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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Poem5.27.2017


PRAVDA WEARS DAO











Subaltern to the sun, the moon



chutzpah-possessed, enthralls the sea



and all that portends: code nihilism,



genome dens, holocaustic hate



at discount rate, the inhuman trends



bitter now, bitter then



ebbing and flowing,



living beyond the rime-shot ends.







Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 27, 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017

From Romance to Reality




FROM ROMANCE TO REALITY



There may be a few places in the world where people have not heard the sentence "Black Lives Matter" in any language.  The sentence is a prototype for many variations on the theme of "mattering," for riffs that have appeal and utility in discordant contexts.  The sentence is poignant.  It reverberates with urgency and necessity.  In the United States of America, it reminds us that many versions of our history encourage us to minimize, to never know, or to conveniently forget what matters.  Our instinctive responses to life ( how we might behave in a state of nature) can be compromised by social constructions of reality.  That fact is inevitable.



"Black Lives Matter" is an unavoidable  accusation.  The fact that American citizens need to hear it is a mark of shame, a signal that economic violence and moral turpitude are innate in our experiments with democracy.  The more it is repeated, the more it becomes, like the familiar phrase "the pause that refreshes,"  a tiresome slogan.  Can it be made more appealing by rewriting the sentence as "Black Lives Have Always Mattered"?  No.  The greater specificity makes matters worse.



The gravity of the situation is highlighted by the publication of



Oyewole, Abiodun, ed. Black Lives Have Always Mattered: A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Personal Narratives.  New York: 2Leaf Press, 2017.



Like Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (Durham, NC: Jacar Press, 2016), edited by Tony Medina and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (  New York: Scribner, 2016 ), edited by Jesmyn Ward,  this anthology expands the body of literature which pertains to race and institutionalized death  (militant, selective police brutality and criminalization) in our nation.  The classic guidebook for reading the formation of American subjectivities dealt with in these anthologies is Abdul R. JanMohamed's The Death-Bound-Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).  The importance of Oyewole's anthology, it might be argued, should be more seriously accounted for in the history of black writing than in the history of black literature.  The nuanced difference overshadows theory and semantics. One history exists in the panopticon of academic praxis; the other, in the totality where life has always mattered most painfully. This juxtaposition draws our attention to the simultaneous  motions of "history" and what matters as process and recording, to the profound difficulties of cognition and consciousness of being American.



Consider the consequences of reading Black Lives Have Always Mattered against a narrative "stereotyped" in 1859 by John F. Weishampel, Jr., bookseller and publisher in Baltimore, namely the work of Rev. Noah Davis, who committed himself to





"RAISE SUFFICIENT MEANS TO FREE HIS LAST TWO CHILDREN FROM SLAVERY./ Having already, within twelve years past, purchased himself, his wife, and five of his children, at a cost, altogether of over four thousand dollars"



because



"he now earnestly  desires a humane and christian public to AID HIM IN THE SALE OF THIS BOOK, for the purpose of finishing the task in which he has so long and anxiously labored."





One valuable consequence of such an act of reading is transformative recognition of why one hundred and fifty-eight years after the publication of Davis's narrative, all Americans are still purchasing their lives from something and somebody. History is eternally cruel.  As Abiodun Oyewole suggests in his introduction, Black Lives Have Always Mattered  "offers a thorough insight into the lives, dreams, aspirations, victories and defeats of black people in America. Considering the times we're living in these days, this anthology should serve as a mental compass for how we value ourselves and each other, and ways in how we manifest our destiny" (3).  If the anthology succeeds in convincing a number of readers that a humane and Christian public in the United States of America  neither exists nor  intends to help them, it shall have produced reasonable rather than thorough insight about what matters.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 25, 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trump the Teacher




TRUMP THE TEACHER



Permit a nanosecond of nonsense.



ASSERTION/THESIS:   Donald J. Trump is a great teacher.



ARGUMENT/SUPPORT:    As a president elected by the tyranny of the minority, Trump exercises his absolute right as the leader of an imaginary free world to articulate great slogans that leak from the bitch's brew of wisdom.  In Classroom America, he tweets.  He is aware that American citizens, regardless of their political beliefs, levels of intelligence, and ethnic postures, do pay attention to his words.  From the maculate vantage of his mind, he believes he is doing what the dollar bill motto "In God We Trust" compels him to do: teach the washed and unwashed masses.  To promote critical thinking, Trump illuminates each day how our nation has costumed its primitive barbarism as liberal democracy.



Only by reading and absorbing great amounts of insanity, Trump thunders, can our nation mend the errors of its ways and once again become a  great conservative democracy and resume its divinely ordained mandate to guide the history of the brave great world into a future.  These are hard times.  Abandon the dreadful audacity of hope.  Accept the hard facts, even if an hour or so later they prove to be factoids.  Do not squander the opportunity to be great again in dreams of the American Dream.  Become the women and men who have gumption, gall, and guts to spit into the eyes of nightmares. Be post-Enlightenment, post-tritely great.



Trump is the epitome of the great teacher.  He distills the essence of the messianic  in a great alembic of tough love.  His great students love him unconditionally.  They take great notes and promptly forget the history of what they think they have heard.  Trump exercises his absolute right as a member of the secular clergy to award each of his students a great grade at the end of class.



Trump is a great teacher because he is a great disciple of Machiavelli, one who demands that his students navigate the unreadable prose of Jacque Derrida's Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994) and other texts of dubious merit.  He promotes the deconstruction of deconstruction; he terrorizes his students to consult dictionaries and to analyze the histories of times past.  He inspires fear and great trembling and the great possibility that soon and very soon great Americans will abandon the fleshpots of Eden and do great work in the fascist labs of Hell.  Whether we like him or not, Trump is a great teacher who instructs us how to read the great progress of our lives with great and entertaining gusto.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            May 23, 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reading Dystopia


reading the dystopia wherein you live (revisited)



Since January 20, 2017, it is quite fashionable to talk about Donald J. Trump under the influence of reading dystopian or apocalyptic fictions.  There is the possibility that what fifty years ago was accepted as "the news" is now a blatant form of social fiction.  Broadcast from every ideological angle, what seems to be the news is replete with alternative facts and unacknowledged projections of imagination. There is a thin line between description of actuality and its reception in various media.  And many readers hop across the line without benefit of thought.  Reading is simply automatic, a reflex action



A few of us who stay out of touch with reality believe genre distinctions matter, and we attempt to discriminate such dystopian novels as Ishmael Reed's The Free-Lance Pallbearers and George Orwell's Animal Farm from tomorrow's news that happened yesterday.  Our reading is a mission impossible.  We are the news.  That is to say, we inhabit the dystopia we'd like to claim is external to us.



The problem seems to defy resolution.  We can, however, take pragmatic measures to minimize its paralyzing effects.  We can segregate dystopian fictions from descriptive treatises by using traditional conventions of reading.  The treatise purports to be objective and explanatory.  The fiction is a subjective guide  for analysis and interpretation. We gain a bit of comfort from thinking we know the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction.  Perhaps we do not, for we are characters in a "great" novel entitled  Acirema the Great.



Acirema the Great opens with cheers of victory on 11/9.  One disgruntled character mumbles that for the first time since Thomas Jefferson, a real President, died in 1826 and walked into American mythology ---the comfort zone occupied by every President until 2016, voters are being asked to make sense of a fake President who has tweeted himself out of mythology into actuality.  Does the signifying monkey speak his mind about pravda?  The nameless character opens John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2009) and reads the chapters on moral fiction and moral criticism.



He hits the motherboard.  Gardner proposed "that scrutiny of how people act and speak, why people feel precisely the things they do…lead to knowledge, sensitivity, and compassion.  In fiction we stand back, weigh things as we do not have time to do in life; and the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize" (105).  Aha.  A fake President is a great fiction, one who tweets that every noun is "great."  A  cartoon of real experience, Trump donates the gift of moral education to the American public.  If Gardner is to be believed, writers stand a better chance than do non-writers of knowing to what extent Trump is an unreliable facsimile.  Do ordinary citizens have to become writers to arm themselves for political action?  Do they have to write themselves out of slavery into freedom, out of the caves of Greek philosophy into the warmth of other suns?



A fake President is a liability, a politically reprehensible liability.  The whole world knows that, and the terrorists among us treat the false truth as a matter of fact.  Regardless of their political beliefs, American citizens agree that a fake President is a work of art, a moral fiction.  And they are condemned, the disgruntled character remarks to treat Gardner's conclusion about moral criticism with grains of pepper and doubt.  "It is precisely because art affirms values," Gardner asserted, "that it is important. The trouble with our present criticism is that criticism is, for the most part, not important.  It treats the only true magic in the world as though it were done with wires" (135).  Really?  Isn't the only true magic in the world done with computers?



Thus, the insertion of Trump within the act of reading Animal Farm or The Free-Lance Pallbearers involves one major error. We fail to account for the great agency of citizens, readers and non-readers alike, who use a fake President as the heroic symbol of their lesser selves.  We should try to avoid the error as much as we can. And if we do want to be effective in saving democracy from drowning in fascism, we may want to permit the fake President to have the absolute right to commit treason with immunity from impeachment inside and only inside Acirema the Great.



 Reginald Martin's remark about Reed's The Free-Lance Pallbearers in Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988) invites us to be cautious: "the contemporary indices [here the reference is 1967]in the course of the novel certainly changed the reference points of American novels up to that time"(42).



Fifty years later, the indices Reed rendered as fiction are still recognizable and operative in the dystopia of American political economy.  All changes.  All remains the same.



We must use  prudent skepticism as we critique how our fellow Americans act and speak, how they broadcast the news in the great and brave new world that was born on November 9, 2016. Above all, we must vote and force real politicians to represent real human beings not characters in dystopian or apocalyptic fictions. 



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 17, 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

James Baldwin and Metanarratives


 James Baldwin and Metanarratives



August 2, 2017 will the 93rd  anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth in Harlem Hospital.  December 1, 2017 will mark the 30th anniversary of his successful escape from the penitentiary of languages.  Between 1924 and 1987, Baldwin paid the price of his ticket, using his intelligence, his ethical and moral authority, his haunted eyes,  and his tragicomic imagination to create a legacy.   That legacy has been transformed by cultural theories and practices into  a gumbo. It mixes the flavors of extreme American neo-liberalism with the filé of an evangelical religiosity and a teaspoon of essential nationalism.  The resulting soup (which might not pass muster in a strict construction of Louisiana cuisine) is being advertised as the cure-all for the current, dominant American malaise.  Like any cure-all, the legacy has a telling effect, but it proves ultimately to be ineffectual.  To discover what is, without doubt, authentic in Baldwin's legacy (Henry James would have called it "the real thing"), we ought to go back to that other country whence came the ingredients.

It is as useful to think of the spaces we inhabit as locations in a panoptical prison as it is to consider those places as coordinates on a stage.  Actors and inmates have a shared existence with people who exercise obscene power and people who live and die unaccounted for in the scribbling of history. You and they and I are condemned and incarcerated by bondage, enslavement.  Had James Baldwin not recognized as much, he might never have said to Quincy Troupe  

                It's difficult to be a legend.  It's hard for me to recognize me.  You spend a lot of time trying to                 avoid it. A lot of the time I've been through so many of the same experiences Miles has gone        through.  It's really something, to be a legend, unbearable.  I could see it had happened to Miles.               Again, it's unbearable, the way the world treats you is unbearable, and especially if you're black.             (189)

[Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989]

 As Baldwin knew by way flesh and blood experiences and moral consciousness, or quickly learned after he left the United States for Europe in 1948, if we want sanctuary  ----well, we have to work and create our own versions of damnation/ salvation by virtue of cognition and perception.

We produce metanarratives (narratives about narratives) as we read Baldwin's fictions and essays, witness a production of one of his plays, and view documentaries about his life or videos of his interviews and speeches.  We normally don't talk about metanarratives.  We talk with other people about our reactions something Baldwin wrote or how his body language and use of his eyes drew more than casual notice to what he was saying.  To speak of our reactions as metanarratives is to disturb the commonplace, to highlight that our reactions to artists and their works belong to special categories of feeling and thinking.  Growth of interest in Baldwin derives, in part, from jouissance.

Interest in Baldwin has increased remarkably since 2000, particularly in efforts to appropriate his legacy more for cultural discussion than for political analysis, i.e. rewriting histories of the Civil Rights Movement.  We come to a high point in 2015 with Toni Morrison's assertive  blurb for Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015): "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.  Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates."  Morrison oiled the machinery for redemptive jouissance, made it less creaky.  The newer appreciations for Baldwin were preceded by a broadening of academic criticism.  There is a slight danger, Douglas Field noted in All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), "that some criticism veers toward a dissipated picture of Baldwin as a writer who is 'post-categorical' and without any cohesion" (145).  For Field, the criticism assigns Baldwin to an "uncertain place in American literature"(146).  The best and brightest American writers inhabit that place where their portraits are not dissipated and their legacies pulsate in defiance of being turned into museum objects.  Cultural memory of Baldwin is equipment for living. It can be enhanced by reading the online, open access James Baldwin Review 

I offer two examples of  metanarratives-in-progress.

RAOUL PECK'S BALDWIN



The book is short  --- 25 pages of introductory material + 109 pages of text and images + 1 blank verso + 2 pages of CREDITS +1 page of BIBLIOGRAPHY + 1 blank verso +  1 page of PERMISSIONS +1 blank verso +2 pages listing ILLUSTRATIONS   ---   a total of 143 pages to be read at one sitting.



Peck, Raoul, ed. I Am Not Your Negro: From Texts by James Baldwin.  New York: Vintage International, 2017.



As the companion for Peck's film I Am Not Your Negro (2016), the book is a  mosaic of Baldwin's unfinished "Notes Toward Remember This House, " snippets from other works by Baldwin, images and quotations from television and film,  and slivers of song lyrics.



One does not read the mosaic.  One consumes it.   Consumption is contingent on whether one begins that task   before or after viewing the film.  Dealing with the book before seeing the film prepares one to listen to Baldwin's voice, Samuel Jackson's narration, and other archived sounds with more than usual attention and to attend with passionate interest to the film's visual rhetoric. Using the book after witnessing the film helps one to check nuances that one's eyes and ears missed or misinterpreted in the darkened cave of a cinema.  These diverging affective and efferent experiences reveal much about the processing of past and contemporary information, much about how one's mind navigates sight and sound.  How one contextualizes Peck's manipulation of Baldwin's legacy.



Witnessing is all.  In the cliché-saturated ambience of "# Matters,"  moral judgment is a vexed affair. That is to say the circumstances under which one witnesses Peck's reconstructive witnessing of Baldwin's unfinished effort to locate the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  matters greatly.  One's age, ethnic identity, citizenship, and depth of interest in the conditions of being human are crucial in finding meaning and significance in the film and book versions of I Am Not Your Negro.  They determine, to paraphrase Peck, whether it is possible to have "a deep and intimate personal reflection on [one's] own political and cultural mythology, [one's] own experiences of racism and intellectual violence" (xi).



When a friend suggested we should set up a panel discussion of I Am Not Your Negro after viewing the film,   I objected.  The only panels that have practical legitimacy, as far as I am concerned, are those constituted by people who belong temporarily to a community of seeing and hearing at one time and in one place.  Members of such a nonce community should tell one another, not be told by a panel of critics and experts,  what is important about what and how  the film galvanized them to think and to feel, and perhaps to vow to do.   Raoul Peck's commendable interventions by way of film and book demand multiple and quite diverse enactments of community, an investment in being human that the first quarter of the 21st century tries daily to assassinate.  James Baldwin's gift of brutal confrontation demands nothing more and nothing less if the world's population is to defeat all enemies by saying "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO" and acting accordingly.



KAREN THORSEN'S AND DOUGLAS DEMPSEY'S  BALDWIN



Discussion Notes:



Ashé Cultural Arts Center   6:00 p.m., May 11, 2017



Karen Thorsen, director & co-writer

Douglas Dempsy, co-writer



James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket



Length of film ---1 hour, 27 minutes

PBS American Masters ---14 August 1989



James Baldwin (2 August 1924-1 December 1987)



We have a great deal to watch, to listen to, to think about, to discuss.







Between May 9th  and  12th , the digital restoration of James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket was screened at three locations in New Orleans ---Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, The Old US Mint, and Ashé Cultural Arts Center.  The James Baldwin Project (access   jamesbaldwinproject.org ) has sponsored screenings at many sites across the United States. 



The film aired for the first time on August 14, 1989 as part of the PBS American Masters series.  Now the citizens of New Orleans had an opportunity to produce their metanarratives through conversations after each screening with musicians, community people, National Park Service rangers, and the filmmakers Karen Thorsen and Douglas Dempsey.  At Ashé, Monica McIntyre's lyrics and music established a mood for viewing the documentary  ------I'm thinking of Cassandra Wilson's innovative performances for no apparent reason as I listen to McIntyre.  For one hour and twenty-seven minutes, we sat enthralled by the film.  We sat transfixed as the devil found work.  I moderated the conversation that followed.



Most of the metanarratives were about feelings ----amazement that the film was as relevant to the Age of Trump as it had been to the final years of the Cold War; testimony that the film induced a state of balance (a catharsis) grating against an assertion that the film galvanized the amoeboid concerns of #Black Lives Matter; recommendations that the film be part of a national conversation, that it be used in public schools and community spaces to promote face-to-face discussions; concern that social networking magnifies emotion and diminishes critical thinking about social problems;  pointed questions for Thorsen about the genesis and making of the film.



There was  my own "losing it" by way of giving a mini-lecture on Baldwin's prophetic moral authority.  Moderators ought not lecture; they should manage.  My memory of having had a late night conversation with Baldwin in the 1980s undermined my sticking to the script, but my transgression had a purpose.  I wanted my fellow citizens to know that the price of our tickets was further remembering of history (the process and the stories)  and  contextualizing the film by using our individual sociocultural literacies, of constructing metanarratives of moral ambiguity.  I wanted them to reconsider the gravity of Baldwin's having shaped his legacy and his legend within the narrow space of a black-white American social binary, minimizing how the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Asian immigrants actually fit into the American past, present, and promised future.  My metanarrative focused most on Baldwin's helping us to know why, at least for the so-called Western sector of humanity, the implacable anger of the Old Testament God is more important than the bromides of Christian love that flavor Baldwin's splendid legacy.



I Am Not Your Negro challenges and is challenged by James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.  But that is my opinion.  Watch both of the films.  Think.  Generate your own metanarrative.





Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 16, 2017

Sunday, May 14, 2017

THE DECARCERATION OF BLACK AMERICA


THE DECARCERATION OF BLACK AMERICA: NOTES TO A NATIVE SON   





A Preface



Q: Should one give critical attention to a stylistically and rhetorically flawed book by a self-proclaimed left-wing Conservative?



A: Yes.



Q:  Why?



A:  If the book tries to examine reasons for "mass incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" from a black Republican or independently conservative  point of view, it merits attention rather than self-righteous silence.  The book's failure to meet the intellectual  standards established in The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life (New York: Atria Books, 2008), edited by Kevin Powell, and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow ( New York: The New Press, 2010) is instructive.  A negative touchstone has value.  Dealing with that touchstone by way of constructive criticism can be a habit of the heart.



Q:  Are you guilty of special pleading because the author of the book is African American?



A.  Yes, very definitely.  Attention to an imperfect example of black socio-cultural analysis as black writing is consonant with the broad aims of the Project on the History of Black Writing (PHBW). The project is catholic.



Q:  Do you dare to skate on the thin ice of what you believe to be honest?  Would you give equal attention to a flawed book by a Caucasian, a Chinese American, or a Mohawk?



A:  Yes.  I inhale and exhale the miasma of American dilemmas and nightmares without fear.  My motives, however,  for criticizing a book by a non-Black thinker would be remote from criticizing Daryl Hubbard's The Decarceration of Black America: Systemic Analyses and Strategic Plans for Our Future (Jackson, TN: Black Consciousness Series, 2017).  ISBN   2370000399625.





A Body



Daryl Hubbad is the City Court Clerk for the City of Jackson, Tennessee.  As an elected official, he sees "firsthand the damning effect that America's criminal justice labyrinth has on the poor and ignorant" (149), and as a concerned citizen he has intervened by writing a book. Official duties allow him to gather information, to produce ideas which can be used in analyses of the history and dynamics of incarceration in America.  Apparently, he has read widely.  His book contains quotations from and/or references to many people ---Carter G. Woodson, Frances Cress Welsing,  Fanon, Walter Mosley, Frederick Douglass, Gore Vidal, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Samuel Yette, Sista Souljah, David Walker, Michelle Alexander, John Potash, James Baldwin,  and a dozen or so others.  His excessive quoting, without providing the appropriate documentation, begets a devastating question: Has he read wisely? Given his indebtedness to Michelle Alexander, has he examined why her sentences are effective and her paragraphs are coherent and how skillfully she avoids inadvertent plagiarism?  Has he given up a lunch hour to read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, a book that helps many a writer to avoid egregious errors?  And given his hope that readers will find his book "a sort of catalyst for a mental and social revolution in the country, bearing in mind that you cannot spell revolution with the letters  L  O  V  E "(13), does he know what argumentum ad amicitiam is?



His book is a catalyst, but it may be one that decimates his two-fold purpose:



1.  To sound an alarm akin to Paul Revere's ride to black folk to alert them that the prisons are coming.

2.   To remind white folk that too many years of colonialism, racism, dehumanization, discrimination,            

lynching, violence, prejudice and apartheid have traumatized Black America, but despite all of these seen and unseen forces, our people have somehow managed to survive and find ways to transcend such a terrible beginning in this country. (7-8)



He has too many objectives and too little mastery of the art of writing to fulfill them persuasively.  He wants to deal with the crisis of incarceration "in a profound and intellectual fashion" and to amplify a main theme of "how to keep our young people from not only continuing to murder each other, but to also keep them educated and out of the grips of our current prison industrial complex" (12).  He sketches attractive intentions for his eight chapters.  He promises to (1) "examine an American educational system that has allowed the malaise of mass incarceration and senseless homicide to metastasize…"; (2) "have an honest talk with our young  black men" about how "they have been hoodwinked and bamboozled…."; (3) "will attempt to have an open conversation with our young women about why ghetto behaviors can contribute to the death and incarceration of their own children"; (4) "take an in-depth look at America's criminal justice system…"; (5) deal "with white privilege" and try to explain "how the Black Lives Matter movement also needs to look in the mirror"; (6) show "in detail how the U.S. government has appeared to derail the development of true black leadership"; (7) provide "an essential reading list for all black people; (8) ask "a critical question that will hopefully serve as a road map showing how we can escape from our current cultural morass." (12-13)  When a writer attempts to accomplish mission impossible, she or he paves a highway to disappointment.  She or he illuminates why black writing (whether it is vernacular or academic) that is not well-crafted deserves severe criticism. In our tradition, the tough love of criticism produces anger and resentment, stage one in the never ending process of trying to write.



A Tentative Conclusion



Daryl Hubbard needs help.  A single negative review doesn't help him enough, and a single positive review of The Decarceration of Black America would be a regrettable disservice.  If no workshop for established and emerging writers exists in Jackson, Tennessee, one needs to be established posthaste. It is widely but not universally recognized that a thinker who possesses Hubbard's insights can only become a good writer by reading wisely, sharing ideas and samples of writing with kindred spirits (face-to-face not by email or snail mail), getting critical feedback, and then returning to a room of his own to woodshed like a serious jazz musician.  Daryl Hubbard needs help of the kind he proposes to give to young women and men: real-time conversations that truly matter.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 14, 2017

Saturday, May 6, 2017

John Coltrane and Asili Ya Nadhiri


COLTRANE AND NADHIRI



                 It might be argued that Langston Hughes's Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971  ) can make readers more attentive to combinations of words and music and to the issues of response and  interpretation broached in Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (New York: William Morrow, 1973). More recent critical discussions of musical and verbal aspects of African American poetry extend  the thinking Henderson initiated, but they do not displace the centrality of his formations in the development of theoretical discourses.  We have yet to sufficiently  critique his insights about how  "mascon" (a massive concentration of Black experiential energy) informed African science and currently informs "the meaning of Black speech, Black song, and Black Poetry" (44).  Henderson's considerations of origins play nicely against the laughing barrel, signifying humor of Hughes's liner note entitled "Jazztet Muted":

                Because grandma lost her apron with all the answers in her pocket (perhaps consumed by fire)              certain grand- and great-grandsons play music burning like dry ice against the ear.  Forcing cries            of succor from its own unheard completion  ---  not resolved by Charlie Parker  ---  can we look              to monk or Monk?  Or let it rest with Eric Dolphy? (92)

  For Hughes's blues-jazz composition , Dolphy, Monk, Ornette Coleman, Dizzy, Duke, Ella, Miss Nina, Carmen, and Hawkins revolve in the orbit of Charlie Yardbird  Parker, but John Coltrane (1926-1967) remains unnamed (not called for or evoked) "in the quarter of the Negroes/where black shadows move like shadows"(77); the absence of Coltrane may be a cultural comment rather than an oversight.  The tacit comment, of course, signals the limits in Hughes's imagination of the space that consciousness of theoretical science should occupy.  When Hughes wrote Ask Your Mama, a brilliant example of what jazz poetry can be, Coltrane had yet to be embraced by many black music aficionados with a love supreme;  a handful of Coltrane's fellow musicians might have overtly appreciated his sustained interest in physics, although good musicians intuit physics in their  improvising.

                The embrace did manifest itself , three years after Coltrane's death, with the publication of Michael S. Harper's  Dear John, Dear Coltrane (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970), as seminal a work as Ask Your Mama.  Joyce Pettis has noted that in Harper's collection we can find "a force crystallizes and spirals in an unanticipated form.  John Coltrane is this force, negating violence and death through his inimitable music and answering hate with a love supreme through which he enables the survival of others more than himself" (African American Poets: Lives, Works, and Sources.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.  145.  Such books as Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989) and Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2010), edited by Chris DeVito, and John Scheinfeld's  documentary CHASING TRANE (2017) signal a need to study Coltrane as more than a reference in African American poetry.   Harper gave birth to brightness.  Coltrane and his music radiate in the realm of jazz poetry.  The import of such radiance is explored in Stephan Alexander's The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structures of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

                Just as Coltrane was in the shadows of attention in Ask Your Mama,  Asili Ya Nadhiri's innovative poetry (tonal drawings in poetic form) remains in the dim shades of black literary history and is known mainly by those who read his website  (http://www. nadhiriwrites.com) or one of his postings on Facebook, or who have read his chapbook the inner recesses of an abandoning life (2004) and listened to the 39 tracks on its appended CD.   The reason may be that his poems do not appear in widely circulated journals and anthologies.  He is mentioned in neither of the influential anthologies of innovative poetry edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey, Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006) and What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015).  A single poem, "hustling our absurdings in place," appears in Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry (Savannah: Turner Mayfield Publishing, 2014), edited by Ja A. Jahannes.  Some Chinese readers know of his work from Wang Zuyou's "Tonal Drawings Written in Poetic Form? --An Interview with Asili Ya Nadhiri." Foreign Literature Studies 37.5 (October 2015): 1-9, or from my lecture on his poetry at Central China Normal University in September 2011.  There I argued that (1)  Nadhir’s poems exploit transitions and transformations in new representations (words) to describe the experience of time and (2) ) his work is a continuing effort to forge a new performance genre that integrates theme and thought (the word, poem, text) with musicality (activation of the poem in highly rhythmic renderings that may or may not involve instrumental music) and the visual (typography). His uniqueness is not found on the page; it must be discovered by pondering the significance of his creative process, his aesthetic. In that lecture are seeds that may eventually become an essay on tonal drawings as innovations.

                Of course, Nadhiri is but one of hundreds of unsung innovative American poets.  His affinity with jazz musicians, including Coltrane, and his sustained thinking about the explanatory limits of physics  warrant our giving more attention to the body of his work and, thereby,  expanding literary histories.  So too do the  parallels in his poetics with, in the words of T. J. Anderson III, an ethnomusical tradition "that uses several of the standard musical tools of jazz to craft a work that is distinctly individual while also voicing the collective consciousness of the African diaspora" (Notes to Make the Sound Come Right 174).  The second stanza of Nadhiri's recently issued tonal drawing  "so hastily demising" brings the right sound to the ear :

imploding echoes are snoring in the belly
of all our rapaciously ajudicating verdicts
our fawning marble-ling institutions
and their yawning substitutions
and common disdaining ablutionings
are desperately devouring each other
for one another’s cracked cup
of some noma-nating brew
on and on and on and on
and always we acting like
this is something brand new

Copyright © 2017 Asili Ya Nadhiri



Keeping in mind Stephen Henderson's critical categories of theme, structure and saturation, we might use this stanza to begin  inquiry  about points of origin in science and music  relevant to Nadhiri's creation of a new genre; more precisely, we  might  ask crucial questions  about African American  creative processes which delineate a genre of being and thinking as works of art.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            May 6, 2017