ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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When I am writing to figure out stuff, I just write. It's all in lower case--that cuts

 down on key strokes--those kinds of pieces tend to be full of dashes

 and commas, run-ons and asides . . .



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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What Is Life? Interview

Kalamu ya Salaam with Rudolph Lewis


Rudy: I want to begin our discussion with a few general questions about What Is Life? And your new manuscript of poems entitled, Nia: Haiku, Sonnets, Sun Songs.

But let me say up front before we begin, I do not know when I have so intensely enjoyed two excellent pieces of creative writings. I think both are must readings. Nia made me look at black women with fresh eyes; it provided a new and non-puritanical erotic sensibility. It seems more like something I'd expect from the Caribbean or Latin America. My reading of What Is Life? was intellectual stimulating in a non-academic senseBaldwin-likeand though published eight years ago, I still find it thoughtful, incisive, and challenging.

Let me begin. How do you put together a book? I mean when do you know you have a book? In these particular cases, did you think of the book first in your head, after maybe a couple of pieces and then write related pieces? Or was it a matter of discovery, after you had written numerous pieces?

Kalamu: For me, some of my books are boats that float upon the sea and other books are just a dip in the well for a swallow of sweet water. The boats are the pieces I consciously construct from stem to stern, pieces I design to work a certain way. The dips in the well are spontaneous reactions or else they are concoctions of bits of this and that put together into a hopefully satisfying gumbo.

Both What Is Life?  and Nia  are dips in the well. Neither one of those were crafted as books from beginning to end. Life? is a collection of essays, some of which were stream of consciousness type pieces that I wrote simply because I felt like writing them. I joke that I killed two editors with Life?  Haki had been after me to submit something to Third World Press. From when I finally responded with the writingsat the time of submission the work looked nothing like what it ended up beingto when the book came out, three different editors worked on the book and two of those three editors are no longer at Third World Press. The first editor was Donna Williams, she was responsible for selecting the basic contents of the book. Bakari Kitwana was the second editor and he came up with the specific poem/essay order. Gwendolyn Mitchell was the third editor and she helped me polish the final product. 

When I am writing to figure out stuff, I just write. It's all in lower casethat cuts down on key strokes--those kinds of pieces tend to be full of dashes and commas, run-ons and asides, and are as long as I feel like blowing with no attempt to make a particular piece fit into any particular form, thematically or stylewise. it comes out however it comes out and i just go with the flow. So when I delivered that to Third World Press, the editors had to decide what to do with this stuff.

For example, three essays in the book was actually one long rambling piece. If you want to get an idea of some of the changes the pieces went through, see my essay in the Brotherman anthology that Robert Allen and Herb Boyd put together, and compare the Brotherman version with the version that is in Life?  Adjustments were made throughout the long publishing process. Everything from stylistic concernsfor example, you will note that the "blues aesthetic" essay is the only one that is in all lowercase, although most of the essays were written that way--to what order to put the material in and what material to use, all of that took about two years of work.

Life?  was a hard book to shape for publication. Then there is the front cover, which was designed by Louise Mouton, a New Orleans artist and friend of mine. We worked on that sucker for a long time to get it together. I wanted something that was symbolic and at the same time had a literal quality to it, something that was both deep and obvious, dropping knowledge and full of mystery. We started with a couple of ingredients: one, I had this self portrait of myself I had done in 1967 in an abandoned adobe house in the desert of New Mexico while I was in the army.

I was still very, very active with photography at that time. In fact when I got out the army, the first job I had was teaching photography at my neighborhood community center. That's me sitting there on the cover and I was the photographer using a timer and a tripod. But the photo was black and white, and I wanted liberation colors on the cover. So Louise had to figure out how to merge a b&w photo with a color cover. The next thing is that the photo suggests the pyramid shape but the cover was a rectangle and we decided to use an "x" grid to build the design.

We talked about it and talked about it. Sometimes I would spend an hour or so at Louise's house and we would just talk design and visual aesthetics. When I worked at the Collegian magazine as editor, for about the first five or six years I also did typesetting and layout, and some design. I still do production work on the Runagate books we produce in New Orleans. I do basic layout and design, using what is popularly called computer desktop production. When my daughter Asante, who is a professional graphic and visual artist, joined Bright Moments, an advertising and public relations company I co-founded with my partner Bill Rouselle, she and I worked together on production and I learned a lot from her. I am no longer with Bright Moments. I was there from 1984 when we started to about 1995. I was the production director with the companyeverything from print, to radio, to video. 

All of which is to say, I have hands on experience in the area of design, so Louise and I would have these long discussions and she would show me examples of her work, I would bring magazines and stuff. We would just vibe with each other, as we tried to figure out the cover. By the way, Louise did some awesome designs for three jazz albums I produced that were released on the Rounder record label. Two of those covers worked off of photographs I did, but back to Life?Louise came up with this idea to do negative space for the title. Rather than design letters that said What Is Life?, Louise actually used colored construction paper, cut out shapes and pasted those shapes down on black cardboard. The shapes were of the space that surrounds what would be the letter and the lettering is just the black background showing through.

Then we did the title a phrase from "what is life?" in four different languages: English, Swahili, Igbo and Egyptian hieroglyphics. I asked Maulana Karenga to do the Swahili and the hieroglyphics and Louise got an African friend to provide the Igbo and we used those as a bed for the whole design but we used an "x" as a grid and did four designs, cut them on diagonals and then used put them down. If you look closely at the cover you can see the cuts where the languages run together. We put the hieroglyphics on the side of the photograph, sort of gives it a quasi-Egyptian temple look. And voila--we had the cover. Louise and I are currently working on the cover of my next anthology, A Hundred Black Kisses, which I hope to have out within a year or so. Actually Louise is doing the artwork and Asante is doing the cover design, and I am acting like I know something and suggesting a concept for them to execute. I really, really enjoy working in a collective context. I have enjoyed working closely with others for a long, long time and hope to continue doing so until I die.

All of the above should give you a flavor of how Life? was put together. Iron Flowers is one of the handful of books that was conceived and written as a project. I do have manuscripts that were conceived from beginning to end, but for the most part the books are shaped from pre-existing material.

"Nia--haiku, sonnets & sun songs" is another collection of pre-existing material. It's just what I am putting together at the moment. Actually, "Nia" supercedes three or four other poetry manuscript projects. I had in mind doing a collection of 100 haiku which was called "A Precise Tenderness"actually had it laid out and everything but never put it out, nor submitted it for publication. And, let's see there was a general collection of poetry called "Earth Dance," and there was also a collection of blues-based love poems called "I Enter Your Church," and another collection called "Cosmic Deputy." Well, "Nia" kind of takes elements of all those collections, plus recent work written over the last four or five years, and mixes all of that into one package.

Rudy: Although What Is Life? is essentially a book of essayscultural criticism, why did you begin each essay with a poem? What was the idea behind that? Was it to soften the impact of the essays? Are the poems indeed related to the theme and argument of the essay that follows? Was the poem written for the essay?

Kalamu: That was Bakari's idea. I said if that's what you want to do, go ahead. Mas que nada--makes no difference to me.

Rudy: Your introduction is exceedingly brief. I had no idea what I was in for. It was like, to use one of your phrase, going into the bush. Actually, I didn't read them in the order they were presented. I read the first essay, "The Blues Aesthetic" and then the last essay "Back to the Bush" and thereafter skipped about. Only one essay title gave any real clue of the content of the essay and that was "The Failure of Integration," which I think is probably the most analytical and incisive of all the essays.

Was all this approach meant to be a kind of discovery on the part of the reader? Could you explain a bit about the rationale used for the ordering of the essays? One might think that the essay "Where We Go from Here" had a concluding title. "To Be Continued," in which you use a musical term "Coda" to label the section, the final statement in the book, is a sort of addendum or postscript. Could you give us a sense of what you had in mind?

Kalamu: I didn't have anything in mind. I wrote those pieces cause I was thinking about stuff.

Rudy: Clearly, all the material of What Is Life? are tied together by the initial essay "The Blues Aesthetic"--its themes run through all the essays. The essays that seem most abstractly philosophical are the review of Charles Lloyd's album, entitled "Fish Out of Water" and "A Palace in the Bush." I suppose both have something to do with a search for the true self-- one's true being and existence in the world?

Both seems to be dominated by aphoristic sentences like "Love alone is insufficient to change reality. Love in the abstract is ineffective." Though "A Palace in the Bush" seems grounded in a real situation (a house in Houston) I was not clear whether you were indeed in a real place or some metaphorical or symbolic place. Could you give us some history of the writing of this piece?

Kalamu: Oh, it's not that deep. It is exactly what it says it is. The subtitle is "from a letter to Baraka Sele." Baraka lived in Houston at that time. We were in love. I would drive over to Houston about twice a month, she would fly into New Orleans once a month. One of those long distance relationships. I also used to write long, stream of consciousness letters. After being in Houston one weekend, I told her, I'm going to write about some of the stuff I been thinking about while I was here. I wrote her the letter. When I re-read the letter I like it so much, I said to myself: you ought to put this out. I asked her would it be ok to include part of the letter as an essay in What Is Life?--you know some people are very, very reluctant to have their business put out in public. 

Personally, I am willing to use my whole life as a book, but I try to be respectful of other people and respectful of the sacredness of intimacy and I would never put something like this out there if the other party objected, or even was hesitant about it. Well, Baraka said, sure, ok, and I did it. So what you have there is some of the things I was thinking about. It's really a very literal sort of thing, except rather than concentrate on the environment and describing externals, the stuff one can see, a lot of the piece focuses on the internals, what I was thinking and my feelings, and how my feelings informed my thinking and vice versa. So, I guess if you go back and read it with the above in mind, you will see it is really just a long love letter.

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

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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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 / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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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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update 2 February 2012




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