Monday, February 16, 2015


Q. Talk briefly about the classes you took at Federal City College. What were some of the key books you read during this period in your life?

Briefly, eh?  Well, it was only three years of my life. I had taken classes at George Washington University right out of high school, when I was seventeen. But then I was eighteen, and General Hershey’s office had business with me. It took me longer to deal with Selective Service and my draft assignment than I spent in classes getting a BA. Turned out I was never supposed to have been drafted in the first place, but that’s a story for another day.

Once I was undrafted, I returned to D.C., found a job of sorts, applied to the now accredited Federal City College and got back to the business of earning a degree. After those years working outside academia, it took a bit of getting used to just getting myself to classes, especially since I was working a full time job on the night shift. I’d get off at eight in the morning, go to my apartment to take a quick nap and shower, then would walk from 18th and Corcoran down to 2nd and E to the “temporary” building that had been erected during World War II and was now housing a lot of FCC’s liberal arts and sciences departments. (Towards the end of my FCC years, the first leg of the Red Line Metro opened and I could take the train from Dupont Circle to Judiciary Square.)  That building also housed a cafeteria and FCC’s modest library, so I spent a great deal of time in those halls. Hours would go by in the library as I read my way through their poetry collection. That was where I first read the original volumes of Charles Olson’s Maximus and where I first found a copy of Melvin B. Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. What I did not know at the time was that the wonderful woman who helped me find things and checked out books to me when some student worker didn’t do it was herself something of a poet. Her name was Helen Quigless, and a couple decades later I found myself writing to her for permission to include her poem “Concert” in the anthology Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone. 

There were, of course, the breadth requirements to take care of, a task made more complicated by my having moved from a school on the semester system to one on the quarter system that then switched to semesters. That’s how I wound up needing two more credits in science and taking a pretty basic earth sciences course. But interesting folks would turn up in those courses outside my major. Adesanya Alakoye showed up the first day of math class but vanished from the school not long after. I read from his Tell Me How Willing Slaves Be at my first reading at the Folger Library (my first reading ever), after Adesanya had vanished from the earth. He had been seven years older than me and Ethelbert. I was continuing my Spanish studies, and that’s how I came to know a remarkable group of Bulgarian women. They were the daughters of Bulgarian diplomats stationed in D.C., and Federal City was a school that would readily transfer their credits from the University of Sofia. One of my unforgettable memories of those years was a night when members of our class all went to dinner together at El Bodegón restaurant at 17th and R. After a night of great food and flamenco, my classmates began enthusiastically singing Argentine Tangos in Bulgarian. Seems the Tango was hot in Bulgaria. In my anthropology course, fate seated me next to a woman who shared my love of Garcia Lorca.

But I was mostly in the English Department when I wasn’t hanging out in history with C.L.R. James.  Once I had become a professor myself, as I sat at tables having debates about curricula and requirements, I often marveled at the education I got from FCC’s English Department. A sequence in linguistics was required, and it was in the classes of Professor Newsome (I THINK that was her name) that I began to think through many of the issues that would engage me in the future. Her course in transformational grammars introduced me to the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. I had no idea of his political work! The more I read of Chomsky’s theories, though, the more I felt there was something wrong at the heart of them. It wasn’t just recognizing that transformational grammar was something of a black box theory. I agreed with Chomsky that the human brain was “wired” for language, but it was clear to me that there could be no empirical evidence for the existence of deep structure and transformations therefrom. That was just the beginning of my dissatisfaction with his theories, but I had no vocabulary for what I was trying to reach. I caught a glimpse of it in our introductions to structural linguistics. It turns out I was edging up to what I would soon know as post-structuralism.

We were also required to take courses in criticism. The intro course was taught by Professor van Kluyve (sp?), who was also a ceramic artist. Like so many FCC classes, this was a largely improvisational affair. One week we were discussing Dante’s Letter to Cangrande della Scala and the next week we were debating an African novel (don’t remember which one, as I was also reading African novels in another class at the same time). David Nicholson was in that class with me. I’d already met him in the Caribbean Lit course. Jacqueline Drake was there, too . They were part of the group that edited our creative writing publication, Slave Speaks, and it was in issues of that magazine that, alongside my own poetry, I saw the name of Essex Hemphill for the first time. He was younger than me, but then a lot of people in school were, not having been drafted. (Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of vets at the school, and several on the faculty.) I also had an entire course on Black Criticism at FCC, taught by Andres Taylor. In an interview in the 90s, Taylor, speaking of the drastic cuts to the University of the District of Columbia, remarked that “since 1993, we’ve had more people at Lorton Correctional Facility than we have had at the University of the District of Columbia.” The unstated irony in that comes from the fact that one program that had been cut years before was FCC’s program to teach students AT Lorton. (There was a brief thought given to endowing a chair in that program and naming it for C.L.R. James.) The first day of Taylor’s class he gave us an assignment (remember, this is a course in Black criticism) to produce an explication du texte of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” I asked the question I could see all my classmates asking with their eyes: what is an explication du texte ? “You explicate the text,” Taylor responded.  Hey, I did what I could.

 I took an African Literature course from Professor Crawford and much enjoyed reading several books on the syllabus that never got mentioned in class. But it was in that course that I read Zulu praise poems, a play by Mphahlele, the critical works of Jahnheinz Jahn, which fed right into my later readings of Nathaniel Mackey. I took two creative writing courses from Gil Scott Heron. In a long essay elsewhere I’m writing about that experience. Suffice it to say here that it was from him that I first heard of John Oliver Killens’s The Cotillion and John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig. And in the course of daily talking we were arguing about Toomer’s Cane, which I’d reported on in my African American Literature class, and Charles Chesnutt. In the Af Am lit course we used Negro Caravan as our central anthology, which occasioned a first day explanation from Professor Moore that despite the word “Negro” in the title, he felt it the best available collection at the time. We also read Robert Bone’s The Negro Novel in America, a book that drove me nuts. One day the professor asked if we thought the author was Black or White. I just pointed to that strange dedication page: “To My Negro Friends” it read. I suspect later editions said something different. I also did a class report on Richard Wright’s The Outsider for that course. In the independent study course I did with Greg Rigsby I was reading Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, June Jordan . . . All of this along with the usual courses in American literature and courses with titles like “The Novel in Society” (taught by another Professor Moore, Lewis D. Moore – He went on to write scholarly work on detective fiction – had been across town studying at American U. where one of his friends was Howard University’s Priscilla Ramsey) – It was in that class that I read Charles Dickens and Ayn Rand for the first time, which prepared me for reading today’s Republican politics much better than did my daily reading of The Washington Post. I had nothing but contempt for Rand’s “Objectivism,” not knowing that a decade later I’d have to spend class time explaining to students that the wonderful “Objectivist” poets had nothing to do with her pseudophilosophy.

I had an idea for a play but had no idea about stage craft, so signed up for a play writing course. Theater Arts was housed in the building directly across the street from the Martin Luther King Library, and thereby I arrived at another irony. Before FCC moved in, that building had been the national headquarters of Selective Service. Just a few years earlier I’d been part of a band of protestors outside the building, kept from entering by a phalanx of heavily armed police, eventually driven away by massive quantities of gas. I breathed a lot of C.S. and Tear gas between 1966 and 1974. Now, I walked casually into that same building. Not only that, my play, Stubs’ Lady was produced in a theater on the first floor by an organization called Arts Out Loud. The performances were a success, with full houses every night – My play was on a triple bill with one acts by friends I’d met at FCC. But I never made any effort to get any more plays produced, even though I wrote a few. I learned, even with that successful production, that I wasn’t the production type – didn’t really enjoy what theater requires – Which is to say that while I enjoy collaboration, I don’t so much enjoy watching my writing being reinterpreted in front of me. Poetry goes out into the world and is read and critiqued at some distance. Believe me, I’ve seen many strange responses to my poetry, but I don’t see those responses enacted in front of me. So, no more theater works from me. Still, I really did enjoy having that one success, and I enjoyed spending time among the theater folk. I’ve never forgotten the night I went to a small community theater uptown to watch a fellow student act in a play by Miguel Piñero. In class, this guy was so soft spoken I had a hard time hearing him – and he was a small dude. But in Short Eyes, in which he had a major role as one of the prisoners, he became an entirely different person. He became that prisoner so thoroughly that it was frightening. Then, the play over, he went back to being that quiet little dude.  There was a lot of theater in D.C. then, and I went often, but poetry was where I was going to do my work.

Federal City College was an urban land grant college, anomalous in so many ways. It was pretty much open admissions and nearly free. The education I got there, I was to learn when I started meeting grad students who’d come from other schools, was in fact superior to what people were getting at the ivies or the big state research universities. True, FCC had its share of faculty who were just coasting, and students who coasted right out the door without a diploma. But I quickly found that if you asked around you could find the most amazing faculty and courses. I knew that people at universities elsewhere probably were not getting as much Caribbean and African and African American literature as I was able to study at FCC, but it wasn’t till I moved on to grad school that I learned just how narrow the programs were at other schools. The first year of my doctoral program I was talking with a professor at another school who asked what I had studied at FCC. Among other things, I mentioned African American literature. He nodded sagely and said, “mostly twentieth century, I would suppose.” I answered, “not till the second semester.” I was taking a course in Black literary criticism at a time when there were no teaching anthologies on the subject. Even now I meet scholars who operate as though Black people didn’t write criticism before Houston Baker, Henry Gates and bell hooks; I was taking a course in the subject before those three had published their first books. Federal City College made available to the citizens of D.C., at least those willing to make a few inquiries and act on them, a liberal arts education that prepared them to be critical citizens and artists, which is probably why congress and local politicians pretty much put a stop to that. It tells you all you need to know that the United States Congress would rather spend money subsidizing D.C. high school grads going to universities in other states than develop the kind of world class institution of higher learning that is typically found in the capitals of major industrial nations.

In those years I usually read three or four books of poetry a week, few of them for classes. I don’t remember any classes at FCC devoted entirely to poetry, though there may have been some that met at times I couldn’t accommodate. I had already been reading the Beats and the Black Arts poets before I came back to college. Now I was hungrily reading Ashbery, Cortez, Cruz, Creeley, Neruda, Césaire, Senghor, Guillen, Niedecker, Oppen, O’Hara, Roberson, Cardenal, and on and on. And it was during my time at FCC that I discovered poetry readings. To my utter amazement, it seemed that libraries and museums and schools all over D.C. were hosting poetry events every week, mostly free. Who knew? Most of my direct experiences of poets in the past had been at demonstrations.  I still remember Allen Ginsberg reading “Wichita Vortex Sutra” on the grounds of the Washington Monument and shaking his fist in the direction of the White House while a crowd of thousands cheered him on. The Washington Post had an entire separate section on books that came out on Sundays, and each week they printed a calendar of literary events around town. Soon enough, I could be seen at most of them. Next thing you knew, I was standing at the podium at the Folger reading my own poetry (and a poem by Alakoye) in their lunch time series – Though there was the little matter of the workmen who were renovating part of the building and revved up their jack hammers every time I started a new poem.

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