Saturday, April 29, 2006


623 East 63d Street
Chicago, Illinois
February 9, 1949

Dear Mr. Tolson,
My aunt told me that she met you, and of the wonderful (and extravagant) compliments you paid me. And now I must thank you for your generous (and again extravagant) note.
Don't you ever come to Chicago? Please come soon, and let me see you. Perhaps you could read at our Art Center here.
In case you come, call Plaza 2-4845, when you arrive. I'd love to meet you.
Gwendolyn Brooks

Friday, April 28, 2006


For more than five decades now, Russell Atkins has been pursuing the path of greatest resistance as an avant garde poet working out of Cleveland, Ohio.

A central figure in the important FREE LANCE WORKSHOP that published a journal out of Cleveland for many years, Atkins is a poet, composer, theorist and editor who has never abandoned his life-long committment to the experimental. He was already publishing concrete poems and syntactically disruptive verse forms as early as 1948, in journals such as EXPERIMENT and BELOIT POETRY JOURNAL. He was also in correspondence with such major figures as Marianne Moore, who performed one of his poems on her radio broadcst, and Langston Hughes, who included Atkins's work in such collections as NEW NEGRO POETS USA.

Here, appropriately enough, is the title poem from HERE IN THE:

It's Here In The

Here in the newspaper -- wreck of the East Bound.
A photograph bound to bring on cardiac asthenia.
There is a blur that mists the pages:
On one side's a gloom of dreadful harsh,
Then breaks flash lights up sheer.
There is much huge about, I suppose
those no's are people
between that suffering of --
(what have we more? for Christ's sake!
Something of a full stop of it
crash of blood and the still shock
of stark sticks and an immense swift gloss
And two dead no's lie aghast still
One casts a crazed eye and the other's
closed dull
the heap twists up
hardening the unhard, unhardening
the hardened

There is a selection of Atkins's work from acrosss a span of years in EVERY GOODBYE AIN'T GONE, and I have published a detailed discussion of Atkins's work in both poetry and theory in INTEGRAL MUSIC.

You can also read or download a generous sampling of Atkins's work from Craig Dworkin's Eclipse site, which you will see listed over there in the sidebar. Craig's site provides scanned images of the original books, many of which are extremely hard to locate chapbooks. Craig's note to PODIUM PRESENTATION says, "Back cover fancifully lists Atkins as the author of: The Hypothetical Arbitrary Constant of Inhibition; A psychovisual Perspective for 'Musical' Compositions; and The Invalidity of Dominant Group Educational Forms." I'm not sure why this is described as "fanciful," since those are in fact the titles of earlier works by Atkins, which I analyse in the chapter in INTEGRAL MUSIC.

Some years ago, Paul Breman published a late addition to his invaluable HERITAGE series of African American poetry pamphlets from England, SEVEN @ SEVENTY, in honor of Russell's seventieth birthday. Atkins is now eighty years old and still living in Cleveland. I spoke to him on the phone not too long ago and he is doing well. Having been neglected for so many years since the FREE LANCE journal stopped publishing, he has been gratified by such recent attentions as a special section of the journal CRAYON devoted to his poetry and criticism. Atkins has recently been contributing poems to Kenneth Warren's little magazine, HOUSE ORGAN. The current issue (Number 54) includes Atkins's "Impromptu on 'Oft Thought.'" He remains one of America's most distinctive writers.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


OK -- I have a flight to catch and so had planned to give the Horowitz matter a rest -- but the guy just won't relent for a second -- Today over at Frontpagemag there is a column that purports to be the talk that Horowitz delivered at Duke University on March 7. [check it out now before they see this and change the posted version] The headnote says nothing about the talk having been edited for its appearance at the web site. [And it's not as if the talk needed to be edited because of space concerns, as might be true with a print journal.] And yet, a number of Horowitz's remarks have been omitted in silence. Now, I know that Horowitz is no scholar, and thus may see no reason to alert readers to the fact that he is leaving things out. In general, his practice is to leave out crucial information and to insert false information with no editorial alerts of any kind, but this case is a truly odd one. As you will see if you watch the video of the talk that runs on C-Span's Book TV, he was not reading from a prepared text, so it's not a matter of editing out ad libs. As you'll see from that tape, my earlier report of the Duke talk is accurate. As you'll see from both the tape and the printed version, Horowitz was not attempting to correct his talk or to omit anything that was needlessly offensive. As you'll see from the tape . . . but that's what's so strange about this -- You can see the tape -- Just as Horowitz came to Penn State and waved in the air a copy of the very student newspaper that would show that he was misquoting the university president if anyone cared to read it, he now prints a sanitized version of his talk as if the tape weren't airing nationally so that anyone could see what he had done.

Among his omissions, his several scathing comments about Wahneema Lubiano -- since it's unlikely that he has read Wahneema's work in the interim and changed his mind about her, why the elisions?

And it's not as if he were attempting to correct himself. In the print version you'll see that when attacking Professor George Wolfe of Ball State University, Horowitz gets the campus confused with the man and starts referring to him as "Professor Ball."

It would seem that despite, according to his own claim, having "published nearly twenty books and hundreds of articles over a forty-year period and without questions being raised about the accuracy or integrity of [his] work," David Horowitz has an extreme accuracy problem. Let's not even get started on the integrity question.

Even though it's not true that his accuracy and integrity had never previously been questioned, I'd say that his new-speak "academic freedom" campaign has had this one good effect; more people are paying attention to Horowitz's limitations and his fact-challenged publications.

there is this possibility -- it could be that Horowitz neither prepared nor read the version of his talk posted under his name . . .

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


This one takes the prize:

"Prior to my academic freedom campaign, I published nearly twenty books and hundreds of articles over a forty-year period and without questions being raised about the accuracy or integrity of my work."

That's our own David Horowitz, writing at Frontpagemag.

Just takes your breath away, doesn't it?

and does this mean that he has no problems with anything he wrote three decades back in Marx and Modern Economics?


I'll be heading home to California in the morning, dragging a summer's worth of clothes and reading materials across the continent in my annual return to Santa Barbara. Anna has been in Tunisia and Virginia, so she'll just be getting back home herself.

But first there's the last meeting of my graduate seminar this afternoon. The course has been an examination of Afro-Futurism, Black avant gardes and African American science fiction. We've been pursuing the future anterior into, well, the future. Today we're concluding our deliberations with a discussion of DRAG, the impressive first book by Duriel Harris. Duriel has been back and forth across the country quite a bit herself lately. Following a stint working at the University of Illinois Chicago campus, she spent a year as a research fellow at the University of California, and now she is teaching at Saint Lawrence University in the far northern reaches of New York state. Part of the small band of radical poetry activists that suddenly erupted within the Cave Canem workshops, THE BLACK TOOK COLLECTIVE, Harris confounds just about every cliche of poetry in performance that you've ever heard. Here's a brief sample of her work:

Phaneric Display No. 2:
The Meta

The intellect must be taught | extremities are first to go babythataway™ |_red scotch plaid skirts and vests kneesocks and peterpan collars | poppa wheelie into dream poppa rave cap and cruise | blank as normal templates’ throaty viral erasure | intellect is the primal faculty | plucked swollen like a muscle | guitar neck cave secret hand-thrown into a shallow bowl | blood cooling to jelly on the blue rim | where you have been collecting | you need not know the name of a thing to know it | pinkseamed joint and toes the child will chop the blonde | mop to sheer plugs and plastic until the frames collide | but she’s always looked like that

and raggedy ann™ and raggedy andy™

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


[The Fifth Most Dangerous Book of the Past Two Centuries! Know Your Enemies! Warn Your Librarians!]

I just got an email from poet Catherine Daly (you'll find her link over there at the sidebar) alerting readers to a list of THE TEN MOST HARMFUL BOOKS, as selected by judges for HUMAN EVENTS: THE NATIONAL CONSERVATIVE WEEKLY. Believe me, and Catherine, you've really got to read this. Of course, they were unable to satisfy themselves with just the top ten harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries, so there is an appendage, a list of runners up. These almost-most-harmful-texts include the works of Darwin, Freud, Fanon, Foucault, even Rachel Carson (but oddly enough, the book I review in the post beneath this is not included). To whom are these eminences secondary in the rankings of those who have damaged human society, you may ask. Why, John Dewey, John Maynard Keynes, Auguste Comte.

So go take a look at this thing. Here's a link:

And while you're at it, take a gander at the list of judges, which includes such able close readers as Phyllis Schlafley

The Changing Same Ol Same Ol

[I first published this review in CROSS CULTURAL POETICS.]

Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual
Jerry Gafio Watts
New York University Press 2001

What does it tell us about the current state of scholarly publishing in America that this book appears from a reputable university press, presumably peer-reviewed, accompanied by words of praise from a number of truly distinguished writers?

There are the minor annoyances that should have been caught before the book was released: the inadvertently political typo (repeated on the very next page) that has “traditional black intellectuals in a unique vice” (9); the constant confusion of “adverse” with “averse”; the comment that Hoyt Fuller’s “most important task was to illegitimate white critics of black literature” (194); the seemingly inverse mixed metaphor of “lenses that have been filtered through racist images” (244); the bizarre reference to “the Cannibal Adderly Quintet” (114 – That’s not a typo; look at your keyboard. Watts really thinks that Julian “Cannonball” Adderly’s nickname is “Cannibal”). A decent job of copyediting might have saved this author from his own weaknesses as a writer, but where were the peer-reviewers when Watts was writing of the birth of a non-existent son to Baraka and Diane Di Prima? Oddly enough, the sources that Watts cites for this include my own book Writing between the Lines and Baraka’s Autobiography, neither of which at any point claims that Baraka and Di Prima gave birth to a son. As it happens, their daughter has become quite an accomplished broadcast personality, currently working with Steve Harvey on radio, and remains unmistakably female.

Such carelessness and speculation typify the author’s use of his sources throughout. In a note to his introduction, Watts observes that the LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader, ably edited by William J. Harris, contains no excerpts from the book Raise Race Rays Raze, adding: “It is as if Baraka were ashamed of those essays” (481). Never before have I encountered a critic who assumes that the absence of a work from a selected volume edited by somebody else is an indication of an author’s shame at having written the work.

As badly as Watts does by his acknowledged sources, however, far worse is his unwillingness to do his homework. Coming to Baraka’s criticisms in Home of Peter Abrahams and James Baldwin, Watts writes: “Being unfamiliar with Peter Abrahams’s writing, I cannot verify the validity of Jones’s criticisms of him” (59-60). Watts tells readers in his acknowledgments that this volume, like his earlier book on Ellison, had its origins in his dissertation. I have a pretty good idea how my dissertation adviser would have responded to such a comment. He would have pointed me in the direction of the nearest library and told me to come back when I had become familiar with Abrahams (a major novelist, most would agree). Similarly, when addressing the short career of the Black Arts Repertory Theater, Watts asks, and answers:
What did typical black residents of Harlem think about BART? Did they even know about it? I cannot imagine many Harlemites being intensely attuned to the plays and concerts of BART . . . (164)

Of course, this is not at all the sort of question that needs to be answered in the imagination. It would not be all that difficult, indeed it would be expected of most dissertation researchers raising such a question, to engage in the kind of reception studies that have become common in recent years, or at least to examine the popular press of the day. Watts confesses, “I have not surveyed the opinions and remembrances of black Harlemites concerning BART and Jones,” going on to posit that “We cannot accept at face value Jones’s claim that the black masses of Harlem were captivated by the offerings of BART” (165). Nowhere does Watts address the most obvious issue raised by this discussion. If we are not to accept at face value the judgements of Baraka, who was, after all, there, why should we accept at face value the suppositions of a critic who has not bothered to do the most basic forms of investigation on the very question that he raises?

These are merely samples drawn at random from a poorly-written and barely researched volume of weighty scholarship. When I first picked up this book and felt its heft, I looked forward to a thorough critique of Baraka’s politics and art (which does seem to be what’s promised in the subtitle), a book that would match in scholarship and thought the admirable work done by Komosi Woodard in A Nation within a Nation examining the cultural politics of Baraka’s career. The length of Watts’s book, it turns out sadly for readers, is explained by the stultifying summaries of Baraka’s works, including individual lyric poems, that take the place of sustained critical inquiry in this volume. The formula for Watts’s work appears to be two parts condescension and one part ad hominem. In a note to chapter fourteen, Watts comments that “Literary critics like Harris can be excused for being unfamiliar with Marxist and economic thought” (548). I am not at all sure why a literary critic would be excused for unfamiliarity with the political philosophy of his subject (and I do not believe the charge is fairly applied to Harris in any event). But Watts goes on to argue that “there remained little justification for an American literary critic not to be familiar with Walter Benjamin, Raymond Williams, Fred Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Georg Lukacs, as well as other significant Marxist literary intellectuals” (549). There are, obviously, some rather significant names missing from this reading assignment, and one finally has to wonder what to make of such an observation in a book whose works cited include no references whatsoever to the works of Cedric Robinson, George Padmore or C.L.R. James. It is not, evidently, sufficient for Watts to condescend to other critics and to the subject of his study, he must also engage in the most reprehensible mingling of ad hominem and presumption. In his tenth chapter, Watts accuses Baraka of a “broader strategy to bury his own homosexual past” because he “knew that popular knowledge of his homosexuality would have undermined the credibility of his militant voice” (335-36). I had thought that this sort of thing had joined McCarthyism on the junk heap of history’s appeals to homophobia. What are we to make of the argument that any homophobia in the works of Baraka’s cultural nationalist period is attributable to an attempt to “defuse any claims that might surface linking him with a homosexual past” (336)? This is the stuff of Fifties-era Hollywood movies, in which homophobes were invariably “latent” homosexuals. (Come to think of American Beauty, maybe Watts isn’t the only one clinging to this myth.)

It is not that Baraka is beyond criticism, though oddly enough Watts seems peculiarly unmoved by Baraka’s own many efforts at self-criticism, but surely an author of Baraka’s stature and complexity deserves better than this. Watts warns us in his preface of his propensity for inference, cautioning that he “may mistake an involuntary blink of the eyelid for a wink” (xiii). Still, as a practicing professor and critic who works often with the academic press, I’d like to think that most editors, being led to a blind horse, would insist that a nod is not as good as a wink. I know of all too many brilliant young scholars who have had to battle mightily with peer reviewers ill-equipped to take the measure of their innovative research and criticism. I know of too many worthy books that have circulated for years before finding publication. I have to wonder how it is that such an unmitigatedly bad book could appear, to such proud fanfare, from a seemingly reputable press. I suspect that being well-connected helps. Watts mentions in passing his “buddies Skip Gates and John Blassingame” (xiv). One of those “buddies,” I can’t help remembering, wrote a scathing review of Baraka’s Autobiography for the New York Times describing Baraka’s poetic evolution as a tumble from “imitating” Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Williams and Olson to “agitprop.” It is probably significant that Gates, in writing that review, did not list any black poets among those the young Baraka “imitated.” Had Watts read Baraka’s body of work a bit more carefully, he might not have been so quick to claim that Baraka’s “early artistic influences show that he was located . . . outside of a black poetic tradition” (48). One of the most profoundly moving memories recorded in Baraka’s poetry is found in “Why Didn’t He Tell Me the Whole Truth,” where he recalls his grandfather urging him to commit James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” to memory, to learn it by heart. This is the same grandfather named so powerfully near the close of “Black Dada Nihilismus,” the same man memorialized so effectively in The System of Dante’s Hell (which Watts dismisses as a narcissistic novel) and in the early short story “Suppose Sorrow Was a Time Machine.” Baraka’s grandfather moved with the tradition of African American verse in his very bones, and the way that he lived this poetry marked Amiri Baraka ineradicably. To pretend that this is not the case is simple mendacity.

Monday, April 24, 2006

LORENZO THOMAS - "But Which Way Is Redemption?"

For a couple of years, Lorenzo Thomas and I conspired to be in Boulder, Colorado, at the same time when we could. This began when my wife, Anna Everett, was teaching in Film Studies at the University of Colorado. During our stay there, we of course took advantage of the programming at Naropa, which included Lorenzo nearly every year. From that first summer, we tried to arrange our visits for the Fourth of July so that we could cap the evening with fireworks over Boulder. This photograph shows one of our last visits. Here we're at dinner, joined by Harryette Mullen, who was also visiting Naropa that season. It really was a poetry family affair. These were great poets and great company.

I had been reading Lorenzo Thomas's poetry for many years before I first met him. His chapbooks and selected volumes were among the small number of small press titles that would show up in book stores in D.C. in those days, and his was the kind of work that made you seek out more. It wasn't until the latter part of the 1980s that I met him, though; we were introduced to one another by Charles Bernstein in a hotel lobby during one of the MLA's visits to D.C. - People often wonder at my love of academic conferences, but meetings like that one are among the reasons I try to stay active in these professional associations. Over the years, conferences were where Lorenzo and I visited with one another. We also increasingly found ourselves working together on conference projects. There were so many occasions when we spoke together, or when one of us was the respondent to the other, that we were becoming a sort of critical/poetic tag team at these events. Lorenzo was somebody you would always learn something from, and he was also among the most generous people I've ever known. Much of my work on poetry and music was helped along by Lorenzo's willingness to share his collection of recordings with me. Typically this would happen when, over drinks (as in the photo above) I would ask Lorenzo if, say, he'd ever come across an LP titled NEW JAZZ POETS. He would muse a moment, then invariably came the same answer: "I think that may be in the closet in New York. I'll ask my brother to dig it out for us." Lorenzo's brother, Cecilio, a person every bit as kind and generous as Lorenzo, was the artist whose work appears in so many of Lorenzo's publications. About a month later, I would get a cassette tape in the mail.

I was able to help a bit in Lorenzo's work as well. On several occasions I was a"blinded" peer reviewer for Lorenzo's critical works. A particular pleasure was being able to do that work with the manuscript of EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES, a book increasingly cited by other scholars.
When Lorenzo died this past July 4th, I had just read the manuscript for a book about music that he had submitted to the University of Michigan Press. I've been in discussions with the press since Lorenzo's passing, and I am happy to report that they are willing to go forward with the project. In the coming months, I'll be working to get the manuscript into final shape for publication. Barry Maxwell is also working on a collection of Lorenzo's essays and talks.

A few years back, Barry organized a panel on Lorenzo's work at the American Studies Association meeting in Houston, where we were joined by Kalamu ya Salaam and Maria Damon. We had a great dinner afterwards with Lorenzo and Karen, and Roberta Hill. Wish to god I'd had my camera along that time. Jim Smethurst has organized a panel in Lorenzo's memory that has just been approved for the next American Studies meeting at Oakland in the Fall.

It is as a poet, though, that Lorenzo Thomas has the greatest claim on our attentions. The last serious time I spent with Lorenzo was at the conference held at Miami Univeristy in Ohio that has since been memorialized in the anthology RAINBOW DARKNESS, edited by Keith Tuma. Lorenzo read his poetry and delivered a keynote address, included in the anthology. You can find information about the book at:

Lorenzo's last pulished full colletion of poetry was DANCING ON MAIN STREET, which includes the chapbook shown here, TIME STEP, and was published by Coffee House Press. John Ashbery had this to say about Lorenzo's final book: "Lorenzo Thomas's poems have a graceful New York School nonchalance that can swiftly become a hard and cutting edge when he writes of the African American experience, especially in his adopted home of Texas. 'This useless clairvoyance/is embarrassing,' he confides. Yet Thomas's brand of clairvoyance is not only useful, but beautiful."— The book is still available, and you can find information bout it at:

In the future, I hope to put up a Lorenzo Thomas web site. For now, here is some of his work.


There are no gospel singers

On the corners
They held down for Jesus
Valets park cars
At restaurants for fancy people
On expense accts or dates

So many times
People come up to me
And say, Billy
Hey wait a minute
You not Billy!

You can see the new ballpark
Just past the Courthouse

But which way is redemption?



Autumnal Equinox 2002

The backward see
The wise don't say a word

Three dreams, one foolish
And two meaningless
Are haunting me, disturbing me

One says
A golden road was plotted out for you
In dreams, of course

But that's not where you are
When you awaken

The danger is seeing the world
as two extremes
The afternoons of rushing home to see her
Balanced against
turning the corner
Hoping that her car will not be there

Daydreams are better

Nice –
watching the planes come in
On the last day of summer
Airport peaceful

Passengers are few
On flights answering demand
more than desire
Their stress has been at home
Or will come later
They deplane calmly

When the Wright boys
and their friend Paul Laurence Dunbar
Finished high school in 1890
Their neighbors knew
That they'd go high up in this world

Paul as an elevator boy in downtown Dayton
Orville and Wilbur
Going swimming in thin air

They'd never heard of Richard Gallup
David or Romare Bearden, either

Such are the baffling deficits that time imposes

They never dreamed
Someone would use an airplane
To drop bombs made of oilfield dynamite
and set Greenwood aflame
Andrew Smitherman fleeing in 1921
from Tulsa to New York
To the edge of America

What is this shadow
Cast across the coming season?

In the still watches of the Negro night,
Fear rising like mist off a bayou,
The danger in the world
Is seeing it as two extremes

Is this full moon so indiscriminate
That even liars prosper
if they have launched
Their web with the new moon?

This autumn equinox
A harvest of deceit
Leaves the ground rugged.
The harvest done, the fields outside the city
flat and sere
A single egret stands in the parking lot at the Post Office
Poised and confused

The world automatically recoils
Into itself

Are you ready for football?
For serious business
Are you ready for war?

People throughout all history
Have lived in ashen cities
or died in them
Marcel Duchamp was joking
Wasn't he, as always when he said
Dust-covered glass
Might offer auguries
Of our predicament

O mirror, mirror

How have my people been distracted so
They don't care any longer who they are?

How so misled that they believe
Punishment does not apply
To crimes committed in their name?

Must war morph from Nintendo game to spectacle
To get attention?

If all are suspect
Could my own duplicities
Be causing this –
The way we're all responsible
For air pollution
(if you keep breathing

If you believe in magic, yes

And that same magic, yes
Could stop the rush to madness, too

There are still
scraps of summer laughter
On the street
There's still some music from two backyards away
The Funkadelics and Jay-Z resist denial

But here's
The truth:

You have the right to keep your mouth shut

Trust me,

Across the room
A person looking like a crazy version
Of somebody you once knew
Might be our Savior
One who can draw fire
Out of ashes
At least a lover, maybe
The one to take you up a little higher
Or let you down easy.

But don't look this way,

It isn't me

New York City
22 September 2002

Saturday, April 22, 2006


LAST October, Mark McMorris invited me to come down to Georgetown University for a couple of days to participate in a program with Rod Smith and Amiri Baraka. There was to be a panel in the afternoon with faculty, students and visitors, which I was asked to moderate, followed by a public reading in the evening at which I was to introduce the poets. I was flattered to be asked, though it did occur to me that I might have been chosen simply because I was the only person available who knew both of these fine poets. You can see a few shots from the event by way of the link over there in the sidebar. There was an enthusiastic audience that evening and it proved to be one of the better readings I'd attended that year. I'm reproducing here the comments I made by way of introduction for each of the readers.


“One wants a friend in contingency.”

So one told Patrick Durgin in an interview, one Rod Smith, answering to the contingency of the Q & A form. “He does not even speak of himself, he merely speaks ‘on his own behalf,'” we read elsewhere, in an untitled piece labeled “Strange Loop” in the book In Memory of My Theories. The same could be said of so many interview subjects. When one is subjected to an interview, one, perhaps even you, one begins to measure the distances between speaking of oneself, speaking for oneself, speaking on one’s own behalf.” “Speak up,” his mother said to him. Once, when Ed Dorn called to one workshop writer’s attention (this was in England) his proclivity for speaking of “one,” the errant writer said, sounding somewhat stricken, “but sometimes when one says ‘one’ one means ‘one.’”

When one reads the works of Rod Smith, one finds a friend in contingency. Is it wholly coincidental that in Smith’s retelling of an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, a piece that ends with Smith asking us to imagine Ted in charge, Ted in Lou’s chair, Ted as boss, we see, not contingency but an exact description of our current political moment in America? But our coming to this book in the first place is contingent, an episode in the serial dramedy of our lives.

Rod Smith could have taken another route altogether, but when he left Manassas he came to us. Like his fellow postal employee Charles Olson, Smith posted himself to the capitol. Olson said “people want delivery.” Smith has been in a whirl of correspondence rare in our instant messaging world. He’s kept his aerial, his strange loop, in the wind, picking up those contingent signals, like that snowy signal coming in from some far city carrying news of what the new poets in Ghana are doing today. The Boy Poems, Protective Immediacy, The Good House, Music or Honesty, titles that speak on their own behalf; a poet who represents, a writer who cares for company, who has always relied on the contingency of strangers, a writer who knows the terrible distance between you and you in the old joke that you can say what you like about America, but you can say what you like. A poet as likely to speak of you as to you, a poet like Rod Smith.


“We entered the city at noon! High bells. The radio on.”

Amiri Baraka seems always to be returning to D.C. In this early poem “One Night Stand,” he designs a car filled with the excitement of young poets; a car that doesn’t deign to slow for those stubborn cobblestones that a now half forgotten robber baron with the improbable name of O. Roy Chalk never got around to ripping up as he’d contracted to do; a car “snaring the violent remains of the day / in sharp webs of dissonance” as it heads through the old gates. The poem maps a return to the Hilltop, up Georgia Avenue to the old stomping grounds of his younger days.

Fast forward a couple of decades; Baraka returns again to D.C., passes through another set of gates on another hilltop, this time those now too familiar stands found at the entrance to so many public buildings, the electronic gateways to a congressional office building Baraka joked were “ideology detectors.” There was a lot of ideology to be detected that day, as we gathered to honor Baraka’s former teacher, Sterling Brown, as poet laureate of our city, of our stateless peoples.

Who knew? It has been reported that when Baraka was named Poet Laureate of his home state, New Jersey, he predicted to Governor McGreevey that there would be trouble. Who knew, other than McGreevey himself, that the Governor’s troubles went much deeper than anything a poet laureate might bring with the morning news. We’re used to this sort of thing here in D.C. Think of Walt Whitman walking back up Constitution Avenue, having just lost his job at the Department of the Interior after publishing “Children of Adam.” Think of Paul Laurence Dunbar consigned to work at the Library of Congress, not as the national Poet Laureate, not even as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, but as a fetcher of books. Think even of Charles Olson’s brief attempts at bureaucracy in the Office of War Time Information. This has always been a home to poets, but it has never been an entirely welcoming home. When Gil Scott heron used to live here, he sang “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” – he must have just been reading a review of his work in the WASHINGTON POST.

But Baraka has always been a presence here; not only through his stream of books: PREFACE TO A TWENTY VOLUME SUICIDE NOTE, BLUES PEOPLE, DUTCHMAN, THE DEAD LECTURER, BLACK MUSIC, RAISE, BLACK MAGIC, IT’S NATION TIME, THE MUSIC, THE SYSTEM OF DANTE’S HELL, HOME, HARD FACTS, REGGAE OR NOT, SIX PERSONS, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY; it goes on and on through one of the most profoundly prolific careers in American literature; not only through those books but through the networks he has always been a part of, from his youthful experiences with our own Sterling Brown through those incomparable Neals, Gaston Neal and Larry Neal, and into our present. All those spiritual detectives hard on the case -

as is Baraka – He grew up listening to THE SHADOW on his radio – wrote a poem about it later on, about who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men - Later he took to investigating the sun – “I investigate the sun,” he writes, “and for my trouble get music — / / I investigate the sun. Doubt it if you will, what does a shadow know anyway?”

He may belong to Newark, but, just like Sun Ra, he’s never away from us for long – It’s never just a one night stand – he may be scarred from flying too close to the sun, but for his trouble we get music.




Was walking filled

With phrases

Way made

Among monuments

Of the day

Even pen



Was wonder

Just this rock

But it is just

This rock


What the day recommends

Blood reiterated

Thinks screens itself

What anxiety

Places doors everywhere

As if

Only exits ever

Kept us

That’s my last nerve hanging on the wall

Friday, April 21, 2006


Many readers are aware that I am married to the here depicted Anna Everett. No brag, just fact, as my elders said back in the day before I was an elder. Today I'd like to spread the word about a long-term project of Anna's, the new journal SCREENING NOIR. The project began many years ago as a newsletter within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. It is now a refereed publication sponsored by the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Anna is the chair of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. The publication bills itself as a "Journal of Black Film, Television & New Media Culture," and the first issue is a special number on the theme of Blaxploitation Revisited. This special number addresses everything from the adaptation of Sam Greenlee's novel THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR to black cast kung fu movies. Contributors to the inaugural issue include Amy Ongiri (who I saw just a few weeks ago at the Black Arts conference at Howard U), Christine Acham, Novotny Lawrence, Eric Pierson and many more, even interviews with Melvin and Mario Van Peebles.

Along with the first issue of the journal, the editorial board is circulating a call for submissions. This is "a new African diasporic media culture journal" and its call is as encompassing as that description: Hollywood films, computer and video games, Nollywood film, animation, spectatorship etc. Information about submissions and subscriptions may be found at:


Because Kevin Bell just mentioned his interest in Elouise Loftin --

I first heard of poet Elouise Loftin thirty-one years ago when Ishmael Reed wrote a review of her work for the WASHINGTON POST. Reed described Loftin as a poet who "writes Abby Lincoln-visceral-screaming poems . . . She writes Pearl Bailey sashaying, defiant, hands-on-hips (Nina Mae McKinney) poetry, and she can glide tenderly like Sarah Vaughan's voice. . . . And when she gets 'Street' it's not the strained condescending 'rap' of some rhetorical descendants of Ingersoll, but Bed-Stuy 'Street.'"

That was long enough ago that I hadn't yet heard of Nina Mae McKinney either. For that matter, I had to look up Ingersoll to see what he had to do with that era's rapping.

There was no way you could read that review, though, and not want to read the poetry that Reed was writing about. Which is how I came to equip myself with a copy of BAREFOOT NECKLACE, a book that, fortunately for me and for other readers, incorporatd the earlier JUMBISH. Reed was right this time, and champions of today's rap might do well to check out this lyric predecessor. Here's an example:

They'll Nevah Get Me

the way my eye
balls dry up and flake
away down the front of
my sweater and on my shoes
and people ask what are
you looking for
the way my lips fight my
teeth turn white and crack
like pumpkin seeds the children
bless the streets with
this is the pain
today i saw your face in
a book
flesh grinning and dancing
across the page hiding the
pain or ignorant to it
that is then how it was
you'd say
that is now how it is
you should remember
i see more of you
my eyeballs flaking down
my face chest and shoes
like this
nothing changes sometimes
the degree of blindness
is more or less varied
i want to see
with less pain
i thought today
its all about a
battle for mind
and who's got yours

The woman who wrote that poem had not yet turned twenty-two years of age.

Loftin still lives in the New York area, but is now known as Hanna Loftin. You can hear her recite her poetry on the recording CELEBRATION by Andrew Cyrille, where she collaborates with the likes of David S. Ware and Jeanne Lee.

Here are a few sections from fetich poem

today is st. april fool's day


man one say somebody keep rippin

his name off the mailbox

drivin him up the walls


man two lost his car

cant drive his life

around no more


dag gone said the dog

side of me startin to bark

trees dont take to my piss

i'm in an awe full fix

Thursday, April 20, 2006


papyrus volume 1, by Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley, is a virtuoso response to poets including Larry Neal, Henry Dumas, and the incomparable N. H. Pritchard. Norman Pritchard was a member of the Umbra group of poets, who published books with NYU Press and Doubleday during that strange and magical (albeit short) period when major presses were publishing experimental writings. Pritchard also appears on a couple of poetry LPs of the era, chanting his works. Despite all the continued discussions of orality and performance in African American literature, an early essay by poet Kevin Young (hey Kevin!) remains one of the only critical works addressed to Pritchard's work, and his essay is primarily concerned with Pritchard's concrete works. (The essay was written in the context of an exhibit on the materiality of texts.) Here are two poems by Pritchard that AREN'T in EVERY GOODBYE AIN'T GONE to whet your appetites.


weary was when coming on a stream
in hidden midst the amberadornment
of falls birth here near edge
leaves and eddy eyes withtrickling
forest thighs in widenings
youthful nippling scenic creakless

in this boundlessvastly hours wait
in gateless isn't fleshly smelling
muchly as a golden
on the crustisunderbrush of where
no one walked were
unwindishrustlings mustingthoughts
of illtimed harvests

and as we lay and as
welay and as welay
aswelay aswelay

above a bird watching we knew not
what cause his course of course we
lay we lay in the rippling
of a firthing
duty leaving welay
wanting noughtless

and then it seemed
as from the air he left
the bird who watched
what would be called
a dream



What does the cracker
when in a barrel
with dark
and alone
beside it
with fear
of being


Burnt Sienna

Trust thrust first tinder kindling grown
the maple gave rust air its bark
and ample and plain
fair orange orb
sworn to that sea line stretching bare
courteous and neat
still gleaming meekly weaned
by some awesome twilight rise
beyond be gone
the nameless colored yarn

[the proper spacing of words in these poems has gotten lost in the blogosphere, though the line breaks are preserved. For more info. on Dixon & Oxley's CD, see:

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


I thought I should report some recent news that demonstrates how seriously Penn State takes David Horowitz's pleas for academic freedom. When he visited Penn State last week, Horowitz read to us from our faculty handbook and university policies for the handling of student grievances. {OK, this gets a bit complicated. Horowitz said he doubted that any of us had ever read the faculty handbook, a well-thumbed copy of which sits on the shelf just a few inches away as I write this, so that may explain why he was reading the document to us. He also referenced university policies, only to suggest their non-existence. In response to a student who reported that there had been only 13 student complaints of political discrimination filed out of more than 80,000 course offerings at Penn State (& I hasten to add that these complaints were not only from conservative students complaining about liberal professors), Horowitz both belittled the number [who likes "13"?] and claimed that Penn State has no system in place for handling student complaints of academic unfairness. Admittedly, some may find it a puzzle that we know there were 13 complaints if we have no system for students to use to file such complaints, but hey, it's not my job to make Horowitz's tangle straight.]

So here's the news. Following an extensive investigation, the Penn State administration has found that one of its faculty members has indeed violated our policies guarding students against ideologically-based acts of discrimination. The faculty member in question is being fined $10,000 (a number that appears breath-taking to most of us professors on our salaries), and a reprimand is being placed in that faculty member's record. Further, if this faculty member is ever again found to have violated these policies, she may be dismissed.

Way to go; right David?

In the case just adjudicated, the faculty member, acting out of an anti-homosexual ideological agenda, committed acts of discrimination against a student under her supervision in the course of her employment duties. If you want all the details, you can find them in the sports pages. The key point is, we take Horowitz's point. We will not stand for politically or ideologically motivated discrimination against students on this campus.

I'll be watching Horowitz's web sites, as I know he will want to congratulate us on this firm action and will hold Penn State up as a model that other universities would do well to emulate.

By the way, there is still time to sign up for that trip to Rome with David Horowitz. Since, as he likes to tell his audiences, most of us are paid lavishly for only working six hours a week, it's not like we don't have the time or the money to help David finance his little trip to Italy. The boy does need to get out more, so let's all lend a hand. Should be a great, and educational, trip.



[This is a prose poem from Oliver Pitcher's 1958 book DUST OF SILENCE. For more Pitcher poems, see the anthology EVERY GOODBYE AIN'T GONE; more info. in sidebar.]

Holding the last of his old-found toys, he subjects himself to grim inventory which he makes whenever a son is born. The close quarters of the closet of his mind, to alien nostrils has the smell of fever and the sound of gurgling in sewers.
First, the reactionary is gouache. There! There he sits, his graystone face chiseled with Brahmin hands, behind a long black desk, on a swivel chair that never swivels. His dictionary has one word: NO buttered out generously to everybody everything everyday. His mind is a curved line starting at void ending at vacuum tripping over raspy negatives all the way. Gray hair and little cabbages are growing from his ears. One day, in a whistle voice, he said: MAYBE. Clarions blew in large rooms! Shimmying eucalyptus, shattering the tombs! A stallion ran wild into the horizon and the sun rose high on a new gray day. And from The Sitters favorite kidney a mite-y sprout grew;
second, the prayer houses. Above the chants, organ and sputterings of the blindly devout in the service
Service, the most impressive elements are the silences.
These he has preserved in a glass ball;
third, aris-tuckus-y;
fourth, marriage. Marriage, the shopgirl’s technicolor dream, the dream of the heir to the nuts-and-screws millions married to the heiress of the dynamo zillions; marriage, the dream of the poorgirl already two months gone, and the nightmare of the woman valiantly scarred;
fifth, bits of paper; credos, documents, agreements, treaties, all labeled

scratched out, rescribbled, tucked away in a vest pocket.
(He knew none of these things when.)
On closer observation we notice the closet isn’t a closet at all. His house had been bombed like all the rest. Ideals are taught early in life; thereafter, right on through to the deathbed, experience nullifies one ideal after another; so many bombed statues to the left and right of the paths. With his chain of keys is a bottle opener; this is the key to his kingdom. So we see, the closet is really an outhouse.
In a moment’s pause, he turns to face his day.
Not below, not above, but directly ahead. I suspect there are few among us who can exchange, transmigrate, and see his day as he . . .
Interrupted, he interrupts: "I see the day before myself, and I am true to it. Fill in your days; go racing across your worlds on squeaky crutches." The cry of a new born son heralds the day; the iconoclast returns to his inventory.
Silence; it exalts us with its rareness.

Monday, April 17, 2006


[shortly after the war in Iraq began, Susan Howe visited the campus of Penn State University. Below are the introductory remarks I was asked to make that evening.]

"War feels to me an oblique place."

So wrote Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February of 1863. It has been often remarked of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that the greatest conflagration in American history made little dent in her writing. Most recently, our Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, made such a remark while commenting generally on the politics and poetics of war time. Contrasting Dickinson to Whitman, the Poet Laureate commented to the effect that "Emily Dickinson just stuck to her knitting, and her knitting just happened to do with immortality and death and the grave." Just what sort of weave Collins would compose is hard to discern here. Tonight’s speaker, Susan Howe, has written that "In Civil War we are all mutually entangled." When Higginson received Emily Dickinson’s letter, he was at the head of a black regiment headed for South Carolina. Dickinson knew this, had been reading of him in the Springfield Republican. We have heard little of this in the popular presentation of Emily Dickinson, much more of knitting and of sewing. But we might well ask, with Susan Howe, "Who is this Spider-Artist? Not my Emily Dickinson. This is poetry, not life, and certainly not sewing." Howe has shown us how to find the war within Dickinson’s stanzas, how to read, not only Byron and Bronte, but Nat Turner. Howe reads "My Life Had Stood - a Loaded Gun" as an austere poem that "is the aggressive exploration by a single Yankee woman, of the unsaid words–slavery, emancipation, and eroticism." This is not quite Julie Harris. This is the poet of the fascicles.

Some days ago, several pieces of stone and clay disappeared from museums and libraries in Baghdad. Our Secretary of Defense, who serves in his press conferences as a sort of war laureate, chalks this up to the "untidiness" of liberation. A few crates of books, broken statues, perhaps a botched civilization? The appropriately named archeologist Elizabeth Stone saw the Sippar Tablets in the 1980s and reports that they include previously missing portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a text with much to teach us of war and poetics. Also lost, let us hope not destroyed, were some of the earliest instances of human writing. Can we not take comfort in the possibility that there were photographs of the ancient cuneiform? One recalls Charles Olson, who writes so movingly of the difficulties of being both historian and poet, and the excited letter he writes back to Robert Creeley from the Yucatan peninsula: "I have been happier, by an act of circumvention, the last three days: I have been in the field . . . putting my hands in to the dust and fragments and pieces of those Maya who used to live here . . . The big thing . . . is the solidity of the sense of their lives one can get right here in the fields" Or William Carlos Williams, walking through a park in Paterson, summoning to mind the memory of ancient, worked stone: "a matt stone solicitously instructed / to bear away some rumor / of the living presence that has preceded / it, out-precedented its breath." Or Emily Dickinson’s fascicles . . . whose material presence subverts even the great Johnson edition, interdicts all talk of sewing, unknits our common assumption of a poet untouched by war, by slavery, by the very world that was after all her subject –

Susan Howe brings us back to the materiality of Dickinson, that which outprecedents her breath – opposing herself to those, as she puts it, "silly books and articles" that "continue to disregard this great writer’s working process," those "dubious and reductivist" writers who continue "the vulgarization of the lives of poets, pandering to the popular sentiment that they are society’s fools and madwomen," because the thought of Dickinson as "a poet-scholar in full possession of her voice won’t fit the legend of deprivation and emotional disturbance."

Dickinson felt the war an oblique place. Whitman, in an essay Emily Dickinson never read, remarked the indirection of American language, "an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism," noting in his beloved Americans "the propensity to approach a meaning not directly and squarely, but by circuitous styles of expression." This is a patent ancestor to Olson’s success through circumvention, and it is nearly simultaneous with "Tell all the truth but tell it slant / success in circuit lies," and all bear kinship to Howe’s "Scattering as behavior towards risk."

One cannot read the poetry of Susan Howe without a closer than usual encounter with print and the page. From the overprinted slant lines of a bibliography of the king’s book to the holographic interpages of Pierce-Arrow, Howe’s works require that we hold the book, turn it about, live with it in a time when others cleave to the dream of a transparent language, a writing we will not inspect any too closely. The titles alone inscribe Singularities, Pythogorean Silence, Liberties, The Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. "If the book is to be opened," she writes:

I must open it to open it
I must go get it if I am to
go get it I must walk if I
walk I must stand if I am
to stand I must rise if I am
to rise I had better put my
foot down here is where
consciousness grows dim

Here, too, is where the lines between lecture and reading, composition and critique, refuse to stay put, to stand pat. Books like My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark are not simply historical criticism, not merely supplemental to some other, main task. They are Howe’s own "quasi marginalia." Like Melville’s marginalia, which form the basis for another of her works, these writings are Howe’s "double and triple scorings arrows short phrases angry outbursts crosses cryptic ciphers sudden enthusiasms" and "mysterious erasures," that "have come to find you too, here again, now."

Sunday, April 16, 2006


When I was out at Stanford a few weeks back for the Paul Laurence Dunbar centennial conference, I ran into Everett Hoagland, who I had not seen since we were both at the University of Maine many years ago. We did what all poets do, we exchanged recent books. Everett has a selected out now, from the good people at Leapfrog Press. The book is titled “. . . HERE . . . New and Selected Poems.” That main title is destined to be frequently misquoted, rather like Zukofsky’s “‘A,’” but I love it for its punctual ellipses.

Having grown up in the shadow of Sterling Brown, my eye went straight to Hoagland’s “Puttin’ on the Dog,” a poem that, as it turns out, turns on a whole different set of questions than Brown’s poem did, but turns in some of the same ways:

“Is my poetry Poesy?
Does it go too far into haute couture

Then there is “Talking Shit: King Leopold’s Voice Box,” a poem that serves as devastating history lesson. The poem derives from a “teaching” practice of the Francophone priests and nuns who instructed African youth in French:

“When I was young
they would lynch your language,
hang your mother tongue.”

There are many tribute poems in the collection, to other poets (Baraka, Kaufman etc.) and even to a conference organizer (Joanne Gabbin!). Responding to Kaufman’s public image, Hoagland asks:

“ he was never
‘the black Rimbaud.’ How

could he be? American
as red beans and rice, bagels and Buicks.”

Even though I’ve only met Everett Hoagland twice, I always feel like I’ve known him longer. Back in my student days at Federal City College, our English professor had us read Hoagland’s work in Dudley Randall’s landmark anthology THE BLACK POETS. It’s good to see him and his books again.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


The hosts of the Discoverthenetworks web page reassure visitors to their site that they can be relied upon for accurate information with timely updates and corrections. They write: "When DiscoverTheNetworks was launched in mid-February 2005, we made it clear from the outset that we were committed to maintaining the highest possible standard for the accuracy of the information included in our database."

Fourteen months later, how are they doing? Not so well, if their entry on Kwame Nkrumah is any measure. There we learn that "Nkrumah was the creator of Pan-Africanism - a political movement calling for the forced repatriation of all Africans and African Americans, for the purpose of having them take control of the government of each African nation."

It would seem that Nkrumah was a yet more prodigious figure than any of us knew. One of the first organizational meetings of the Pan African Movement was organized by Henry Sylvester William in London in 1900. There was another Pan African conference in 1909, by which time Nkrumah had at least managed to get himself born. Perhaps William had been channeling the formative stages of Pan Africanism from a not-yet-birthed Kwame Nkrumah hovering in the spiritual realm. The first Pan African Congress, in which W.E.B. Dubois played a major organizational role, was held in 1919, when Nkrumah was all of ten years old.

Nkrumah came to the United States to study, and it was here in Pennsylvania, at Lincoln University, that C.L.R. James met the young West African student. That was in 1943, by which time the Pan African Movement had already been in progress for four decades. James remained in contact with Nkrumah, providing the younger activist with a letter of introduction to George Padmore, James's friend from childhood, when Nkrumah traveled to London. There, partly through James's introduction, Nkrumah was able to join with a broad coalition of international activists working to end colonialism in Africa.

Both James and Padmore were on the podium at Ghana's Independence Day celebrations, a testament to the role they, along with all the other participants in the Pan African Movements, had played in the liberation of West Africa.

It was never an uncritical relationship, and James came to distrust Nkrumah's later polticial decisions. James writes about this in his crucial book NKRUMAH AND THE GHANA REVOLUTION. When Nkrumah began to take measures that indicated that he held himself free of some of the restrictions assumed by a separation of powers (sound familiar), James did not hesitate to level strong criticism at his old friend.

But even James never accused Nkrumah of favoring the "forced repatriation" of all Africans and African Americans. Even Marcus Garvey in his wildest imaginings never conceived the forced repatriation of diasporic Africans. Who ever did conceive such a thing? You might do well to look back at nineteenth century American debates over African Colonization for an answer.

Just where do the folk at DiscoverTheNetworks do their research? There are absolutely no sources cited in their Nkrumah entry. I'm guessing they're just banging at keys on their laptops, checking out their buddies' blogs.



When Lauri Ramey and I began work on the book EVERY GOODBYE AIN’T GONE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF INNOVATIVE POETRY BY AFRICAN AMERICANS, one of the poets I hoped we would be able to locate was Helen Quigless. I had never seen a reading by Quigless, but for years I carried around with me the memory of seeing her poetry in such volumes as FOR MALCOLM, NEW BLACK POETRY and BLACK SOUTHERN VOICES. In particular, I recalled her poem Concert,” which begins:

This garden too pleasant
the moon too near pools
of water avoid

Reflecting smooth sketches
of “Spain” in man’s desires.

I knew that she had studied with both Robert Hayden and John Oliver Killens, but I knew virtually nothing else about her. I made inquiries with poetry friends around the country, posted messages, contacted the publishers of anthologies in which she had appeared, but nobody could tell me how to find her.

When the second volume of David Levering Lewis’s biography of W.E.B. DuBois came out, I sat down to read it, starting with the acknowledgments, as is my way. (I read everything; only wish I could remember everything.) There in the very long list of names appeared “Helen Quigless.” I thought the odds were against there being more than two people with that name in the literary world at the same time, and so emailed Dr. Lewis to ask about her. Turned out they were friends, and he had an address. I mailed off a letter, and the permission to reprint “Concert” came back quickly, though with a note added beneath Ms. Quigless’s signature telling me that she was suffering badly from cataracts. The person who added that note also wrote that Helen was excited to hear from us and looked forward to seeing her poem restored to print.

Any of you who have worked on projects like ours know how long they can take to get out, but this past February, our collection finally appeared from the University of Alabama Press. I dutifully sent off contributors’ copies to all of our poets accompanied by notes telling them how honored we were to have their work in the volume.

A week later I found a voice message on my office phone from Carol Quigless, who turns out to be Helen’s sister. Carol brought me the painful news that Helen had died just a few months earlier after a life-long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis. Never having known anything of Helen Quigless apart from her poems, I asked Carol how her sister had lived her life. Carol explained to me that after completing Library Science school in Atlanta, Helen had gone to work in Washington, D.C. at the Federal City College. Not quite believing my ears, I asked what years Helen had worked there. It turns out that I had known Helen after all, without knowing that she was the poet I had been reading. For three years, the library room in the temporary building that housed the English department (along with history, languages and others) had been my main hangout. It was a comfortable place to rest (the Metro was just nearing completion and I usually walked from around 18th & Florida across town to our school) and to read books. I have good memories of the friendly woman who often greeted me as I entered, who I now know was Helen Quigless.

Carol also told me that Helen had been interested in a professor in the history department who had done work on Haiti. Barely able to control myself, I asked if it could possibly be C.L.R. James. Not only was it James, but, Carol informed me, Helen had made some reel-to-reel recordings of James teaching and giving talks, and she had left instructions in her will that these recordings be given to the University of the District of Columbia. Carol had just finished packing the tapes off to DC when Helen’s copy of our book came in.

As a student in my twenties, I had sat in that comfortable room off E St. reading a poem in NEW BLACK POETRY, which had been assigned in my class, never knowing that the smiling woman working just a few feet away to build a collection of books and study materials for the benefit of people like me was the poet whose work I read. Now, decades later, we are able to reproduce her work for others to read. What goes around just keeps on going . . .

Here’s the link to Helen’s obituary in THE DAILY SOUTHERNER.


We often hear complaints that the media only cover bad news from Iraq & Afghanistan. Well here's some good news, and it's news about THE PROFESSORS. Today's WASHINGTON POST includes a story, A PLACE FOR BOTH THE PEN AND THE SWORD, about professors from the University of Maryland who are offering courses in the field for the troops in Afghanistan. The professors speak of "scrambling to set up additional classes, searching for more teaching space," which, come to think of it, sounds like the first week of classes on a lot of campuses at home. Gae Holladay, pictured in the article, teaches English. Another prof featured, John Barbato, repeats the joke he was told about the need to search for mines with your left hand so that you'll still be able to grade papers with your right.


I've added a link over there to an audio file at the wonderful PENNSOUND site from a radio interview Leonard Schwartz did with me some time ago. At one point in the interview I got mixed up and credited Stephen Vincent Benet's most famous poem to Vachel Lindsay. My apologies to JOHN BROWN'S BODY -- Also interviewed in the program, Jan Heuving.


among the many oddities I’ve been writing about in Horowitz’s book and tour, one of the strangest is the serious disconnect between his repeated admonitions to the effect that he is not campaigning against political bias but against professors who use their classrooms to communicate their political bias, and what we actually find in his book and speeches. When I first saw the book, I wondered why Amiri Baraka is even in the volume. True enough, he was a professor many years ago. You could make the case, I suppose, that his inclusion is meant to show that universities hire faculty members they shouldn’t hire. The entry for Baraka, though, has little to do with universities at all. Many of the examples are from early in Baraka’s career, before he was a professor. Many more refer to the New Jersey Poet Laureate contretemps ( an episode that took a leap into the surreal when the governor who was calling for Baraka’s dismissal was forced to resign in the midst of his own scandal). If pressed, you could say that all this is relevant because Baraka does poetry readings on campuses (but so does Dana Gioia , if you’re looking for fairness and balance in poetry series. Both poets appeared at Penn State in the same year.).

Here’s news, though. Amiri Baraka, when he was a professor, might be considered the very model of classroom balance that Horowitz claims to advocate. As it happens, I’m one of the few people weighing in on this who is in a position to comment on Amiri Baraka in the classroom. More than a quarter of a century ago, I was a student in a course that Baraka taught at the George Washington University. It is true that Baraka let us know he was a communist (which, at the time, came as news to a couple of cultural nationalists who hadn’t read his recent work). And we even read a couple of texts in literary criticism and social analysis that were published by communist scholars. But there was plenty of debate. On one day, Baraka and C.L.R. James (who had been a major figure in what used to be termed “the anti-communist Left,” from which come many of the people who brought us neoconservatism) discussed their differences with the students. That was also the day, by the way, when Amiri Baraka condemned antisemitism in the harshest terms imaginable when one of the cultural nationalists tried to get a discussion going about the role of the Jews in all that is bad in the world. (There WERE witnesses; it did happen.) The nationalist appealed to some of the same early poems by Baraka that Horowitz cites, but Baraka wasn’t bashful about explaining what was backwards and ignorant about anti-Jewish bias or about why he had changed his ideology.

More important, in our assigned readings and classroom discussions we followed precisely the course of study that Horowitz appears to approve. We studied all sides. We read conservative writers like Booker T. Washington and George Schuyler. Nobody in the class enlisted afterwards in the communist cause (unless, like Horowitz, you think that engaging in post-structuralist analysis, something Baraka opposes generally, IS Marxism).

It may be that Horowitz doesn’t discuss Amiri Baraka’s classroom work in his book, the period of Baraka’s career that you would think most immediately relevant to the book’s project, because he’d have to concede that Amiri Baraka represents the ideal of what a professor should do in the classroom.

on a distantly related matter. In the course of Horowitz’s Penn State talk he repeated his theories about the relationship between the Selective Service and the take-over of the Liberal Arts by Marxist radical faculties. Horowitz told the Penn State students that he had become an English major early in his life because he’d thought it would provide him with an instrument for revolution. [Believe me, I am not making this up.] He went on to speculate that, because of student deferments from the draft during the Viet Nam war, many radicals found it advantageous to remain students, thus progressing to become PhD students and eventually professors. If you think about it, this explains much of Horowitz’s attack on those of us in the Humanities; he thinks we’re like him; or like he would have been had he gone on from his Masters work to the doctorate. In the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that, unlike David Horowitz, I was drafted. Unlike David Horowitz, I fulfilled my service obligation to my country. I didn’t go to Viet Nam; I was registered as a conscientious objector (remember e.e. cummings’s Olaf, “whose warmest heart recoiled at war”?) and I was sent to do work in poverty-stricken communities. I resided in a Catholic rectory and lived on one hundred dollars a month, considerably less than the poor people I was helping to organize day care centers etc. It was an experience I am glad to have had. I knew a lot of Viet Nam vets when I returned to school. We got along just fine. Most of them respected the decisions I’d made and the work that I’d done. Some of us joined forces in defense of the proposal for the Viet Nam War memorial when conservatives attacked the plans for it. The college classroom was a place where Viet Nam vets and war resisters could come together in discussion and scholarship. I’d like to think that is the sort of classroom I’m creating today. It’s the sort of classroom Horowitz says he favors, but we will judge his commitment by his words and actions.

Friday, April 14, 2006


From Zone Books:
Academic Freedom after September 11
Edited by Beshara Doumani

ON THE OTHER HAND, if you yearn for some serious discussion of crucial issues of academic freedom, here is one good place to look. Just before I flew to this year’s CLA conference in Birmingham, I read this new book from MIT Press, ably edited by Beshara Doumani. In a set of carefully reasoned essays, Robert Post, Judith Butler and Phillipa Strum debate the history and the nature of academic freedom in the United States. I really hope that a wider audience finds its way to this book. Neither the legal nor the institutional histories of academic freedom policies have left us with a clear and unambiguous set of responses to challenges to academic freedom, whether assaults on tenure or efforts to police the classroom practices of faculties. Is academic freedom something possessed by individual faculty members or is it something that inheres in institutions? Under what circumstances does conduct outside of the classroom fall within the purview of academic freedom policy? What are the differences within academic freedom between public and private institutions? What will be the effects on academic freedom of expanding corporate sponsorship of research? Do trustees and administrators engage in debates at this level of sophistication when responding to challenges from outside the academy? The past of readings of the AAUP standards should give anyone pause when thinking about possible future legislation. The present of challenges to freedom of speech and scholarship should be cause for worry to anyone who genuinely cares about free inquiry and public education. MIT Press has done a real service in bringing before the public this timely and provocative book. A healthy antidote to the circus surrounding these issues in the public media.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


THURSDAY night (why that’s important will become clear a little farther on), and Penn State University hosts a “lecture” by David Horowitz (I know, scare quotes are such a cliché).

Even your cynical and jaded reporter was taken aback by the sheer audacity of Horowitz’s willingness to lie to an audience that knows he is lying. At the outset of his rambling talk, which did eventually get around to his book, Horowitz held up a copy of today’s issue of THE DAILY COLLEGIAN, our official student newspaper. Referring to an article on the first page above the fold, Horowitz said that Graham Spanier, the President of Penn State, had said that “the College Republicans are offensive.” Attendees from off campus would rightly be shocked at such a thing. It would be uncommon behavior from any university president, most of whom are at such great pains never to offend any constituency. Of course, it was not true. But think about it: Horowitz is standing in front of a mostly student audience, most of whom read their daily paper. Not only that, he’s standing in the HUB building, where there are copies of that issue of the paper sitting around in bins within easy reach of his audience. In response to the involuntary groan that arose in scattered portions of the audience, even from conservatives, even from people who had been planning to make noise LATER maybe, Horowitz began his litany of denouncing people in the audience as rude, brain dead, fellow travelers, etc. But here is why people were groaning. This is what you will read in the student paper. In response to debates raging on campus about plans the College Republicans had made to hold a “CATCH AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT DAY” (and in a way, I wish they had really done it seriously – I suspect that if they found any actual illegal immigrants on our campus they’d be surprised at who they were), this is what President Graham Spanier is quoted as having said:

“The nation’s immigration policy is a legitimate topic for discussion and debate. . . . However, the approach initially proposed by the College Republicans, while protected by the First Amendment, was unproductive and offensive to many.”

Yep – pretty much exactly the sort of carefully measured statement you’d expect from a seasoned university president. Not only did Horowitz tell a lie to hundreds of people who knew he was lying, though, he upped the ante later in the evening when he stated that President Graham Spanier “owes the College Republicans an apology for calling them offensive.” At this point I (yes, me – the guy who doesn’t even shout out in church! The guy whose last hoot at a concert was recorded in 1967) shouted out “read the whole sentence.”

What can I say in my defense? I’m one of those rude left-wingers who has no respect for David Horowitz’s right to lie in public places? I’m one of those people so stupid he thought Horowitz might read the whole sentence?

OK – I suffered a rare lapse under the pressure of finding myself a faculty member suddenly thrust into the position of defending a university administrator.

The “lecture” (scare quotes aren’t scaring anybody, I know) went downhill from there.

Horowitz repeated many of his favorite falsehoods familiar to us from his previous stops on this tour. I’d expected that he would say more about Penn State, as he’d had quite a bit to say about the locals when he was at Duke, including continual denunciations of my friend Wahneema Lubianao, but I guess he and his small staff just couldn’t come up with anything. He told us more than we wanted to know about Colorado and Marietta, mostly right out of his standard talking points.

There were, however, moments of levity. At one point he started out to draw an analogy between the inappropriateness of professors inserting their ideological biases in classroom sessions and an imagined scenario involving a rabbi and his congregation. For some reason David Horowitz tends to get tangled up whenever he starts to imagine something, which is particularly tough for him since so many of his examples are drawn from the realm of the imaginary. About halfway into his scenario, he stopped and said, “Let’s leave the rabbi out, because it’s Saturday.” I spent the rest of Thursday evening wondering if I should tell his handlers what day it was so that there wouldn’t be a badly disappointed Horowitz audience waiting somewhere on Saturday for the good David to turn up.

And then there was this – Horowitz launched into his “it isn’t a list, it’s a book” routine. He went even further with this than he had at Duke. It came to be much like his “I never said ‘political bias in the classroom’” number. At one point, Horowitz flatly declared, there “are no lists on my web site.” Now, the singular in that construction gave me some trouble in researching his claim since he has more than one web site. But let’s just see here . . . OK –

On the discover the networks site, there is, as it happens, a list of the dangerous professors that are the subject of his ire, with accompanying photos so you can pick them out on your campus.

Frontpagemag reproduces the Young America’s Foundation’s list of the ten most shameful campus events of 2003.

Frontpagemag has a list of commencement speakers (a far from random sampling of campuses, says this former statistics student) compiled to establish Horowitz’s case against political bias in selecting speakers (and this one is under Horowitz’s own byline, I should add).

Frontpagemag has a list of Hollywood celebrities who “pretend to understand US foreign policy."

One of my personal favorites, Frontpagemag has a“list of some of the modern American left's most reviled people, objects, institutions, and ideas”
contributed by Chris Weinkopf.

And, because I can imagine Horowitz making a distinction between lists contributed by his writers (even though he said flatly there are no lists on his web site) and lists he has posted there himself from one source or another, for good measure here’s another one of his columns. An entry in the Horowitz’s Notepad feature, flagged “SEND THIS TO YOUR BRIGADE,” starts out this way:

"THE FOLLOWING LIST of 'books on U.S. poverty' reflect the Stalinist grip on American universities and what it has done to scholarly life in this country. Michael Bibby is evidently a professor somewhere. H-NET list for American Studies is an Internet list for American Studies scholars. Bibby has asked for the title of books on U.S. poverty from the list members who are all academic 'scholars' in the field of American Studies. So far as I can tell, all these books are left-wing books, some dating back forty years and more. Not one that I am aware of is a book from a conservative scholar. This is not an accident, nor is it unusual in today’s university, which -- outside of the sciences and other practical or administrative disciplines -- is a national disgrace."

(See, David can use scare quotes too!)

By the way, and getting back to the subject of poetry, Michael Bibby is indeed a professor somewhere who has done exemplary work on African American poetry of the forties and fifties, among other things.

And please note this eruption of political bias in Horowitz’s column. He said of this list of books, “Not one that I am aware of is a book from a conservative scholar.” Right there on the list as he reproduces it in his notepad is the name of William Julius Wilson. Not so very long ago, William Julius Wilson was a darling of the right because he is a conservative black scholar, whose works were seen as lending credence to the right’s arguments about race and the economy. When Wilson’s THE DECLINING SIGNIFICANCE OF RACE first appeared more than two decades ago, it was widely and wildly heralded on the right. What could have happened to cause Wilson, once warmly embraced by conservatives and loudly defended as a brave scholar willing to stand up against received wisdom and face down the liberal blacklist, to fall so far out of the right’s embrace that Horowitz, who clearly knows who Wilson is, cannot recognize him as a conservative? Look at the Wilson title that appears on the list:

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor

What happened is that Wilson’s dedicated scholarship has brought him to conclusions that are unwelcome in such quarters as Frontpagemag. Back in 1998, writing for the web site that contains no lists, Horowitz spoke of William Julius Wilson as:

“one of the most distinguished African American sociologists in the country, now at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard, who is the author of a famous study of blacks in America titled The Declining Significance of Race.”

By 2001, Horowitz is unable to recognize the name of William Julius Wilson as belonging to a conservative scholar. Now if that isn’t political bias at work, I don’t know what is.

And about those security guards. There were a couple of uniformed officers in the room, as we’d come to expect from Horowitz’s other stops on this tour (and let’s hope the police at least knew that it wasn’t Saturday.) It turns out that the imposing fellow I’d seen looming over Horowitz in the video of the Duke talk is his own personal guy. Do you wish you had your own personal guy? I was a little shocked to see the uniformed guards taking directions from Horowitz’s guy, but he also gave me some amusement. In the minutes before the talk, Horowitz’s security guy stood at the podium to check out the spotlight that was shining down on it. Then he stooped down to Horowitz’s level to make sure the light was positioned so as to fall on David as he faced off against the pinko Goliaths. Made for one of the lighter moments of the evening.

Still, let’s hope that future speakers at Penn State won’t stoop to David Horowitz’s level.