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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Poetry Month Exercise


Poetry Month Exercise

A few weeks ago, I invited some writers to join me in a poetry month exercise.  Each day we would alternate between writing a haiku and a kwansaba.  We would have thirty poems or drafts for poems at month’s end.   Charlie R. Braxton accepted the invitation. A few writers declined, arguing that writing kwansabas demanded too much work.

The exercise would have been nonsensical had much work not been involved.  What Charlie and I have written to date reveals much about our ideologies, our remoteness from the strictures of Japanese haiku, and our willingness to observe the rules Eugene B. Redmond set forth when he created the kwansaba.

It may be the case that haiku and kwansaba pulled more out of us than we put into them.  Only the poems know for sure.  The exercise empowered; it was a welcomed surprise to have two poems emerge on April 7.

Haiku 4.7.2015

Brilliant children
Exploding dots on blue film:
Well born novas shine.

Time Apart From Time 4.7.2015

Islands. Isolate the pieces thrown from water,
The still thirsty petals of a flower
Burning to sandy ash from the flames
The sun set in the pliant East.
We are late. We yet can isolate
Notes, perhaps a song to thus recall
How once real humans played the earth.

When writers work hard at craft, they may sometimes find themselves walking in balance through chaos.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Exploring Another World

Exploring Richard Wright’s Other World

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Haiku.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2014.
Zheng, Jianqing, ed. The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

                During the seventeen years since the publication of Haiku: This Other World (New York: Arcade, 1998), scholars and critics have been at once fascinated and puzzled by the fact that Richard Wright (1908-1960) composed slightly more than 4,000 haiku during the last two years of his life.  The magnitude of his output is impressive, very impressive for a writer plagued by illness and political surveillance.  It is now commonplace to claim that Wright’s experiments with a Japanese poetic genre were therapeutic, but such a proposition is not sufficient.  One of the outstanding features of Wright’s prose fiction and non-fiction was powerful, often jolting, imagery.  Something beyond therapy that we may not yet be able to name motivated his deep investment in the discipline of haiku.
                Recent books by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Jianqing Zheng seek to forge a critical discourse that can benefit readers who have a special interest in haiku or Richard Wright or both.  Within the limits that are perhaps innate in explanatory activity, these books do move us forward in a quest to understand more about Wright’s exploration in that other world of haiku. They help us to understand a little better the changing tensions between ancient Japanese and modern American ideas regarding poetry, poetics and aesthetics, and the cultural functions of haiku.  Hakutani and Zheng invite us to participate in crucial critical work.
                Hakutani’s Richard Wright and Haiku focuses primarily on Wright’s creativity within a specific genre.  One might expect that the study would illuminate Wright’s innovations as well as dialogues among haiku scholars about the consequences of innovation.  Hakutani is one of the leading experts on haiku in the United States and an esteemed Richard Wright scholar.  Along with Robert L. Tener, he edited the first edition of Haiku: This Other World and provided invaluable notes and an afterword. In Richard Wright and Racial Discourse (1996), chapter 12 “Nature, Haiku, and ‘This Other World’,” he provided a summary of points he has consistently made about haiku, Zen, an African view of life, Wright’s retreat from moral, political, social, and intellectual to find “in nature his latent poetic sensibility” (RWRD 261).  It is noteworthy that Hakutani concluded this chapter by assuring readers that “Just as [Wright’s] fiction and nonfiction directly present” the conviction that materialism and greed are “twin culprits of racial conflict,” Wright’s haiku “as racial discourse indirectly express the same conviction” (291). That Richard Wright and Haiku hesitates to engage implications of such a conviction is one of its shortcomings.
                Hakutani chose to divide the book into Part I History and Criticism and Part II Selected Haiku by Richard Wright.  Five of the chapters in Part I summarize the long history of Japanese haiku and the major work Yone Noguchi did in bringing notice of the genre to the English-speaking world of the early twentieth century; the remaining five chapters discuss Wright’s haiku as English poems and senryu, the relationship of those poems to classic haiku and modernist poetics, and Hakutani’s idée fixe about Wright’s discovering “a primal outlook on life” which might reveal what Akan religion and Zen Buddhism share in common. Let it suffice that Wright possessed a primal outlook independent of his visiting Ghana and writing Black Power, and more thorough investigation of Wright’s use of African American rather than African lore is desirable.  Hakutani’s failure to use a skeptical, multi-dimensional perspective on what has been called the cultural unity of African thought is a demerit. Part II reprints 145 of the 817 haiku published in Haiku: This Other World along with the corresponding “Notes on the Haiku” from that edition. The recycling does not escape notice.
                For readers who know very little about haiku or Richard Wright, Part I provides enlightenment, and Part II may encourage them to read all of the published haiku.  More advanced readers may use Part I to refresh their memories of the haiku presence in American poetry and to ask questions about what such poets as Lenard D. Moore and Sonia Sanchez have contributed to the genre.  On the other hand, some Wright scholars might dismiss the truncated repetition of Part II and invest energy in comparing Wright’s early proletarian poetry with his later haiku by way of a close reading of Eugene E. Miller’s Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990).
                It would have been politic for Hakutani to have acknowledged either continuity or discontinuity between Miller’s study and his own work in poetics.  He would have impressed his readers with greater attention to incongruities in the study of Wright’s haiku and minimized the sense that he is reaffirming overmuch the “official” perspective he and Tener established.  Hakutani’s choices in recycling so much in Richard Wright and Haiku are not fatal and certainly should not preclude a fair reading of the book. On the other hand, he does not satisfy a reader’s hunger for insights about Wright as much as does The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku
                It is exceptionally valuable to have complementary and contrasting views of Wright’s haiku, because only a few scholars have read all of his 4,000 plus haiku in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.  A complete analysis of the haiku with the aid of a remarkable database recently constructed by Toru Kiuchi will unsettle any comfortable ideas about Wright’s poetics. Jianqing Zheng has an uncanny sense of what is necessary; his anthology sets us on a journey toward future critical assessments of Wright and, indeed, toward expansive interpretations of the varying functions haiku can have in the contemporary world.  Zheng made good choices in publishing original essays in tandem with reprinted ones from such journals as MELUS, Valley Voices, Tamkang Review, and Journal of College of Industrial Technology (Nihon University). The ten essays in this anthology invite readers to contemplate Wright’s daring and discipline, his flaws and triumphs, his humor and use of the American South and racial histories in grounding his haiku, and his fidelity to 5-7-5 syllable structures.  Special notice should be given to Richard A. Iadonisi’s challenging argument that Wright’s haiku are not quite the escape hatches many believe they are and to Zheng’s belief “that nature, which fulfilled Wright and made him an integrated part of it through his haiku, is a fundamental element in his works” (TOWRW xvii).  One must entertain the possibility that Wright’s signature skepticism precluded any ideal, aesthetic integration with nature and exposed the mythopoetics of writers ancient and modern who assert they have achieved sublime enlightenment. Even as Wright submitted to the severe discipline of classical Japanese haiku, he was defiant in creating a body of poems that ultimately are projections in the haiku manner.
                Richard Wright and Haiku and The Other World of Richard Wright are commendable guides that point us toward a future in the study of Richard Wright’s poetics. They strengthen us to measure the merits of groundbreaking claims in Dean Anthony Brink’s article “Richard Wright’s Search for a Counter-hegemonic Genre: the Anamorphic and Matrixial Potential of Haiku,” Textual Practice 28.6 (2014): 1077-1102. In many ways our exploring of Wright’s other world is always a beginning, a fresh attempt to understand mysteries, those red suns that take our names away.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Subversive Journalism

Subversive Journalism

Bryant, Earle V., ed. Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015.
Such recent dedicated scholarship  as Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s and William J. Maxwell’s F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature serves as a warrant for thinking of contemporary literary and cultural studies as components of a mega-surveillance machine. Readers and critics cooperate, often unwittingly, with publishing conglomerates and official agencies of detection in panoptical activities that exceed the scrutiny imagined by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish or by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism.  Technological progress encourages us to abandon dreams of a liberated future and to accept dystopia as self-evidently “normal.” For Richard Wright scholars, the publication of Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright, Modern Indonesia, and the Bandung Conference (Duke University Press, Spring 2016) by Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher will create an opportunity for more speculation about the function of journalism in Wright’s imagination as well as raising devastating questions about how the journalism of Ida B. Wells and Ishmael Reed assist us to understand what was and is African  American literature. We do need to explore Black print cultures more thoroughly in relation to the production of Black literatures.  In this sense, Earle V. Bryant’s long-awaited Byline Richard Wright has a significant mediating function.
Perhaps financial exigencies are responsible for the University of Missouri Press’s delayed printing of Bryant’s editing and commentary on a number of Wright’s Daily Worker articles from 1937 and the essays “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite” (1935) and “High Tide in Harlem: Joe Louis as a Symbol of Freedom” (1938) from New Masses.  Bryant, a Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, had been working on this project, very quietly, for more than a decade. The delayed publication does not compromise his effort to map underexplored territory in Wright Studies.  It does, unfortunately, increase the likelihood that his work will get less attention than it deserves.
Giving notice to time and space, as Thadious M. Davis does in Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (2011), reifies the value of chronology in examining Wright’s growth.  Her methodological choices ensure that we link Wright’s emergence as a journalist with his assignments in subdivisions of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), especially the Illinois Writers Project, without diminishing notice of his simultaneous participation in Chicago’s South Side Writers group and brief membership (1934-35) in the John Reed Club. On the other hand, Bryant chose to arrange the Daily Worker articles by theme ---urban conditions in New York, war in Spain and China, heroism, Marxist interest in the Scottsboro case, and art in the service of life. By avoiding strict chronology, Bryant is able to foreground his insightful analyses of political implications and aesthetic qualities in Wright’s journalism, to tell us many things about the strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s accomplishments. Byline is Bryant’s effort “to bring Wright’s early newspaper work out of obscurity and into the light where it can be read and appreciated” (10).
There is a mixed blessing in Bryant’s book being in our hands after the works by Washington, Maxwell, and Davis, because the rigor of their scholarship sets the bar for critical attention to Wright very high.  Bryant’s work provides an opportunity to think about how African American and left-leaning journalism has been necessarily subversive and critical of efforts to sell the American Dream.  To be sure, Byline encourages more thinking about how subversion operates under surveillance. The minor failure in Bryant’s scholarship, however, is his not supplying a full listing of all the Daily Worker articles Wright wrote and glosses or explanatory footnotes for the articles selected from the full range of what is available.  Yes, students and scholars who might use Bryant’s book can surf the Internet to get information about topical references in the articles, but Bryant would have enhanced the value of his book by supplying them in the text.  It is odd that Bryant chose to say nothing about what Wright might have learned from Frank Marshall Davis about the art of journalism.  It is even odder that H. L. Mencken is not mentioned in Byline, because Wright made a special point of acknowledging his discovery of Mencken in a Memphis newspaper and his indebtedness to the work of Mencken as one of America’s most influential journalists, prose stylists, and social critics. It is baffling why Bryant seems to attribute the claim “All art is propaganda” to Wright on page 215, when it is a widely known that W. E. B. DuBois used that wording in his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” in the October 1926 issue of Crisis. Shortcomings notwithstanding, Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses can quicken interest in exploring more profoundly the journalistic aspects of Black Power, The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain and Richard Wright’s bracing subversiveness. Wright deserves more credit for his prophetic panopticism.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 11, 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Note from Trayvon

Poem 4.10.2015 (A Note from Trayvon)

Debrief the mercy the false gods send.
Mercy kills more cleanly than does spite.

Behold.  Zimmerman, his wanton finger in shock
Of memory bullets prayer into my skin,
His Darwin-Strauss tongue drips “Amen, Baba.”

Beware of mercy. Fall not in sin.
Let gods forgive Zimmerman. I shall not.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

JEAL call for submissions

April 1, 2015

The Journal of Ethnic American Literature, a refereed scholarly annual dedicated to new research and criticism in ethnic American literature, is seeking submissions for the general issue (Deadline: July 30, 2015) and the special issue on Hispanic American Literature (Deadline: July 30, 2016).  Criticism on Sonia Sanchez’s haiku is especially welcome.  Scholarly articles using MLA Style can be submitted to or to The Editor, JEAL, Mississippi Valley State University 7242, 14000 Highway 82 West, Itta Bena, Mississippi 38941 with a SASE to guarantee a return of manuscripts.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

American Haiku

Haiku 3.31.2015A

Those eyes accuse them
As algorithmic frogs do sing
Death-itch songs: ‘tis Spring.

Haiku 3.31.2015B

Summer-hot cotton
In Mississippi is cold.
Witch lynching gone wrong.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Performing Richard Wright in 2015

Performance: Richard Wright in 2015

Despite my having “performed” Richard Wright with a modicum of success some years ago in a Chautauqua series sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, I know virtually nothing about performance theory as an “interdisciplinary area of study and critical method” as it is discussed in the recent book Black Performance Theory (Duke University Press 2014) edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez.   For me, performing Wright was a matter of absorbing what I could of his personality and changing states of mind from his writings, listening to his recorded voice, and praying that at some spiritual level Wright would channel my imagination.  I am not an actor, so I just gathered courage and, on magical night, I did become Richard Wright.  Or so that was what several people in the audience told me.
Tonight I had the opportunity to witness the performance of a project conceptualized by Dr. Ross Louis, a professor in Xavier University of Louisiana’s Department of Communication Studies, that used “haiku as a performance aesthetic to prompt questions about Richard Wright, his haiku, Native Son and Black Boy.  Borrowing the title “This Other World” from the collection of 817 haiku selected from the approximate 4,000 haiku Wright wrote in the last two years of his life, Louis did substantial research in the Richard Wright Papers at Yale University and then wove a small number of haiku and Julia Wright’s introduction to Haiku: This Other World (1989) together with excerpts from Native Son, Black Boy (especially the young Richard’s inquiries about race, his catalog of very poetic discovery images, and the moment of verbal paralysis in a school room), “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” and “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.”   It is important the Wright’s collection has been most recently published as Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon, because the change of title is itself a publishing “performance” that has consequences for our reception of Wright’s work.  Louis directed two Xavier students, Thomas James Nash II and Mia Selena Ruffin, in using their voices and bodies to perform a quite challenging sketch of Wright’s creativity at the end of his life.  Presented in the outdoor sculpture garden of Xavier’s Art Village, the experiment succeeded in dealing with two questions: 1) How does Wright represent place within his haiku, especially rural Southern places? And 2) How do the values of the haiku genre guide decisions about space, time and movement in a performance of Wright’s work? Nevertheless, the experiment raises enormous questions about our motives in transforming Wright’s poetry into sound and motion and spectacle in 2015.
As the sun set over New Orleans and Xavier on a breezy spring evening with the background musicality of construction noises, I was at once pleased with the originality of the experiment and disturbed that the performance was not followed by some dialogue among the audience, the director, and the performers.  The originality consisted in putting Wright’s haiku or projections in the haiku manner into Nature (the site specificity of New Orleans) and saluting the Japanese spirit of creating a certain kind of poetic experience.  This was far more satisfying than flawed adaptations of Wright’s works for the stage, the movies, and the television screen. Without clarifying dialogue about what was absent ----especially a clear connection between Wright’s early proletarian poetry and his late, very American projections of haiku---I think the quality of aesthetic experience for the audience depended overmuch on how little or how much people knew about Richard Wright, how little or how much people knew about a kind of Japanese poetry that is internationally very popular and only lately getting critical notice in Wright studies by way of such books as The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), edited by Jianqing Zheng and Yoshinobu Hakutani’s Richard Wright and Haiku (2014).  Already Zheng and Hakutani have been challenged in Dean Anthony Brink’s article on Wright’s search for a counter-hegemonic genre in Textual Practice 28.6 (2014) for giving insufficient attention to Wright’s use of anamorphic possibilities in writing haiku.  The performance at Xavier was a very rich exposition of the problems of anamorphism, but the audience did not have an opportunity to begin exploring that topic.
I applaud Dr.Ross Louis and the student performers for their genuine effort to pay tribute to a portion of Richard Wright’s legacy to world literature.  I had a great experience because I know Wright’s works well.  I do know that one other spectator had a less felicitous experience in following the spaced arrangement of the project’s content. I must insist, in light of that fact , that the Xavier Performance Studies Laboratory have a public discussion of exactly what it performed in it “This Other World” presentation. It is not perverse to ask, borrowing language from DeFrantz and Gonzalez, whether Xavier’s quite specific “experimentation with form and ingenuity” is “part of what has been called ‘the black aesthetic’ (10). It is likely that Richard Wright would urge us to have just that discussion in order to grasp the ineluctable complexity of everyday multicultural phenomena in New Orleans and to determine why his works, haiku and all, are such powerful tools for shaping critical consciousness of everyday life.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.     March 27, 2015