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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

Friday, March 13, 2015

Alvin Aubert's Birthday

Alvin Aubert: Literature, History, Ethnicity II
March 12, 2015
Xavier University

Alvin Aubert would have been 85 years old today, and we gather to give a breathing dimension to words he wrote on June 21, 1978:
I will be in language when I am gone in the flesh.    (AAP, Box 41, Journal November 30, 1977-April 20, 1978)
I quote Aubert’s words  from the end of Professor Ronald Dorris’ article “Alvin Aubert: Framing South Louisiana.” La Créole 7.1 (2014):16-21 to illustrate one pathway of scholarship -----the transmission of Aubert’s words from a journal to Dorris’ article and my repeating them (confident in the accuracy of what Dorris transferred from the source) in my typescript and then uttering them (oral repetition)  a few seconds ago.  The trope of immortality only functions if someone remembers particular words that were written or typed by someone else in the vast duration we call time.

My remarks are titled “Alvin Aubert: Literature, History, Ethnicity II” as a reminder that we are dealing with another transmission of words, namely my interview with Aubert that was published in Xavier Review 7.2(1987): 1-12.  Part of that interview was conducted through correspondence in March 1986 (typed) and part by way of my taping Aubert’s words at Wayne State University on March 4, 1988.  The correspondence is most likely in my papers at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; the tape with Aubert’s voice and my own has long since disappeared.  Hurricane Katrina borrowed the tape and failed to return it.
 I am suggesting the centrality of archives and archival work in assisting us to remember things about people, the body of writing we call literature, the narratives of time that we call history which are actually narratives of a process, and the prevailing importance of ethnicity as identification and classification.  Being in language when one is gone in the flesh is not as simple as the words that transmit such an idea.
It is wonderful that the Alvin Aubert Papers are a part of the archives of Xavier University of Louisiana, that a major portion of his legacy to American and African American literature and literary history is preserved here. It is equally wonderful that the Tom Dent Papers are preserved at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, and the Marcus B. Christian Papers are in the Special Collections at the University of New Orleans and the Richard Wright Papers are deposited in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.  But wonderfulness is of little meaning if students, teachers, and scholars do not use the sources of wonderfulness (the archives) to do critical thinking  and  then make  choices  regarding the flesh (our living and breathing).
 In 2015, a most troubled and troubling year, and in a future, it is productive use of the Alvin Aubert Papers that can transform mere wonderfulness into meaningful education, into understanding of Aubert’s lasting contributions to the Black Arts Movement by way of his writing and his publishing of OBSIDIAN magazine, and into some grasping of how ethnicity is a permanent, vexed feature of social and cultural existence in the United States of America.  I make a special note that Aubert is not mentioned in what to date is the leading study of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic phenomenon, James Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005); that he is mentioned only once (page 16) in the important reference book The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011); that his name appears only on pages 34 and 35 of Howard Rambsy’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (2011). Only those who are as blind as the proverbial bat fail to understand that Aubert contributed as much to enterprise and production of Black writing as Mari Evans, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hoyt Fuller, or Naomi Long Madgett.  He worked assiduously without desire for fanfare.  Use of the Alvin Aubert Papers is crucial if we are to fill the informational gaps and atone for our sins of omissions. As co-editor of the CHAAL, I must say “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
 We can take for granted that Aubert is worthy of attention with regard to the history of black/American poetry and black/American publishing (print culture). That is a basic fact.  What we cannot take for granted is that people who can profit from remembering Alvin Aubert will do so. Thus, Irwin Lachoff, the Associate Archivist at Xavier University, Ronald Dorris, Alumni Class of ’58 Professor of Liberal Arts, African American and Diaspora Studies and English, and I agreed to begin a public conversation and direct attention to Aubert’s papers.
I shall refer to three comments Aubert made in the interview about literature, history, and ethnicity and reserve my own comments for the conversation with Mr. Lachoff, Dr. Dorris and the audience.
W. In your 1986 interview you said, “Art, for me, is not the absence of social and political consciousness; rather, it is the presence of an aesthetic quality, and that aesthetic quality can come from one’s social and political consciousness.”  Would you clarify what you mean by “aesthetic quality?”
A.  I thought you’d ask me about the “absence” –“presence” bit.  I’m glad you didn’t.  As an Afro-American poet I would have to say that the aesthetics of a work of art, of a poem or a story, say, derives from the writer’s milieu, his cultural matrix.  This has to do with whatever in the poem the reader finds appealing.  Appealing in an entertaining, instructive and informing way as well as in a structural sense --- realizing that as operational categories these are not necessarily exclusive in a given literary discourse.  What I’m talking about here touches on Stephen Henderson’s concept of “saturation.”  In reading works of black American poets you discover a great deal of affective material --  material that moves you in various ways because you recognize it as coming from the culture you belong to, as having to do with your life in some way, whether it refers to the kind of music you enjoy – blues, spirituals, jazz, gospel, and so forth  ---  or jokes you have heard told or the way people talk or tell stories or move about or dance or the kind of food that’s eaten or a peculiar way of suffering and endurance and so forth.  You recognize such things, cultural counters, as they are, and your spirit responds “That’s good” and you enjoy the poem, smiling to yourself a long time after reading it, entertaining good thoughts about yourself and your people.  That is the basis of the Black aesthetic, a basically humanistic, celebratory standard of literary appreciation that comes out of Black life.  From the poet’s point of view, you recognize in all of this a commitment.

HISTORY --- pages 9 and 10
W. We entertain the notion that the past is completed.
A.  Well, the Euro-American sense of history encourages that, not the African, in which past, present and future are coterminous, humanistically so:  the ancestors who are always with us, as are the living and the yet to be born.  The ideal is of continuity rather than completion, and of satisfaction in living with people in the present rather than a fretting about the past or a yearning for the future.  But I’m not African, I’m African-American and must live and write out of that complexity.

ETHNICITY---pages 11-12
W. Denial of ethnicity is a strategy for self-murder.  In a larger sense, genocide.
A. Those who would undo you begin by chipping away at your ethnicity.  What we need in the U.S. is more mutual respect, ethnically, among people of different ethnic backgrounds.  If I’m African-American and you are Italian-American, we relate to one another in terms of our differences, first, then in terms of our common humanity.  Ultimately it is the common humanity that prevails, hopefully.  I know this is all very, very complex, involving politics and economics – especially economics – as it does.  Differences  among people are not incidental, as some would have it, but essential.  Essential incidental, if that’s philosophically tenable.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

50 Years after Selma


The film Selma has done part of the work for all of us.  It provides fact and fiction for remembering. It emphasizes the before and after of March 7, 1965 on Edmund Pettus Bridge.  For a small number of viewers, the film may suggest what the work of the present might entail.
I recall that we are still breathing fifty years after the dramatic clash of KKK and CORE in Bogalusa, Louisiana; after the deaths of Malcolm X, Viola Liuzzo, and  Jonathan Daniels; after the barely remembered fact that Wharlest Jackson was murdered in Natchez, Mississippi after he was promoted to a job reserved  whites; after demonstrations of outrage in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago; after James M. Nabrit, Jr. was appointed United States Ambassador to the United Nations and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. For a few of us, remembering is an invitation to act.
I am moved to become involved in sponsoring out-of-school learning activities for young people in New Orleans after reading a few sentences from Donald P. Stone’s Fallen Prince: William James Edwards (1990):
Selma had been of paramount importance to the Confederate war effort.  An ordnance manufacturing depot located, hard upon the banks of the Alabama River, made it a strategic shipping center.  Benjamin S. Turner, the Afro-American Reconstruction Congressman who served in the 42nd Congress, was from Selma.  Edmund Pettus, U.S. Senator from 1896-1907 also hailed from Selma.  Pettus proved a great obstruction to the democratic aspiration of Afro-Americans.  In his view the “Negro is unfit for government.”  In 1902 when Pettus was reelected to the Senate, Edwards wrote: “No hope for colored schools.  Senator Pettus reelected.”  (47-48)
The heirs of Edmund Pettus now control the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Their unfiltered hatred for the American President guides their efforts to minimize democratic aspiration and to become killers of such American dreams that young African Americans might wish to embrace. I feel obligated to teach these young people that they are fit for government and fit to govern themselves and others. I must be active in efforts to help young people do battle with all the forces that tell them their lives count for naught in the American body politic. Perhaps I should begin with helping them to make a critical analysis of John  Balaban’s poem “After The Inauguration, 2013” (NYRB, March 19, 2015, p. 29), especially of its epigraph ---“Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins” (Hebrews, 9:22).  Fifty years after Selma, the battle to free the mind so that the body might be free continues.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    March 5, 2015  

poem for a day

Diamond-dust Ice Cream Sonnet

The Holy Mammon Empire wanted a clown,
A court jester of substantial means,
A distraction to keep the bitch pimps
Bemused and bling-bling brilliant blind.

Where jesus-juice fails, demon-wine succeeds.

Maimed to please, he played the bird
In the burning cage.  His stone face spread
Deaf jam from an ill jar on the bread
And drank the bleeding water of foolish reason.

Where jesus-juice fails, demon-wine succeeds.

As good as everything everybody
Can never have dreamed,
He came, he saw, he squat- squawked
His father for his son, his mother for his ghostly hawk.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

March 5, 2015