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Saturday, November 28, 2015

End of the Year Letter


END OF 2015 LETTER

 

November 25, 2015

Greetings from New Orleans.

2015 has been odd, a year immune to rational explanations.  Dying is so commonplace.  Death matters.  We celebrate and grieve for those we knew well.   We stare in anger at death we believe was uncalled for.  We are peppered and salted with vivid, detailed, socially networked narratives of how much death we can produce daily.  We tell lies to ourselves, saying that life matters; in fact, we lie as effectively as lawyers who use verbal magic to transform lies into truths.  We actually mean death matters more than life.  Anything that resembles love of  life must fight desperately.

A person who tries to use reason to sort out global tragedies (natural and unnatural)  and the horrors of domestic terrorism, especially a person who seeks  to discover which agents of  Evil operate the centers of genuine power,  is deemed insane or unpatriotic or just out of touch with reality.  Have our hearts become so cold that our enemies within have grown obese?  Why does the Zeitgeist that tortures us refuse to call out its name?  Why does it repeatedly punch us in the eyes?

 Should it  sadden us that all the candidates for the American Presidency feel that they must pretend to be  clowns and  owls in order gain our attention and our votes? No, it shouldn't.

 It is difficult to blame the candidates for anything other than their being stereotypical politicians.  After all, American citizens have created the climate of mutual hatreds, unethical greed, worship of amoral capitalism,  self-hatred, and promiscuous entitlement which allows these candidates to flourish.  It is difficult to blame others for our transmogrification of so-called democratic ideals.   We cooperate fully with dreadful international dynamics in shaping our fates.  We have thrown reason to the wind, and in due time we shall have a rich harvest.

 Among the candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson take the prizes for being the greatest  pretenders, the best clowns, and the most frightening owls.  Laugh at them if you must, but also listen to what they are revealing at the dawning of the Age of Post-  Future- Fascism.

November 26, 2015

 People in the United States of America  who believe that  common sense, a primal form of reason, can  benefit humanity, improve our character, and direct us toward goodness  are not crazy. They are dangerous.  They are in touch with actuality, and for having the courage to look at the many faces of the Absurd, they are pitied, maligned,  murdered literally or figuratively, cursed or treated as if they do not exist.  Few of us have the strength and resolve to deal with the entanglement of life.  The majority of us are content to exist on the animal farm of disposable realities.

 

November 27, 2015

 2015 was not all bad.  I turned  72 in July.  Only twelve more years remain in my life sentence.  I have always been in one minority or another, and I faithfully cultivate the virtue of poverty.  I tried to be good at least sixteen hours each day, to write, to teach invisible students,  to pledge allegiance to righteous indignation, and to pray that my soul will bury my soul  properly.

November 28, 2015

 I've not yet abandoned belief that moments of peace and joy can lighten the burdens which you and  I and others are condemned to carry.  Although common sense  informs me that 2016 will be more exquisitely hellish than 2015, I insist on wishing that you and your family will discover happiness in a future of mysterious promises

Sincerely,

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

 

 

CODA

 

 

Professional Activities 2015

 

January 14---Reading and conversation with Jonathan Klein’s creative writing class, Edna Karr

High   School, New Orleans, LA

 

 

February 26-28 –Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration

 

February 27 –“Genius and Daemonic Genius:  Crafting the Life of Richard Wright,” NLCC panel on

“Mississippi’s Four W’s in Literature: Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright”

 

March 12 –“Alvin Aubert: Literature, History, Ethnicity II,” Panel on the Alvin Aubert Papers, Xavier    

University of Louisiana Library, New Orleans, LA

 

 

March 19 ---Poetry Reading with Loren Pickford and Gray Hawk Perkins at the Gold Mine Saloon, 701

                   Dauphine St., New Orleans –benefit event for the New Orleans Institute for the Imagination

 

March 25 – Panel discussion on Margaret Walker with Robert Luckett, Maryemma Graham, and Carolyn                               Brown,  22nd Oxford Conference for the Book, University of Mississippi

 

April 16 – “Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius: Margaret Walker’s Experiment with Autobiographical                           Biography,” Richard Wright Library, 515 W. McDowell Rd., Jackson, Mississippi

 

August 29 --Poetry Reading, Latter Library, New Orleans

 

May 2 ---Election Commissioner, Ward 14, Precinct 10, Orleans Parish

 

September 24-26 ---"Peripheries, barriers, hierarchies: rethinking access, inclusivity, and infrastructure             in global DH practice, " Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities forum, University of                Kansas

 

October 9 and 10, 2015 --post-performance discussion leader for RITUAL MURDER, Chakula Cha Jua        Theater production,  Ashe Cultural Center, New Orleans, LA

 

October 12, 2015----review of Oxford Bibliography essay on Richard Wright for Oxford UP 

 

October 17 , 2015----post-performance discussion leader for RITUAL MURDER, Chakula Cha Jua

                Theater production, Ashe Cultural  Center,   New Orleans, LA

 

October 24, 2015----Election Commissioner, Ward 14, Precinct 10, Orleans Parish

 

November 6, 2015---"Remarks on Tom Dent,"  Tom Dent Literary Festival 2015, Dillard University,

                New Orleans, LA

 

November 21, 2015 ---Election Commissioner, Ward 14, Precinct 10, Orleans Parish

 

 

Publications  2015

“Ishmael Reed and Multiculturalism.” The Social Science Studies (2015): 208-210. Translated into Chinese by Qin Sujue, Sichuan Normal University.

FRACTAL SONG. Lawrence, KS: Jayhawk Ink, 2015.  A special publication by The Project on the History of Black Writing, July 23, 2015.

"This Mississippi River Is." Down to the Dark River: Contemporary Poems about the Mississippi River.

Ed. Philip C. Kolin and Jack . Bedell. Hammond: Louisiana Literature Press, 2016. 187. [Actually published in August 2015]

 

"A Collection Remembered." MELUS 40.3 (Fall 2015): 14-15.

 

"America's Soul Unchained." Black Hollywood Unchained: Commentary on the State of Black Hollywood. Ed. Ishmael Reed.  Chicago: Third World Press, 2015. 99-101.

 

Ramcat Reads #6

v
Ramcat Reads #6

 

Marshall, Nate. Wildhundreds.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.  Marshall, one of the co-editors of The BreakBeat Poets (2015) and winner of the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize,  writes ultra-contemporary "love letters" for Chicago, thereby exposing the paradoxical limits of stereotypes, the "tertium quid of niggerdom" (16).  One imagines that Marshall would agree with a character from Spike Lee's Bamboozled that niggers is a beautiful thing.  His poetry is abrasive.  One can read his poem "Ragtown prayer" (30-31) as a defiant response to the instructions James Weldon Johnson gave us about writing Negro poetry and as a deconstruction of the models of excellence to be found in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks.  Marshall truly speaks to his peers.

Rivlin, Gary. Katrina: After the Flood.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.  Rivlin's interviews with those who stayed during Hurricane Katrina (2005) and those who returned invites us to measure the "new" New Orleans as a city of extremes, flash points, and blatant contradictions.  Rivlin sketches  how transparent urban pathology can be as well as how successfully it can conceal its sinister designs.  His verbal  snapshots of Alden McDonald, Mitch Landrieu, Pres Kabacoff, Jimmy Reiss, Ray Nagin, Oliver Thomas and Sally Ann Glassman are priceless.

Robinson, Marilynne.  The Givenness of Things.  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015.  One result of Robinson's conversation with President Obama ( see The New York Review of Books, November 5 and November 19, 2015) may be renewed interest in her brand of  Calvinism and her startling audacity of piety.  Robinson is forthright in saying that Christ "humbled himself and took the form of a slave.  He humbled himself not in the fact of being human, but to show us the meaning of making slaves of human beings" (200). It is understandable that our embattled President might be charmed by such sentences in Robinson's essays as the following: "The Bible seldom praises God without naming among his attributes his continuous, sometimes, epochal, overturning of the existing order, especially of perceived righteousness, or of power and wealth.  when society seems to have an intrinsic order, it is an unjust order.  And the justice of God disrupts it" (199).  It is tempting to imagine that Robinson and her President could be persuaded to embrace Toni Morrison's recommendation that Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) is "required reading."

Tipton-Martin, Toni. The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.  A survey of cookbooks from Robert Roberts's The House Servant's Directory (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1827) to America I Am: Pass It Down Cookbook (New York: Smiley Book, 2011), edited by Jeff Henderson and Ramin Ganeshram.  Tipton-Martin provides a glimpse of what is rarely discussed about the centrality of African American cuisine in American culture, and it is a special treat to read what she has to say about Bobby Seals's Barbequen with Bobby (Berkley: Ten Speed, 1988), to be reminded that Black Panthers knew what to do in the kitchen.

Vella, Christina.  George Washington Carver: A Life.  Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2015.  Vella's documentation of Carver's discoveries and inventions is solid, but her strained interpretation of Carver's personality is a bit annoying.

White, Shane.  Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015.  It is refreshing to read this biographical study of Hamilton, a man who used his remarkable intelligence to beat nineteenth-century New York financiers at the racial games they loved to play.  It is instructive to consider how White, an Australian professor of history, exposes the architecture of writing history with the panache so often lacking among American historians who try to tell a black story.

Williams, Saul.  US(a.). New York: Gallery Books, 2015.  Readers who feel they must be hip about everything and nothing (in the existential sense of "nothingness") should hop through the pages of this mixture of poetry and fiction.  Williams is brilliant in witnessing the contemporary game  of daily life and giving us some of the best beat-broken writing on the planet.  His aesthetic and performance of sensibility demonstrate that the practice of diaspora is a relentless taker of tolls.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 28, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Lorca's tragic knife


LORCA'S TRAGIC KNIFE

 

"What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue!"

Lorca, Blood Wedding

 

Blood Wedding, Federico Garcia Lorca's 1933 tragedy, better than other examples of the genre, induces an appropriate state of mind for dealing with contemporary  global terrorisms.  Terrorism is always implacable.  Even if it were possible to offer it a Pacific Ocean of blood, its thirst would not be satisfied. 

Our nations furiously rave

together then and now.

Our clocks mishandle messiahs.

Lorca's brother Francisco aptly informed us in 1955 that "the final value of Federico's theatre, and the one which most characterizes it, is the fundamental attitude of an author who liked to live, that is to say, to suffer and enjoy life's course as an inevitable universal drama" (Three Tragedies. New York: New Directions, No. 52, 1955).  What is the final value of lynching, the fate of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955?

The cycles of our mother's bone-houses

always attending the birth-burial

of the blood weeded fetus.

Lorca knew something about cycles and human beings which seems to inhabit  the Epic of Gilgamesh,  the Book of the Dead, Sophocles, Marlowe and  Shakespeare, Voltaire, Goethe, Arthur Miller, and Amiri Baraka  Perhaps before the 20th century , terrorism was so disguised as audacious , raw, heroic warfare or  "Yahweh-, God & Jesus & Holy Ghost- , Allah-blessed"  crusades that it could not be  x-rayed  it for what it is. The Enlightenment misspelled its name, the West being  arrogantly ignorant of what the South and the East  knew for several thousands of years.  After WWI, the Emperor of Cream and the White Witch disrobed and mooned the world.

The transgendered Western fathers of invention

adorned themselves in designer sackcloth,

photographed themselves in the Passolini poses of Petronius-Fellini's Satyricon.

 In Lorca's time, disguises were translucent; his exquisite poetic sensibility enabled him to know what Goya and Picasso knew, what later Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat  discovered in paint and Romare Bearden, Ishmael Reed,  and Toni Morrison , in or on  paper: tragedy is encoded in each human being.  In the womb, the  fetus feeds the  Satanic spider and learns the death-grip of the tragic knife.

Lorca did not retreat into excuses of fear and pity, false assurances of balance and restoration (catharsis),  certainly not in Blood Wedding.  He simply recognized the passionate, fractal  amorality of life.

Deflecting selective sympathy to a so-called tragic hero or to the collective victims  of  Nature-sponsored events is a learned (and ultimately cowardly, anti-existential) habit of response to tragic forms;  the quest for excuses and explanations  is an absurdity of the human imagination. There are no reasons or clarifying theologies.  What is at any time, is.

 ISIS is Hitler, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin Dada much  improved; it is, in our time the enhanced KKK or the sublime Mafia.

 Terror and terrorism are manifestations of Cain's blessing Abel with the Kafka motions of Lorca's tragic knife. 

They shall be forever  beyond destruction.

"The moon sets a knife / abandoned in the air/ which being a leaden threat/ yearns to be blood's pain."

(Blood Wedding, Act 3, Scene 1)

 

Lorca's tragic knife turns your flesh to stone as your blood renews the Earth.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

a president's poem


A PRESIDENT'S POEM**

 

Are you somebody

who worries whether

you feel as if you feel

voices have been overwhelmed to pass the time

 

Part of the challenge

is a common conversation ---

stuff that reinforces

why our politics has gotten so polarized

 

Some new thing has happened ---

a pessimism ---

good people in some quiet place

that did something sensible

 

And it's all in rap and hip hop,

this vibrancy of American democracy.

Famously ahistorical.

That's one of our strengths.

We forget things.  Bloody arguments.

 

You don't know much

about the evolution of slavery;

African Americans seem pretty foreign,

thinking about the separation

of church and state

 

Yes.  We're going through

a spasm of fear.

One of the easiest places to go

is somebody else to blame --

but go ahead

 

We believed, we welcomed

without being utterly destitute

 

I'm listening to folk

making these wild claims---

it's embarrassing

when you go to other airports in other countries

 

When people feel pinched

the generosity you describe narrows.

We have a dissatisfaction gene.

That can be healthy.  A good restlessness.

They don't feel affirmed if they're good.

                                                                                                A PRESIDENT'S POEM, p. 2.

 

 

Somebody was looking

like your definition of what

America and freedom should be

when you think about your faith.

 

Turn off the media for a week.

Come out the other side

with a different anthropology.

 

What makes you think

this experiment will keep going

 

I'll try to make...I'll try to persuade

the next time,

but that requires

presumption of goodness.

 

That's not what our democracy depends on.

That's what a good life depends on.

 

You'll be disappointed.

Your faith will be confirmed.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 12, 2015

 

**Confession:   This poem was plagiarized from President Barack Obama's conversation

with Marilynne Robinson, September 14, 2015.

 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

autobiography & angles of remembering


 Autobiography and Angles of Remembering

 

                During the October 28, 2015 PHBW webinar, it was refreshing to hear the poet Sharon Strange mention that art bears witness.  She gave voice to one angle of remembering.  Contemporary memory has a very brief half-life.  We need to hear what is obvious again and again.

 

                 It is fashionable of late to applaud writers who made careers of always bearing witness to something in their  writings. We may downplay the fact that giving testimony in a society that seems to despise morality, especially any ethics associated with politics and art,  requires more than ordinary strength.  It is easier to pander to the mob and to act out  the role of the court jester in the face of grave, compelling issues.  Either for votes, instant fame,  shock value,  or money, witnesses entertain the crowd.

 

                Thus, Strange's comments brought us down to earth without the explicit  preaching we find in John Gardner's  On Moral Fiction (1977) or William F. Lynch's Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (1960) and by accident prepared us for a reading of

Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.

Acclaimed for  his roles in the television series The Wire and Treme and for his work  in such films as Selma and Waiting to Exhale, Pierce is a gifted actor.  He is a proud New Orleanian, grateful to "that northernmost Caribbean city, the last bohemia, which instilled in [him] a truthful culture that identifies [his] membership in that most beloved tribe that thrives in the Crescent City" (343).  Pierce is an actor not a writer, but that fact does not compromise his ability to tell a free story.   He is  a consummate reader and interpreter of words who has great respect for art and religion as "ways of knowing, pathways to and channels of the transcendent truths of our existence"(337).  What does compromise The Wind in the Reeds, and reminds us of its kinship with the genre of slave narrative,  is his collaboration with Ron Dreher in the writing of the story.

 

                How  do we assign credit for the crafting of words?  Or should we value the affirmative content and character of the autobiography much more than its form?  As is the case with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we have to speculate about the agency of the amanuensis.  Pierce admits that Dreher cleared the path for a "journey filled with fear, uncertainty, joy, and fond memories"(343).  Dreher projects himself as a reluctant collaborator ("a white boy from the Feliciana hills") who  gained "a much deeper appreciation of the African American experience"(344).  Dreher's wording alerts us that Pierce is scrupulous in revealing that his life, his journey, is an atypical example of  ethnic American experiences.  He is a socially conscious actor who transforms orality into writing or an actor who assumes orality is writing.

                However curious we remain about Dreher's role, we can suspend disbelief  and accept Pierce's dominant voice and historical consciousness in the narration in just the way we honor the authenticity or "truth-telling" of Malcolm X's autobiography.  Language is social property, and in collaborative autobiography it is not impossible for the subject to devise clever, coded messages that minimize the authority of the subject's helper. Even if the codes of enslaved ancestors now wear designer clothing, they have not abandoned the awe-inspiring  power of the racialized code.

                 Pierce offers us an autobiography that distinguishes itself from those which accommodate inane expectations of what an African American male's life history ought to be, i.e. a confessional saga of fractured will power, sprawling identity crises, cartoon masculinity, and minimal or diminishing respect for the power of family history from slavery to freedom.  In one of the most important paragraphs in the book, Pierce does not bite his tongue and extends a special angle of remembering  ----

The family values debate in our culture is more politicized than it ought to be.  Everybody on both sides of the argument understands the value of the nuclear family.  The fact is, when we had intact families, we had fewer problems.  As the history of my own family demonstrates, when we African Americans held our families together, we drew from them the strength and solidarity we needed to combat the evils of racism, prejudice, and attack from the enemies of our community. (49)

 

This angle of remembering is not very popular in an American culture that champions the deconstruction of character and responsibility.  Nevertheless, it is a signal of the superior qualities that obtain among African Americans from New Orleans who retain pride in their uniqueness, in their un-American difference and their African- and  French-inflected diffĂ©rence avec l'aide de Dieu.  Superior character as it is exemplified by Wendell Pierce is not the exclusive property of Creoles and Roman Catholics, nor does it have much to do with the production of culture for the pleasure of tourists and the strange American invaders of all colors who are gradually reshaping post-Katrina  New Orleans and maximizing the vulgarity of corruption.

                The play referenced in the subtitle of Pierce's autobiography is Beckett's Waiting for Godot.  It is refreshing to read Pierce's explanations of why that particular play holds great significance for him as a Eurocentric work of art that motivated him to make an Afrocentric contribution to post-Katrina resurrection culture in his childhood neighborhood of Pontchartain Park and why he chose in 2007 to produce that play in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. 

                Page after page of The Wind in the Reeds is informed Pierce's unfaltering belief in the value of art to motivate civic responsibility and to negotiate with the unguaranteed future of New Orleans without excuses and lamentations.   Like the novels of Ernest Gaines,  Pierce's autobiography  is noteworthy for affirming the Crescent City  wisdom of holding fast to black angles of remembering.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 10, 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

Black Drama Note


BLACK DRAMA STUDY NOTE

 

Tom Dent's one-act Ritual Murder (1967), first performed in 1976, is a classic of Black South drama . Dent minimized plot  and depended on the Narrator's investigation  and the individual testimonials of type-cast  characters (the wife, the public school teacher, the boss, the anti-poverty program administrator, the mother and father,  the chief of police, a black psychiatrist, the victim  and the murderer) to sketch a communal story.  His verbal economy is effective. The only action is focused speech.  Spectators can experience the play as an investigative tool, a device  for analyzing a familiar event  in modern life:  African American men killing African American men.  Ritual Murder figuratively incorporates its audience.  It provokes them to speak at the end of the performance.  Even spectators who refuse to speak become characters in a theatrical ritual. Ultimately, Ritual Murder is metadrama, i.e., a play that explains how a play may have a socially engaged purpose. It is an example of how a play can create a temporary, democratic  community.

It is judiciousness that Dent  remixed  of some elements of tragedy as described in Aristotle's Poetics with some of  the dark, biting humor  Bertolt Brecht used in writing the libretto for  The Threepenny Opera (1928), for which Kurt Weill wrote the atonal music. The aesthetic effect of Ritual Murder  is cool and unsettling.  It does not provoke fear and pity; its performance does not lead spectators to have any feeling of  catharsis, of being purged and cleansed .  On the contrary, because one witnesses the collection of opinions about the crime rather than any visual details about Joe Brown's knifing his friend James Roberts on a Saturday night, one feels moved to have compassionate disinterest.  One does experience, however,  the  frustration  involved with clarifying  a recurring social problem that defies resolution.

That Ritual Murder exposes its own architecture and pricks what might be called "consciousness of social paralysis" with maximum economy makes it one of the more unusual examples of black drama written for communal consumption during the Black Arts Movement.  One-act plays by Ben Caldwell,  Marvin X,  Kalamu ya Salaam, and Ted Shine; longer plays by Alice Childress, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins; the acclaimed works of  August Wilson and Ntozake Shange and Suzann Lori-Parks might seem more typical of the diversity which characterizes black drama from the Black Arts Movement to the present.

 Since the 1960s, when LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and others formulated ideas regarding a revolutionary theatre,  black drama has successfully defied easy classification.  It has not succeeded in revolutionizing contemporary  audiences.  It has exploited the futurism of mixed dramatic  genres, structures that are neither purely tragic nor comic nor overtly realistic .  Spectators are often uncertain whether a given play is designed to entertain, to propagandize or politicize, to induce outrage or  to inform, or to achieve all these aesthetic ends simultaneously.  And few of them would give a damn about contemplating what black drama means. Spectators are most often happy with the thrills provided by exaggerated spectacle, thrills which undermine revolutionary potentials.

 Scholarly  study of black drama, on the other hand,   can require that we  account both for the formal or textual treatment of subject matter in scripts as well as potential or actual performance, that we conjoin analyses which bespeak ideological disharmony, and that we put drama in historical perspectives.  The highly visualized, recent instances of black drama as film or television programs, when we would be active rather than passive spectators, obligate us to use combinations of visual, literary or verbal, and aural literacies. We have daunting work to do when the drama is a translation from fiction into film, as is the case with Their Eyes Were Watching God, Beloved, The Color Purple, Long Black Song, and PUSH transformed into Precious .  The difficulty of the task may explain, in part, why scholarly discussions of black drama seem to be remarkably few in number  when they are counted against  either standardized or innovative criticisms of black poetry and black fiction.  It is easier to witness instances of black drama than to articulate what one has witnessed.  And it must be noted that witnessing black drama by way of television or cinema is more common than attending a live performance.  Electronic or digital  commercialization of black drama encourages a certain passivity, a loss of desire to explore nuanced differences between the dramas of everyday living and crafted, oppositional  drama which defamiliarizes what we take for granted and provokes discomforting thought. The integrity of the drama as script counts for little under the current  pressures of satisfying audiences and earning profits.  And the path most often taken is a reductive discussion of black drama as narrative rather than as exceptionally  complex mimesis.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 2, 2015