Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Last night in New York, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York hosted an event  to  mark the republication of Will Alexander's book Towards the Primeval Lightning Field. The evening began with a reading by Will, followed by commentaries by me, Evie Shockley, Marcella Durrand and Brent Hayes Edwards. We were introduced by Tonya Foster and sponsored by IRADAC, and if you want to know what those initials denote, you can ask Evie, who was drilled and quizzed by IRADAC's able director, Robert Reid-Pharr during the dinner we all enjoyed afterwards. I opened my comments with lines from the Congolese poet Tchikaya U Tam'si, opening onto an exploration of the intellectual and poetic context out of which Will's work grew. An excerpt from the end of my commentary is pasted in below.

We had a receptive audience, including a number of friends I had not known were in New York this week.  

Will and I have been friends forever, but have not seen each other for a decade. It was wonderful to find him in good health and hear him in good voice.

Alexander’s writing, as immediately identifiably his as it is, as unusual as it can be (on the very opening page of Towards the Primeval Lightning Field he, or somebody, responds to “those who protest the sum of my arcane methodologies”), participates in formal and rhetorical modes that we should honor by imbricating with his own. When Alexander assumes the persona of “an Egyptian in Eturia (25), or as “the whirling king in the runic psychic theater” (64) he is time traveling with U Tam’si: 

I am again beside the sea
the sea no longer obeys a single slaveship
no wave sings
the time is void of sadness (19)

But Alexander’s text is also close cousin to another with which he might not ordinarily be associated:

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light (Giovanni 37)

And behind both of these is, of course, the first poem by that Lincoln laureate:

I bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. (Hughes 23)

And if at times Alexander reads like he has swallowed a dictionary, it’s important to take heed of his poetry’s unspooling etymologies. When, in Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, he writes of a “Cadastral map,” supplying a clarifying definition in passing, we must call to memory Césaire’s Cadastre, representing the poet’s work from 1945 to 1950, brought into bilingual American publication in 1973 by Joseph Okpako’s The Third Press.
Or take this sentence from Towards the Primeval Lightning Field: “Not regressive intermotion, but neoteric flight within matter” (112). This time the poet offers no assistance with the definition, but in fact we’ve seen this word before, and it has even done service in the criticism of Black Arts era poetics long before now. The first time I went scurrying to a dictionary to find out what “neoteric” meant was when I saw the word in what most would recognize as a quintessential Coltrane poem, “Don’t Cry Scream.” In the midst of this poet’s sheets of sound we come up against these lines:

music that ached.
murdered our minds (we reborn)
Born into a neoteric aberration.         (94)

The poet in this instance was Haki Madhabuti, then still writing under the name Don L. Lee, and he had read U Tam’si too. And it was to this instance that the late Stephen Henderson turned, in his introductory essay to Understanding the New Black Poetry, when he wanted to get across certain points about “Black English” and about the virtuosity of black poets:

. . . there is a complex and rich and powerful and subtle linguistic heritage whose resources have scarcely been touched that they draw upon.
Don Lee, for example, can use the word “neoteric” without batting an eye and send us scurrying to our dictionaries. The word is not “Black” but the casual, virtuoso way that he drops it on us–like “Deal with that”-is an elegant Black linguistic gesture, a typical gesture, like lightning arpeggios on difficult changes, or on no changes at all. (33)

This is not, has never been, a question of whether or not Alexander read or remembers “Don’t Cry, Scream,” but rather a matter of seeing Will Alexander’s willful complexity within the larger complex out of which he springs at us.
To end again with U Tam’si:

And if this harp cannot follow me
there where the spirits wait
This is my testament:
I leave you the fire and the song. (141)

Monday, December 01, 2014

MODERNISM STUDIES 2014 - Pittsburgh

I had two pieces of business at this year's MSA -- First up was a panel during the opening time slot on Amiri Baraka, organized and chaired by Kathy Lou Schultz, where my co-panelists were Ben Lee and James Smethurst, both of whom I've known and admired for a good long time. Our subject was Baraka and modernism, and I think we managed to move the discussion past the usual observations. And then it was my very great good luck to be part of a group poetry reading that evening. I've been making conference trips to Pittsburgh for about eight years now and have increasingly come to appreciate the city.

My conference duties concluded fairly early, I was able to spend the rest of the weekend listening to some path-breaking scholarship and a healthy, heaping helping of interpretive work.

(For the second time in recent memory, somebody asked if Meta and I were coordinating our hats.)

Final night, following a keynote by Howard University's Meta Jones, Adam McKible and Mae Henderson had organized a dinner at a nearby cafe where I met some great people I had not known before and caught up with others I had not seen for years.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Last year I was contacted by the author of this new biography of Gil Scott-Heron, who was then working on the project and wanted to talk to me about Scott-Heron's time as a professor at Federal City College. I'd been eagerly awaiting the publication of the book ever since, as it promised to be the first full exploration of the life of a seminal figure of late twentieth-century popular culture. The book slipped out without much fanfare. I only knew it was published when somebody posted the link to an excerpt on FaceBook.

Bottom line: This is a mostly good starting point for readers new to the territory, but, as is usually the case with biographies published shortly after the death of the subject, we'll need a still fuller accounting.

"Mostly good"? 

Well, given that we just learned of the death of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, here's a good place to start. On page 244 we read of Barry's being "captured on national television smoking crack in a hotel room with some prostitutes in January 1990." The writing itself is one issue. This wasn't "captured on national television," though the surveillance video captured in that hotel room was subsequently aired everywhere. But that's just the thing. Anybody who's seen that video will see immediately what's wrong with this account. Just as anyone who has ever heard Wayne Shorter will know that the jazz artist in whose living room Gil married Brenda Sykes is not a trumpet player (his brother, Alan, is). 

Some of the errors are just proofreading slips,  Howard University's radio station is misidentified as WHUV on one page, but is cited correctly on another. Writers David Rigsbee and David Grigsby get mixed up with one another on page 84. The Robert Blake movie Gil and I discussed in class is not titled Electric Glide in Blue. Some of the factual errors are truly odd. Parliament was not a local D.C. band, though god knows we loved us some Parliament/Funkadelic in D.C. Stevie Wonder was not older than Gil. (Wonder and I, as it happens, are the same age. Gil was born the previous year.) "Whitey on the Moon" is not a "prose poem."

But these errors add up. There's a crescendo of bollixed literary history on page 41. Calvin Hernton becomes Calvin Hunter. Tchicaya U Tam'si (originally styled Gérald-Félix Tchicaya) becomes Felix T'caya U'Tansy. The early poet Jupiter Hammon becomes Jupiter Jones.We read that J. Saunders Redding "was also part of the Harlem Renaissance," which is more than a stretch. (Further on the same page we learn of the "rabble sessions" Gil participated in with his fellow Lincoln students. Guess Gil was the god father of "rabble."

It's generally not a good sign when a biographer misquotes the work of the subject of the biography, as happens when we read the line Gil Scott-Heron attributed to his ninth grade English teacher in the great "Must Be Deep" monologue. It's not hard to get this line right, as it is repeated in several recordings. But this biography even misquotes me, despite the fact that I provided the author with a copy of my work-in-progress. My own narratives, supplied directly to the author, get altered in significant and inexplicable ways.

So Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man has to be recommended with serious cautions, but I recommend it all the same. You should first read Scott-Heron's own posthumously published memoir, The Last Holiday. It is a book that will break your heart while taking you back to a very recent period of our history that is not at all as well known as you might think. Then read this new book, in part to learn of the things that Scott-Heron couldn't bring himself to relate in his own book (or at least in the version made available to us by his editors after his death). The new book gives a much clearer account of the falling apart of the Gil Scott-Heron - Brian Jackson song writing team. It provides a better understanding of Gil's marriage to Brenda Sykes, and of the relationships to the mothers of his other children. And the book ends as heart-breakingly as Scott-Heron's own book, detailing the sad rivalries among the artist's heirs.

Most important, though, the book takes readers back to the thing that excited us about Gil Scott-Heron in the first place, the thing that survives beyond the artist's life, that survived his own abuse of his talents and promises: the music. I read through this book with earphones clamped to my head, listening in order to the songs I was reading about. And then I watched video of Gil performing at his peak. This is a life, and a book, that survives its errors and flaws. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Like everyone of my generation, I could have been seen walking around the playground with a transistor radio, as we called them, plugged into my ear, listening intently to mono music and sports events.  That was about as portable as music got for us. Then came that magic trip to the beach, in the course of which I got my first Walkman and spent the next hour sitting by the ocean and listening to Pharoah Sanders's Tauhid. Problem was, you had to carry around an ever growing collection of tape cassettes, and yes, I did have one of those bulky cassette case things that took up way too much space in the car.
Comes the digital revolution and we have the portable CD player, an end to tape hiss and a vast improvement in sound quality, but yet more traveling cases full of CDs to lug around.

This was my first "PDA," and I'd only had it about five minutes when I realized I could rip CDs to digital and listen to them on this thing. That's when the dream of having all my music with me all the time formed in my brain.  But of course, this thing could only hold about as much as I'd listen to in one afternoon's walking around, which seemed and seems to be enough for most people with their smart phones, but was entirely unsatisfactory for me.

My first dedicated MP3 player held only 20 GB, and was heavy as a brick, but it introduced me to the Archos line of products.

I tried one of these little MP3 players that fit easily in your shirt pocket, but it held even less that the first Archos.

Then Apple started the iPod phase. Again, the first one only held a small amount of music, and Apple wanted to lock you into their iTunes universe AND the battery sucked.

I used part of the money I got when Apple settled the court cases about the iPod battery to buy my first iRiver player.  This held much more music, didn't require you to use a proprietary software, and allowed navigation by folder rather than the all too limiting "artist, album, song, genre" nonsense that Apple got us all stuck in. iRiver really knew how to design an interface.

Along the way I tried an RCA device.  It was a good idea, but I had to ship the first one back immediately because it was defective, and the replacement didn't last much past the warranty period.
For the next several years, as I've written here before, I had my music collection parcelled out between three 500 GB Archos media tablets. These were wonderful Android devices, with the usual Archos attention to quality.  Sounded better than Apple products and afforded a great deal more flexibility. But Archos stopped manufacturing the larger capacity devices, which threw me back to Apple. Drat!  So, as a 500 GB Archos would eventually give up the ghost, I would replace it with two iPod Classics -- But now Apple has followed Archos into the land of small ambitions, and the Classic is no longer available.

But I am no longer a frustrated listener dragging five or more devices through the TSA checkpoints of America. Now, with the iBasso, and a handful of these 256 GB jump drives, I travel with my entire music collection in my bag at all times, AND I can listen to lossless files on the thing -- This gives me the sound quality of Neil Young's PonoPlayer with none of its limitations. On the way home for Thanksgiving Break, I was listening to a lossless recording of Stevie Wonder's SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE CONCERT at the Verizon Center in D.C. -- Talk about your freindly skies.