Saturday, February 21, 2015

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project - NOTES INSIDE A POET’S HORN

Q. Can you provide a short list of some of the best jazz poems written by American poets?
What makes a good jazz poem?   How do we move beyond the process of "naming" and calling a poem a jazz poem because it simply includes the name of a jazz artist?

On one of the occasions when Robert Creeley was asked what he and Charles Olson had in common as poets, he answered with one word, “Bird.”

If you look to a collection like the Kevin Young edited Jazz Poems in the “Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets” series [and why doesn’t the “pocket poets” book contain a single mention of that great player of the pocket trumpet, Donald Cherry?], you’ll find that all but a tiny few of the poems in the volume explicitly mention a jazz musician or a particular jazz composition. And so, for example, Young includes the early Creeley poem “Chasing the Bird,” – interestingly enough, it is a poem most would not have thought to term a “jazz poem” had it not been for the title. (Though one song title appears as a line in the poem, that title is more often associated with Sonny Stitt than with Bird, but maybe that’s why the title is there – Sonny was chasing the bird.)

But this is a question I’ve been hearing in one form or another for nearly four decades. I remember hearing a poet reading at the Washington Writers Center in Glen Echo, Maryland (now in Bethesda – don’t think it was ever in Washington – maybe that’s why “Washington” isn’t part of the name these days), complain that too many poets thought they had written a jazz poem because they had mentioned a musician – that he, unlike them, was doing it the right way.  Here’s an example of him doing it right:

Listening to hard bop,
I stayed up all night
Just like good times.
I broke the old waxes
After I’d played them:
Out of Nowhere, Mohawk,
Star Eyes, Salt Peanuts . . .

That was Paul Zimmer (he has a piece in the Young collection too), and while the poem has him literally breaking the mold, I had a hard time seeing the contrast he was claiming.  Fast forward a few decades and I find myself hearing the same complaint and claims from the Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, author of the book Hail! Madam Jazz, and again, the poems made much mention of musicians and songs. (And the poet insisted on keeping his audience in the dark – the room lights were extinguished while he read under a lamp light on the podium, resulting in that same effect we’d get when, as children, we’d hold a flashlight under our chin.) I was again hard pressed to hear anything especially jazzy in the poetry, though I had to give the poet credit for sneaking the last syllable of his name into the title of his book. This is clearly not just a white poet thing. The opening lines of Kevin Young’s “Stardust” read:

Lady sings
the blues
the reds, whatever

she can find–
changed, a chord–

God bless
the child
that’s got his own

Among the usual elements, a drug reference – extra credit from the workshop for the enjambed “short / changed” in short lines giving short shrift to a chord change – To Young’s credit, his anthology does include things like Norman Pritchard’s “Gyre’s Galax,” which you can hear Pritchard chanting on the 1967 LP New Jazz Poets. That’s a poem that approaches the idea via sound structures rather than content.

I am as guilty/creditable as anybody else on this score. Here’s a short-lined poem on the occasion of the death of Miles Davis:

Still in the ear
All these years
From first hearing
To this news


Whose blues
In rests

I think of this structure as a little horn, almost a pocket trumpet. It works with sound as much as sense. It alludes to Miles’s famous rests, now become permanent, “In a Silent Way,” without naming that tune.  Early poems of mine invoke, sometimes obliquely, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, J.P. Johnson, and so on, in the tradition of so many of my fellow poets of mentioning the music in the process of writing of it. One person said writing about music is like dancing about architecture – another said words don’t go there – in both instances, these become epigrams that we repeat to one another that really don’t do anything more than excuse us from thinking more carefully about the musics of writing.

I suppose some close reader might posit direct formal linkages between the structures of Creeley’s and Olson’s poems and Charlie Parker’s music, much as a few critics continue to scan Williams’s variable feet and insist they can really be counted. I don’t see it. Still – In the chapter of my book Writing between the Lines titled “Whose Blues?” (that title written before I used the line in a poem - in the chapter the phrase is a question – in the poem it is a possessive) I argued that Williams and Kerouac had precious little technical knowledge about the jazz that so moved them; that we should not expect to find demonstrable jazz analogues in their works. But there is absolutely no doubting that jazz helped to form their writing.  Kerouac’s “spontaneous Bop prosody” is a metaphor become a practice.

If we want to see what I would consider jazz poetry that isn’t such purely by virtue of its subject matter, we can look to the poetry of Cecil Taylor. This might seem an evasion, since Taylor is himself a jazz musician (one whose poems hold considerably more interest for me than do those of most jazz musicians who write verse – he’s one of the exceptions, along with Joseph Jarman and, so I hear, Herbie Nichols).  

fruit happy to the water know
pleasant prick of tongues identities
forage gather’d dentures elastic
response call juices

Though Taylor can allude with the best of them:

Remember T. Dameron
know tender things un-
tamper’d by populous
ne-be hebetudes, tides
overwhelm, ultimatum

I tried not to devote much time to the question of definition when I wrote about jazz and poetry in Black Chant. (And let’s face it, while I absolutely did want to write those chapters, it was a way a still precariously situated literary professor could write about music without catching flack from a dean or department head.) In Sascha Feinstein’s book Jazz Poetry from the 1920s to the Present, published in the same year as Black Chant, Feinstein recounts the experience of a conference panel that tied itself in knots over the question of what constitutes jazz poetry. In Understanding the New Black Poetry, Stephen Henderson arrived at the most commonsensical of definitions of Black verse. Any poem written by any Black poet is a Black poem, and so is any poem written by a non-Black person which is read as a Black poem by Black people. Feinstein arrives at a similarly plain-spoken and workable definition. “A jazz poem is any poem that has been informed by jazz music.” Notice this is restricted to matters of definition, not judgments of value or quality. So many writers attempting to define jazz poetry invoke rhythm, though it’s clear to me from looking at jazz poems they praise that they have a quite different sense of rhythm from my own. It all reminds me just a tad too much of jazz critics who declare that it isn’t jazz if it doesn’t swing, which might have been an acceptable take on an Ellingtonian imperative were it not for the fact that “swing” is every bit as difficult of definition as anything else in this discussion.

There are poems that take the actual sounds and rhythms of a known jazz work as their structure. Paul Blackburn’s “Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot” is a clear example of that approach, which is probably why the poem appears in nearly every jazz poetry anthology extant. I’d like to insist that Jayne Cortez’s “What’s Your Take?” is a jazz poem, and apparently she shared my view since she included that poem in Jazz Fan Looks Back.

If the most extravagant treaty of abuse
sits like an occupying force on
broken body of an abandoned child

I think it would be hard to argue for this as an example of “swing,” but Cortez was perfectly capable of swinging it in performance. Turning to the issue of Brilliant Corners where my little Miles first appeared, I have a hard time seeing anything of jazz in Billy Collins’s 

and every time we kiss
I feel
reissued on Impulse
reissued on Verve.

Sorry, but that’s just corny and obvious. And risking sacrilege, I’d say much the same of the late Philip Levine’s poem about Sonny Rollins, “The Unknowable.”

After all–a man who stared for years
into the breathy, unknowable voice
of silence and captured the music.

You can almost hear the audience greeting these closing lines with a communal sigh at the depth of it all. But “voice / of silence”? That’s a freshman poetry error. I know because I made a similar error in a poem published when I was a freshman. (More about that in a later post.) I might say my own Sonny Rollins poem is much better, but I would, wouldn’t I? All of our poems seem smaller next to the works Jayne Cortez published in that same issue, poems like “States of Motion” and “Bumblebee, You Saw Big Mama.” But I wouldn’t refuse the definition of “jazz poem” to any of those poems. I’m content with defining the genre as “any poem written under the sign of jazz.” Once we agree on that breadth we can go on to talk about how the poems work, how they signify, how we interact with them.

At the time I wrote Black Chant there was very little work available on jazz and poetry. In addition to Feinstein’s book, we now have Notes to Make the Sound Come Right, by T.J. Anderson III, Tony Bolden’s Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture, Meta Jones’s The Muse Is Music, and Michael New’s dissertation, Instrumental Voices. (Watch for his Gil Scott Heron chapter, forthcoming in Callaloo.) More people in literature need to read George Lewis’s A Power Greater than Itself, which has as much to teach us about poetics as about music.

And the anthologies just keep coming. There was Feinstein’s two volume set co-edited with Yusef Komunyakaa, The Jazz Poetry Anthology and Second Set. Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey edited what for my money remains the best overall collection, Moment’s Notice. More recently there is Experiments in A Jazz Aesthetic. 

So, any list would go on longer than a Cecil Taylor solo concert. I would, though, send readers to such work as Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio, which is written next to speakers playing Taylor’s music. And do check out Moten’s new one, The Little Edges.

that’s what rodney asked about,
can you make what we already (do
you remember/how did the people)

have? Let it get around and get on in.

I’d give a listen to Vijay Iyer’s work with Mike Ladd and his performances with Amiri Baraka, who remains a consummate jazz poet. Matana Roberts’s experiments with texts in her Coin Coin trilogy are wondrous.  After you read Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball give the enclosed CD a spin. It’s not your usual recorded reading of the book’s poems. And I will repeat; you must listen to Georgia Anne Muldrew’s Olesi: Fragments of an Earth. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project - A BOOK AS BIG AS HISTORY

Q. C.L.R. James saw Richard Wright's Native Son as not just a major literary achievement but also an epochal moment in American cultural history. During your lifetime have you seen any book by an African American author having a similar significance?  Are there any texts that can be viewed as "events' in history?

James’s long-standing friendships with Richard Wright and Paul Robeson are evidence of his ability to sustain lasting and productive relationships with people whose ideology ran counter to his own. James and his wife were good friends to the Wrights and James was a central figure in the group of intellectuals Wright was gathering for a publishing project that fell apart due to lack of financial support shortly before Wright’s departure for France.

During the time I was studying with James there was one cultural phenomenon in particular that James saw as similar to Native Son as a signal moment in American history, and that was the Roots miniseries. Neither James nor I had much admiration for Alex Haley. I had always been deeply suspicious of Haley’s “finishing” of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Haley’s many appearances on television and in print interviews while working on Roots had led me along with many others to believe he was undertaking a project of history. My many suspicions about Haley were compounded by the testimony and settlement around his borrowings from Harold Courlander’s not very good novel. I always believed Haley’d borrowed illegitimately from Margaret Walker’s Jubilee and that she might have prevailed if she’d had a better lawyer.

The problems with the book were if anything magnified by the television series, but that didn’t particularly bother James. What was of interest to him, and I think he was right about this, was parallel to what he had seen with the publishing success of Native Son. Whatever the works’ failings, the fact was that as the Roots miniseries unfolded, millions of Americans were avidly tuning in to this story of Africans in the New World and their legacies for our present.

There may be other instances since then, but the one literary work I can think of in immediate response to your question is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I will always believe Song of Solomon to be the greater work, though I much admire Beloved, and my considerations of the book’s reception will always be affected by the open politicking for a PRIZE for Morrison (which lobbying effort I don’t think she had anything to do with). Still, Beloved became canonical almost instantly, something to be enfolded by syllabi everywhere. The book is even taught in high schools, though I have to believe the teachers are either skipping over a couple of passages or just don’t quite grasp what is being described therein. It’s hard for me to think of a book since Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that has had such a wide effect in American general culture. On a list of books that would include Sinclair’s The Jungle and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Beloved rapidly became a touchstone. I know that James would have been fascinated and moved by the reception of this book, which appeared shortly before his death. James had always been an enthusiastic supporter of Morrison. His late essay “Three Black Women Writers” was about Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. I still remember the day when several of us were in a café on Capitol Hill following a talk James had given on his book Beyond a Boundary. I was having a conversation with the person next to me at the table who happened to mention Sula. James’s eyes lit up the way I had seen so many times, as he said, “Did I hear someone mention Sula? That is a remarkable book.” An entire generation since has come of age reading Beloved, a generation that has mostly not read or seen Roots. (Though I note that the name of Kunta Kinte has lived on in the culture, even among those who have never read of him.)

Another book we might see as having had similar historical import is President Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, and I suspect we could make the case that a generation raised reading Beloved was in some ways a generation not only prepared to read Obama’s book, but a generation ready to vote for America’s first Black President. (And yes, you can ignore what Morrison had to say about Bill Clinton in that regard.)

Monday, February 16, 2015


Thought I'd post these in conjunction with the latest Q&A with Ethelbert.

What you see here are issues  of the Federal City College literary journal as the school disappeared into the University of the District of Columbia and the ambitious little mag disappeared into history.

That first issue came out in 1975, and that was the first time my poems appeared in the neighborhood of the great Joanne Jimason, author of Naked Against the Belly of the Earth and Blowing the Blues Away

In the tradition of little mags, issue #2 didn't show up till the following year. Which is probably why the preface by Myles Johnson begins, "this is way overdue." Johnson declared it was going to be a quarterly, one that "has been waiting in the wings like Alkebulan waits to cleanse herself of unnatural elements," though I may well have been one of those elements for all I know. I had more poems in that issue, and it also features what may well be David Nicholson's first published fiction. David also contributed the title poem for the mag. Despite Johnson's announcement, the next quarterly didn't come for a year. By the time volume 2 number 1 appeared, the masthead read "Univ. of D.C. Mt. Vernon Square Campus." It was 1977 and FCC was merging.  Long time Metro riders will recall hearing announcements of the Mt. Vernon Square / UDC" stop, and may well wonder why there is no sprawling UDC campus there -- Maybe Slave Speaks was speaking too loudly for somebody up on THE HILL? This was my last appearance in the mag, and the first appearance of Essex C. Hemphill, who had practically a whole chapbook of his own in the issue, and would just a couple years later emerge with Nethula journal.

Beginnings and endings are always worth noting . . .

Note the shackle on the "L" -- 


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.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Save Our Stanzas - Selecting Amiri Baraka

For many years I have complained loudly and often about the lack of a readily available major gathering of Amiri Baraka's poetry. It would be hard to think of another late career poet of his importance who was not the subject of a Collected as well as a Selected. (The Complete generally awaits the poet's demise -- but even then . . .. Recollect that one of Frank O'Hara's friends asked, following the publication of both the Collected and Poems Retrieved, whether a Complete was even a possible thing. Looking at the masses of Baraka's work, I have often wondered the same thing.) 

Long out of print, the Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, published in 1979, was advertised as "containing those poems which the author most wants to preserve," and that has long been the most substantial collection of Baraka's verse we had - 339 pages running from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note through to Poetry for the Advanced. (This was the only volume in which many of us could find that second collection from Baraka's Marxist epoch.) There was no editor named in the book, so one assumes the selections are indeed Baraka's own.

 A quarter century on, Marsilio published Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995, edited by Paul Vangelisti in consultation with the poet. I loved the cover of that book the minute I saw it, and began reading with the highest hopes, but I was already concerned just picking up the volume. The 1979 Selected ran to 339 pages; the 1995 Transbluesency, taking in decades more work to choose from, was 271 pages long. 

Shortly after the publication, a retrospective symposium on Baraka's life and work was held at the Schomburg Library. One of the standout events of that weekend was a reading Baraka gave during which, at the suggestion of Kalamu ya Salaam, Baraka read poems from the entire breadth of his career, something I had never seen him do before and that I never again witnessed. Picking up Transbluesency, Baraka paused over the first poem on the first page and remarked, "there's a mistake here." That was just the beginning of it -- Transbluesency was badly marred by obvious typos and substantive errors. Any selection, like any anthology, is open to criticism for what has been omitted (or what perhaps should have been). I remember Kalamu asking Baraka why the book didn't include such powerful works as "I Investigate the Sun." But selection criteria aside, those of us who hope to teach from such books also hope to have reliable editions. Since 1995, Transbluesency has been the only easily acquired and adopted collection of Baraka's work spanning his writing life, and so I have often begun classes by issuing a corrections kit to my students so that we can all be on the same page with some assurance we are on a page Baraka wrote. Learning that the new SOS: Poems 1961-2013 was also being edited by Vangelisti, and that it was to be an expansion of Transbluesency, I harbored a wish that those many errors would be corrected.

And some of them have been -- That first poem, "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note" has been corrected, but the fifth section of "Hymn for Lannie Poo" still contains lines that read "The preacher's / conning eyes / filed when he saw /the way I walked to- / wards him;" lines that don't really make much sense. "Conning eyes filed"? Readers of earlier editions know the word was supposed to be "fired." A pretty bad typo in "Wise I" has been corrected, but the opening page of"In the Tradition" retains a significant error. The current edition has the lines "the White Shadow / gives advice on how to hold our homes / together, tambien tu, Chicago Hermano" -- I imagine any number of readers have been wondering who this Chicago hermano is and why Baraka is addressing him in Spanish. Those of us who first heard the poem on the stunning LP New Music - New Poetry, accompanied by Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall and David Murray, know that the line goes "tu tambien, Chicano hermano." Chicano/Chicago -- not really a typo, and a world of difference.

Again, any of us might well have made a different selection. Why no "Why Is We Americans"? Why no "Something in the Way of Things," no "I Liked Us Better"? Was the decision to repeat exactly the selections from Transbluesency Baraka's choice? For the foreseeable future, we will have to live and work with these decisions. A proposed Collected was put on hold by Baraka's agents in favor of letting SOS have the field to itself for a time.

But it's not just copy editing that is a problem. The editor's introduction adds some new counterfactuals to those already circulating. Baraka's parents did not capitalize the "R" when they named him Everett Leroy Jones. It is simply not true that following 1973 Baraka "would only be published by smaller or alternative presses."  That 1979 Selected (still a book to get on the used book market if you can't get all the original volumes)? That was published by Morrow, and it includes the Marxist period books Hard Facts and Poetry for the Advanced, the very sorts of work Vangelisti argues rendered Baraka unpublishable by the larger, commercial houses. Baraka often observed that it had been easier to get published with "hate whitey" than with "hate capitalism," and that is true enough. But that's a far cry from the claim advanced in the introduction to the new book. Morrow also published Baraka's Selected Plays and Prose and Daggers and Javelins, a major collection of essays from the Marxist period. It was also Morrow who published the first substantial collection of Baraka's later plays, The Motion of History. None of this is to take anything away from the story of Baraka's difficulties in the publishing world (part of why we haven't seen another major collection of the poems in all these years from a larger press), and we all owe a tremendous debt to Third World Press and the many small literary presses who continued to make Baraka's works available. Still, it's better to get the motion of history right when writing history, when you're editing the only large collection of Baraka's poetry that we're going to have for the foreseeable future.

There are questionable interpretations as well. Can we really make the case that Baraka's "lyrical realism" "sounds in counterpoint to his Beat contemporaries, steeped as they were in the egocentric idealism of nineteenth-century Anglo-American literature"? Take another look at Baraka's brilliant introduction to The Moderns and let his comments on the relationship of his contemporaries among the Beats to, say, Melville and Twain, sink in and then think carefully about this argument. And is it really defensible to claim that Baraka's writing is "both American (i.e., African American, of the 'New World') and firmly outside Anglo-American culture"? 

On the other hand, Vangelisti is on much firmer ground with his observation that "up through the last poems, there remained above all a critical, often restless lyricism . . . " I think one of the greatest services this new volume will perform is forcing, or at least encouraging, a much more nuanced understanding of Baraka's later writings. The anthologies have tended to repeat the same few poems, and many readers, aided and abetted by America's publishing world, simply have no clue what Baraka's late poems are like. The image of a screaming, hate-filled nationalist was simply replaced in the national media imaginary by the image of a screaming, hate-filled communist (see the press controversy surrounding "Somebody Blew Up America" for a sense of what I'm getting at) and all too many critics and general readers alike simply didn't bother reading any poetry Baraka wrote over the past four decades. Those who did lay hands on copies of Funk Lore or Wise or any of the many chapbooks over the years knew that Baraka continued to write poetry easily the equal of anything done in his youth. How hard could it have been for anyone to know that? Still, it could have been a whole lot easier if he'd had the kind of book publication an Adrienne Rich or a Kevin Young or a Mark Strand seemed to find without quite so much trouble.

The final section of the new SOS, titled "Fashion This," is selected from work published after 1996 and is in itself cause for celebration, a truly important event in American poetry. Many familiar elements are in place. Where the young LeRoi Jones recollected the Green Lantern, the old Baraka at several points remembers the little devil cartoon character created by Gerald 2X in the pages of Muhammad Speaks. (Has anybody ever gathered those cartoons in one place?) The lyric reflections on Monk and Trane continued to Baraka's dying day. The scathing satire continued unabated. The wild experimentation with language went on (see "John Island Whisper"). The collection provides a new context for reading poems we've nearly talked to death in the past. Reread "Somebody Blew Up America?" next to Baraka's earlier poem written after the bombing in Oklahoma City.

There are few places in the work as deeply moving and lyrically intense as the poems for and about Amina Baraka, the former Sylvia Robinson. "What beauty is not anomalous / And strange"

If we ever do get a Collected Baraka (and let's hope it's also a corrected Baraka) I suspect it will need to be in two very large volumes, rather like the two volumes of the Creeley Collected we now have. There are at least 236 pages of uncollected poems just from the beginning of Baraka's publishing to 1966. Add to that all the uncollected poems since 1966 and whatever of the unpublished poetry can be coralled and you'd probably have another entire book at least as long as SOS. We need these books, but for now this is what we have. To the good, there is plenty here for us to reread and think over for a good long while.

The saddest lines in the entire 528 pages of SOS come in a late poem reflecting on late Auden: "What poetry does / is leave you when you stop needing it!" Poetry never left Amiri Baraka, and we will never stop needing his.

Sunday, February 01, 2015


Q. Describe your first meeting with C.L.R. James at FCC. How did his work help you develop as a critic?

I’ve told this story briefly in my book C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction, but at the time I first met James I could have had no idea that I would ever write such a book. I had returned to college after my somewhat odd years in upstate New York, where I had been sent by my draft board to perform “alternative service.” My service consisted of what might be termed community organizing, or at least community service. I had been doing things like helping to set up day care programs, getting local doctors to provide free physical exams for the children, working with public housing tenants’ groups, even working in one of the local High Schools to report on the racial frictions of the early 1970s. I had always intended to go back to school once Selective Service was done with me, but had not yet known how or where I would do that. Following my return to D.C., a friend from High School who was attending Federal City College told me that FCC had now attained its accreditation, and one look at the nearly nonexistent tuition was enough to decide me. I was working full time, but figured I could handle a full time course load simultaneously, so signed on.
One of the courses in the catalogue that attracted my interest was Caribbean Literature. That course was my introduction to Gregory Rigsby, since retired, who remains in my memory as one of the most effective and encouraging professors I was to study with. I took a second Caribbean Literature course with him, and did an independent study on African American women poets under his direction. Rigsby had gotten his PhD at Howard University. In fact, I believe he was the first PhD in English from Howard. At the time I knew him, Rigsby was publishing work that ranged from the Caribbean novel to the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. His book on Alexander Crummell remains a vital source to this day.
It was in Rigsby’s course that I first read a number of authors I continue to read and teach: Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Alejo Carpentier, Aimé Césaire and Wilson Harris. Rigsby and I shared an interest in Thomas Pynchon, and I remember giving him a copy of a recent collection of essays on Pynchon. When I stumbled across an LP of Brathwaite reading from The Arrivants, I got copies for both of us. It was in Rigsby’s course that I learned of A.R. Orage and his emphasis on the noumenal and what this all had to do with modernism. So it was in that first FCC class that we were assigned to read The Black Jacobins by one C.L.R. James. (Among the many strange unfoldings of personal history; I knew of Jimmy Boggs, former member of James’s American political group, before I knew of James himself, because Boggs had an essay in Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal’s anthology Black Fire, which I had read well before returning to college.) One day as the class was discussing one of the crucial early passages in James’s book, I happened to comment on the writing itself, which seemed to me exceptional. Rigsby replied, “he’s here, you know.” Not quite catching on, I asked, “where?” Rigsby said, “downstairs.” Eventually I realized Professor Rigsby was pointing through the floor to the department of History, directly below our classroom. Turned out this wasn’t at all a figure of speech. James not only taught in the history department, but between classes could be found sitting in a large chair in the front of the department’s office.
Next semester, I was enrolled in his course. I was officially registered for two of James’s courses before graduating, one in African Intellectual History and one in the Revolutionary Tradition in Latin America. Probably to the annoyance of my fellow students, I was always getting James involved in literary discussions. When the first time came for us to declare our research paper topics, I tentatively asked if I could write about Wole Soyinka’s plays, not sure a paper on drama would be accepted in a history class. James lit up, said he’d be delighted to read a paper on Soyinka, and I was never tentative in that class again. For the Latin American course I wrote a paper on South American poets. James and I did not always agree about writers. I always felt he let politics color his judgments. He may very well have felt the same about my views. I remember loaning him my copy of the first volume of Neruda’s memoirs, which he read and responded to negatively, probably because of Neruda’s Stalinist commitments. On the other hand, James loaned me his personal copies (heavily annotated) of Wilson Harris’s novels, which much impressed me as they were personally inscribed to him by the author. Palace of the Peacock, which I’d read with Professor Rigsby, was the only Harris volume readily obtained in the U.S. in those days, so this was a real opportunity for me.

He also loaned me his copy of George Lamming’s Natives of My Person. I didn’t at the time recognize that one of the characters in that novel was loosely based on James, though I later wrote a poem dedicated to James borrowing Lamming’s title. That poem appeared in the first issue of Essex Hemphill’s journal, Nethula, where I found myself in the company of poets such as Alvin Aubert, Yusef Komunyakaa and K. Curtis Lyle. Can’t recall if I gave a copy to James. I was shy about such things in those days (as can be seen from the fact that the poem appears with just my initials rather than my full name.) James ended each class session with what he called “free for all,” during which we could bring up any topic we wished. There were always people sitting in who weren’t registered for the course, so the free-ranging discussions could really take flight some times. Caribbean writers passing through town would often stop in to say hello, which is how I came to meet Michael Anthony, the author of The Year in San Fernando. I had entered James’s class room knowing nothing more of him than his authorship of Black Jacobins, but it seemed that each week I learned something more of this amazing man’s achievements.
One day he gave me a copy of the American reprint of his Modern Politics, a clear precursor to what came to be known as cultural studies. I was there again when he got a box containing the republished version of Mariners, Renegades and Castaways and he signed a copy of that one for me too. By then I was reading around in whatever I could find about him, and learned of his role in developing the State Capitalism theory within Marxist philosophy. One day L learned from one of the other professors that a small book store near Howard had stocked copies of James’s only novel, Minty Alley, so I spent an afternoon hiking over there to get the book, a book I dearly love. I am proud to say that I later played a small role in getting the novel reprinted in the U.S. James in those days lived in the Chastleton Apartments, an address I knew well because of the quite good Ethiopian restaurant that you entered from the rear of the building. (Was that called The Blue Nile? There’s always a Blue Nile. There’s one on Florida Avenue today.) Across the street was the Trio restaurant where James liked to get a grilled cheese sandwich and a Heineken. James’s apartment was a maze of books and papers, with the television always on in the background. Over one door there was a sketchy shelf holding the complete works of Lenin. I always worried that one day we’d find James pinned underneath the collapsed Lenin.
C.L.R. James was the only person I knew in those days who had a copying machine in his apartment, and they were big in those days. That machine was crucial to his working methods then. Already well into his seventies, James was in perpetual bad health and his hands shook badly. He would make a copy of something on his machine at home, and then get the office staff at FCC to make copies for the rest of us. This is how I got copies of many out of print James items early on. On a typical class day, James would enter the room carrying a stack of books with bits of paper bristling from the pages he had marked for quoting. The man spoke extempore in full paragraphs as if he had memorized a major work. But he also always made room for – demanded – responses and contributions from us. He could be quite put out when we didn’t have a ready answer or insight. During the years I was in his classes I had a one act play produced. Hearing of this, James allowed as he had a play too. He then brought me a copy of the sixties version of the Black Jacobins play that had been produced in Nigeria. Only recently has the original thirties version of the play, which starred Robeson in London, been recovered and published. My colleagues at Penn State alerted me to the presence in our collections of an interim version, with James’s own edits and comments on the typescript. After those first two classes, I continued to sit in on James’s sessions, even after I had graduated and moved on to doctoral study across town at George Washington University. And that is how it came to pass that I engineered a visit by James to the class taught by Amiri Baraka during his period as resident writer at GWU.
As we ate lunch that day, I couldn’t help wondering if the nearby FBI had sent anyone to keep an eye on these two Marxist professors to see what they were up to. (I already knew the FBI had been sending agents to Baraka’s readings for years, dutifully buying copies of his books for the files. And of course, two decades earlier the agency had had a keen interest in finding and deporting James.) C.L.R. James had more to do with my becoming a professor than with the direction of my critical works. He struck me at the time as the very model of a committed intellectual, someone who had spent a life working in revolutionary movements and writing some of the most profound and influential works of the twentieth century. Keep in mind that C.L.R. James did not begin his career as a college professor till he was in his late sixties. I had already spent a lot of Movement time before coming back to school, had been in the streets and had organized against the war, against racism, against oppression. I knew I would never leave those commitments behind, but I also knew enough about my own personality to recognize that I was not the sort to take leadership positions in any organization, not even literary organizations. I was not made to be a revolutionary activist, but I harbored a hope that there would be something of the revolutionary about my art and criticism. And that was something about me that James recognized and encouraged. I’m not sure I had given any thought to being a professor before I met him. It was C.L.R. James who made that seem a possible way for me in the world. There are those in “James Studies” today who complain that critics like me have reduced James to a “mere writer.” This complaint betrays a sad misunderstanding of both James and writing. When James was before the court in the early 1950s, the U.S. prosecutors brought his books in evidence against him, reminding the court that the great revolutionaries had all been writers. What I took from James, along with a world of information he opened to me, was a commitment to the integrity of my work as a writer and critic. I had been a close reader all along, but I got better at it with his guidance. Among my most prized possessions is a copy of his book Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution presented to me with this inscription: “Happy in that I know it is in good hands.”



Q. What was the first book by an African American writer that had a lasting influence on you?  Why?

That one is difficult to place, something like being asked to name a favorite poet, but for different reasons. Which could have been first? I remember in grade school reading aboutGeorge Washington Carver (there was that early fascination with books about science). There’s no telling who had written that book, though, so I can’t say if it was an African American writer or not. I really can’t remember when I first read prose by an African American, though I know I knew quite a few names before we got to the subject in English classes. At twelve, though I had not yet read him, I saw James Baldwin on a program broadcast over what was then still called “educational T.V.” titled “The Negro and the American Promise.” This was, I believe, shortly before the move to D.C., shortly before the March on Washington. I’m not sure I’d known of Baldwin before, but I meant to read something by him soon.
I remember the first whole book we read by an African American author in high school was Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. I had been reading short fiction by Black writers and interviews and book reviews in the many magazines I absorbed. To this day I can still recall a review of Baraka’s Tales I saw quite a while before I found a copy of the actual book. It was because of reading newspapers and magazines that I already knew the name of Claude Brown before we came to his book in class. Other students at Wakefield weren’t reading Claude Brown. I was in a very special program that was available to us in eleventh and twelfth grades. My sister had gone through Wakefield two classes before me and alerted me to these possibilities, though she had not been in the programs herself. In eleventh grade I was in a special section of history and English in which the teachers collaborated. It was the history teacher, Juanita Chanel, who gave me the most encouragement and made presents to me at the end of the year of two important books: cummings’s “non-lectures,” but far more influential, William Carlos Williams’s late poems gathered in the New Directions paperback Pictures from Breughel and Other Poems. My senior year I was enrolled in “Art-English-Music Seminar.” The same group of students took all three subjects together and the teachers again collaborated. The main attraction was the many trips we took throughout the year to visit galleries, see films (which we then called “films,” not “movies” – we were so cool), attend plays and concerts. We’d each get a certain number of tickets for selected outings. All year long I’d go around to classmates and scoop up tickets when they had scheduling conflicts so that I could go to even more of these events. We went to the National Symphony. We went to Washington Theater Club and saw plays directed by Davey Marlin-Jones. We saw the Civil Rights era play My Sweet Charlie, in which a Black attorney from the North escaping from false murder accusations growing out of a demonstration takes refuge in an empty house, which just happens to be the same empty house in which a pregnant, bigoted white teenager is also hiding out. The play was presented as a made for TV movie (NOT a film) in 1970. We went to the then new Janus theater on Connecticut Avenue to see the wild film version of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat  as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Always one to follow up on things, I read some books by the mad Marquis. The English teacher was horrified to hear I had done that bit of homework – Unintended outcomes –
But it was in that seminar that I had the first experience I can bring to memory of reading a Black book by assignment in a class. It did make an impression – enough that I kept looking for another book from Brown, which finally appeared during my undergraduate years at Federal City College.
But it’s no problem at all to name the first book by an African American author that had a lasting effect not just on my thinking but on my life and vocation. That was that first book of poetry purchased with my own cash that I have mentioned already, The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones, first picked off the shelf on the strength of that cover photograph, but glued to my hands for the rest of my life because of those words:
Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone
a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out
music, feeling. Even speech corrodes.
I had known the name of Jones already, thanks to my wide reading, but I had not yet known that this was what he was doing.
It was the poetry itself that grabbed hold of me. Dylan was demonstrating that surrealist verse could be popular song. Jones was out there at the edges of syntax, showing what language could be made to do, what language had already done to us, what we could do in and with it.  Before the Moderns, the poetry I’d read was largely interesting because of what it had to say, and perhaps its music. (I was still a ways from getting to know all of Whitman and the unadulterated Dickinson.) With Pound, Eliot (though I left that taste behind rather quickly) cummings, I found poetry that was doing something in and of itself.
There is an LP I left out of the answer to the question about music. An inveterate explorer of what used to be called the “cut out” bins, I one day found an album in a pile in a grocery store with the corner snipped off of the sleeve in the tell tale sign of a remaindered inventory being dumped. The album bore the title The Weary Blues and it was a collection of poetry read by Langston Hughes to a jazz accompaniment. I’d been eight years old when the recording sessions were completed, was thirteen the day I found the record there among the cereal boxes and frozen foods. The album credited the music to Leonard Feather. Mingus had been responsible for half of the tracks, but his name had been suppressed due to contractual difficulties. When the digital age arrived and the album was released on CD, the company that released it couldn’t be bothered to track the album; on the CD it’s all just one continuous track. “Curb your dog; don’t let your dog curb you,” recited the blues poet. You can still get the CD, and you can see a video of Hughes doing the same pieces with the Doug Parker band on a visit to Vancouver, a city with long ties to innovative American poetics, at this URL:
So I had heard that, and read some Hughes. I had liked it, but The Dead Lecturer, though it had clear affinities to Hughes, was of a different order of innovation. Here was a poetry that was an event in itself, a poetry that was a performance already on the page, before it reached a stage or found a musical setting. This was poetry that was music, the music of thought, action painting in words.
The face sings, alone
at the top
Of the body. All
flesh, all song, aligned. For hell
is silent, at those cracked lips
I could see how this emerged from the Moderns, how it acknowledged them while setting itself apart. There was speech here, but something far more. It mattered, beyond anything cummings had thought of, how the page was scribed. It mattered that there were signs that could not be pronounced, pronouns announced. As Bop had been to Swing, this was to Hughes and his Weary Blues. This was a poetry aligned with what I was hearing on those albums by Trane, Shepp, Sun Ra, a poetry that was after the same things I was seeing in paintings reproduced in magazines by people like Kline and Johns and Pollack. (And increasingly, I was able to see such paintings live in the museums of D.C., most of which had free admission.)
This was a direct challenge to all that I thought I knew, to every way that I knew to know, and it was a challenge to my writing hand.
It is a polite truth
we are left with. Who are you? What are you
saying? Something to be dealt with, as easily.
The noxious game of reason . . .
Later I would read “How You Sound” and found it a pertinent question; I would hunt down “Hunting Is Not Those Heads on the Wall” and learn something of the importance of the making over the significance of artifact. Later still, I would see the cover of Black Magic in the same store where I had bought The Dead Lecturer. That cover, depicting a blonde haired, blue eyed, white voodoo doll stuck full of pins appeared to announce that the book was not intended for me. But guess what, the jacket copy revealed that the cover design was by Lawrence Ratzkin and the book design was by Quentin Fiore, famous, among other things, for his collaboration with Marshall McLuhan. Not to make too much of these facts, but suffice it to say that Black Nationalism was clearly a far more complicated thing than most were willing to credit. Jones, now become Baraka, did have a few things to say about White publishers and having to work with them, but I bought the book.
The only thing we know is the thing
we turn out to be, I don’t care what
you think, its true, now you think
your way out of this
Thing/think – true/you – Simple enough sounds organizing this quatrain, a quatrain that starts out in a mode of pentameter and then breaks for the something else that is free jazz.  Poets since Keats have been telling us about what is all we know and all we need to know, but here was a form of lyric empiricism, wrapped in another challenge.
I had moved on from my ambition to be a forensic pathologist. In ninth grade I decided to become a computer scientist. By tenth grade I had refused to get with the program, was reprogramming my own software, and the poetry of LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka gave me a new view of the syntax I was going to need on my journey.
I’m still thinking my way through this . . .