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Sunday, July 5, 2015

From an Open Letter


From "An Open Letter to a Writer"

 

July 5, 2015

 

Since we talked back in May, our world has made good progress in collapsing.  When I was much younger, my spirit would have trembled.  Now it laughs, because one can laugh freely if one is Roman Catholic and not Christian, if one is faithful trickster.  Thus, I smirk when African-descended people "forgive" a Satanic thug in Charleston for murdering their relatives and friends in church  ---  a church associated with Denmark Vesey.  We deserve nothing better than to celebrate July 16, 1822 in 2015 by recalling that Christian black folk are insanely good.  They trash the sacrificial intentions of black revolutionaries and walk into the genocide of salvation.  We no longer laugh to keep from crying.  We laugh to keep from killing.

 

I remember the moral disengagement hatred demands and maintain some distance from it.  As I mentioned to one of our fellow-writers, I write to prevent my becoming a serial killer.  Killing people rarely resolves the systemic problems which encage us.  I write to assassinate time.

 

.......

 

Stay well and stay strong in this eternal battle we have to fight.

 

Peace,

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Drawing Terrance Hayes


DRAWING TERRANCE HAYES

 

Hayes, Terrance.  How To Be Drawn.  New York: Penguin, 2015.

 

You could be drawn to the work of Terrance Hayes by way of Elizabeth Alexander's advance praise for How To Be Drawn, a statement that draws you to such words as dust, urgency, necessity, by any means necessary (the latter cluster evoking an injunction from Malcolm X); in addition, you could be drawn by noticing poems by Terrance Hayes are anthologized in Angles of Ascent as instances of "Second Wave, Post-1960s" but not in What I Say or The BreakBeat Poets, and the notice is a signal either that you are curious about where the cipher (a good Arabic zero) or that you do have non-trivial questions about inclusion/exclusion and probabilities/possibilities; it is better that you could be drawn by accessing

 

http://terrancehayes.com/notes-drawn

 

to find "notes, reference, and inspiration for the poems" in How To Be Drawn.  Maximize your options.

 

 

Truth could tell itself by revealing that you are drawn initially by none of the above.  You were drawn to the poems of Terrance Hayes by sustained interest in the innovative poetics of Asili Ya Nadhiri as manifested in his "tonal drawings."  The required proof is located at

 


 

The device of ekphrasis may be one motivating link between the poems of Nadhiri and Hayes, because that device draws attention to how American poetry is a process which defies consensus. It motivates a few readers to think beyond the belief that "poetry" exists independent of a historicized reading and to ask whether poetry is actually or really necessary.  Answers vary according to your choice of adverb ---really or actually.   A poem lacks a fixed definition of its identity.  It does have descriptions.  Thus, an imagined conversation between Hayes and Nadhiri is rewarding, because it begins to cast light on why some readers actually fear poetry while other readers so love poetry that they argue for the validity of any and every form that a poem can assume.  The Republic of American Letters is becoming the Democracy of Writing in a slow hurry.

 

Truth also tells on itself when you access Terrance Hayes's website to acquire the information needed for intelligent reading of the academic poems in How To Be Drawn.  Hayes provides a most welcomed, common sense definition of what an academic poem is.  When he answers the question "If you could be any tree, what would you be and why?" with a rich accident: "I'm trying to think of something clever here?  I like the word magnolia.  I like the smell of pinewood. I like the flowers of dogwoods.  I'd be an apple tree."  The accident, for which Hayes is not responsible, is conjuring the relevance in the context of the question of Michael S. Harper's  remarkable Photographs: Negatives: History As Apple Tree (San Francisco: Scarab Press, 1972).  The last five lines in Section 9 of Harper's long poem are

 

let it become my skeleton,

become my own myth:

my arm the historical branch,

my name the bruised fruit,

black human photograph: apple tree  (n.p.)

 

Hayes made a good choice, as good as the choices he made of which poems to include in How To Be Drawn,  which remarks to make in the Spring 2015 "Anything But Invisible"  audio interview with Studio 360, and which forms to give "Black Confederate Ghost Story, "How to Draw an Invisible Man,"" Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report," and "Reconstructed Reconstruction"  ----poems I would recommend that my Chinese colleagues would teach in their American and African American literature courses.  No.  Those are my favorite poems.  Good pedagogy requires that all the poems in How To Be Drawn should be taught, so that poems can themselves teach us something.

 

Navigating among works by Hayes and Nadhiri and all the poets who are in the most recent anthologies brings a jolt of recognition to people who have taught literature for several decades.  Close reading and re-reading of texts are still worthwhile procedures as we transform dead print/drawings into vibrant literary events.  But close reading now depends greatly, though not exclusively,  on the use of the Internet, digital tools, and audio-visual information.  New ways of "reading" give some credibility to the notion that a poem in the canon is not innately superior to a poem which is not so archived or museumed.  Inclusion or exclusion seems to be a result of a poet's having the "right" connections or a dynamite agent, having more than demitasse spoon of genuine talent, and having the blessings of Fortune in an over-crowded market.  You are indeed drawn in to be lessoned by the closing lines of Hayes's poem "Ars Poetica For The Ones Like Us"------

 

Do not depend on speech to be felt.

Remember too that the eyes are not flesh,

That crisis is irritated by the absence of witness,

 

That Orpheus, in time, became nothing

But a lying-ass song

Sung for the woman he failed. (96)

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 30, 2015

 

 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jabari Asim Revisits Realism


Jabari Asim Revisits Realism

 

While reading the uncorrected page proofs of Jabari Asim's Only the Strong: An American Novel (Chicago: Agate, 2015), I take a break to suggest to a poet who knows St. Louis intimately that he might like this novel.  He might like how the novel minimizes those stereotypes too often taken as givens when some writers depict contemporary life and the city.  Only the Strong avoids parading its characters as if they were ads for a famous brand of American beer; the story doesn't pander to readers who are in a hurry for a fix.  Asim, as I later informed one his fellow first-novelists is not selling the designer drugs of urban literature.

Asim wants his readers to have the equivalent of listening to Jerry Butler's 1969 recording of "Only the Strong Survive" and Butler's 1971 duet with Brenda Lee Eager of "Ain't Understanding Mellow."  Popular music of the 1960s is a crucial element in the novel, and astute readers will take advantage of the aesthetic pleasure that audio memory of the golden oldies provokes.  Asim's take on realism is neither magic nor social in the sense that traditional criticism would use those variants.  His realism is real in the sense that Roberta Flack would force you to compare to what.

People from the inner circles of American publishing want to compare Asim to Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler and Edward P. Jones.  And there's more than a grain of precision in doing so for the purposes of marketing.  On the other hand, Asim is savvy about levels of publishing and is smart enough not to invite his readers to confuse what is reportedly pathological and correctly stereotyped with what nuanced fiction refracts about what is "normal." He writes with just the choice of diction and careful use of allusions to enable Only the Strong to survive in a vortex of complicated reader responses.  Many a first novel is so busy with its story that it forgets its language.  That is not the case with Asim's work.

For an older generation that lets John A. Williams, Alice Walker, and John Oliver Killens set bars for good fiction,  Asim does not disappoint.  If asked what is good about his work, a few of us elders will reply, without apology, "It is good for the purpose of assaulting your postmodern ears that have been theorized to be deaf."  It is good to remind us that humanity does not willingly inhabit a zoo of correctness.  As a novelist, Asim earned the respect that in an imagined past he would have got from Ralph Waldo (either Emerson or Ellison; take your pick).  Writing about St. Louis as a lifescape named Gateway City, Asim moves the plot along smoothly by using subtle indirect discourse as well as sympathetic authorial control.   His characters are truly characters more than they are social types.  If you can dig what President Obama preached in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, you can dig the amazing grace of Only the Strong.  Do not confuse grace with perfection.  Grace has just those slight flaws that rescue us from "a will to historical forgetfulness" and confirm that our consciousness "is a product of our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting, and by our hopeful suspension of final judgment as to the meaning of our grievances" (I just stole the quoted words from Ellison's essay "The World and the Jug.")  If you know Jack, you know what Ellison proclaimed and what Asim delivers is the real thing.

Asim's novel does echo some typical features of how Himes dealt with the urban condition; it has some very tender reminders of how Killens handled the truth of relationships between women and men in 'Sippi.  And something provocative might emerge from using geo-spatial software to text-mine Only the Strong.  The characters, regardless of their moral vices or virtues, do "represent" what went down back in the day across the river from East Boogie.  Asim is very clear that those who survived then and those who continue breathing in the non-fictional  present will have scars.  No one with the probable exception of Reuben Jones' youngest son survives Gateway City without a scratch.  Like music, baseball as played in the Negro League is a crucial structuring device in the novel; every time you think you know what's coming across home plate, Asim throws a curve you did not anticipate.  The ending of the novel skates on some thin ice and threatens to fall into Lake Melodrama, but Asim maintains his cool, his ceremony of poise" throughout the four main segments ---"Leg Breaker," "Tenderness," "Trouble," and "The Storm."  He knows just when to insert motherwit from the laughing barrel and when the text can bear Mozart or the seductiveness of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" monologue.

One of the best novels published so far in 2015, Only the Strong repays a patient reading.  Asim's affection and respect for St. Louis and some of the people who lived there in the 20th century signal that African American literature thrives.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.        June 28, 2015

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

SOS


Distress Calls and the Black Arts Movement

 

 

Bracey, John H. Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst, eds. SOS --Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

 

 

In discussions of literary and cultural periodicity, there is no consensus regarding the beginning and ending points of the Black Arts Movement.  At best, one can say the enterprise occurred between 1960 and 1980.  It persuaded significant numbers of Negroes (colored people) to call themselves Blacks, Afro-Americans, or African Americans. Adopting new terms of identity was not a total erasure of the marker “Negro” or the more imprecise marker “colored people,” because the NAACP didn’t swiftly become the NAAAA or the NAABP. The change was psychological, not a merely cosmetic substitution of racial markers. Some of the positive attitudes and values forged by the BAM can still be found in certain manifestations of hip hop ideologies.

 

The change was at once political, cultural, and social.   It  strengthened resolve to work more assiduously for the realization of political aims implicit in the long struggle for human rights called the Civil Rights Movement, an actualization that confused desegregation with integration. For some Blacks, the establishment of Black Power was of greater importance than changes in law that adjusted interpretations of the United States Constitution and gave birth to new legal remedies and policies.  It encouraged a stronger embrace, for some but not all Black Americans, of the social science fiction of cultural unity (the Black Community or the Black Nation), and it produced indelible changes in conception of the primal myth of the American Dream and its systemic entrapments; it sponsored recognition of the Amerikkkan Nightmare, a horror  that had (and still has) a racialized impact on the everyday lives of American citizens. 

 

Thus, the Black Arts Movement warrants comparison with the radical abolitionist and nationalist   activities of the 19th century as well as the “enthralling/charming,” cultural expressions of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.  Study of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement is too important to be confined to the whims of higher education and to imprisonment in the pedagogy of oppression. The movement did not begin in any classroom discussion of literary theory and culture, although it was defanged by the reconstruction of instruction and ostracized by the politics of new aesthetics.  The editors of SOS do not say that directly. They do not have to repeat what the dedication to Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) and the allusion to his poem “SOS” (1969) articulate for people who have resisted becoming post-whatever robots bereft of historical consciousness. The anthology itself asserts that it belongs to discussions in prisons, in homes, among groups that assist young people to recognize their options in a selectively “democratic” society,  in community centers where immediate local problems and local remedies are debated, and in seminars at non-American universities where scholars and students are not encaged by versions of white hegemony that have apoplexy when Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001) is voiced. In short, SOS merits being used “in the tradition.”

 

 

 The anthology has five major sections: 1) theory/criticism; 2) statements of purpose; 3) poetry; 4)drama, and 5) fiction/narrative, and these are framed by the editors' diplomatic introduction and three very challenging “afterword” essays by James G. Spady,  John H. Bracey, Jr., and Audre Lorde.  The mission of the anthology, the editors assure us, is to remedy problems associated with “ideological, aesthetic, and geographical breadth” (10), difficulty in obtaining access to essential documents, and contextualization. The first two aims of the mission are satisfied as well as any collection might, but it is wanting in providing crucial identifications and contextual information. The very good bibliography sends readers to primary BAM texts and Post-BAM scholarship and anthologies, but SOS would have been enhanced by information not contained in the section introductions by A. B. Spellman, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, and Eleanor Traylor. The editors and their publisher must bear the onus for shortcomings.  The book lacks an index. It provides no notes on contributors, as if the juju of the Internet should be invoked to figure out who were or are  Sam Cornish, Ronald Milner, Louise Meriwether, Tom Dent, Ebon Dooley, Joe Goncalves, Carolyn Gerald [Carolyn Fowler], James G. Spady and  Ahmos Zu-Bolton,  The source information for section 2 is spotty ---who formulated the by-laws for the Southern Black Cultural Alliance?---and the acknowledgements (courtesy of specifying indebtedness)  demanded by copyright law are nowhere to be found.  This is surprising.  The University of Massachusetts Press and the editors do know the protocols to be observed in responsible publishing.  Those protocols were faithfully observed in Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and in the two-volume African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-first Century (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004), edited by Bracey and Manisha Sinha.  Better s.o.s (standards of scholarship) ought to have been observed in preparing SOS. Picky readers demand assurance that the Black Arts Movement is accorded due symbolic respect.

 

Aside from these  shortcomings, SOS does, as Arnold Rampersad remarked, “add immeasurably to our ability to understand and teach a crucial aspect of modern African American and American literary history.”  Rampersad’s “our” has exclusionary force when potential readerships for the anthology are imagined.  If "our ability" is most immediately attached to the desires of people who teach in academic institutions, the phrase overlooks a large number of non-academic activists who still believe it is their duty to use products of the Black Arts Movement in addressing the social and cultural conditions of contemporary life.  They are not excluded from the discourse focused on literary history, but their desires will be different in kind and degree, more related to acquiring utilitarian literacy.  One of the great lessons of BAM was how and what words do not mean in non-academic enterprises.  The point must be stridently emphasized, so that the BAM messages will continue to be fresh grapes rather than raisins.

 

 Readers, especially adolescent readers, may care little for literary history and care a great deal for cultural history which does not apologize for its political dimensions, for the American cultural history anchored in both the liberated and the commodified  funk ontology  of hip hop’s evolution in the vast territory of African Diaspora. Younger readers have excellent reasons for processing the contents of  SOS in contexts described in Robin D. G. Kelley's Yo' Mama's Disfunktional (1997), Tricia Rose's The Hip Hop Wars (2008), and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010) and the special segment of Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015) that is devoted to "The Trouble With Race."   It would be good if social activists really did help young people to read and critique SOS and to make practical connections. Ideas provided by Spellman, Sanchez, Madhubuti, and Traylor should be lifted from the page and used in everyday speech.

 

If a few subversive teachers  opt to deploy ideas from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as they work through the 666 pages of SOS, they and their history-challenged students  might discover such assisting and seminal works as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970),  Joyce A. Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman (1971), Carolyn Fowler’s Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography, 2nd ed (1981), Vincent Harding’s The Other American Revolution (1980), Tony Bolden’s Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture (2004) and his crucial essay “Theorizing the Funk: An Introduction” in The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture (2008), and Larry Neal’s Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings (1989).  Readers who are less ambitious can sit on the ground with their friends and discuss the contents of SOS in concert  with the daily saturation from social networking and mass media. What laid-back readers have in common with more ambitious readers is arming themselves with critical consciousness.

 

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka spend a lifetime preparing materials for the practices of everyday life by those willing to answer the call to “come in,” and pragmatic use of  SOS is a proper way of honoring his blazing work, his Black Fire!!!. Allowing praxis as it can be guided by Black Arts Movement insights to dominate theory as such in 2015 is still an option in the vortex of implacable, global disorders.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    June 24, 2015

 

 

Friday, June 19, 2015

For people who forgive everything

A Juneteenth Observation


When
Dylann Storm Roof’s
Biological pappy
Rogered*
Dylann Storm Roof’s
Biological mammy

[54 87 70]**

[49 41 26]

[74 45 59]

Then
Did she put
An epiphany
Where
An orgasm
Should
Have been

[59 45 74]

[26 41 49]

[70 87 54]

Then
Did her womb perform
What her brain
Refused to do:
A maculate
Conception
Of an evil mistake?

[54 49 74]

[87 41 45]

[70 26 59]

Jeremiah Ramcat  June 19, 2015
*see the Oxford English Dictionary for the definition of “roger”
**Approximate ages of nine murdered ghosts


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

1955: an observation

1955: an observation

It was not the most mind-shattering year of the 20th century, but 1955 was a space/time marker that deserves pondering after sixty years.  The Bandung Conference was a forum for Asian and African nations who would become architects of new world orders.  Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi.  Rev. George W. Lee (Belzoni) and Lamar Smith (Brookhaven) were also lynched. The mustard seed for contemporary, religion-flavored terrorism might have been planted at Bandung, Indonesia. Strong analyses of what happened there must consider such a possibility.  Equally strong analyses of lynching in Mississippi might not move any pretense at “race and reconciliation” an inch from where it Is stuck.  A hot tear resides in your right eye as you read Julius E. Thompson’s Lynchings in Mississippi: A History, 1865-1965 (2007); a question marches in your mind as you read Richard Wright’s The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (1956): do major planners in the Obama administration recall that Bandung happened?  If you try to sing “We Shall Overcome,” your heart will be stabbed with artificial feelings.  Unless you are a God-blessed idiot, you remember that in 1955 two white males in Mississippi were praised, found not guilty, and paid for murdering an uppity young boy; those who killed Lee and Smith celebrated; and you remember that the echoes of that obscenity grow louder and more lurid in 2015.

Twenty years after 1955, Bernard Grun published The Timetables of History, his translation, revision, and
updating of Werner Stein’s Kulturfahrplan (1946).  According to the entries for 1955, Walter White,
Albert Einstein, Ortega y Gasset, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and a few other notable people died.
Teilhard de Chardin published Le Phénomene Humain (The Phenomenon of Man), a magnum opus, and
Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita, a curious classic. The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. announced they would
race to launch satellites. “The Seven Year Itch,” “Marty,” and “The Rose Tattoo” were shown in movie
houses. Artificial diamonds were manufactured at 2,700 degrees C.  Salvador Dali shocked the art world
 with “The Lord’s Supper.” “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” was one of the most popular songs.

Sixty years after 1955, you look back and wonder why Bernard Grun chose to say nothing about Emmett Till and Bandung.  And, of course, the answer was broadcast on the evening news today.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 16, 2015



Thursday, June 11, 2015

Louis Edwards's Second Novel

Louis Edwards’s Second Novel

If you like writing that is selective about which second-line parade it will join, you will like the work of Louis Edwards, a native of Lake Charles who probably lives in New Orleans.  If you have not seen or talked to a person for several years in the Crescent City, you do best to be cautious about identifying that person’s place of residence.  Let it suffice that Lewis Edwards lived quietly, at one time or another, in this den of creative temptations without falling into literal or figurative disgrace.  That is an achievement.

Edwards’s first novel Ten Seconds (1991) got better critical praise than many efforts by emerging writers, because he used conceptual imagination and artistry to ensure his story would not be handcuffed by stereotypes.  Carl Schoettler’s review in the August 14, 1991 issue of The Baltimore Sun was fair and sensitive to Edwards’s writing an aesthetically challenging novel about a quite ordinary man.  Like William Melvin Kelley’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970) and Clarence Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure (1975), Ten Seconds was a fine piece of linguistic invention, indebted to James Joyce but not overwhelmed by the Irish acrobatics.  If Bernard W. Bell, who wrote with keen insights about Kelley and who devoted an entire book to Major, had chosen to comment on Edwards’s postmodernism in The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches (2004), I suspect Edwards would be more frequently discussed in scholarly circles.  Perhaps people who talk about Ronald Sukenick and Richard Brautigan also talk about Edwards.  If that is the case, his readership is highly specialized.

Common readers, especially those who live in New Orleans, might embrace his second novel N: A Romantic Mystery (1997).  It is rich with street names, place names, food habits, class attitudes ---the cataloging we know well from Arthur Pfister’s My Name is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry and Other Jazz.  You can’t be more New Orleans-centric than Edwards, who in a single paragraph on page 13 mentions Norbert Davidson, Kalamu ya Salaam, James Borders, Brenda Marie Osbey, Tom Dent, Quo Vadis Gex, Keith Woods, Beverly McKenna and the Calliope Project; a writer who has his main character go to Community Book Center to purchase a copy of Jean Toomer’s Cane from Jennifer (page 131) is stone cold New Orleans. Something very special will register for readers who lived in the old New Orleans from 1960 to 2005.  The wealth of referentiality might mean little to readers who only know post-Katrina New Orleans, the new city where organic charm has now been commodified for the tourist industry. What will register for all readers, however, is the murder of a young black male.  Such murder, unfortunately, is obscenely “normal” in New Orleans.  That Edwards chose to use devices from film noir and hard-boiled detective fiction gives what could have been a run-of-the-mill urban novel an intriguing difference.  If any real life reporter tried to do what Aimée DuBois does about the crime, she would cooling in a morgue.  The magic in N: A Romantic Mystery is the skill Edwards uses in creating fiction that is historical but not sociological.  It is no accident that he dedicated the novel to “Charles Bourgeois and Albert Murray ---les gourous” or that most of the chapter titles are French: double entendre, les femmes fatales, la descente, objet d’art, le petit déjeuner, Tante Aimée, le fou, chez Strip, le cinema, la nature morte, Doppelgänger (a German slip), l’entracte, le livre, la vie en rose, sang-froid, chef d’oeuvre, la niece, les morts ne parlent pas, le pasteur, un coup de telephone, la resurrection de l’amour, vive la difference, la letter d’or, and dénouement (this final chapter rounds off the sections LES PROLOGUES, ACTE I: Mise en Scène, L’ENTRACTE, ACTE II: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  Edwards’s second novel is sufficiently Louisiana African/American French to distinguish itself from the genre of street literature.  It is not ti negre; it is simply Black.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.         June 11, 2015