Q. Do you feel Ahmos Zu-Bolton's contribution to African American literature has been overlooked?
When Lorenzo Thomas was considering leaving his home in New York and moving to Houston, one of his Umbra buddies told him that if he went to Texas, he would not be known as a southern poet; he would be an unknown poet.
Blackjack told me
for the 7th time
this week –
bout being in the lost
& found cell
–Ahmos Zu-Bolton II
I’m pretty sure I first saw the name “Ahmos Zu-Bolton II,” pretty sure because it’s not a name you’d forget in any context, because it’s a name that makes you wonder who the first Ahmos Zu-Bolton may have been, when I was in a D.C. book shop and picked up a copy of Synergy D.C. Anthology. – Picked it up because it was D.C., because I liked the rhyme in the title, because the all black cover had a circle cut in it through which the title was revealed from what bibliographers call the half- title page beneath. On the full title page, Zu-Bolton’s name appeared as co-editor of the volume with E. Ethelbert Miller.. I was not that long back from my draft duties in upstate New York, had missed out on much of the early seventies poetry communities of D.C. (Though I got to know pretty much everybody in those communities in the coming years.) Here was a book promising, well . . . , synergy. I bought it.
There were some names in the contents I haven’t seen in later years: Shirley Jones, Hamisi, Ebara (poets were way ahead of pop music in doing the one name thing), Anyeaum, Elgeria Farmer, Susan Thomas . . . There were some names I already knew from my reading: Sterling Brown, May Miller, Gaston Neal (who I’d seen in a TV news segment about the New School for Afro American Thought when I was a teenager, then saw in the landmark anthology Black Fire), Dolores Kendrick, Jodi Braxton. And there were names of poets I was soon to meet: Adesanya Alakoye (who appeared and as quickly disappeared from Algebra class at FCC), Winston Napier, Joanne Jimason, and the editors themselves. Napier was to become a friend in the next decade when I was teaching at Howard and he was a graduate philosophy student. Winston used to drop by the office to argue fine points of Heidegger and Locke with me, so it was no surprise when he later edited a major anthology of black theory and criticism. Joanne became a very good friend, but then she went to California, and when I went to California she had gone back East.
I encountered Zu-Bolton’s name again when he appeared as editor of the mag Hoo Doo. Number 1 came out in 1972, but I didn’t see it till later. I noticed that it was a project of energy blacksouth press, also the publisher of the Synergy collection, and reckoned the press must be Zu-Bolton’s projection. Here again I encountered names I knew: May Miller, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Dudley Randall, Ron Welburn, Kalamu ya Salaam. This may well have been the first time I saw the name of Jerry Ward, here represented by two poems: “Heavy Feelings” (“I will not windex realities”) and “Generation Gap.” Soon enough I would come to know Ward’s critical work, which would continue to be important to me and to so many others. Whoever this Zu-Bolton was, he was assembling a significant roster of contributors. Here, too, I saw again the name of Lorenzo Thomas, signed to the poem “Sounds of Joy,” emblematic of what was to be one of the most important friendships of my life.
I kept an eye out for further issues of Hoo Doo and for its editor. I believe I have the full run of the mag. That first issue included a couple poems by Zu-Bolton that were to reappear in his books, “From the Diary of Livewire Davis” (we were all still writing those personae poems with third person characters we’d thought up, though none of ours tended to the Prufrockian any more), and a piece titled “Spirit Chant” that Zu-Bolton had co-authored with Russell Chew. Like early issues of Rick Peabody’s Gargoyle, each Hoo Doo had a different look to it, though not, as Gargoyle sometimes did, a different shape. Hoo Doo II/III was not only a double issue, but a double issue published in the format of those old sci fi double paperbacks, where you’d read one novel through, then flip the book over and read the second novel from back to middle. When you got to the contributors notes page of Hoo Doo II if you turned the page you found yourself looking at the contributors notes for Hoo Doo III upside down. By issue III, the mag included poets such as Alvin Aubert, Sarah Webster Fabio, Michael S. Harper, Audre Lorde, Eugene Redmond, Alice Walker and the breath-taking Jay Wright. Zu-Bolton kept up that level of quality through the run of the journal. Number 5 was a special woman’s issue guest edited by Lucille Clifton, Amma Khalil (what became of her? In Ethelbert’s book Fathering Words you can read an amusing anecdote of the day they both got rejection letters from Hoo Doo - this was before either had met Zu-Bolton), and Audre Lorde. This began a short string of guest edited issues. The next one is (I love this) Hoo Doo 6 ½, edited by Lorenzo Thomas and Adesanya Alakoye. That issue has early Harryette Mullen poems and an essay on Baraka by Lorenzo that I don’t think has ever been republished. Hoo Doo 7 was ably edited by June Jordan, Stephen Henderson and Ethelbert Miller. Apparently by then Ethelbert, Amma and Stephen Henderson had figured out what a Hoo Doo poem was (the question that had stumped them earlier), and now they were the ones deciding what work was genuinely Hoo Doo. That issue, dated 1980, teases readers on the last page with the promise of a Hoo Doo 8, to be guest edited by Julius Thompson and Jerry Ward, themed around Blues & Dues. Despite the impressive list of poets to be included in the planned number 8, it never happened, and more’s the pity. Still, Hoo Doo’d had a good run, better than most, and left a legacy that scholars need to tend to.
I finally met up with Zu-Bolton when he came back to D.C. from wherever for a reading with Alakoye. Did Zu-Bolton arrive late in a cab, or do I just remember that because he read his “Taxicab Blues” that evening? The reading was in the upstairs space at D.C. Space; same space was the place I’d seen the Sun Ra Arkestra, Amiri Baraka with Steve McCall, David Murray and Fred Hopkins, Don Cherry, Anthony Davis, Sam Rivers with Dave Holland – so many great sets before the fire authorities made them stop crowding audiences into that area and start having all the shows in the restaurant downstairs. The place (at 7th and E, NW) was always a friend to poetry. Ethelbert produced a weekend marathon there and I read there once with Thad Ziolkowski, now well known as a novelist and memoirist.
We could well ask this same question of so many. Why isn’t Tom Dent better known even now? Why is so little written about Julius Thompson? Looking farther back, why so little attention to May Miller Sullivan?
heading west we cross
the great Sabine:
river of cypresses/ or
rio de sabinas
my son aks me
through the morning’s lost sleep
if real desperadoes live in Texas
“we are from a land
that is trying to assassinate love”
I tell him.
–Ahmos Zu-Bolton II
Zu-Bolton was a true literary activist, sometimes seeming more intent on distributing the works of others than looking to his own “career” as a poet. Still, you’d think the mere fact of his marriage to Harryette Mullen would have attracted the notice of one or two among the many who are now writing about her work. You’d think that the work he’d done as editor and publisher might have attracted the notice of critics working on the histories of American poetry of the later part of the twentieth century. It has often been the case that editing a journal was key to a poet’s appearing in other people’s journals and garnering a reputation. Zu-Bolton was tremendously helpful to many poets of the seventies and eighties in particular, and many openly acknowledge that help. Still, for most of that time his own work was only seen in the small press mags, and few have seen that 1975 chapbook from Solo Press.
ollie street is 2 blocks long
with a dead-end both ways.
our nation. where
They told me that California
was upnorth, and Chicago
somewhere in Canada.
Zu-Bolton was clearly on his way to something, though that something was clearly not fame, or even the slight recognition of critical mention. It always struck me that he had sensed that long ago. That 1975 chapbook closes with a poem much in the spirit of Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. It’s a closing note of opening:
intro to my final book of poems
this is to say that I am
coming round the bend. the darkness
inside your flashes of light know me.
i throw you curves cause i wanted to be
a pitcher. a sidearming hero
you could turn to
in the late innings (i would
save the game
before my wounded brother got to
but this ain’t no playground
they told me. that & the fact
that i never mastered
is the reason i am here.