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"Screamers" is very different from, for example, the Cecil Taylor poem, "Let Me 'Splain It To You."

See, that poem is not going to be appreciated unless you hear me perform it. Invariably after I perform

the piece, somebody wants to see what it looks like on the page because they can't believe that it is written out.



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Interview with Award Winning Neo-Griot

Kalamu ya Salaam


An Opening Statement: Before I begin my questions on your manuscript "Nia: Haiku, Sonnets, Sun Songs," I must tell you that it is the most thorough-going, enjoyable collection of poems that I have ever had the pleasure to read--from haiku, to sonnet, to sun song, however numerous, pulls the reader through to the very end. One does not want to lay aside this marvelous work.

I did not find one poem in the whole that was not well-crafted and well thought through from word choice, to line, to period or absence there of. Moreover, it is a work, I feel, that is unlike that of some contemporary poets that is guaranteed to make your head hurt, or mystifies or astounds for mere effect, turning one to stone.

On the contrary, "Nia" is a collection of poems that revivifies the reader, makes one better than one thought one could be. It encourages and invites one to explore the neglected self, demonstrates that this could be a better world than the one we generally inhabit. I encourage you to publish it in book form so that it can receive a deserving reception and the awards that it deserves, including the Pulitzer. In short, "Nia" is well done.

Rudy: I'd like to begin with the poem "Screamers," a poem dedicated to Amiri Baraka. Nine pages long. It is a tour de force, a poem that begs to be orated, to be spoken out aloud before great numbers of people.

It is a kind of rapping without losing poignant sense, providing instructive discourse and direction; in addition sweet singing and a glorifying of people and personhood; all kinds of hip phrasing interspersed & jamming rhythms that move the overall statement forward toward commitment and conviction. The poem is a gigantic diamond in the rough, but all the more beautiful and magnificence because of its immensity and roughness.

"Screamers" creates new language for revolutionary communication & introspection, often with old words in new settings with new revelation of being and existing in the world, e.g., "chortling in the throes of orgasm," "illtelligently," "accommodationist versifying," "capitalism's mutation into obsolescence obsession/ and consumer cannibalism," and  "we try to unify all us selves in a togethered oneness," "In this mad time crisis emergency red full of black folk killing."

With such a barrage of language creativity--including rhyme, alliteration, the jamming together of a series of nouns held together by a single adjective--are you afraid you might be misunderstood, that people might not be able to read your poems as you intended? Could you also comment how long it took you to put together such a masterful piece and have you ever attempted to perform it before an audience? One more item about "Screamers," what is the meaning of the word "ashe," which you use as a call and response word.

Kalamu: Ashe=may it be/it will come into existence (or some variation thereof depending on your reference source). Yeah, it's a long piece. Takes a little over twenty minutes to perform. I don't read it often because generally I wouldn't have the time to do anything else, that's even if there was time to do Screamers. But it's cool. I pace myself. It's not the first long poem I've written and performed, although it is one of the longest.

As for writing "Screamers"--it's dedicated to Amiri Baraka. The title comes from a short story about musicians and the effects of the music that Amiri wrote. I first saw Amiri's story in the sixties. So there is that homage tie-in in terms of the literal title and in terms of using the music as a constant reference. Second, I wanted to write a piece that addressed revolutionary aesthetics. I had already written another poem about poetry in general, "The Call of the Wild."

Third, I wanted to address some topical issues that were happening at the time but I wanted to do it in such a way that the poem would hold its relevancy four, five, ten or more years later. I know what and who the references are throughout the poem, but I don't think most people will catch all of them, which is ok. Knowing the details of each reference is not necessary to appreciate the point(s) of the poem.

How fast did I write it? How long did it take? Well that was actually a fairly quick poem. Had it done within a week. First read it at Baraka's 60th birthday party in the theatre space in his basement. Had it on my old apple laptop and read directly from the computer.

As for as language models, there are a bunch of them: 1. there is Amiri's sarcasm, which I tried to emulate in a couple of places; 2. there is Coltrane's "Chasin' the Trane" solo, that piling up of notes on top of notes--that's what you were referring to about a string of nouns with only one adjective, 3. there is the Baptist preacher on Sunday exhorting the congregation--Ashe replaces Amen, and I actually get the audience to respond, 4. there is quite a bit of reading I have been doing on African philosophy, and 5. there is the desire to write a straight up polemical poem that is relentless, and, of course, that took me to the oratory techniques of Malcolm X.

As for whether it will be misunderstood. Yeah and no. Yes, some people will not dig it. No, "Screamers" is not something that is undiggable, or something that requires me to read it in order for it to be understood. "Screamers" is very different from, for example, the Cecil Taylor poem, "Let Me 'Splain It To You." See, that poem is not going to be appreciated unless you hear me perform it. Invariably after I perform the piece, somebody wants to see what it looks like on the page because they can't believe that it is written out. Well the lyrics are written out, the music is in me and in the audience. I did it at the inaugural 2001 Calabash festival in Jamaica, and had the whole tent singing along in counterpoint.

One side of the audience was doing one phrase, the bass line indicated by my left hand, and the other side of the audience was doing a different phrase, the treble indicated by my right hand, and while they did that, I dropped lyrics on top. It happened sort of spontaneously. As I was reading, I could feel the audience responding to the rhythms. I called out a phrase and they picked it up, and instantly I said, let me see what I can do with this--this process took less than seconds cause I was reciting the poem as I was finding ways to arrange the poem and include the audience. But even when there is very little call and response from the audience, even then the piece is what I call a monster-piece. I usually do it last or as an encore because afterwards, I'm pooped. It takes so much energy. I also have a long blues poem that takes about twenty minutes, in fact that one is on my cd. All of which is to say, that this long poem thing is something I have been working on for decades, and I think I am getting better and better at it.

Anyway, "Screamers" is easy to understand and is written so that it explains and breaks down political concepts--that is what a polemic is supposed to do. It is also an attack piece, a spear, a bullet, a bomb against the enemy and collaborators with the enemy. So, no, I am not afraid it will be misunderstood or not appreciated by Black audiences and others who are in tune with our culture.

Finally, you know, it's not about me. No matter how good I get, invariably there is somebody in the audience that is gooder, or hipper than me, somebody who understands exactly what I'm doing plus a whole lot more. I'm trying to catch up to the musicians and keep up with our people. I mean that. I know what I do is unique, but I also know that I am a product of our people, a product of our culture and that no matter how grand I may get, I am never grander than the source. Actually, at my best I am simply a refinement of the grandness of our culture--refinement in the sense of a specific extract, in the sense of a diamond that has been cut and polished, my artistry is the cutting and polishing, not the diamond itself. The diamond is our culture and our people.

Rudy: In all the poems in "Nia" I have noted no sadness, no despair, cynically critical of how our people deal with their existence. In all your poems you seem so unafraid of life. Some writers have been known to say that they write for themselves. Is that true for you?

It seem to me, rather, that you are in many ways, especially in "Screamers,"  like a DJ at his boards--spinning, scratching, chanting, rhyming, directing the traffic of words and sounds--but doing it all at a much more conscious and higher level of intellection and rigor? Am I exaggerating too much here? What responsibility do poets have to speak about the conditions under which we live? You have this line in "Screamers": "poet/musician/be grander the western canon/be the sniper shooting out the eyes of the enemy colored artillerers."

Kalamu: Well, you know, I write a range of material. Some of it, I write just out of my own desire to write for whatever reason. Sometimes it's because I'm troubled by something or delighted by something. Other times I write strictly for political reasons. I also write some pieces as a job, a commission, or because someone requested a certain piece and I was willing to oblige. There is no one reason that fits all occasions.

If you think I'm bad, you ought to hear Kamau Brathwaite and Amiri Baraka, especially Kamau. I'm a match, they are torches, beacons when it comes to long poems grounded in Black culture.

As for a writer's responsibility, again we need to make a distinction. The general responsibility of the writer is to write. The specific responsibility of the revolutionary writer is to convince our audience that the making of revolution is both necessary and inevitable. Being a revolutionary writer is a voluntary task--no draftees. I don't think every writer has to, should, or is even capable of being a revolutionary writer. So, no, I am neither prescriptive nor proscriptive about what writers in general should or should not be writing. I am just trying to be an example of what I believe and move on from there.

Rudy: You make use of what I would call a kind of stream of consciousness technique in your writing. How does it operate in your use & what problems can ensue by its use in poetry?

Kalamu: I'm not sure I can accurately answer that question. I don't think about it. I have been writing this way for a long, long time. I work on specific techniques. I remember really, really digging James Baldwin and those long-ass sentences he would string together and they would be so clear and logical and at the same time so full of feeling. I guess I wanted to write like that, but initially I approached it from a strictly imitating stand point. Then I ran into LeRoi Jones' prose--strictly from a writing perspective, I am more influenced by his prose than by his poetry. I say, "LeRoi Jones," because I was reading and being influenced by his work before he became Amiri Baraka. I used to read his short fiction collection, Tales, and his book of essays, Home. I would read and re-read that stuff. Essays like "Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall" stories like "Answers In Progress." It just seemed to me to be the freest writing that felt like me. I mean James Joyce did some wild stuff but that didn't feel Black to me. LeRoi was Black. and Free. Plus, I was reading his music criticism, liner notes and columns, and getting into the music, especially absorbing the avant garde.

Ultimately, it was the music that both freed me up and grounded me in the culture. See you couldn't fully understand Trane if you didn't know, for example, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Sidney Bechet, and once you got to know those folk then you could see where you could do something else, a something else that encompassed their contributions but had your own individual stamp. I remember checking out pianist Don Pullen. Now, to some people, Pullen and Cecil Taylor sound just alike, but if you know their work, there are major differences. They both play free and they both can play inside, but they have different techniques, different approaches. Once I understood that, then I understood I could do the same thing with words, catch that freedom.

Plus, with Pullen there was this commitment. I remember after he played one set, I went over to the piano and there was blood on the keys. He literally played the piano with both sides of his hands, rolling his knuckles across the keys, and, of course, the keys cut his flesh, and he bled, but damn, the music he made. It was unbelievable. Pullen taught me if I wanted to go all the way out there I had to bleed, I had to make that kind of commitment.

The key was building up my chops. I needed a strong vocabulary--I know a lot more words than I use, but I need that knowledge in order to effectively "not use" all the words I know. I mean, because I know the changes, I can "not play the changes" without getting lost. The second part is keeping a strong rhythm, that is in the sound of the work. When I recite my stuff out loud, it swings. It better, unless I'm intentionally not swinging, intentionally doing something else. But in general that rhythm thing has to be all up in it, and rhythm much more than rhyme, although I use rhyme to emphasize rhythm.

For me rhyme is like drum accents with the left hand rather than a steady four/four on the floor with the bass drum or backbeat on the snare, or two and four foot-pat on the sock cymbal. And by the way, whether someone fully understands the drum kit analogy, is not as important as that they get I am using music as a way to get to a style of writing, a style which flows and is elastic, and just spins on and on, and out and over, and up under, and you can talk about anything, everything, just as long as you keep that rhythm thing happening, like what I am doing right now, without a period anywhere in sight, shit, if I wanted to, I could just write with commas and line breaks, don't even need no period, dig?

So, I understand what you mean when you say stream of consciousness, in fact, I have often used the same reference, but, now that you got me thinking about it more deeply, more specifically, I think I would say I am using a jazz aesthetic as the foundation for my prose style, and, of course, the poetry is just a more refined way of using the basic prose elements, well, not necessarily "refined," as much as stylized approach, yeah, I think that is what poetry is, a stylization of language both oral and written, and in the written format it gets black and blacker when the cultural references, at least in the African American context, are grounded in the music.

Rudy: When was it in your poetry writing that you stopped just writing, writing poems to perform, and consciously began an emphasis on textual design? Or has this trait always been there?

Kalamu: Well, I started out doing both. One of my earliest poems, "A Street Corner," is an oral piece and at the same time I was writing pieces for the page. Remember for a minute I was checking out e.e. cummings. In fact, when I was in college the first year out of high school, I wrote a whole series of poems called "Mavi Gok" which meant "Blue Sky" in Turkish. I was going out with this Turkish woman, Esim Bozoklar for something like four or five months. But then I dropped out of school. Anyway, all of those poems were made for the page. So, I would say I have always done both, always appreciated both.

Rudy: From all reports, Alvin "Red" Tyler, whose horn and personality you immortalized in "Have You Ever Been a Saxophone," was a great artist. Why have so few heard him? Why is that New Orleans poets and other artists--of course, there are a few exceptions--don't seem to gain national appeal and recognition?

Kalamu: When you consider that Louis Armstrong brought in the 20th century and Wynton Marsalis closed out the 20th century, and there was all that New Orleans stuff in between, it doesn't seem that we are overlooked. But, I understand what you are asking. There is so much more than what people generally hear about. Well, I call it the happiness syndrome. The reason happy people don't make much profound art is because happiness is about pleasure, you be busy enjoying being happy. Happiness does not lead anyone to question stuff. Sadness, suffering and struggle, on the other hand, cause you to question, if no more than to ask: why me, what did I do to be so . . .? You know what I mean?

Well, New Orleans is a happy place. We got more pleasure down here than a little bit, and as a result, we spend a lot of time having a good time, so why leave and when you do leave, you find out there are more opportunities in other places, more money, more "fine" arts, but no place else in the country is, for the general population, as pleasurable as New Orleans. Or, like I wrote in an article on cities in the Utne Reader: In New Orleans we literally have gas stations that serve better food than fine restaurants in other places. I mean, you want some good eating, go to Triangle on St. Bernard and Broad, it's a gas station with a kitchen inside.

Of course, all this pleasure is fattening, makes you lazy and not inclined to do anything rigorous. Every up, got a down. So, I believe, a lot of New Orleans people just don't want to leave home, and when they do leave home they get homesick, or, as both Pops (Louis Armstrong) and Wynton demonstrated, you can't get there from here. You've got to leave home to become a hometown hero. Also, there is no business/economic infrastructure of national substance in New Orleans. Public education is abysmal--but we can party our asses off.

So we have this strong, strong artistic culture but there is no political, economic or educational support. I mean even with over 11 colleges and universities in New Orleans we don't have a first rate bookstore in the city limits--the two Barnes & Nobles, and the Borders are all located outside the city limits.

Rudy: Being one with your work, your instrument of expression, and your audience is a theme in the Red Tyler poem. Would you consider this trait the true essence of artistry?

Kalamu: No. Oneness with the audience is a reflection of a particular aesthetic. But that aesthetic is not the only valid aesthetic.

Rudy: In the poem "GHOSTS," my impression is that you started with a couple of images--a smile and hairline--, that is, three lines of poetry, and from there you began an extended improvisation, as a musician might with a melody or a chord of music. Do you recall the writing of this particular poem?

Kalamu: Truthfully, I don't recall the specific writing of the poem, but I do know it is a Sonny Rollins/Joe Henderson theme/variation structure. Sonny because he was a master at taking a phrase and doing variations, and Joe because he did what Sonny did but he also had this fantastic tone from the very bottom to the top of his horn. I heard a certain kind of wailing in my inner ear when I wrote that poem. Now, I usually only recite it with the WordBand when I have Carl LeBlanc pushing his guitar through a synthesizer. That piece will literally scare people: the sounds, the concepts, the disorientation that we produce, the challenges to rational thought.

Rudy: A bit of a technical interlude. What is the significance of the forward slash (/ ) in a poetic line? Is it a vocal marker for the reader of the poem of a kind of vocal stop or pause? Can such a device be overused or can the use be modified by other means as in your line in which you string out nouns that are controlled by a single adjective, e.g. "mad time crisis emergency."

Kalamu: Again, this is not deep. The forward slash is a hold over from writing on the typewriter, and stuff we used to do a lot of in the sixties. Of course, I have a lot more control of the technique now, but that's all it is.

Rudy: In a five-sectioned poem for Tom Dent-- "my father is dead, again."--which you classify as a "sun song," the first section is dominated by short two line stanzas, the stanzas never lengthen however to more than six in the other sections while the lines remain short. My immediate impression in reading the first section was that there is an elegance here of line and language. Was this a conscious intent by structural and textual means to characterize Tom? Or am I reading too much into the technical aspects of this very lovely poem?

Kalamu: I don't know. I like using couplets, especially linked couplets. I can do that. Sometimes when I start writing from an idea or a feeling, I don't start with a structure, so as I start putting the words down, whatever I put down suggests a number of possibilities and then I see what works. I use couplets a lot when I am trying to get a certain density, a conciseness that is at the same time lyrical.

Rudy: You have this startling line in "exit left": "I am almost through" and you end that poem "I am not afraid to die." Do you think those our age have any especial way of dealing with questions of death that is differently from past or present generations? How much does your own legacy as a writer mean to you? Or do you think in those terms at all?

Kalamu: Oh, who knows. I can not know my legacy because others judge your legacy. I know I am not afraid of death. I know I have been in deadly situations and not blinked. I know there have been two or three times when I was not sure I was going to come out of the situation alive. And I know that all of that has not made me cautious, or deterred me from doing what I want to do. I think the worst thing we can do is try and judge ourselves, judge what we mean to others, what our importance is.

Let me give you a little example: Frank Yerby. At one time, brother man was one of the best selling romance novelists of his time period. Today, I hardly ever hear his name mentioned and haven't seen a reference to his writing in a long time. When he was hot, I'm sure people thought his legacy was going to be huge, but it has not turned out that way. Another example: Jean Toomer's Cane. When the book first came out it had mixed reviews and was a popular flop. Ditto Hurston's There Eyes Were Watching God. We can't accurately judge ourselves. We just have to do the best work we can and hope that what we do is of some value to others. That's why I am extremely grateful when I get positive feedback from people in the street, people who have no vested interest in me or literature per se. They are not selling anything, not trying to make a name as a critic, or professor, or publisher. Just ordinary people who say: hey, thanks, your work means a lot to me.

Rudy: You have a very coherent philosophical (anthropological/ontological) view that is evident in all of the poems you have in "Nia." It is outside of any theological view in which I am familiar, though it involves something akin to ancestor worship (clearly evident in the poem for Tom Dent) and a spiritualized materialist view of the universe. This latter aspect seems evident in "FORCES OF NATURE: HOPE SONG."

What is the origin of this view that you have of man's spiritual nature, devoid of the usually theological perspectives found in the three great world religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, which, I recall, you view as the younger religious perspectives of man? I have also observed the frequent use of the Hindu/Buddhist term karma. So I assume you have drawn your personal religio-spiritual perspective from a number of sources and continents.

Finally, I am at times reminded of Wallace Stevens. who writes of the earth speaking to mankind through notes played on the guitar. Could you comment on these impressions?

Kalamu: The Wallace Stevens reference means nothing to me. I have not read much of his work, and what I did read didn't move me. I mean, I might agree or disagree with some of it on an intellectual level, but the mind alone is not enough for me to enjoy the work. I also have to feel the work. Or as we say in New Orleans when pronouncing our deepest convictions, "Me, myself, I feel to believe" so-and-so or such-and-such.

You said three "great" world religions. I would say three "dominant and dominating" world religions.

I'm not so sure my views are coherent. I try to be consistent in my development, try to build on everything in the past as I move forward into the future, but I would be the last to claim a "coherent philosophy." I'm too busy investigating, experimenting, trying out this, attempting to do that. As far as I'm concerned, it's never finished, there is always something more to do. Here, I guess, I should quote, Karenga: "we should always remember we can always do more."

I got to karma the way many others did, through Pharaoh Sanders, through the music, through Coltrane's record "Om," which I used to listen to in the dark, late at night with all the lights turned off and the music turned up loud. If you try listening to "Om" you'll find yourself thinking all kinds of thoughts you never thought about before.

In the final analysis, I guess that's what it really is. I am not an advocate of a finished system. I am not interested in a product per se. I am process oriented. I am into the journey. Because you know, life is about motion. Death is about stillness. When, for whatever reason(s), you can no longer self generate motion, you die. I want to live while I am alive. I refuse to die while I am alive. And to me, to live means to stay in motion. To keep reaching, expanding, growing, transforming. Life means to keep moving. Keep searching. As long as we are in any one particular place, there is always someplace else to go, somewhere out there. The out and the way out. That's what I'm interested in, the out, not the in, the journey, not the end.

Rudy: In the revelatory poem "Emilio Santiago"--with its dreamlike state and childlike consciousness, you do not use the lower case "I" and end the line on articles, prepositions, conjunction, or whatever. In one instance you write "TV" with caps and another in lower case, is this an error or are you indicating there are two states of consciousness entwined or going on at once? Technically, does this approach help you to establish this semi-conscious state/sense to the reader? Who is Emilio Santiago and what is the source of the poem. Are you recounting someone else's story, or both?

Kalamu: Yes, it is a dream state piece. The upper and lower case stuff is unintentional. The manuscript you have is uncorrected. If I remember correctly, I probably wrote the whole thing in lower case. I translate a lot of my stuff into standard English to make it accessible to anyone who wants to take the time to read it.

It is written in the first person but the first person is not me, or, more accurately, is not just me. Ideas came from a lot of different places, different people, some of whom supplied one small and specific detail. I write in the first person a lot because that is a format that American audiences relate to. However, every "I" is not the autobiographical "I" Rather, in many cases, the "I" is the authorial "I," the artist making a statement through a semantical device. That's something else I am very, very good at doing. Make you think that stuff is real, real meaning autobiographical. Any by the way, autobiography is sometimes less factually-real than fiction is.

The general use of the "I" coincides with the capitalist-democratic, American emphasis on the individual. My use of the "I" is subversive, so subversive that I do not even bother giving any indication or references to let the reader know when the work is autobiographical and when the work is authorial. If people want to see my use of the "I" as autobiographical, that's ok with me. I have enough straight-up autobiographical work out there and enough "I" work out there that it quickly becomes apparent that all those "I's" can't be me.

Emilio Santiago was written as part of a series named for musicians. They are not stories per se. They are sketches, moments that I try to capture. Snapshots. Remember that I started off in photography when I was in seventh grade. I was a photographer before I was a writer.

As for form. I call them writing and leave it at that. What classification to put them in is not my concern. That's why some of them are in "Nia," they could just as easily be poems as be prose. They are experiments with free writing, writing without chord changes, there is no preset structure. I just paint a moment as best I can, but I am not interested in realism or naturalism in these pieces. I am going for the emotional state, the "aahhh," the precise instance when we have a realization. I try to render the epiphany as intensely as I can.

Emilio Santiago is a Brazilian vocalist, sort of with a Lou Rawls kind of voice. Emilio does sambas and ballads. I have a bunch of his music. There are all kinds of specifics built into the piece, specifics which I won't get into because the specifics themselves don't explain what I am doing or how I am doing it, you just need to know that I am piling specifics on top of specifics. In that sense, a lot of the piece feels real because it is real, it's just that it did not happen the way I put it together. It's sort of like you see this man coming down the country road at night with a lantern and just at the moment when he passes you, you find out it's not really a lantern, it's a jar full of fireflies. Well, that's what I do, I take all these fireflies, all these very real, very specific instances and I put them in one jar.

I performed that piece as a radio piece one day when I had a Monday morning radio program. One cat called up, almost in tears, saying it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. I mixed music underneath it: Kip Hanrahan, Carmen Lundy, and Emilo Santiago, but I did not announce who was who. I just did the piece. Well, one of the conceits in the piece, or rhetorical devices, is that I actually was the dj on WWOZ, and I use to say: "Mondays are the best day of the week," and then play music to convince people that Mondays were hip. So that reference in the piece is the authorial "I" referring to the autobiographical "I" and when I did it on the radio, "I" the dj was reading the piece, so it had all these layers at work. I could go on and on deconstructing the piece, but I think you understand how I put it together.

Rudy: I like what you did with the Miles Davis poem, a sort of calling a spade a spade, and then shifting from an exposition of the devil incarnate to the "I" acting out a Miles scene. But have you ever really got into a Miles groove or is what you have done just a poetic identification?

Kalamu: Does it matter? When I perform it, I don't say, hey yall this really is not me, nor do I say, hey, this is based on a true story, nor do I say, yeah, this is some shit I used to do. What does it matter? It is art, art for life, not art as life, nor life as art. I created the work and crafted it in such a way to have maximum emotional impact. Does it really make a difference to the piece and to the audience reception of the piece whether it is factually true?

The answer is the same as for Emilio Santiago. It was written during the same period. And, by the way, to be clear, a couple of the pieces in that series are more or less autobiographical, just so happens Emilio and Miles are not factually autobiographical.

If you stop and think about it, I as a writer am supposed to be able to do this. I am supposed to be able to move you with words regardless of whether the words are factually true or not. That's "part" of my job. Those of us who see ourselves as entertainers, well, "fooling" people, "entertaining people," convincing people that artifice is factual, that is our total job. Those of us who see ourselves as revolutionaries have a much tougher job because our job is to fool (or trick) you into thinking, entertain you into questioning, convince you with art that things have got to change.

I don't mean any of the above in a condescending way. It's really very, very serious. People want something to believe in, and, in many cases far too many people would prefer to believe a soft lie than a hard truth, a pleasurable diversion rather than a difficult confronting, especially the American public, which includes us people of color in general, and Black folk specifically, we who ought to be the most skeptical but who too often buy into this madness lock, stock and barrel. But, to go back to your observation about my lack of cynicism, the fact of the matter is, regardless of how dumb we be, we are the people who have produced the greatest and most profound American artists. Whether or not we are recognized by this society for our noble and ennobling artistic accomplishments in no ways diminishes the value of our doing, of our carrying on, keeping on. The value of our art for life.

Rudy: Would you look on the writing of haiku and sonnets as a kind of training ground for developing certain poetic skills and qualities--a kind of poetic woodshed--that can be used elsewhere to make fuller poetic statements?

Kalamu: No. I had to learn the writing techniques first. I was "fully growed" when I started doing haiku and sonnets. Those forms were just something I wanted to do for various reasons. Now that I have done them, and done them fairly well, I am not fixated on doing it over and over.

Also, I believe they are full statements in and of themselves. I don't believe the category I call sun songs is a fuller statement. The sun songs are a different aesthetic, an aesthetic I favor, I like, and I think is fulfilling, but I don't pit one against the other, remember I am not into dualities, either/or. I'm into the dialectic, both/and. I can deal with it all. I can enjoy each one without in any way belittling the other. We had a political concept we called personal preference. There were points of politics, these we did not compromise. Then there were personal preferences, to the extent that they did not harm another, these we did not prohibit. Indeed, we encouraged diversity. I guess I must sound like a broke record, but, to make a play on a Christian saying, although my arms may be too short to box with god, my arms are long enough to embrace the whole world.

Rudy: In "Nia," a great number of your poems--haiku, sonnets, and sun songs-- have images of the body nude or a man and woman in bed or lovemaking. To be blunt there is a good deal of sex and sexuality in these Nia poems. I cannot imagine this possible a generation or two ago. For instance, Marcus Christian's poems, his letters, and diary notes, I noted how his formal poems conceal sex behind sentimental and traditional sentiments in his formal lyrics and sonnets. Later on with the use of free verse but more so in his diary notes he was able to deal with the topic of sex and sexuality with greater freedom. But still he was unable to do it with ease.

He just was not able to find the language or an audience or to himself enough to break away fully from the Victorian age which despised the body and the demands that it made upon one's consciousness. Thus in some of his poems he sinks to vulgarity or sarcasm or mockery. But you have managed to find the language, the right perspective, that makes your relating of such intimate experience inoffensive, without vulgarity, which, for example, we find also in Elizabeth Bishop when she mocks the whole Renaissance and Romantic tradition of sonnet writing.

I do not know whether the "I" in the Nia poems is the autobiographical, the authorial "I"; nevertheless, the person, the poet must have had something to occur in his or her life to be able to handle intimacy with such ease and nonchalance. Would you care to comment?

Kalamu: Well, I think we have discussed the blues aesthetic before. Aesthetically, I'm a blues & jazz poet, except for Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka, the greatest influences on my approach to writing have been musicians. Within the context of our music, we do all kinds of things with sexual expression. Take the added step and come down to New Orleans, and you will find out that we do all kinds of sexual expressions in music and dance in the streets. 

I grew up in an atmosphere of the open expression of sexuality. I think you would argue that so did Marcus Christian, but there is a difference. My response is that there is a difference in being surrounded by it but not feeling a part of it and certainly not identifying yourself with it. I am not only surrounded by this culture. I not only feel that I am a part of this culture. I identify totally with this culture. I believe that Christian represents a type of intellectual response to Blackness that many of us have, a response that is removed from total identification. 

There is an estrangement, often an estrangement resulting from a desire to be accepted by the other who is foreign to our culture, an other for whom the open expression of sexuality is problematic. That is why, for Euro-centric dance, sexual movements are often considered vulgar. Well, that is not my reference. There is nothing vulgar about sexual expression. I could go deeper into this discussion, but I want to make another point, so let me sum up this thread by saying, my models for depicting sex is the second line in all its open celebration of ecstasy. 

Let's look at two other contemporaries of Marcus Christian. Look at Claude McKay, who is from Jamaica and who is interesting because he was formally educated and wanted to write poetry and prose. I believe that because poetry is a stylization of language, invariably, your poetic stylings will project what you think are the most beautiful aspects of the language you use. McKay, I believe, was hampered in his poetic expressions by an inculcated, i.e. that is, a belief taught to him by those outside his native culture, that the sonnet was "the" most desirable form to express himself poetically. I am saying that I don't think that McKay just decided to experiment with using the sonnet form, I think McKay actually felt he "had" to use the sonnet form to be taken seriously as a poet. 

Now, with the prose, McKay felt much more free in his modes and manners. There is sex aplenty in the prose of Claude McKay; it is hardly there in the poetry. Why? I don't think the answer is in the form itself. I don't think sonnets are necessarily virginal or Victorian. However, I do think the choice of using a form and how one views that choice is relevant. If you are trying to pour all of your feelings and ideas into literally flat-ass pants, well if you have big buttocks, like many of us have, then you literally have problems with forms that were designed for flat asses. That's why I take major liberties with the forms. I got a big booty. Flat ass forms won't work. I have to alter them. And because I am not approaching this as some genuflecting to a higher authority, my use of haiku and sonnet is very, very sexual. 

Look we have always done this with fashion. Historically, when we couldn't wear our traditional fashions, we turned master's fashions into our own. The "blond" hair Serena Williams is wearing has nothing to do with her trying to look like a White girl. Many of us can't make the distinction between adapting something from a different culture and aspiring to be like something or someone from a different culture. We didn't invent sun glasses, but don't nobody wear shades the way we wear them. 

The other writer is Langston Hughes. He never did publish formal sonnets or haikus. In all his writing, there is probably not more than a handful of sonnets and I don't remember any haiku. What Langston did was develop the forms he needed to present his work, his ideas, his feelings. In the final analysis, I think what prevented Christian from realizing his fullest self was his conflicted sense of who his fullest self was. To a certain extent, Claude McKay evidence a similar, but at a significantly lesser degree, sense of self conflict. Langston Hughes was right on, he had no conflict about expressing his fullest self and the modes of expression he used to do it. 

Langston's work is full of sex. Full of it. Beautifully done. Celebratory without being, what did you call it?--vulgar. So, you see, your question about sex in Nia, really is a question about Black butts and whether we are ashamed not only of our Black butts but the sexual way we shake our big Black butts when we dance to Black music. And you know of course that funk is just the aroma of sex. Which to weave all these seemingly disparate threads together into a kente cloth, in New Orleans "funky butt" is a way of dancing, is a song, is a night club, is a legendary saying of Buddy Bolden; funky butt is an affirmation of who we are. So, let us just say, all the expressions of sex in Nia is an affirmation of who I am.

Rudy: In the poem "Your Sunday Shower," the sense of the poem does seems to turn at the beginning of the last six lines, that is, on the word "observe." This kind of turning of the sense of the poem is one of the classical traits of the sonnet. Were you conscious of this aspect of the poem, even though you suggest that your emphasis is primarily on writing within the fourteen lines and on the theme of love? (I probably need to go back and check your essay on writing sonnets.)

Kalamu: Yes, I was conscious of that.

Rudy: In the erotic poem, "he gets off," the forward slash (/) seems to have an interesting effect on two accounts: 1) the phrases to the right of the slash in themselves seem to make a love poem; 2) in that there is no couplet, it serves to make the fourteenth line serve the purpose of a couplet textually and literally. I also find it striking that you get away with a monosyllabic word as the first line of a sonnet. Does my reading correspond with your crafting of this poem?

Kalamu: I'm not sure about the forward slash explanation. My uncertainty is that many times I am not conscious of everything I do. After you work on a technique for years, you don't have to think about what you're doing or how to do it, you just do it, and if it doesn't work you do something else. You develop a feel for what works. At one time you had to consciously think to get to that feeling, but once you got it down, you no longer have to think about what you're doing, you can just do it.

I know there is a redundancy in the answer above, but I just want to emphasize the unconscious skill of the experienced artist, unconscious based on experience and based on starting off at the conscious level to learn the skill but using the skill at the unconscious or subconscious level once the skill is acquired.

"he gets off" was a conscious attempt to write a blues sonnet as I explain in the sonnet essay. But there is a big difference between "what" I was trying to do and "how" I went about doing it. For me, the hardest part was figuring out exactly what I wanted to do, the actual writing of it was easy. Thelonious Monk once said something very, very profound that philosophically sums up this discussion, and that also underscores why I study the music so much, not just the music qua music, but also the music as lifestyle, as culture. Monk said: when we are young we are full of ideas for things to do, we just don't have the technique to pull them off, as we get older we develop the technique to do things we just don't have as many original ideas anymore.

I think part of that flip flop is due to the fact that while we learn technique we are inevitably introduced to ideas, some of which we would have eventually thought of on our own but many of which we would never have thought of, and as we learn more and more, we become more aware of just how much we don't know. What is often called the arrogance of youth is really nothing but ignorance driven by youthful energy, an energy that is partially a response to first encounters with experiences that become old hat as the years go by. This happens on all four major levels: the mental, the physical, the spiritual, and the will (or consciousness).

Rudy: The numbering of the haiku is it in the order of creation or does the numbering have some other significance?

Kalamu: No, I started off numbering them and writing them in a little, hardback, blank book I got in China in 1977. I suppose this is as good a place as any to introduce chaos and coincidence. I really believe in both forces, believe that they are always at work. I have acquired books, recordings, pictures, whatever, for which, at the time, I had no specific use. Then years later, I will need something or desire something, and there it is. I bought those little books in China but did not use them until eight years later. This happens quite a bit with books. I will buy an interesting book in a minute, even if I don't plan to read it right away. I know that someday there will be an occasion to get into it whether by coincidence or by design on my part.

I stopped numbering the haiku. In fact I stopped putting them in the book. I suppose the haiku and how I write them mean something to people who are just discovering them, but as far as I'm concerned, the work is like starlight. By the time it gets to the public, that particular star is extinguished and I have moved on to something else. So, as you read this, please understand, this is just a map of where I was, not where I'm at.

I don't view this as bouncing from idea to idea, because my goal is to grow using everything, to reference the whole of my life as I move on, every little bit counts. It's just that I am not fixed to any one spot or position, even though I have, as you say, a "philosophy." Well, you said "coherent philosophy," I would prefer to say consistent rather than coherent, cause some of what I do is pretty random-abstract rather than concrete-sequential. Sometimes I feel like a nut. Sometimes I don't. Either way it is still me feeling or not feeling. Ditto for my writing, it is all me, whether factual or fancied, autobiographical or authorial, or a mixture, because actually, I believe my most interesting work is an amalgam, a mixture, a dialectic.

Rudy: What is the element that holds "Nia: Haiku, Sonnets, Sun Songs"? It holds together for me. Maybe that is the reason I said that there is coherency in your life outlook. How would you characterize that element? 

Kalamu: It's about consistency, not coherence. In Blues Merchant, my first book, there is this poem written in the first person about attending the funeral of a young woman. That is the authorial "I" at work, not the autobiographical "I", but there is no indication what-so-ever to let the reader know there is a different "I" there other than what most readers will assume is the autobiographical "I". Some of my ideas have changed, as I have grown I have been able to embrace more, to use a greater range of styles and forms, but essentially if you only read my first book and then read :Nia," even though there is a 35-year difference, I think most readers would immediately identify both books as coming from the same author. 

In the final analysis, ideas, in and of themselves, are useless with out a cultural grounding. What is perceived as shifts in the work of other artists is usually a question of cultural orientation rather than the particular ideas contained in the pieces. Look at pre-Africa Picasso and post-Africa Picasso. Once he was influenced by a different cultural orientation, there was a dramatic break in his work, often so much so, that you put a particular piece of pre-Africa Picasso next to a particular piece of post-Africa Picasso and you could, if you didn't know the work, you could be convinced that this was two separate artists. 

On the other hand, I believe you are right about a certain coherence of ideas, etc. I never left home. You know I am based in New Orleans. Although I have traveled all around the world, except for 7-month college foray and a three-year army stint, I have never lived as a resident anywhere but New Orleans. This is an interesting thread for me to think about. I have long resisted the notion of pigeon-holding myself as a New Orleans writer or a "Southern" writer. Part of my reluctance had been because, in comparison to the body of my work, so little of my work was about New Orleans per se, or even had New Orleans settings. And as for the South, if you don't count the New Orleans stuff there is probably only a small handful of work with a general "Southern" setting. 

So, I was rejecting, being considered New Orleans or Southern based on that's not what my work was about. However, looking at it in hindsight, after over 35 years of writing professionally, the coherence is cultural, and the culture is African-heritage (which is broader than just African American) with a New Orleans gumbo flavor. The difference between gumbo and soup is not the general ingredients but the "roux"--this base sauce that the gumbo is built on. People down here have a thousand different ways to make a roux, but regardless of how you do it, if you don't do a roux, you won't get gumbo, you'll get generic soup. African-heritage culture with New Orleans flavorings is my roux. 

And as any New Orleanian can tell you, if you use the same ingredients and consistently used your secret roux recipe, no matter how many times you make gumbo, every pot of gumbo is going to be slightly different. So, think of my work as gumbo. I been cooking gumbo for over three decades. It's all recognizably the same and at the same time there are some major differences from pot to pot. That is the coherence.

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Panel on Literary Criticism

26 March 2010

 National Black Writers Conference

Patrick Oliver, Kalamu ya Salaam, Dorothea Smartt, Frank Wilderson discuss the use of literature to promote political causes and instigate change and transformation.  The event is at the Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. C-Span Archives

Panel on Politics and Satire

26 March 2010

 National Black Writers Conference

Herb Boyd, Thomas Bradshaw, Charles Edison and Major Owens discuss how current events are reflected in the writings of African Americans.  The event is at the Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. C-Span Archives

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination. Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell's And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.—Publishers Weekly /  Derrick Bell   Dies at 80

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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