Oh, it goes and goes, (laughs) but I usually
say Robert Hayden is a very important voice for me. Gwendolyn
Brooks is important. Michael Harper, Whitman, Blake is important.
I tend to go back to Shakespeare and especially since he had such
an intense, monumental imagination. I admire that. And also he was
able to put his fingers on some things that were quite
contemporary. Elizabeth Bishop is important. I can go on and on.
So many voices: C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, Pablo Neruda,
Well, it took me fourteen years to really come
to that experience. I sort of internalized the pathos of the
Vietnam conflict. I was there for a year, ‘69 to ’70, and six
months in ‘70 and was renovating a house in New Orleans in 1984
and I found myself writing a poem entitled "Somewhere Near
Phu Bai". That poem came as I was moving up and down the
ladder. I had a pad of paper on the floor writing down a few
lines, and I found myself writing that particular poem. It just
opened that experience for me as poetry, as images, because it
came back to me in images. It was a sort of excavation and I
suppose it happened at the right time. If it had happened earlier,
perhaps it would have come out differently.
Writing a Poem
I usually have an image, sometimes no more than
a word, that I meditate on to improvise on. For me, jazz is
important. It has taught me a lot about method of composition. I
like to have everything set, by an improvisational tone. That's
why I write everything down. Initially a poem might start off 120
lines long and it ends up about 40 lines or even less.
I just want to go with it. I just want to see
just how I can extend a moment of improvisation.
How to End a
Often we don't know. (Both laugh) But we
wrestle with it. Often I've realized that one perhaps goes past
the ending of a poem. I like to have a poem open-ended. So I'll
put a sheet of paper at the bottom of a poem I've started working
on, to see just what the possible endings are. If there are 3 or 4
endings, which is the most important for me? Which ending helps
the reader or the listener enter and become an active participant
in the creation of meaning?
Winning the Pulitzer
Well, I was lucky because I was midway into
some ongoing projects, books of poems, collections, I should say.
That's the way I write. Usually I'm writing three collections,
side by side. So it didn't really stop me in my tracks.
I'd already begun to read a lot. I've done a
lot of readings especially after the Pulitzer. But I think reading
is one way of bringing poetry back to oral tradition. So it is
sharing more than anything else. I taught poetry in the schools,
in New Orleans for a year, that's one of the things that I told
third graders and fourth graders, at the onset that poetry has to
be a sharing. It’s a way of sharing a voice.
It was really amazing because of the surprises.
These young third and fourth graders, they weren't afraid. They
weren't afraid to put their emotions down on the page. They
weren't afraid of images that leapt out of their psyche and I was
quite surprised by that and also there's a freshness usually. Not
necessarily severe innocence, but a kind of surprising, almost
Well again, that's taking us back to Plato, or
Plato’s argument with Euripides. They might be seeing something
a little differently and perhaps wrestling with those small and
big questions side by side. And confused, so the poem becomes a
method of getting to a certain understanding and it's not
necessarily an understanding about the exterior world as much as
an understanding about the interior world, the world that's
. . . [college level students] have created the
mask, the facades, the detachments. They have to relearn to share;
which is frightening, often that which they do not fully
understand so there's a certain risk involved, but not always.
What's interesting I think is this idea about poetry. Often they
don't realize the everyday things their lives are made of is
subject matter for poetry. Usually it's the grand abstraction, the
Well, actually the book I'm working on, one of
the books I'm working on now has been a huge surprise. It's a long
book, it's probably a trilogy. And that is a book entitled, Pleasure
Dome. For years I've read a lot of history, especially African
American history, history that touched on the black experience
worldwide. I've never really thought of that as subject matter for
poetry until I began to pose questions to many young students
during conferences. And they didn't even know what I was talking
about, and I'm a stickler on names. I am now finding myself
writing about Pushkin, about Alexander Dumas, writing about George
Washington Carver, Charles Drew, uh, all these characters that
Message of Poetry
I suppose for me it's the uncovering of things
that's important, not necessarily with any kind of design, but as
a series of surprises. Presently I walk about three miles to
school. And I've been writing sixteen line poems and often I find
myself meditating on something that one might see as trivia, but
then I come to find myself wrestling with it walking there and
back, sometimes when I return home I'll have a complete poem. It
could be on the virtues of animals, insects, whatever. Perhaps it
takes me a back to Bogalusa, Louisiana. I remember as a child I
pretty much observed everything around. I remember observing the
rituals of insects, and animals, and consequently observing the
practiced rituals of human beings as well.
Being & Writing Poems
Well you know, what I wanted to do was write a
large book, rather a long book of 16 line poems. I wanted to
impose a structure on the poems. I began writing odes and
meditations, all those things that we sort of overlook and take
for granted. And then I realized that I wanted to broaden the
canvas. I wanted to deal with ontology, I wanted to deal with
psychology, philosophy, history, all of those questions. I wanted
to deal with universal relationships.
I like the idea of being challenged to write
longer poems. I would like to even write a book length poem, if
possible, but also I like writing these small 16 line poems as
well because what I've been looking for is a kind of compression.
Everything's so compressed, and at the same time, when it's read
I don't mind the ambiguous because, especially
if it's interesting, it forces me back to the poem again and
again. I like to read poems like that. I don’t like to have an
immense clarity from the onset. I don't know if I actually compose
poems that way. I like the idea of coming back to the poem, the
same way that I don't think poems should be resolved. The idea of
coming back to the poem again and again and consequently you
understand more and more and you feel like you're participating in
something that's organic or something that is alive and almost
breathing at times.
I think the music is important, the language
inside the music, I think the images, the metaphors, the overall
style that pulls us into the poem tells us, we can trust it, and
it is the music of trust that endures.
No. I don't really regard myself as a
spokesperson. I just feel like I'm a part of the human community.
And we were all observers. We're all participants.
I do think that poetry from the United States,
at this moment, is probably the most engaging, the most important
and yet there are those isolated individuals writing in other
parts of the world who are important. And it isn’t just because
of Creative Writing workshops. Although Creative Writing workshops
are influencing communities. And I do think the artist needs a
community that he or she can embrace or that community can
embrace, him or her. But, there is something in the air - poetry
slams, poets in the school, all of these things happening.
Very vibrant. It seems like it's inclined to
engage celebration and critique.
I've [not] participated in poetry slams. But I
support anything that generates active language and communication.
Yes, it's quite an experience in democracy.
[It’s] the fact that a democratic society can
engage participants, that poetry engages individuals from various
neighborhoods, various economic experiences and so forth. One can
be at the top of the heap or at the bottom and still be an active
Advice for a
Read everything. Write every day.
I think often they [my students] realize the
importance of that [reading everynting] and yet seem afraid of
being influenced. I tell them not to be afraid because the artist
never really operates in isolation. We all are influenced just by
the language we speak.
Well, it's a realization about death, how it
can come out of nowhere, it seems that it isn't something that we
can rehearse for. Something we can’t control. So, I think that's
where the fear comes from. That we're not put here to control
Search for Truth
It's not necessarily a search for truth as much
as a search for confrontation. And I'm talking about confronting
that which is real, by finding that which is inside oneself. So
I've pretty much defined poetry for myself as a celebration and
The celebration is that we care to describe
something a hundred different ways. I'm willing to observe an
insect, I'm willing to observe someone playing basketball, putting
the whole body and mind into that observation and consequently
getting even closer to the experience, in a sense.
It's an internal confrontation, I think for the
most part although it can be an outward confrontation as well. I
don't necessarily rule that out because, let's face it, language
is political. We are social beings, but we are political beings as
well and we don't have a grasp on that which could be classified
as a truth or truth. It seems as if the foundation is often
shifting under our feet, and perhaps that's good because as least
we can have some kind of grasp on the cosmos. There's no system or
I think it would be political to say it wasn't
political. I think silence is political. We are using tools such
as language. Language is a political construct. A good example
would be, if I look in the dictionary, everything that is prefixed
with black, 90% percent of it would be negative. And vice versa.
So I'm very much aware that language often is political and I
think the young writer, I think the young thinker has to be aware
of that as well.
Influence/Poetry of Meditation
I don't want it to influence, I want it to be
an instrument of meditation. I want it to be understood. I want
people, at least momentarily, to be willing to embrace it. I’m
not talking about the work being didactic, but as part of who we
are. I would like for literature to be accepted that way. I would
like knowledge to be accepted that way. I don't think we should be
fearful of knowledge. I don't want everything nailed down, I don't
want my feet nailed to the floor. I think that is imprisonment. So
about literature, I like to be challenged.
That's the interesting thing about it
[difficult to understand poetry]. It brings you in, in a
psychological emotional way. Sometimes I notice when an individual
comes to me, he or she may understand certain things about it that
the I didn't even have in mind. That’s positive for me.
I don't think poetry is that way. I think
automatically coming to Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, or coming
to someone such as George Moses Horton, or any of these voices.
Certain things we are not going to understand immediately and
that's fine, but if we reenter the territory of the poem with
care, with insistence, with love, then we understand it. We don't
necessarily have to understand it a certain way. We understand it
in relationships to who we are. What we've brought to it.
[I hope that] technology doesn't make us become
emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually lazy. That
everything is set up and thought out for us and we become slaves
to that which is pre-programmed. I want poetry to keep its
[Technology] sets out to make things easier.
That is what always underlies, you know. Some things are difficult
and that is what distinguishes us as human beings, that we have
the kind of dexterity to negotiate those difficulties.
Internet, things that just go boom and wham for
us, you know and we realize we are consumers of pre-digested, we
are not participating in this as thoughtful and inquisitive human
I think one of the reasons that poetry is
having somewhat of a renaissance is because there is a need, and
the need is even more severe now, because of what it contrasts. It
contrasts often that which dehumanizes us.
Well, I still admire the capacity of the human
brain to negotiate so many difficult questions, so many difficult
problems. I admire that capacity but for some reason there is an
attempt, and maybe not a full design, to bypass certain avenues. I
am frightened about the amount of time spent in front of
computers. I think people should be talking with each other a lot
more. I'm frightened about the amount of time spent in front of
televisions. What made me start thinking about this in the early
80's, I think it was 1981, May of 1981, I went back to Louisiana
and my grandmother was talking on the phone, her friends would
call her, and they were talking about people I didn't know, and it
dawned on me they were actually talking about soap opera
characters. And it really saddened me.
& Liberal Arts
I think it becomes problematic with education,
especially with the liberal arts, when individuals are not there
for the love of learning. That the university has become
essentially a trade school. I have real problems with that and so
there's always questions.
I think we have to go through the emotions of
experience, wondering about, how the day is going to lead us
towards the future. Appreciate what is.
The Issue of
Well, it's even within the context of the Bible
if we think about it. Man is given dominion over the animals and
I'm frightened by that statement. That, one, because we're born to
human skin that automatically we are given dominion over
everything that isn't human. It's commodity. The problem with
that, I think, is that it's a selfish thing because everything we
think of is sacrificed as commodity. We know it's going to run
So, it’s almost as if we’re living for the
moment. We feel as if we have to use up everything in our lifetime
and I see that as immensely selfish.
I think it [selfishness] has taught us to
survive as a species. But we should also be selfish about that
which is good.
[But] it’s not just communication. Because
what I've been able to look at, it's not communication for good as
much as selling products. It baffles me what people have done
through technology to convince others they need this or that. And
we make a profit off these illusions.
I think something is extremely wrong about it.
We have brainwashed small children to think in a certain way. They
begin to measure themselves against their friends; we're talking
about 2 and three-year-olds. Something is awfully wrong and
perverted here, because people think wearing a thousand or two
thousand dollars worth of clothes creates a better person, but
that isn’t the case at all. He or she could be the worst person.
I couldn't understand for a long time how boys
could be killing other boys over brand name sneakers. Those kids
must have been brainwashed to believe that those things are going
to make them more complete people. Many times brainwashed within
their families, or by television. I think we have to share in the
responsibility of that. For what makes us human? I think the brain
has a lot to do with it. And also compassion, the possibility of
Thank God. We have this possibility for
compassion. It's amazing.
I like to be able to see things from the point of
view of other humans, and even the animal world.
of Fox Interview
(November 28, 1997) : http://www.rattle.com/rattle9/Interview.htm
* * *
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
* * *
The Warmth of Other Suns
The Epic Story of America's Great
By Isabel Wilkerson
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a
sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi
for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin
was falsely accused of stealing a white
man's turkeys and was almost beaten to
death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling,
a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem
after learning of the grove owners'
plans to give him a "necktie party" (a
lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster
made his trek from Louisiana to
California in 1953, embittered by "the
absurdity that he was doing surgery for
the United States Army and couldn't
operate in his own home town." Anchored
to these three stories is Pulitzer
Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's
magnificent, extensively researched
study of the "great migration," the
exodus of six million black Southerners
out of the terror of Jim Crow to an
"uncertain existence" in the North and
Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates
sociological and historical studies into
the novelistic narratives of Gladney,
Starling, and Pershing settling in new
lands, building anew, and often finding
that they have not left racism behind.
The drama, poignancy, and romance of a
classic immigrant saga pervade this
book, hold the reader in its grasp, and
resonate long after the reading is done.
* * * *
The Last Holiday: A Memoir
By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
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
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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