Monday, July 21, 2014


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.