Thursday, December 30, 2010

the death of olympia (work in progress)

- after edouard manet's olympia, oil on canvas. (image below)

you have slaved, my sweet queen, toiling
at the feet of empire, your heels to the fire
but "negress", you are my nation. you, my
love, are my 'lady of the room', my odalisque
in apron and sack-cloth / more flora than
the emperors will ever secure for themselves...

soul by soul, scar removes scar / touch us,
tar-like; in embrace black is ablute / we are
soot and silk in joyful longing.

olympia? she can only lay there, wanting figs
and breeding bedbugs / she cries in her sleep
and mourns like vesuvius, her smothered
lamentations flowing into pillow / poor her.
you rub her down, my dark sage, in rosemary
and thyme but she is thistle in our eyes.

you tend to the care of her abject porcelain,
basting breasts and ass in the plumes of
privilege, this pot roast of a woman marinated
by your hands, awaits rotisserie. change her
bedpans then turn her on the spit... line
her torso and thighs with russets and celery...
do not bruise the flower in her hair
or the apple in her mouth!

braise her skin in sandalwood and rose
petals staring at her blemishes until she
blushes, mistaking evil-eye for infatuation...

"mistress, your nightgown." bow, your
brow low hiding the contempt for having
to wait hand and foot on this frail pitiful
thing, but hope for solidarity. maybe
she'll understand, acknowledging
the sisterhood-of-servitude binding
you both. hope for smiles but if
she snarls, well, well then...

remember, queen, the cure for rabies / you've
been bitten by much better breeds and she too
will soon recede, as all do, into the compost of
concubines. and to that end, hemlock is kept in
secret cupboards in the kitchen; signal the cook
by singing "the king and rook have  castled, so
pawn takes queen." then return to your mistress,
the heirloom wasting away in the room-for-whores,
with plums piled high and pillowed about goblets
of wine / just smile and nod... bow, brow low.
purge her clean with midnight paregorics.
whisper spells to the fair maiden

"forgive me, O, Olympia, but 
i have no more life to lien you."

soften the blow, her sheets a shroud. then
clean the cottons; smooth the linens. you've
always allowed her kindness. she is figurehead,
but you rule the roost and very few will think
you, darkie, to be so devious... dismiss her with
care then come quickly home / embrace me,
i will halo you because - scar removes scar.

behind our walls of thatch and tin, we two
usurp the throne; courtesans of the dust...
mouth-to-mouth we are magna carta
- magenta / black magic.

jesters always bray in awe at finely dyed
plumage, but every peacock has a claw
to cleave and to cut, to have and to hold...
that is why i adulate you. head bowed, eyes
closed, lips to palm: i worship you; all
of these poems are your pedestal;
not just adore...

...idolatry.






Saturday, December 11, 2010

"amphoric merit badge" - a rough, but not as rough draft...

"Bum stiggedy bum stiggedy bum, hon, I got the old pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
But I can fe-fi-fo-fum, diddly-bum, here I come"
- das efx, they want efx

"....in spite all of the bullshit we on our back starin at the stars above
Talkin bout what we gonna be when we grow up
I said what you wanna be, she said, Alive
It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes"
- outkast, da art of story telling pt. 1

 1.
imacs are buried in the backyard
covered in the composts of childhood:
evel knievel action figures, 4 x-men
comic books (issues 135 - 138), one
of daddy's rusty ass pocketknives, a torn
tape of brother malcolm's "i was in
the house last night when the bomb
went off" speech stored in P.E.'s
"it takes a nation of millions to hold
us back"  clear cassette case - ancient
analogs, all catalogued during my mid-
to late-teens; each one an heirloom for
ascension. an atari joystick broken
after joining the boy scouts; a red, black,
and green african medallion purchased
from alphonso's head shop at 15th and
broadway; my entire elementary school
hot wheels collection re-coated in mama's
maybelline fingernail polish / plum red.
i am primed for power; 100% anabiotical.

2.
exegeses marks the spot: the knick-knacks
of an ex-colored/negro/black/afro'd african
boy born and raised on the soils of america;
these spoils of war. the homes of my great-
great-(great?)-grandfather were looted; legacies,
languages, and the learning of familial
trades - all lost. i've lived my whole life as
the industrial pollution of hate, a hard history
to cope with. "shit, nigga, get over it." was
stamped on birth certificate. but if jack kevorkian
was black they would have sat back in stereotypical
understanding, the way he "devalues life" chalked
up to the flowcharts of his nature; blame it on
phrenology, not as the after effects of racism.
patty hearst would have never made it to folklore
as an african. too bad 'symbiosis' wasnt invented
until 1974.

3.
i packed all the compost down, $3000 imac
included; disgusted drawing circles around
myself picking a peck of pixels out of concentric
philosophies. a pack of cmyk-colored hellhounds
nipping at my heels; candy-colored crayons
in my cigarette box as a self-appointed samo©
substitute anointing african spirits at 72dpi. my
desktop apple a bag of beans growing totems
instead of beanstalks. this is how a 21st century
houngan connects to the ethernet. we transmogrify
technology or we die. but pass or fail, we still
come out the 'other side' in much better shape
than how we arrived.

4.
examinations in the spiritual side
has always been our science;
"thank god i was born a smart-ass."
is an african-american slogan.

5.
my poems hide behind Poro masks, "africadabra"
written in reams on lumumba carson's mythical
shroud hidden beneath the tongue, an ndebele temple.
words have a torso of driftwood, orbital bones cast
in cowries, words with afros carved from soapstone
standing tall like an afrocentric skyscraper in shell-toes,
no shoestrings (all poem lacks is 8 square feet of
linoleum and a jvc boombox strapped to its shoulder).
i am a god of life; a walking / talking ossuary. not
"hidden" as in you're not allowed to see but "hidden"
as in get up off your ass / come and find me.

6.
i'm johnnie conqueroo growing guedes from
an apple seed. i pray at the knee of forgotten
equations, but i'm not  an atheist... ...this is
amethysticism - a purple reign empowered
from a borrowed bandwidth. "rich?" no.
i am witch, bitch. damballah wedo hazed me
as a rookie; baron saturday sat and watched
over me as goddess asase spun gospel on
the ones and twos...

7.
my merit badge is earned. i've join'd the club.
i'm in the guild. the written word pays my dues;
my voice drifts up from the vévés drawn in cornstarch
on the kitchen floor. there is hip hop and polynomials
in my poetry. i'm a psychopomp with kentucky
tendencies... lean unto my shoulder, my collarbone
is keystone for a bucolic cosmology, my portmanteau
is neon, Chukwu is common denominator for nommo
and numen and there is rainbow to my gravitational
collapse. Petey Wheatstraw breaks bread with Unoka
in prose... Achebe and Octavia hold congress to my
confessions / in poems i am Roy G. Biv in dreadlocks;
i'm polychromatic with my caul and response. in black
words i am supernal, a supernumerarian and there is
nympholepsy in my black-on-black praise-songs.

8.
relax, child.

pawpaw has you now. allow me to
induce nutation; it wont hurt you.
i am paregoric - i taste bad; but you'll
learn to like it. my vespers rubbed
into your chest and my hooks in your
nose, your eyes open / your eyes close.
a camphoric ghost-story my words.
it's all about the blowing of smoke;
the way a writer purses his lips and
makes a bottle bellow, his breath
breaking wind in passing, releasing
the djinn from the jug, birthing
laureates from mush-fakers and
dervish-fakirs, every word an ovary,
every thought an opening.

i stumbled into black lit / fell into
insemination; this composite poem
a pimp and a parable - this is the part
you pay the fee and enter / enter;
pretentious or extra-celestial, there
is no winter here. here be dragons -
i'm houngan from a black cocoon.

8.
the babalawo in a b-boy stance.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

"woman with small ankles" (poem)

"woman with small ankles 
kneading wheat-gluten" 
- 18x11
historical fiction & mythology on poster board
2010 - sold!
(for crystal)
...

ah, if only i knew with highest surety
that a son of osiris had created jazz, then
i could claim your stance the world's most
elegant musical composition. or if sun ra
had turned ascension into t-shirts
i would silkscreen you across the bluegrass.
i'd be an advocate. your acolyte seeing
your dark face in the bark of white poplars,
be the first man in a line a block long / a throng
of worshipers and well-wishers come to lay
offerings at your roots, sing songs of your grace.
if you are ceo of unseen beauty then consider me
an intern. your initiate. initialize the program of me.
i'm already chief-squatter in charge of
your crawlspaces. i am damp. covered in dew
and your mosses. i draw the celestial heavens
in your soot and seitan droppings...
i paint you in coal and cornbread on canvas,
draw you in coal and water colors on the sidewalk
for the daughters-of-zora to hopscotch on.
you are my creator and i collage you, your distracting
visage hangs in my hallowed halls, your facebook
avatar is framed in glass on my temple walls;
this aesthetic of you lining the shadows of my life
like pedro bell's signature art style on a pfunk
album cover; your country smile my hardcore jolly.

and i love you.
i love you more.

you are my ideal for an abstract africana;
my prototype for an african space program
in payless heels / a sande priestess storing
the nile delta in a goodwill purse - i orbit all of you.
you give good gravity (and your meatless gravies
are also good!) my language crawls into your lap;
you are not my mama. you are my motherboard.
i offer you cupboards, this canvas-me the pantry
for your absolute womanhood.

Friday, December 03, 2010

the "black artist vs. artist who happens to be black" argument...

there's a(nother) "being a black artist vs. being an artist who happens to be black" discussion going
on at black art in america. i think we spend too much time discussing this issue, only because it
never seems to lead to a fulfilling conclusion one way or the other... people, for their own various
reasons, are often entrenched in their beliefs (and even their lack-of-beliefs) concerning the matter.
BAIA is good because it brings many artists together who otherwise would not or may not have been
aware of one another. every generation seems to have this discussion. at some point i'd like to see us
focus more on our collectively individualistic destinations as opposed to our walking in circles
while debating which of us has the most recent cultural thesaurus.

click the link above to view the discussion in its entirety; the following is my latest response:

the ideologies of 'blackness' are always shifting/changing - colored, negro, black, afro, african, universal, etc - and in the wake of us traveling toward a more complete self-definition or running away from full-time labels with part-time social impact, how does an artist make his/her craft remain 'relevant' to transient, cultural philosophies? to be relevant means we have to direct our work towards a fixed ideal. a focal point. and in this 21st century focal points seem to be the last of our concerns.

i fully admit to being jaded. i firmly consider myself a black artist. i seriously attempt to make work that expands the definition of pan-africanism more than it attempts to redefine it. being 'black' is a tribal belief for me, the art and literature i create are my rites of passage into that tradition. i'm 'a race man'. for me, discussing 'blackness' equates to comparing the differences between 2 floods 50 years apart: "yeah, the water was really deep last year, but you shoulda seen the flood in 1962! that was a flood!" a flood is a natural action. the only thing that changes during floods is a person's proximity to them - the closer you are at that moment the more detailed your views about it. "blackness" is the same way. either we choose to be right up on it / in the middle of it or we paddle away, trusting that the natural calamities of higher ground will be more kind to us. i've used that analogy before and someone suggested that maybe a flood is akin to a baptism... it can be, but that's a romanticism of the problem. reality sometimes hurts too much to view it with kindness. this is a reason why many of us are so divided about what it means and doesnt mean to carry the label of being a black artist.

when we romanticize being black then a certain portion of our people, still bearing scars and in search of healing, will flinch, still stuck on the very real things that has happened to them as a result of racism, histories of being disenfranchised, and the ugliness that other black people have inflicted upon them. too often, those of us who are very positive in labeling ourselves as 'black artists' bash that concept over the heads of those who are still working toward labels that work for them. during a flood, you can't make me get into your raft if i've chosen to swim. i may drown; you may not want me to; but that is for me to discover. those in the raft travel in one direction, those in the water get swept away elsewhere.

what needs to happen is this: the people in the boat follow the people who are swimming - that, for me, is the only working definition of what it means to be 'black'. anything else is a person grinding an ax.

so... "relevant"?

swimming or rowing, both are relevant actions to the people involved in those circumstances.

soapboxin'...

at some point maturity itself must become your priority.

you must be able to recognize when lifestyles and philosophies aren't working for you.

that if some of the ideals that you hold dear aren't fulfilling you spiritually, psychologically, or
philosophically, then you need to surrender those concepts to a higher or alternate authority
and develop new ones that become beneficial to you as a growing entity.

wrapping your identity in concepts you developed for yourself in your youth, before your
acquisition of wisdom (or what passes as 'wisdom') or concepts that are counterproductive
to how you must carry yourself as an adult on a daily basis, harms not only you as an
individual, but also harms the collection of individuals surrounding you who care about
your well-being. at some point the weight of what is "real, loving, and lasting" in your life
must take precedence over the illusions we tend to carry with us, masking who we truly are
with the dream-of-who-we-see-ourselves-being. here's a newsflash: no one loves that dream-you
but you, unless you surround yourself with the delusional. in which case,
all of yall are shit outta luck.

i'm not saying you should abandon your dreams. but if the end result of you pursuing those
dreams, whether you succeed or not, does not leave you a better person / does not add to your
personal definitions and your worldview, then holding onto such dreams is a childish endeavor.

and not that you can't be "a child at heart" - being child-like in some aspects can actually add
to and fill out your natural tendencies as an adult. but there is a difference in being child-like
and being childish. its not a good look for a grown person. grown people will talk behind your back
and the real-serious-grown-folks will talk about you directly to your face. THOSE are the ones
you should spend the greatest effort listening to. they may or may not like you, they may or may not
love you, but unless they operate from a childish position themselves then chances are their criticism
of you and their advice to you will be deadly accurate.

swallow yourself.
shit out habits that hinder you.
lean into the wind; pull up your collar; walk anew.

Olive Senior - literary crush of the week

it takes diggin' in the crates, late nights and early mornings
spending the set-aside, essential creative time for precious projects
on web-surfing, google, bing, etc... but when you come across
that previous nugget-of-the-dark-unknown™ then it all seems worth it.

(at least until the people you're beholden to wanna know what's up with your deadlines!)

Olive Senior... why do we not know who she is on the education circuit?

check her out... her work is canonical.

tongues of the ocean is another good site to check out... this link takes you to Olive's poem there.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

protoplasmic phrenology (the video!)

about as close to doing a literary reading as i get.

and listening to the robot-voice read my work i think it's a favor
to the audience that i refrain from ever doing so... ever.

dont worry, it's only the first 2 stanzas. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

protoplasmic phrenology

this pathos-by-proxy still twitches at the mere mention
of paterollers storming the gate / neanderthals with knuckles dragging
swarming the stanza; dupes in white robes, haute-couture dunces capped
in trivial pursuits; they’ve come for the gardenias, the organza. and
the penumbra spills over every edge, haunted / daunted by a post-slavery
stress disorder that’s anything but paint-by-the-numbers.

voices told me to buckle up; that work was to be done.

but who knew i’d be the one to grow up mapping the spinal cortex
of yoruba-oblongata / talking the dead down from the ledges of ivory towers,
stalking spirit-guides on chalkboards, in chatrooms and in chapbooks always
in a state of rough-draft outlining and underlaying the pedagogy of a sun-people
told for years that melanin undermines accomplishment, merit, our seats
at the table. money changed hands, the bets placed on the crowd pleasers and
social favorites. who thought it would come down to this: me taking the witness
stand as public defender for stolen property.

the story goes i was born the son of an egun-runner and fell shadow-first
from several wombs all at once; assembled on a single line / stitched
into sorcery by the gnarled hands of an unseen seamstress, but i digress.

this poem is my mess-of-pieces and in haste i assumed you already knew
the elemental weight of sankofa. the dna of most nursery rhymes are made
of angst and atoms, but mine are composed of poro masks, the wail of tears,
robert johnson’s cigarette ash, etc. and the banana in the pocket of this poem
is a poltergeist. but i’m not a ghostbuster whispering the echos of the dead...
i’m the doorman for the dearly dormant.

it’s a tough trade. not as in demand as you would think...

i was born to translate tarbaby’s morse code into a canonical course (jes grew 101),
my dissertation was on head-lump reading. baron saturday was my first instructor,
paid me to re-edit the wiki-entry for the pot-liquor sciences. he taught me to be
everywhere you want to be. that's why i’m known as prometheus backwash on
facebook and, by luck of the drawl, i’m jujuchagalia on twitter... i’ve been told
that “upfromsumdirt” is kiswahili for “renaissance” and my signature looks like
basquiat’s long lost rorschach, my john-hancock the sonogram for a lost culture
- you should just see my cat-scan!         no shit, my medulla is a fun-house mirror.

i see saint octavia’s image on toast and tree-bark or when connecting the moles
on the back of my lover’s knee. i was hit by a marching band as a baby and that’s
why i see everything so clearly.     just didnt know i’d be the one to grow up
re-inventing a wonderland, replacing rwanda for kentucky as uncle tom’s
backdrop where cabins are shingled in soapstone and cowries.

does anyone know the trajectory for a black poet profiling himself? then again,
it’s not like i was born for recognition, my mug adorning the t-shirts on liberal
college campuses... in me is not the tradition for upholding a metered dialog;
i was born an act of reclamation... what need i for progress if the thought-process
is afraid of flames?

you:

continue taming your lions, chasing gazelles;
i was fed the breastmilk of hyenas.

it’s my nature to alert you to aneurysm; when
i curl up at your feet, a conniption is coming.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"change the style" - wordemup!

and now, for your listening and viewing pleasure,
i present to you... ...son of bazerk; vintage 1991. enjoy.

Monday, November 08, 2010

"my students are full of shit"

branford marsalis speaks the truth...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

"shadeism"


Shadeism from Shadeism on Vimeo.
This short TV documentary is an introduction to the issue of shadeism, the discrimination that exists between the lighter-skinned and darker-skinned members of the same community. This documentary short looks specifically at how it affects young womyn within the African, Caribbean, and South Asian diasporas. Through the eyes and words of 5 young womyn and 1 little girl - all females of colour - the film takes us into the thoughts and experiences of each. Overall, 'Shadeism' explores where shadeism comes from, how it directly affects us as womyn of colour, and ultimately, begins to explore how we can move forward through dialogue and discussion.

Friday, November 05, 2010

stronger than silent 'e'

baby's asked me to create a new flier for her and i started thinking about using an image of letterman (electric company, not david) for it... but then i got to thinking: shit, like today's students would even know who letterman is!
so i'm gonna settle on watching these classic videos for now til i think of something else -

 





and then there's this one... just cause the sista is so fly...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

until the real thing comes along...

no, not the song... just talknabout the next blog i'm wanting to write.
until then, this will hafta do...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

disintegration of america's black neighborhoods

eugene robinson on npr

we're slowly getting to the point where we can openly speak about the negative side-effects
of integration on the black community. eugene robinson touches on a few points of interests,
but i think he sidesteps acknowledging the main component plaguing the legitimacy of
empowerment for african americans - i'm talking about 'integration' itself.

not saying integration is bad; it's just that african americans were badly integrated.
we didnt step headlong into 'the great american project' hauling our culture with us; for the most
part, that culture was what we were wanting to get away from - slavery, jim crow, stereotype,
disenfranchisement, poverty, ridicule, self-hate, etc... the only thing is we also abandoned
the positives that go along with thriving within your own culture as it battles outside forces
to maintain its dignity, relevance and reverence to the world at large: community, pride-in-self,
accomplishment, solidarity, social inclusion.... all the things currently coming up short in
black communities across the american nation; the dwindled social aspects that caused
mr. jello (bill cosby) to launch into his tirade about the perception of social malfeasance
existing not only in our neighborhoods, but in how our images play out in the media and beyond.

400 years of second class (on a good day!) citizenship has intrinsically damaged our self-esteem
and yet 'post traumatic slavery syndrome' is a laughed at phenomenon. and yet we treat
children held hostage over night by irate family members, lovers, co-workers, etc... we treat
soldiers who spend any amount of time in active combat situations (whether weapons are fired
or not). and yet african americans have had to deal with the legacy of being the offspring of
those violently taken from their homes and loved ones, we have all come of age living with
this banner of supreme victimization and yet america expects us to shrug it off/get over it/accept
their somewhat-welcoming and not-all-together-immediate embrace...
we probably COULD get over it if our medical practitioners hadnt abandoned us in our mad rush
to join in with the mainstream - black communities where left with the void of business
professionals rushing out in attempts to earn gainful employment where financial reward was
more likely to equate to their experience, know-how and cognizant abilities. ask any black
person over 50 and they'll recount tales of neighborhoods thriving with black businesses -
bakeries, restaurants, dry-cleaners, lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc... black professionals who
worked within the borders of the communities in which they lived. this is called 'being invested'.

and in the mainstream of america, our white counterparts had already called dibs on the goods
and services we once provided. this is how a black doctor under segregation becomes a factory
worker at general electric. of black elders who believed the grass was always greener on
the other side, so they'd comment that 'white doctors are better than black doctors', exposing
the 400 year legacy of being victims in a harsh environment. not that we all individuals suffered,
but as a black collective, which is what mr. robinson's article addresses.

we'll get it straight one day; i know that about us. but it will take bolder language out in the open
than what currently exists at this time. eugene does an excellent job in adding this subject to
the national discussion...

it's time our artiststs and writers to back him up; for our work as individuals to reconnect us
to our cultural heritages existing before melting-pot-theories watered us down. its not america's
pollutants that have pulled us down, its the dilution of our cultural fabrics that have splintered
us the most.

(and where's the 'black newspaper app' for our smartphones? ...damn!)

time to kill (and the sacred desk)

i love days like today, when me and crys are on the same creative schedule,
where we're not rushing our own individual projects and each other 'making time'
before rushing beyond our doorways appeasing the projects of other people.
days like today are good. we get to lounge, catch up on tivo, cradle each other,
wash clothes/dishes/behinds (or not!), make grocery lists and other day-in/day-out
activities at our own leisure. even when we both retreat to ten paces away from
each other to work or play on our computers the actions are casual. there is a pleasure
at not being pressured to surf the web when on a time-line... being in the same room
while surfing the internet is relaxing. i'm left to wonder what the percentage is of
internet users who feel a high level of anxiety just from being 'connected'. i know
such an activity, over time, affects our cognizant abilities - how is it affecting our
physical health? maybe it doesnt and its just the on-going battle being waged within
us as our old-school upbringing resists the lure of technological advancements...

anyway, what i'm saying is: today i get to surf the web more slowly and with a bit
more sense of purpose/less the sense of urgency... i came across this video about
the way we use our workspaces, real and imagined. having crys nearby without
the invasion of 'work' hanging above our heads has me able to process the trillions
of daily websites i stumble across on a daily basis. the posting of this video reflects
the peace of mind i'm currently aware of...
tomorrow is back to the grind; but we're grown...
so even if stressed, we know that tomorrow will hold its own type of beauty.



Desk - Music and Sound Design from Aaron Trinder  Film:Motion:Music on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

canonical black lit

there are many factors shaping the aesthetics and acceptance of the black creative in this modern era.
mostly, we are affected by the loss of a common, communal plane of existence to house our muses.
in this overly-assimilated era we've lost our own cultural mt. olympus from where our creative gods
held fish-fries, rent parties, and shot dice before heading to church.

to fit into 'the mainstream' america asks its subcultures to streamline their baggage. if you can not
fit your heritage into a carry-on (or is over 2 megabytes of memory), then you have to get from
here to there all on your own (not impossible to do, but once you arrive you'll find no welcoming
reception). so, if a black creative is to ride the uncle-sam-express he's less the history of his people.
or if not 'less' then at least very simplified. you can not enter their boxcars with your convoluted
community ties. come 'clean and articulate' or not at all.

you can opt for 'not at all', but there are no publishing houses or exhibit curators flipping through
their rolodex searching for your contact information. black narratives no longer seem to channel the
communal black experience before being funneled into the wide open world. we sieve our creativity
through the institutionalized avenues of acceptance: art schools, mfa programs, the assembly lines of
writing collectives.
when's the last time a completely 'unknown' forced his or herself onto the social scene?
because our avenues for success are now narrowed by academia our creative geniuses are no longer
recognizable to the common people: popular black writers and artists are no longer marketed to
the black communities where legacies are fostered. black creatives chase after 'legitimacy' which is
now the sole-property of higher institutions. 'legitimacy' is what pays the bills. unless you ply your
trade in coffeehouses and cafes, no one leaves a legacy to inspire the common people in their own
homes.

now, i know this is not exclusively the problem for black creatives. i'm not saying it is.
all i'm doing is discussing how the monopolizing of the creative process has specifically hindered
our cultural progressions. if you are over 40 years old, then you grew up at least knowing about
such writers as langston hughes, james baldwin, toni morrison, sonia sanchez, etc...
but ask someone under 25 to name their favorite black literary writers... 9 times out of 10 they'll give
you those exact same names. ask them to name someone under 30, they stumble for answers.
unless you participate in creative workshops and classes, you'll stumble to name any also.
you might luck up and get a saul williams or jessica care moore. maybe someone will say jill scott
or mos def or some other frequent flier on the cable tv spokenword circuit. tyler perry might even
be mentioned; not knockin' his hustle - we all need one.

... (stops to take one long pull from an inhaler) ...

what books are the coffeehouse audiences carrying with them? are they the same ones being used to
teach black creativity in academic classrooms? audre lorde, langston hughes, james baldwin, toni
morrison, richard wright... all extremely venerable in the pantheon of black literature. but how long
can they carry the load for us? at what point do we champion their successors to carry on the legacy?
and whose job will it be to do so? it's been nearly 25 years since chuck d. said "our heroes dont
appear on no stamps" - well, some of them are now, but who writes letters these days?
we have to find our voices, our new icons and hold them dear no matter the advancements to
technology, education, and society tempting us to pull away. when america places its seal-of-approval
on 'the next new thing' it needs to be because the masses put that person in position to be honored;
this is how we as a whole become invested in the world at large. otherwise, america will prop up
'the new thing' like a foreign dictator and when his or her usefulness has expired then so does the
resources once available to that person. 'the new thing' returns home, angry that we can not support
his 15 minutes of fame... we shrug at his anger because, shit, we're angry too, asking him "and who
did you say your mama was? ...pfft! you didnt come up through us anyway."

every black writer can tell their own authentic black stories, but in this day and era where
the institutionalized whole is more important than the communal parts, what's that mean to the black
society at large still trying to fit in? has black legacy become the woolly mammoth frozen in a glacier
or has it moved beyond the scope of our community elders once chosen (hand-picked or self-assigned!)
as our keepers of the flame? an extremely limited coven of black literary artists create work that is
canonical to the black experience, working equally on universal and marginalized plains of existence.
can anyone now do so effectively? should we even expect our geniuses to attempt so?

black trees fall in our forests everyday... 'hearing' them or not is not the question; the question is:
how do we even get people back into the forests to begin with?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

ps:

and if you drop by the house unexpectedly
and hafta use the restroom then dont come
calling on me to hand you a roll of toilet paper
if it runs empty. you are welcome in my home,
but uninvited visitors are not 'a guest' - i am not obliged.

thank you.

- the mngmt.

ibid scribbled at the bottom of my tombstone made a totem turnt a temple

how much scab could a hermitcrab grab if a hermitcrab could grab scab?

ok. i admit to being off my rocker today, but off-my-meds is where i need to be at every day of my life.
creative types shouldnt have to reel themselves back in for the sake of appearances... i, too, wanna walk around with my draws showing, not like the younger generations with their pantses sagging, but like our daddies used to do walking through their own houses in a t-shirt and boxers and a can of pabst in one hand, porn in the other, on the way to the bathroom while mamas were entertaining the jehovah's witnesses dropping through to talk about organized salvation.
(and yes, i said "pantses" - stfu!)

i want my art and poems to grow from a crevice. from the forgotten pot of beans in the back of the fridge that now has a rain forest growing in it. i want ... the hell if i know ... something. different. older than where we are now as a people but still future-forward. reverse-sankofa. an un-diversed dissertation on total damnation written from the hands of some dawn-dead zombies and have it be a poem of love and affection. thats what i'm wanting. to be so fkn retro its original. to sit on the Great Porch built by the hands of those forced into serving me. to be an overseer. shotgun across my lap, marcus garvey and kwame nkrumah on my ipod. reading franz fanon on my ipad. whipping my fieldhands, the scarification on their backs my folk-art; telling toby his new name is achebe.
(and yes, muhfkr, i said 'lissen'... no, wait. no i didnt. i deleted that part.
but i'm not sorry for callin you a muhfkr. live with it.)

its not that i'm antisocial (because i am), its just... i'm just not counter-cultural enough. i think.
the status quo has tainted what it means to living-up-to-your-responsibilities. i love doing what others expect of me, as long as what's expected of me is based on the name i've created for myself and not by the stereotypes associated with 'black/art/literature'.

you probably dont understand.

its not just a black thang.

its a blacker thing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

i would give anything

to own the truck currently used in my banner. that is the dopest thing on 4 wheels. i could be driver/curator for the black-apothecary-traveling-splinter-art-and-broken-lit-splitters-show...
like a new-era bingo long!

have a bell, like the old-fashioned ice cream trucks used to have. (god, how i miss ice-cream trucks! not popsicle  truck, ice-cream! remember how they useta swirl vanilla and chocolate double-barreled from the side? simply beautiful.)

my daughter calls me weird.

i dont deny it.

ding, ding, ding... we have a new champion!

and the winner by tko is
(ref lifts the arms of.... ) .... ... ... ... ... the people's champion!

okay... i can be simple and direct. i'm not always so theatrical.

i'm talknabout the blogsite AUNT JEMIMA'S REVENGE! they are holding it down!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"O" is for...

its sad when one of the freshest things in hiphop isnt actually hiphop but a homage to it...

there are exceptions, but exceptions are usually fleeting.


O from Daniele Manoli on Vimeo.

Daniele Manoli - check out his entire alphabet on vimeo.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

baby has a new blog...

crystal wilkinson is kinda obsessive.

which is a very good thing when comes to being a literary creative
(i freely admit to being biased, but let me rephrase that as "creative literary genius!")...

when first we met 4 years ago, she was "2 months" away from finishing her latest project, her first full-length novel, "The Birds of Opulence". well... nearly 4 years since, the books 'official' wrap-up was 2 months AGO. she has agonized over ever page, plot and neurotic psychosis of every major character of the novel since i've known her, taking breaks only to grade papers, sit on panels, give readings, change diapers, feed abandoned pets, make breakfast, mourn, fret over hospitalized loved ones, catch up on gossip, commute 75 miles 1-way to her morehead state university day-job, pinch people, facebook, tweet, etc, etc.....
okay - that seems like a helluva lot now that i mention it. no wonder its taken 4 years to complete "one final chapter."

but in truth, not only are crystal's plates full, but so are her saucers, cups,  bowls, her pots, and her sauce pans... all burners are always on blast. she lives a very full life. she lives and loves and leads by example. she's 'good people', as the old-heads say.

both of us are lousy at actual self-promotion, a social networking sin in this day and age where digital communiques have become the typical first option for people wanting to stay in the loop on the status of certain projects and the people behind them. we're actually better at promoting each other than with ourselves - in fact, of the two blogs i 'actively' stay on top of, i consider this new entry only my second 'serious' posting, the existence of which is only to announce the launch of her own new blog write with  your spine.

okay, maybe this is where my sense of competition has kicked in... crystal doesnt play spades or tonk (the perennial card games of choice for louisville's native sons and daughters!) and is happy spelling 3- and 4-letter words in scrabble instead of attempting to crush the shit out her opponents (another tragic symptom of being a native louisvillian) - with her one blog she has already doubled the number of followers for my two combined! i mean, i really suck at this...
- to be fair to myself, i havent taught a million students, havent read literary excerpts to a billion people, dont have no where near a trillion friends and acquaintances. upfromsumdirt is practically an unknown entity, but the act of invisibility is a dying art form i've learned to master since birth.
except for when my overly aggressive competitive side rises from its self-induced coma...
i absolutely SUFFER knowing that i'll never be half the literary writer that she is; in fact,
it. is. an. absolute. torture.

i think i need a psychologist.

anyway,
baby has a new blog.
for those wanting to have a little more insight into the mindset of an award-winning author and highly touted professor of creative writing, then write with your spine is the place to start. i mean, i learn something new about the creative process everyday while simply watching her wash a load of clothing - she is always on! - so her having an entire blog about it? i now have a legitimate reason for wanting to have 'a life' online.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

engine block feng shui for boy davis' only son (work in progress)

even tho it was still a work in progress, i removed the poem because i just submitted it to a journal
for review. some journals regard blog posts as 'publishing' and wont consider them for publication.

if it isnt picked up i'll repost it here in a few months.

i'd be happy to send it as an email to anyone interested.

:P

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"an african and an irish walk into a holler..."

black southern heritage and appalachian culture

Saturday, August 14, 2010

abbey lincoln

abbey lincoln - the man who has the magic/where are the african gods?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

sigh... firefox is ackinafoo again...

a great blogsite concerning literary journals...
http://lisacalderone.wordpress.com/

i'll add this to my blog list whenever firefox stops having hissy fits and lets me create a link for it...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

summer reading list 2010

(when not reading poetry submissions for mythium)

anthills of the savannah, chinua achebe
the woman of the dunes, kobo abe
fledgling, octavia butler
the electric koolaid acid test, tom wolfe
african short stories, achebe & c.l. innes
flight to canada, ishmael reed

up next:

naked lunch, william burroughs

thinking outloud online part 1

every couple of years i gather up the 20 plus years of badly written poetry, focusing on the last ten years in particular, with the intention of 'getting published'... so i read, reread and do some editing, siphon a million bad similes into 70 pages and shout to the heavens how THIS IS IT! my voice shaking the shit outta the firmaments... but then the transient taste of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment fades and i shrug; toss the manuscript back into dry-dock and go on about my business of being indifferent, literary-speaking.

i know for a fact that i'm a decent poet, but tho i consider my poetic approach 'scholarly' i have never once considered myself an 'academic'. i've spent a great deal of time studying the writers who've influenced me, but never while in a classroom setting... i've been encouraged to get an mfa in writing but again to what purpose? to teach? to sharpen the shape of my nose as i preach 'form' to the 'unlettered'? for vanity? for 'just because that's the way its done'?

certainly receiving my mfa would potentially add weight to my credentials as i talk to 'genuine' publishers about accepting my collections, but then what? i dont particularly need the approval of a publishing house to know i'm better than what passes as an average writer (and despite that last sentence, i am quite humble in this fact/even if it only exists in my own mind) - but unless i win a substantial prize, the role of 'poetry writer' is cupboard-bare skill once fully accomplished.

but i do want to publish my work. but #2, i dont want to self-publish. writing in my own journals is self-publishing all by itself, why would i want to spend my own money expanding the look and feel of my own poetic journal entries, especially since i can only name 10 people that might be interested enough to purchase one! better to just turn my manuscript into a pdf file and just send it to them via email for free, right? but such a hassle seems too much like an inept type of hustle to me. i'm not a mic-type writer standing outside the coffehouses pushing my wares... my dilemma is this: i write for both academia AND for the non-academics. i want one word to reach them both and be equal in standing.

this means self-publishing is most definitely out. or is it?

shit. its almost 2 in the morning... wtf was you expecting from me at this hour, an epiphany?!?!?!

go to bed and forgetchu was e'en herre.

or if you're reading this after breakfast/lunch/dinner/etc, then please proceed to vomit at the commencement of this sentence.

(watch the shoes!)

Monday, July 12, 2010

siblings...

its funny how much me and my sisters have in common but yet still know very little about each other and whatever it is that motivates us... i'm the youngest and the only boy amongst 5 girls (2 sisters from mama's previous relationship, 2 from daddy's previous relationship, then me and a sis from their union)...
there is off and on tension from a sister on my father's side who i think feels 'neglected' (or annoyed) by daddy's 'new' family. i think she feels like we enjoyed vast advantages of a loving home (which we did and then sometimes we didnt - its all relative to your own individual demons)
my other sisters think i enjoyed some 'loving, common bond' with daddy, as if i adored him and had a close relationship with him (which didnt exist and has never existed. as mentioned in the previous post i had much emotional acrimony towards daddy and not until he had lost the use of his legs did he seem to have much use to stay connected with me)...

i think 3/5ths of my sisters are extremely narcissistic. one would doubt it and turn it back on me, one would say 'yeah, and?' and the other would roll her eyes and hit me in the back of the head...
(one sister is a complete angel and we would never exchange cross-words with each other...
then again, maybe i just dont her that well... and the other sister, i just dont know her that well; daddy's funeral was the first time i'd seen her since i was a pre-teen - just found out she's been living within 5 blocks of mama and daddy's house for the last 2 years!)

anyway, we all have issues and are bound to have the wrong adjectives (see previous post) placed on one another's obituary pages when those appropriate times arise...

you always want more time...

the newly began chronicling of my relationship with my father has transcended the traditionally predictable rants of father/son angst and anecdotes into something remorsefully surreal...

yes, my sentences ramble in the most awkward of badly poetic ways, i'm sorry, that caint be helped, i eschew proper school-learning, especially regarding the academics of slang - slang is my shield, my
slang-blade...

anyway, i'm avoiding the actual reason for this inarticulate post - not wanting to say it...

my father passed away in his sleep the saturday morning of July 3rd, 2010.

my last conversation with him was the friday morning before, when he called me crying; not wanting
to return to the nursing home he had been rehabilitating in. i felt his pain and sorrow, but more than that i understood the actual origins to that pain and sorrow - information he had shared with me during the 18 months (plus the 3 years since then) in which i lived with him and mama acting as his human crutch and personal errand boy (a position i held with great honor and esteem, hoping it would at last earn me a morsel of respect in his view of me) ((those issues he shared with me will be addressed in later posts/probably))...

but the man who never seemed to hold much affection for me as a child or as an adult has passed away (not to be confused with 'love' because i knew he fully loved us all, he just was reluctant or just didnt know how to show it in ways that mattered on deeper levels, at least to me) - i think he came to trust me, at least 'value' me as his sounding board, but still i didnt feel his respect for me as his son and as a man... not that such a thing is ever a requirement, its just something nice to keep stored in your self-esteem when growing into a functioning adult. esteem should grow from feelings of familial love and not from the need to prove one's self as a valuable commodity to his closest kinfolk.
how can you empower your communal ties when you keep a chip on your shoulder at all times?

forgive me. this blog might be about me, but this immediate post is in honor of my father. i didnt intend to rant on about any preconceived misperceptions about manhood and family-ties.

i've lost my father. it was hard to like him and not always easy to love him - but i did both (at least after abandoning my long-seated bitterness and hatred towards him/strictly undeserved and entirely harvested from my own emotional aesthetics) - my sisters affectionately placed the phrase 'mean and surly' in his obituary in attempts to adequately sum up his most frequent disposition - traits in which we all have, either by blood or social osmosis! - and i've inherited my fair share of those characteristics.

but i also maintain a deep-rooted sense of overpowering love and the need to visibly express it; traits i thought i had created of my own volition... and the truth i came to understand was this: these, too, were traits i had directly inherited from my father. deep within him was an overflowing well of love, one that had been capped in life by intimate reasons i may never fully know (or openly express online, at least not yet).

for so long i had misunderstood my father... but the truth became extremely clear as i had began understanding myself: if i too am 'mean and surly' by blood and against my will, then perhaps everything i feel about love and intimacy should be attributed to him as well - what reason or right had i to conclude otherwise? if visibly and by temperment daddy and i were just alike, then he too held great desires to love and be loved equally in return...

daddy's 'negative' traits were exacerbated when the life he lived proved it impossible to fully express himself through his positive traits...

or maybe he and i are just full of shit, i wont rule it out... at any rate, i found myself when going through my father just as i found him when going through myself: he was the theatrical 'dark knight' and i was just the campy ol' televised 'batman' - our origins are the same. only the cinema was different.
"mean and surly" - i know its said with affection, but to me it represents 'the unknown (and maybe now unknowable) reflections of his past' - not who he actually was but more reflective of the things in his life that made being 'mean and surly' his most adequate armor protecting whatever softer underside he may have had... in those inner-realms of himself is where my true daddy resided... reserved and calculating every single acquaintance by those conditions of an unknown extenuating circumstance - the iceberg tip to his emotional titanic.

the more i got to know daddy, the more i realized that he was soft, had grown insecure of his life choices and was badly in need of a hug, acceptance and understanding... things he was now unable to express since his mean and surly armor had long ago become the prison by which he was now held by and most commonly viewed through, condemning him to live out his last precious moments as a characture of himself to those he needed the most support and understanding from.

rother davis
1937-2010.

- in love and obedience.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

daddy issues part one

my father is a hard, unaffectionate man (unless you are a friend or a cb buddy, then he is warm, exchanging blue-colored languages joyfully with them - i am so jealous!)

as a child i would side up to him while he was under the hood of the family car (motor oil was a body fluid for him) - but he would always push me back, very gruff, saying i was getting in his way; would tell me to go play somewhere else... it's sublime at first, but after awhile you look out into the garage and wonder how long it would take you to go get help if the jack slipped, trapping him beneath the pontiac he was working on. not "run off in a panic" for help... i'm talking about "IF i ran off..." would i go to the candy lady first, get a bag of pop-rocks and a pickle before returning home to tell mama "mama, i think daddy is stuck under the car."

this is bitterness. i wasnt an evil child. this is one of the many negative emotions that will eventually surface when you instill ... what's the word? ... "detachment" ... when you instill detachment in children. which still isnt the most correct term, because the bitterness you feel is most definitely attached to the person who helped nurture it!

but you grow up. i understood that daddy didnt not love me, he just didnt show it in socially recognizable terms. so, i didnt not love him in the exact same way the he didnt not love me...

i also swore blood vows to the heavens that i would NEVER love my wife and children in such a manner once i was old enough to indulge in the arrangements of adulthood! my children still might not like me, but dammit, they will sure as shit know that i love them above all else!
(let me smoother my loved ones with love... or else, let me smoother them in their sleep. their choice.)

this lovelessness-as-an-act-of-love i was shown as a child would not be permitted in my home as an adult. it has shaped the way i am now emotionally connected to the friends and family willing to fully express their love respectfully and openly. al green said, "love and happiness" -  that man was a goddamn genius. i have no time in my life for loveless, unhappy people - not just because they are a drain, but also because their very existence trudges up the emotionless-void stuck in orbit between resentment and bitterness (metaphor for the relationship between a father and his son).
at times, i have hated daddy. deeply. not the angst-ridden "i wish you was dead/i had never been born" overly dramatic, cinematically dysfunctional type of hate. just a good ol' fashioned clean, angry hate.
("if you wasnt so much taller than me, i'd fuckn kick your ass!")

 i guess this is normal for many folks. but what happens to you, as an adult, when the ancestral link begins to claim you and you find yourself FEELING, ACTING AND BEHAVING in the same exact vein as the person you abhorred?!?! - - - in my mid-20's began the realization that i was becoming my father!

not in temperament. but... well, yeah... in temperment! some damn genetic switch was thrown and the traits in my father had begun to metastasize in me!
NOT HIS HABITS! not the way he expressed himself (not entirely, anyway) but a deeper understanding, appreciation and acceptance of why he was the way he was.  temperamentally i was wired the exact same way as he was... the switch had been thrown. or maybe it had always been there and i was just becoming aware of it. but at any point, it took being in a successfully joyless relationship for me to understand my connection to my father:

acts of lovelessness was a self-defense mechanism to hide the pain and failure of not having/living the life you wanted deeply for yourself. you love your family to no ends, but you accept the stifled confines of an unhappy relationship and simply make the best of it. i can see how having a loving, happy child running his hot wheels collection around your feet while you hide  your head inside an engine block can ruin the spa-effect of your powertool-based escapisms... once i'd understood this about daddy (though maybe not completely accurate in my own unlettered analysis) the love i had been stifling for him came rushing back into me. and in doing so, i was able to fully love the parts of me that reminded me of him; insight and perspective had freed me from that foolishness... i became calm. began talking to my gods again. understood not just what 'a good love' was, but understood how to avoid the actions in a relationship that can lead or push you away from that same 'good love'...

al green wasnt just a genius, al green is my jesus! in love and happiness i am saved.

hallelujah, aché, show you right!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

fresh! for twenty-ten...

after four years of work, my Tangerine Tubman poem is 99.99013745% finished...
this has been one of the longest ongoing literary projects i've undertaken in the 20+ years
i've been writing... i am thoroughly pleased with this final result!

now to cut the cord, smack it on the ass and send it out into the world to fend for itself.
initially, i was gonna make it available as pdf file and sell it for $3 online (plus $10 for a poster
of its cover)... but most magazines consider pdf files (as well as blog posts!) the equivalent to
an electronic chapbook/self-publishing.

im wanting to avoid any unnecessary hassles, at least until (and 'if') the poem is sufficiently
rejected by the publishers im sending it to. if that happens, then i'll make the pdf available for
purchasing via my paypal account.

below is 'the cover' and also a piece of collage incorporating a couple of lines from it;
surely thats okay with any panel of judges, right?

Monday, June 14, 2010

legba walks into a bucket of blood

its my nature to swallow seeds
to have them ferment in the soils within my skull
to birth themselves from daydream/their daylight bursting
from the inseams of forehead/my whole head a calabash
uncollapsing... the daylight strands a dreadlock each,
potential breaching virtue. new gods from a nappy gourd.
the guardian at the gate of dreams draped in gonesh

and gunsmoke... his guitar smoking/his black hand
stroking the 'nations sack under his suit coat.
ask him to tell you your future...watch and see
if he dont sing/maybe he will swallow you; the seed
in my head shorn from thunder/born under a bad blues,
a Conqueroo, becoming/how how how how ------- whoa!,
babe.

upfromsumdirt, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

nigerian oil spills

africanliteraturenews.blogspot.com

the nigeria delta region has had the equivalent of 1 exxon valdez oil spill A YEAR for the last 50 years!

Anene Ejikeme has written a very informative opinion page letter to the New York Times concerning this seriously under-publicized ecological disaster....

follow the above link back to African Literature News and Review blog or
click here to go to the NYT article.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

poefrica

african poetry blog to check out next time i get some time...

this one too!
(afropoem)

recent inspirations

1. african short stories, edited by chinua achebe and cl innes
2. flight to canada, ishmael reed
3. anthills of the savannah, chinua achebe
4. kiss my black ads blogspot
5. the jazz baroness, a documentary detailing the relationship of thelonious monk and pannonica rothschild.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

springgun press chapbook contest

• click here:
    springgun press
     - a new online and print journal.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Aimé Césaire 1913-2008



Out of Defeat

Aimé Césaire’s miraculous words




When Aimé Césaire died in Fort-de-France, Martinique on April 17, 2008, Ségolène Royal and others called for him to be buried in the Panthéon in Paris, alongside Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola. Away from the land of his ancestors, the acclaimed poet and long-time mayor of Martinique’s capital Fort-de-France could be claimed for France. But the obituaries make clear that Césaire’s legacy is both powerful and troubling.

The writer who once celebrated Haiti as the country where “black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world,” stood by, a powerless politician, as his own country turned into an acquiescent neo-colony. He had hoped to make the former colony a full partner in the economic and social benefits of the post-war metropole. It did not work. Harsh economic inequalities, reflected in de facto segregation by color and status no less effective for lack of legal sanction, remained. As late as 1973, Edouard Glissant noted that in Fort-de-France a cinema boasted “la salle de l’élite.” Even now Fort-de-France stagnates in its ongoing role as accommodating child of Mother France, while passive consumerism and cultural dependency stifle local initiative.

I first met Césaire in the mayor’s office of the old Hôtel de Ville in Fort-de-France in 1980. Ten years before, I had discovered Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land) (1939), his best-known work, when I began translating the Haitian poet René Depestre’s Un arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chrétien (A Rainbow for the Christian West), the “vodou mystery poem” about the gods’ descent into the violent “Dixie-pit” of a judge’s parlor in Alabama. I became obsessed by Césaire’s language; the peculiar reality of his Martinican landscapes, lethargic, flat, and festering, yet always ready to awaken into beauty. I translated his collection Les armes miraculeuses (The Miraculous Weapons) (1946) and found in his “Les Pur-Sang” a sensuous terrain that recalled Mallarmé’s sterile winters, wounds bleeding like open pomegranates, and lace disintegrating in the light.

Césaire always surprised me. He seemed so calm. No bitterness, no anger. I had just seen the cruise ships in the blue harbor. I saw the high prices in the supermarkets, French yogurt that cost more than in Paris. The rot and neglect of shanties in the shade of luxury hotels. The packaging of the “local” as folklore. I had read his definition of negritude in an interview in the ’60s as a “resistance to the politics of assimilation,” a confrontation with the “ideal” imitation—“a French person with black skin.”

In his journey through language, Césaire had to pick through a pile of names—for blacks, for slavery, for gods, for trees—surviving in his island like unwanted things, the waste of empire.

Césaire once quipped that anyone confused by his politics should seek it in his poetry. He seemed, at times, an advocate of poésie pure, a follower of Mallarmé’s craft of absence and elimination, especially in Les armes miraculeuses. But his poems also bear witness to the harsh realities of life in a colonial outpost under Vichy rule. He meant the “miraculous weapons” to be arms for the struggle against colonialism, as well as, in and of themselves, poetic annunciation. Behind the flames, grasses, guava, and hibiscus of his impossible landscapes, one catches sight of the lashing of bodies and rotting flesh, the stench of slave ships, the postures of sanctimonious politicians.

* * *

Born in 1913 at Basse-Pointe in the north of Martinique, Césaire lived in the shadow of Mt. Pelée, a volcano that had erupted eleven years earlier, annihilating the capital St. Pierre. He moved to the new capital Fort-de-France for schooling at the Lycée Schoelcher, named after the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher. There he met the assimilated middle classes. He always felt that he brought something else to the classroom, a past he once told me was like “some other kind of blood” that had nothing to do with the classical French literature he studied.

Césaire spent most of the 1930s in Paris, as a scholarship student first at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, then at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. While in Europe he began the Cahier, which André Breton would later call “the greatest lyrical monument of our times.” Césaire wrote:
So much blood in my memory! In my memory are lagoons. They are covered with death’s-heads.
They are not covered with water lilies.
In my memory are lagoons. On their shores no women’s loincloths spread out.
My memory is encircled with blood. My memory has its belt of corpses!

If in Paris Césaire found writing and Africa (he confessed that until he left Martinique in 1931 he did not know what it meant to be black), in Haiti he found something quite different. Césaire arrived in Haiti in 1944 a poet and returned home later that year a politician. At the time Haiti was still the only independent black republic in the Americas. The people of Jamaica, Barbados, and the West Indies still served the King, learned English history, celebrated the Empire, and knew the beauty of daffodils not breadfruit. Martinique itself had supported the colonial regime and Vichy after France’s collapse in World War II until a U.S. naval blockade in 1943 forced the island to transfer its allegiance to the Free French.

Called “Black France” by one nineteenth-century observer (Jules Michelet), “France with frizzy hair” by another (Maxime Raybaud), and a “tropical dog-kennel” by Thomas Carlyle, Haiti had always goaded imagination high and low, between the extremes of idealization and debasement. Eight hundred miles from Martinique, Haiti’s peasantry still lived off the land in the 1940s, a heady time of Marxist student revolts, a return to vodou, and, for young writers there, surrealism. For Césaire Haiti meant revolution, a heroic history for the Caribbean.

Césaire returned to Martinique at the end of 1944, and after giving lectures on Haiti was asked to run on the French Communist ticket for mayor of Fort-de-France and for the new French National Assembly. Not yet thirty-two years old, he won by a landslide in the May 27, 1945 election. Césaire would remain mayor of Fort-de-France for nearly fifty-six years, until 2001, and serve as a deputy in France’s National Assembly until 1956 and again from 1958 until 1993. He would also in these years continue to write poems, plays, and his 1950 anti-colonial manifesto, Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism).

In this world where the French language meant domination, to gain a voice—to be a writer—was no easy matter. In his journey through language, Césaire had to pick through a pile of names—for blacks, for slavery, for gods, for trees—surviving in his island like unwanted things, the waste of empire, the refuse of colonization, remnants of a history gone wrong. Discours sur le colonialisme helped me to know politics, to understand the impurity of places that constructed themselves by projecting dirt onto others. It was Césaire’s vision of the bourgeoisie as “a receptacle into which there flow all the dirty waters of history” that stayed with me.

Yet the troubling contradictions between his writing and his political life remain. In any attempt to understand Césaire, and to know why Césaire matters—or should matter—so much to us now, we must ask one question: how did the call to “decolonize our minds” square not only with his political life, but also with his use of French and not Creole, the language of the “mother country” and not that of the black majority in Martinique?

He described negritude as ‘a concrete awareness’ of what it meant to live in ‘the atmosphere of rejection . . . conditioned to feelings of inferiority.’

Frantz Fanon began Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) (1952) with Caliban’s curse (“the red plague rid you / For learning me your language”), and an aside: “We are trying to understand why the Antilles Negro is so fond of speaking French.” To acquire a civilizing language means to lose your identity, or at least to enter into a devil’s wager. To speak is to exist absolutely for the other, “to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” The more one mastered the French language, the whiter one became, closer, in Fanon’s words, “to being a real human being.” Years before in 1931, the Haitian poet Léon Laleau lamented “this anguish like none other / To tame with words from France / This heart received from Senegal.”

Whether from the English or the French Caribbean, writers educated into literature faced “a divided self” or became “the mulatto of style,” as Derek Walcott wrote. Yet the cure of culture was nowhere more effective than in the French colonies. Cultivation and eloquence were the keys to assimilation. In Paris Césaire met Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas, and the three founded the journal L’étudiant noir (The Black Student) in 1935. Césaire coined the word “negritude,” transforming the word “nègre,” a term of abuse, into the rallying cry of a movement. He proclaimed his blackness. He became a poet.

Unlike Senghor, Césaire never used negritude to mystify or mythologize. The return to Africa, the invocation of “primeval unity” or “the truth of essentials,” an authentic or innate blackness, was not enough. Instead he described negritude as “a concrete awareness” of what it meant to live in “the atmosphere of rejection . . . conditioned to feelings of inferiority.” Rather than counter racism with visions of past glory, he returned to the history of prejudice and the suffering it had wrought. “No, we’ve never been Amazons of the King of Dahomey, nor princes of Ghana with eight hundred camels,” he wrote in the Cahier. “I may as well confess that we were at all times pretty mediocre dishwashers, shoeblacks without ambition.” Many writers would later condemn negritude for its essentialism; Wole Soyinka quipped that the tiger doesn’t have to proclaim its tigritude. But Césaire never wholly abandoned the charge to reclaim a real history that had been disfigured or obliterated. And for him the French language was essential to this project.

In the Cahier, history is Césaire’s subject: his personal history, as well as the history of his island. But what happens when the poet who has been told his country has no history sits down to write an epic? Detritus is the source of his vision. The fragments of foreign civilizations, the residue of imposed cultures, the medley of traditions, all contradictory and clashing, inspire the poet. The ritual of recovery depends on a landscape suffused with spirits, trash, and mud. Here is Césaire’s “essential landscape,” splendidly translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith:
And they threw stones at him, bits of scrap iron, broken bottles, but neither these stones, nor this scrap iron, nor these bottles . . . O peaceful years of God on this terraqueous clod!
and the whip argued with the bombilation of the flies over the sugary dew of our sores.
The Cahier marks Césaire’s “descent into a real hell,” the plunge necessary to heal the wound of assimilation, what Fanon called “lactification” or whitening. As Césaire explained in 1967:
It’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.
Imagine a poem that forces history, psychoanalysis, ethnography, and revolution to coexist. The Cahier stages the uneasy alliances between the monumental projections of empire and its abject underside: populations looted, cultures trampled, slaves reduced by terror and regulated by force. Alternately strident and elegiac, Césaire pits the ongoing myths of inferiority against the lure of “civilizing” language. The relics and scraps of bodies, the slaves who had been called “ebony wood,” “pieces of the Indies,” or “heads of cattle,” return as ancestor spirits, caught in the evil that created them.

What these metamorphoses have in common is a secret pact with the banal. Césaire plied his words as if they were ritual incantation, and he knew that the magic of ritual lay in its ordinariness, its way of reiterating the simplest, least gilded things. The sacred had to be concrete in order to transform, palpable, never abstract. The bond between colonizer and colonized, the mutual adaptability, as Hegel had it, of master and slave, gained substance through these meditations on mimicry, adaptation, and appropriation. Resistance for Césaire is not just political, but psychic. Repression is not only a history of mutilation and torture. It is also the buried and forgotten. The revolution must be “internal,” a complete overhauling of consciousness, what he called “une rencontre bien totale.”

In the effort to understand the relation between Césaire’s art and his life, between tradition and revolution, his plays are also instructive. He turned to drama in much the same way Eliot did, not to replace the poems but to supplement and enlarge upon them. They are not just history plays, but analyses of the colonial problem, the perils of revolution and the difficulties of decolonization. One of his tragedies, among the many that dogged his life, was the recognition of his plays in Senegal but not in Martinique.

In 1963 Césaire published La tragédiedu roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe); in 1965 Une saison au Congo (A Season in the Congo), about the fall of Patrice Lumumba; and in 1969 Une tempête, what he called his “adaptation” of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I recall asking Césaire why he wrote a play about Christophe and not about the other two revolutionary leaders Toussaint or Dessalines. He liked to linger sometimes in the negative, he said, in what was irretrievable—or did he say unsalvageable? Christophe is a black Prospero who loses his magic as soon as he takes up his crown. Unlike Caliban who cuts through the illusions of Prospero’s speech, Christophe faces a history of loss: “In the past they stole our names / Our pride / Our nobility.” So instead of the stigmatizing “Pierre, Paul, Jacques, Toussaint” he invents a nobility, “his Grace the Duke of Limonade, the Duke of Marmalade.”

The magic of the hybrid—the beauty, the heat, the odors and music, the luxuriance and excess of the tropics—is much more attractive to publishers and critics than the grueling realities of racism and violence.

In writing these plays, Césaire made it plain that he was honest enough to declare an end to his dream of decolonization. But he was brave enough to write Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème colonial(1961). Haunted by revolution, living in the torpor of Martinique, and perhaps remembering his first visit to Haiti long before, Césaire proposed to answer the question, “why did the whites fail . . . why did the mulattoes fail . . . and why did the most destitute social group, the negroes, the group with the ‘greatest grievance’ succeed?” How paradoxical and vexing proved the language of “inalienable” human rights when used by the free in the name of the bound. It was Toussaint, according to Césaire, who “took the Declaration of the Rights of Man literally,” who gave life to a principle. But the black masses made the revolution. They understood, as Césaire demonstrates, that nothing could be expected from Paris, that formal promises would not be fulfilled, and, most of all, that freedom must be won through conflict.

Eventually, those black-brown masses did win their freedom, and in doing so turned Dessalines, the first leader of independent Haiti, into a god. This link between religious practice and political change, between vodou and resistance, is a consistent theme in Haitian history, but Césaire was never comfortable talking about vodou, or quimbois, its attenuated equivalent in Martinique. Though statistics indicate that 75 percent of Martinicans are Roman Catholic, that does not say very much. In Haiti, where le mélange, or mixture, is a fact of life, vodou practitioners boast in words that are by now proverbial, “I am Catholic, and I serve the gods.”

Even though blood-suckers, revenants, evil spirits in the form of dogs, and loupgawou walk the night, Césaire, like Toussaint, refused to recognize—at least openly—these powers. Yet a glance at the poetry, early and late, at the landscape infused with life, stones made animate, and all kinds of commingling of persons and things, suggests what is so deeply felt that it cannot be said. Césaire’s reticence, which I first took as coldness, I later understood to be respect for the unknowable, a grace that refused to use or tamper with what gave life to the trees, lived in the waters, and, I think now, inspired him. The spirits found voice in his art.

But what kind of voice was possible for the poet born in the Caribbean, educated into French literature, who wanted to break out of the fetters of colonialism? Césaire once said:
I don’t deny French influences within myself. . . . But I want to emphasize very strongly that—while using the elements that French literature gave me as a point of departure—at the same time I have always strived to form a new language. . . . I wanted to create an Antillean French, a black French.
He always refused to be enshrined as one of the splendid results of French colonization. He defied its gifts of eloquence, dislocated French into something new, and expressed what he called “this self, this black, creole, Martinican, West Indian self.” No one wrote French like Césaire. From the Cahier and Les armes miraculeuses to such works as Soleil cou coupé (Beheaded Sun) (1948), Corps perdu (Lost Body) (1950), Ferrements (1960), and Cadastre (1961), he coined neologisms and introduced archaisms and popular and scientific etymologies, while tearing apart syntax and word order. Obsessed by terminology, he exhumed old words, plundering Latin and Greek and remaking the ancient world on the soil of Martinique.

The challenge was to forge a new register of communication out of the données of the colonial “mother tongue.” For some Caribbean writers, however, the attempt was doomed to failure: to be an exile in your own land. In Eloge de la créolité (In Praise of Creoleness) (1989), Raphaël Confiant, Patrick Chamoiseau, and the linguist Jean Bernabé oversimplified the ambiguities of Glissant’s Le Discours antillais (Caribbean Discourse) (1981). They advocated a return to creole, the language of the “djobeurs” and “the vegetable markets of Fort-de-France.” Creolity, along with such terms as “nomadism,” “cross-cultural circulation,” and “mestiza consciousness,” entered the academy, offering a chance for professors fashionably to embrace the “other.” Creolity became exotic, an easy trip to the supermarket of diversity goods where everyone could pick up a bit of local color. It was supremely apolitical. Suddenly, the Caribbean became emblematic of the world we live in, as in James Clifford’s realization that “the whole world is evolving toward a condition of creolization.” But these Caribbean hybridities were achieved at a price.

Césaire never forgot these costs. He never forgot history or politics. Perhaps that is why Confiant and Chamoiseau are so much more popular in Paris today. The magic of the hybrid—the beauty, the heat, the odors and music, the luxuriance and excess of the tropics—is much more attractive to publishers and critics than the grueling realities of racism and violence. Césaire’s French holds on to the parts of the self that most of us would like to conceal. Stark and compelling, it ruptures empty pieties. Take, for example, these lines from “Ibis-Anubis” : “à l’avance j’éructai une vie / j’ai tiré au sort mes ancêtres une terre plénière / mais qui blesse qui motile / tout ce qui abâtardit le fier regard” (in advance I belched a life / I drew lots for my ancestors for a plenary earth / but one that wounds that mutilates / anything that bastardizes a proud gaze). He became a poet by renouncing poetry. It was only in this rejection—achieved through the very materials that confined him—that he made his break with the “langue de culture.”

He made his life, just as he made his language and his poetry, out of what others judged defeats.

Césaire recognized that the dream of a return to Africa was as much a symptom of deracination as the myth of assimilation with France. His honesty was brutal. But only with his singular and hard-won French could he keep his voice true, held between the lure of an idealized past and the dangers of a restrictive present, between poetry and politics, lyric and prose, Paris and Africa. He never feared controversy. He was dreadfully consistent. In 2005, when he refused to see future French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had supported the law forcing teachers and texts to teach the positive effects of colonialism, Césaire insisted, “I am anti-colonial. I have never changed. I am inflexible.”

* * *

Césaire lived the tragedy of a present that kept repeating the past. He had hoped in the auspicious days after World War II that colonial atrocities would end. It was in this spirit that in the French National Assembly on March 19, 1946, he pushed for Martinique, along with the other “vieilles colonies” —Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and Réunion—to become a department: no longer a colony, but an equal part of France alongside Alpes-Maritimes, Paris, or Dordogne. Yet he found himself humiliated as he watched new forms of oppression—economic exploitation and cultural dependency—take root in a neocolonial Martinique. Laws concerning unemployment benefits, social security, and equal salaries, for example, were passed in Paris but not applied in Martinique. Before the Assembly on December 29, 1947, Césaire condemned “the caricature of assimilation” offered by France, who had reneged on her promise of equality. “We asked you for . . . the rights of man and the citizen,” he said. “What you offer us instead are truncheons and riot squads.” He watched his fellow deputies acquiesce in the massacres of the Malagasy during the nationalist uprising in Madagascar in 1947. Three years later, in Discours sur le colonialisme, he described scenes of “cannibalistic hysteria” in the Assembly, with “cries of ‘Kill! Kill!’ and ‘Let’s see some blood,’ belched forth by trembling old men.” Discours marked his confrontation not only with the barbarism of the “respectable bourgeois,” but with a language that blinds, manipulates, and deadens. He looked to an Africa that finally shook off the colonial yoke only to see independence become nothing more than a cover for new forms of domination. “The flotsam of any Ancien Régime,” he reminded me, “has a strange staying power.”

He made his life, just as he made his language and his poetry, out of what others judged defeats, or as V. S. Naipaul put it, “nullities.” If Naipaul’s recurrent nightmare was to awaken and find himself back in Trinidad, Césaire lived again and again the return to Martinique. Not just in his Cahier, where return is the only ritual that matters, the only way to reclaim the self, but in his double life as mayor in Martinique and deputy in Paris. He never turned his back on what divided him.

I visited Césaire before the publication of moi, laminaire . . . (me, laminaria . . .) (1982), as he approached seventy. The promise of “unheard of whitenings” in Les armes miraculeuses, the pleasure in obscurity had thirty-five years later become muted. More an elegy for what did not happen than a summoning of the possible, these poems are quiet in their strangeness. The prose epigraph concludes: “time also to settle one’s account with a few phantoms and ghosts.” The old influences, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Claudel, are gone. The laconic voice and cool irony accomplish something more honest and more difficult. Offering no easy compromise or magical fantasy, Césaire presents his island, his vision, and his art as “avatar / of a version of paradise absurdly spoiled / —it is much worse than a hell— /” .

Vulnerable now to disappointments that over such a long time had not been dislodged, he realized that no words of his, no matter how miraculous, could save him. In the image of the laminarian algae clinging to a rock in the Caribbean, Césaire reflects on how “the atmospheric or rather historic pressure / immeasurably increases my afflictions / even if it makes some words of mine luxurious.” Césaire selected these closing lines of “Lagoonal Calendar” to be engraved on his tombstone in the cemetery of La Joyau where he was buried on April 20 after a long journey through the streets of Fort-de-France, lined with tens of thousands, some of whom sang in Creole, “Papa Aimé, mesi” (“Papa Aimé, thank you”), as if he were a god.

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