bad luck turned out to be a fortune, as it gave me time to get to know Vincent, who is a fine translator and critic. We found we had mutual friends in the world of poetry. For example, he knows Manuel Brito and has a copy of my book Mixage, which Manuel published, on his shelves. Vincent has also translated work by Ray Di Palma, among many others. Vincent's own presentation at the symposium was a tour de force passage through "the alphabet of Gil Scott-Heron."
My own offering was more of my "Choruses for Gil Scott-Heron." I liken the project to the marathon of choruses Paul Gonsalves spun out during the Duke Ellington band's 1956 Newport performance. This thing could go on building forever.
It turned out that there were several old friends from the States on hand adding their measures to the songs, and it emerged that there was a somewhat accidental D.C. sub-theme. One highlight for me was reading my poems alongside Melba Joyce Boyd, whose work I seem to have known forever and whose diligent care for the legacy of Dudley Randall is something we all have to be thankful for,