Thursday, November 23, 2006

Mary Kaye's Book

Mary Kaye’s Book

A suggestion of
Asian birds
Pooled on the page
One wheels
Wooden warning
Of land nearby
In his beak
Another turns
Torn between landing
And going on
A third thrusts
His head through the surface
In the children’s corner
Where sun’s rays should be
Pictographs offer
Measured comment
The birds cannot read them
Neither can I
Across the pond
Turtle’s eyes
A lunge in light
One bird less as
Something like a simile
Breaks upon the water

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Word has just come in that Nathaniel Mackey has been selected for the National Book Award in poetry for 2006 in recognition of his most recent volume of poems, SPLAY ANTHEM.
"Things got under way with a fellow from one of the local radio stations clearing his throat to say that while he admitted being 'somewhat uninformed' on recent developments in music the trouble he has with our compositions is their tendencey to, as he put it, 'go off on tangents.' He then said that 'a piece of music should gather rather than disperse its component parts' but insisted he wasn't asking that our music be made easier exactly, 'just more centered somehow,' etc."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Poetics of Beaurocratese

For more than a decade now, I've been noticing the spread of a curious usage amongst them that rule over us. For an instance I'll turn to the departing Donald Rumsfeld. On several occasions he's told journalists about the "Iraq room" in the Pentagon, where top officials gather to "look at the metrics on Iraq."

And I'd be the first to say how happy I'd be if top officials in the Pentagon were gathering each day to scan Iraqi verse, but in fact all that Rumsfeld means is that these officials look at various measures. Or (since we're not talking feet here) measurements. What Rumsfeld's sentence SHOULD mean is that the officials are examining the parameters for measuring, but his usage suggests that "metrics" has come to mean the measurements themselves.

Now this usage has slopped over into yet another register of discourse, and the pols today consistently talk about "the optics" of one thing or another, by which they simply mean, "how the thing looks." But, being the absent-minded sorts they are, many of the pols forget mid-sentence what their jargon means even to them, and so I have heard one politician, speaking of the public reception of Republican scandals leading up to the recent elections, remark that "the optics don't look good."

and by any measure, they don't--

Saturday, November 11, 2006


October 21, the final events of the Larry Neal Conference in New York.

But, by way of prelude, first a couple of photos from the first day. My earlier posts did not include any representation of the very first panel, because, as one of the presenters on that panel, I hadn't been in a position to photograph it. Here, though, thanks to Howard Rambsy, are a couple shots of that initial offering.

The panel, left to right, was Dale Byam (chair), Mike Sell, David Lionel Smith and Aldon Nielsen. The second photo shows my opening talk, a portion of which was posted in an earlier segment of these reports.

The final event of the conference wasn't scheduled till evening, so I took advantage of the free time to drop by another tribute to a poet, a group reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in memory of Barbara Guest. I'd learned of this event by way of the Poetics List, and Charles Bernstein was kind enough to help me locate the right subway stop for getting to the BPC from over in Brooklyn where I was staying. The reading was hosted by poet Kristen Prevallet, someone I had not seen since well before the birth of the delightful child accompanying her. Lyttle Shaw was there, too, as well as a host of other poets who read from Guest's works and spoke of her importance. Charles Bernstein read from a prose piece he'd published about her, and Guest's daughter addressed the audience near the end.

Then, back to the subway and uptown to the Schomburg Library, where the concluding panel on Larry Neal was to be held.

We were greeted by Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg. I'd last seen Howard, someone I knew from my previous speaking engagements at the Schomburg, when he delivered a paper at a conference on the legacies of slavery held on the campus of the University of California in Santa Barbara. This night, Howard spoke movingly of Neal and addressed the signal importance of the large collection of Neal's papers donated to the library by Larry's wife, Evelyn. The panel itself was less a critical excursion of the type featured earlier in the conference, and more of a memorial from people who had known and worked with Larry during his too short life.

I was especially glad of the chance to visit a bit more with Jayne Cortez, who had given a poetry reading at Penn State last year - and then there was the chance to catch up some more with Joseph Jordan, also on the panel, whose Institute for the Preservation and Study of African American Literature had been part of my life back in D.C. Joseph had brought along with him to the panel an old photograph he wanted to show Quincy Troupe of Quincy talking to Larry. What I spotted at once when he pulled out the photo to show me, though, was that my old Howard University office mate, poet Calvin Forbes, could be seen in the background of the photo.

The conference organizers had turned the reading room of the Schomburg into a reception area and we all gathered in the rear of the room to continue the conversations over wine and refreshments. It marked a warm ending to what had been a revealing and inspiring cycle of meetings -- exactly the sort of thing Larry liked to see when he was directing the arts commission in D.C. during the time I had known him.
Then, back to the subway -- and what was my strap-hanging reading material as I flew through the underbelly of the city? Larry Neal's HOODOO HOLLERIN' BEBOP GHOSTS --

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

And the award for most clueless post-election news covereage goes to . . .

Fox News, of course -- As if to prove their utter lack of knowledge about how the government they presume to cover operates, today they posted this reference to a non-existent congressional office. I suppose it's a good thing that Denny Hastert doesn't want to run for Minority Speaker, as there's no election to be held.

and thanks to Richard Flynn for calling this to my attention -- Richard also asks a pretty good question, which I leave here for Fox to answer -- Just where in the contitutional line of succession does the minority speaker stand?


"'Stay the course' won't cut the mustard anymore."

--Senator Diane Feinstein, Nov. 8, 2006

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The second day of the conference on Larry Neal got under way at Brooklyn College as presenters and conference attendees met over breakfast to discuss what had been said the previous day and to catch up with each other. Given the number of people in the room who had known Neal at one time or another in the course of his all too short life, it was a chance for many of us to get to know more about what Larry had been like at another station in his course. James Spady, for example, was on hand the entire weekend and told us much we had not known about Larry's early days in Philadelphia. Then there were people like Joseph Jordan, who had, like me, known Neal during his later years as an arts administrator in D.C. And, as I mentioned in the earlier posts, George Cunningham, Mae Henderson and Kimberly Benston had all known Neal as a teacher in his last years.

The official part of the second day got underway with a panel that brought together William J. Harris, Howard Rambsy II and James Smethurst. That's Howard and Billy Joe Harris standing with presenter Salim Washington in one of these photos; you see them again with Jim Smethurst at the conclusion of their panel in another photo lower down. And of course, that's Rutgers' Cheryl Wall smiling out at you here:

Harris's talk was titled "Larrry Neal's Folkloric Frame of Mind," a topic that brought Neal's early interests in folklore, cultivated during his student days at Penn, together with the aesthetic theorizing from the more familiar period of his work. Rambsy delivered a careful airing of Neal's recovery of Zora Neal Hurston and Ralph Ellison, two figures about whom Neal's thought evolved significantly across his career. Neal is seldom given as much credit as he deserves for the recovery of Hurston, who was for the most part out of print and forgotten by many when Neal first began to write and speak about her works. Smethurst, continuing the work of his recent book on the Black Arts Movement, provided a useful history of Neal's participation in the Muntu Circle and its relevance to emerging black Arts ideology.

Here you see Eleanor Traylor, who delivered the closing address, and Fahamisha Brown, who I encounter at poetry conferences all over the country.

The afternoon panel, chaired by Marcellus Blount, brought talks by Margo Crawford (seen here), who addressed "Larry Neal's Post-Double Consciousness Dream," Salim Washington, who, while analyzing Neal's "Musical Visions of Struggle and Freedom," was the third presenter to offer a consideration of Neal's controversial review of Albert Ayler's NEW GRASS album, and Carter Mathes, one of the conference organizers, who discussed "The Aesthetic Contours of Larry Neal's Black Radical Critique."

That's Carter in conversation with Mike Sell.

The day concluded with remarks from Mae Henderson, Carter Mathes and George Cunningham, and a final, dramatic flourish of appreciation from Howard University's show-stopping Eleanor Traylor.

Then it was back to the subway, this time in the company of old friends Billy Joe Harris and Howard Rambsy. These are two jazz-loving, literature reading, smart as a whip guys, and I always enjoy their company. Billy Joe and his wife, Professor Susan Harris (University of Kansas), are long-time Brooklyn habitues, and they had generously invited us to meet them for drinks and dinner after the conference. The Brooklyn night was turning cold, but we found a warm spot on the roof of a Mexican restaurant and had a wonderful closing to our day.

This is, left to right, Howard Rambsy, Billy Joe Harris, Susan Harris, and the Harris's daughter, Kate, recently graduated from Tufts University and now working in New York.

Next episode, final night of the Larry Neal conference at the Schomburg Library.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Larry Neal - Day 1 part 2

First things first; some technical glitch caused the photo of Mae Henderson to vanish from the first post, so here she is making her opening remarks at Brooklyn College to open the conference on Larry Neal. The next event on the program was the panel I was a part of, and I am offering below just the opening paragraphs of the talk I gave that day:

Be Bop Ghost in the Machine
–Aldon Lynn Nielsen

"And me? I’m from everywhere?"
–Larry Neal (Visions 175)

A spectre is haunting American cultural studies.

It is the spectre of the Black Arts, about which so many have the merest ghost of a notion. It is as if, as Larry Neal writes in "Colloquies," when you speak of the Black Arts, "even in your speaking, you are vague and beyond word" (Hoodoo 85). It is as if America had said to the Black Arts, even as we read in later lines from those same colloquies, "I fear your hauntings, even though you are quite familiar. / / Hey! / what star was that anyway?" Has any phenomenon in America’s intellectual history been quite so surrounded by misprisions and misapprehensions, so walled off by presuppositions and the preposterous, so tuned out and turned upon as the Black Arts? Has anything which has so radically altered the thinking of America ever been so hysterically historicized, so manifestly misconstrued? "I was birthed in Conundrum," we read in "Colloquies," so perhaps we should not be surprised by the haunting figures that possess the texts of Larry Neal. Neal’s poems are his familiars, ghostly emanations that visit us now. There are the Ghost Poems, numbered one through four. There are the "Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts" inhabiting the title poem of Neal’s 1974 book of verses. There is Shine in his "Sermon on Cosmology" wondering aloud "Whose ghosts walks there" (Hoodoo 79), and a check of the reappearance of that poem in Neal’s subsequent selected writings confirms that this sibilance is Shine’s own; he really does ask, "whose ghosts walks?" And that spectral sibilance, that ghost of grammar and consonance, trails in consciousness like something we aren’t entirely sure we heard back then in the sixties, something we have to double back to be sure of.

Larry Neal had a thing for ghosts, something that, to judge from the titles of our papers as you can read in the program, has never been in danger of going unnoticed.. In an interview that first appeared in Drum, cited and sighted again in Mae Henderson’s essay "Ghosts, Monsters, and Magic," Neal reported:

"I remember growing up and hearing ghost stories. Ghost stories are fun. I’m trying to deal with the world of the dead. The dead are not dead"(Qtd. In Henderson 195).

The past, Faulkner told us, is not dead; it’s not even past. In a litany of the departed that haunts that cental essay of Neal’s, he invokes the ghosts of a national tension, and those ghosts are named Nat Turner and Martin Delany, James Monroe Trotter and DuBois, what Neal terms "a whole panoply of mythical heroes from Brer Rabbit to Shine." And then Neal delivers the burden of that past into the present. "These ghosts," he writes, "have left us with some heavy questions about the realities of life for black people in America" (Visions 8). Those questions remain heavy in the twenty-first century, and no amount of rapping has dispelled them.

There was a time when rappings were thought to be manifestations from the spirit world. I am at best agnostic when it comes to talk of spirits, having spent all too much of my youth in all night raps around knocking tables and rocking seances. Raised in captivity by Baptists, I am now long unchurched, impatient with appeals to anybody’s beyond. But if I am more on the Baraka side of things religious, at least the Baraka of the past three decades, I m under no illusion about the powers of illusion; I am a permanent convert to a faith in metaphor. There is a reason that the Black Arts has been so often treated as an unwelcome visitor returned from its premature burial. America in the sixties looked into the mirror and found that it didn’t have a reflection. America in the sixties tried to rush back to its native soil before the sunrise of the seventies, only to find that it had no native soil. America in the sixties was a place of heavy spirits, and the black artists of the age gathered together for a summoning of spells. It was Larry Neal, secretary to the spirits, who delivered to us the "Fragments from the Narrative of the Black Magicians:"

Blood of Christ, dew kissed the corn;
hieroglyphic numbers that shape into leaf-formed men.
I speak the vision, and he is the healed sinner,
suffering the purulent sores of the redeemed. (35)

When people tell you of the purportedly didactic and social realist language of the Black Aestheticians, they don’t seem to have language such as this in mind, nor do they ever quite know what to say about those lemons piled on the step or the nickle hearts left behind by the men of Baraka’s own "Black Art." That hieroglyphic reading of Christ-kissed corn in "Fragments" derives from Nat Turner, who, a heavy reader, was never a literalist, though he was surely a revolutionary. We need some discourse of hauntology, if I might borrow a neologism from a Francophone philosopher born in North Africa, to negotiate now the conditions of being of the questions left us as Larry Neal’s legacy. "The rebirth of the concept of Black Power opens old wounds" he cautioned us in 1968 (Visions 10), and our own return to his texts now brings us the same dangers. Nat Turner saw blood on the corn, and he knew how to heed its hieroglyphs. If it is still far too early to talk of turning finally from fingering the jagged edge of the wounds, we can no longer tarry, tardy as we are, about the task of reading the hieroglyphs, the ghost writing that three decades of reaction have attempted to render finally beyond any comprehending. We have benefitted in recent years from a slowly building body of powerful scholarship about the Black Arts, much of it written by people in this room today, but we remain in the earliest Rosetta Stone stages of reading the leaves left us, the fragments from the narrative in progress lined out by Larry Neal before he was interrupted in mid-question in 1981.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


"DON'T SAY GOODBYE TO THE PORKPIE HAT": Re-Evaluating Larry Neal's Creative and Critical Vision of the Black Aesthetic. October 19-21, 2006

I had already been reading the poetry and essays of Larry Neal for a decade by the time I actually met him. He came to Washington, D.C., in the late Seventies to direct the D.C. commission on the Arts and Humanities, and during that period he appeared as a substitute teacher in the course I was taking with Amiri Baraka when I was a graduate student at the George Washington University. Neal was such a presence in the classroom that it came as a double shock not too long afterwards when we learned that he had died. In one of his poems, his persona, Poppa Stoppa, implores us:

"Remember me baby in my best light,

lovely hip style and all;"

and that is the way we remember Larry -- In the early 1980s, the Arts Commission in D.C. established a series of literary prizes in his memory, and it was my fortune to be the first winner of the Larry Neal Award for poetry, presented in the D.C. Council Chambers in 1983.

So, you know I had to sign up when I received word that a serious conference to begin the work of critical recovery and evaluation of Larry Neal's works was being organized. It took a while; support is never quite as quickly forthcoming for projects like this as it seems to be for conferences on the usual subjects organized by the usual suspects.

But October 19th came 'round at last, and we gathered together on the campus of Brooklyn College to get busy.

Our host for the occasion was George P. Cunningham, whose Brooklyn College Department of Africana Studies welcomed us and kept things moving. George had been a student of Neal's, as had been Mae G. Henderson, one of the conference organizers, now at the University of North Carolina, and Kimberly Benston, who was slated to be the keynote speaker at the end of the first day.

Carter Mathes, of Rutgers, was the other organizer -- He and Mae (that's Carter there in the light shirt -- Mae is sporting a grey jacket in her photo) had been working diligently for some years to locate a home for the event and nail down the relatively small amount of funding required simply to mount the meetings. George, Carter and Mae were often seen putting their heads together off to the side, dealing with those inevitable last minute crises that afflict any conference, and generally rendering them invisible to the participants.

George and Carter got things started with welcoming comments, followed by a heart-felt talk by Mae Henderson in which she shared her personal memories of Larry Neal before turning things over to those of us who were speaking on the panels.

I was the first speaker on the first panel, chaired by Brooklyn's Dale Byam, from the Department of Theater. On the panel with me were Mike Sell, whose work on avant garde movements (including both fluxus and the Black Arts) I had read when it appeared last year, and David Lionel Smith, who I knew from other conferences over the years. Ours was a more general panel, and I took advantage of my opening slot to provide an introductory essay into Neal's works. I'll be posting an excerpt in this space soon.

An afternoon session was devoted to "Larry Neal's Soundscape of Revolutionary Cultural production." That panel, chaired by Jeffrey Taylor, featured Amy Ongiri (who I had last seen at the Black Arts conference at Howard University in February), W.S. Tkweme and Frederick Vincent. Amy picked up on the same review of Albert Ayler, first published in CRICKET, that I had spoken about briefly. This was ground that we would visit yet again the next day, and I began to see how our varied responses to this short, controversial essay characterized the many possible readings of Neal's significance for our own critical positions. Frederick Vincent brought something new to the discussions, recordings of the Black Panther's soul music group, THE LUMPEN, that I had known of back in my days at San Jose State.

Do I even need to say that each of these panels provoked extensive comment and debate among the audience? Any who lived through the all night debates of the Sixties will know the kind of thing I mean -- This may not have been quite as heated as we got back in the day, but it was the sort of productive debate that comes when participants recognize that there really is a great deal at stake.

The good folk at Brooklyn College provided us with a Caribbean dinner to cap off the day, during which Kimberly Benston gave us his detailed readings of Neal's importance, intermixed with his best memories of the late poet/critic/ administrator/teacher. The discussions spilled out into the subways later that night

"phrase on phrase, repeating bluely

tripping in an under crashing

hi-hat cymbals . . . "

---------Larry Neal


--It follows a pattern, if you dig what I mean.

--Gil Scott Heron

The Bush administration is filled with people who feel no compunction about loudly denying having said things, despite the existence of video tape showing them saying precisely those things; --I never said 'stay the course'-- is just one egregious recent example. These same people loudly insist on recontextualizng their own recorded statements to make them mean otherwise, witness the White House explanations that Vice President Cheney was not condoning waterboarding when he said that "dunking prisoners in water" was a no brainer. The White House has also steadfastly refused to say just what Cheney might have meant by "dunking" if he was not condoning the subjection of people being interrogated to water tortures of the sort for which we have in fact tried people in the past as war criminals.

But then, these same administration figures, in a pattern familiar to any who have followed past Rove-led campaigns, consistently alter and recontextualize the statements of the opposition for the express purpose of convincing the public that they have said something they clearly have not said.

Nothing could be clearer to anyone who reviews the full tape of John Kerry's California comments than that his remarks about getting "stuck in Iraq" were directed squarely at Bush. Bush is the subject of the preceding sentences, and the thesis of Kerry's paragraphs at that point in his comments is that Bush has failed to learn the lessons of history, can't recognize the facts he confronts, and thus has gotten us stuck in Iraq.

This is why the Republicans refuse to read the preceding sentences in their entirety when they are quoting Kerry this week. Why the news media persist in replaying only the sentence to which the Republicans have uniformly taken offense is another matter (though, to his credit, Chris Matthews reread the fuller text several times during his show yesterday -- still, that never swayed his Republican guests from their assigned talking points).

True enough, Kerry has largely fumbled the response in the past 24 hours. It's nice to hear him responding forcefully, but it would be nicer to hear him responding more coherently.

But this is just a rerun of Republican efforts during the last presidential election to make us believe that Kerry had said that any military defense mounted by the United States would only take place after foreign nations had approved it. Millions of Americans had seen and heard what Kerry actually said on that occasion, but that was no reason for the Republicans to stop misquoting him. And the news media, for the most part, chose to cover the controversy resulting from Republican miscontruals rather than simply replay what Kerry had clearly said.

This is a familiar tactic by now -- but what is it about our national political discourse that this tactic gets any traction at all?

And isn't it about time that more journalists take note of the fact that it is those political figures who constantly portray themselves as champions of TRUTH, against those damned liberal relativists, it is Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and other defenders of the truth who are so sadly prone to the deliberate misrepresentation of the words of others and of themselves?