Friday, March 24, 2017

RIP Mari Evans & Derek Walcott

Within the last few weeks, two major Black poets, Mari Evans (1919/1923?-2017) and Derek Walcott (1930-2017), have passed. Unsurprisingly, there has been much more coverage of Walcott, an internationally renown poet and playwright, and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, than of Evans, who probably is best known among afficionados of 20th century Black Women's writing and the Black Arts Movement. In both she was an invaluable voice. As I have come to do when thinking about the rich constellations of Black poetries throughout history, I see them as part of a continuum, a point I doubt will be mentioned in obituaries of either. Both poets probed their intersectional identities in part through an investigation of history and contemporary society, and both drew upon the oral traditions in which they had grown up, to different but parallel ends. With their passing, the poetry world has lost two significant voices.

Evans was the older poet, an African American, a native of Toledo, Ohio, and did not publish her first book until she was already 40 years old. It was around this time, in the late 1960s, which marked the rise of the Black Arts Movement, that she began teaching, a profession in which she made her mark. In 1970, she issued her second volume, I Am a Black Woman, which stands alongside early books by Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Lucille Clifton, and Carolyn Rodgers as exemplars of the new Black women's poetry that still continues to influence Black poets writing in the US and globally today. In this collection's poems you can see the themes, the style, the fierceness that would appear in all of Evans's later work, and you can also see how it serves and continues to function as an important counterweight to the sometimes masculinist, misogynistic discourse that marked some--but not all--poetry by Black Arts male poets.

A feminist, politically progressive, a poet drawing from vernacular traditions but possessing a keen sense of the line, and of humor, Evans would go on to publish four more books of poetry, as well as writings for children and plays, while also pursuing a career as a poetry professor at a number of institutions. I had the pleasure of hearing Mari Evans read a few times, though I never got an opportunity to speak with her at length. A longtime resident of Indianapolis, Indiana, she died there on March 10, 2017. Here is one of her most famous poems, "I Am a Black Woman," from the AfroPoets website, and I hear echoes of it in so many poems being written today, even as they take different approaches to the themes Evans so movingly articulated in her work:

I Am a Black Woman

I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
and I
can be heard humming in the night
Can be heard
in the night

I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea
and I/with these hands/cupped the lifebreath
from my issue in the canebrake
I lost Nat's swinging body in a rain of tears
and heard my son scream all the way from Anzio
for Peace he never knew....I
learned Da Nang and Pork Chop Hill
in anguish
Now my nostrils know the gas
and these trigger tire/d fingers
seek the softness in my warrior's beard

I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
on me and be

Copyright © Mari Evans, 2017. All rights reserved.

I have written about and posted a few poems by Derek Walcott over the years, including back in 2006, when I ran into him at a New York bank branch, spoke with and snapped a photo of him, upsetting the customer assistant who was handling his business. (A subsequent encounter at Sea Grape--which nearly shares the name of his 1976 collection--a wine store on Hudson Street, was without incident, and he was warm and gregarious, though I still think he really had no idea who I was beyond a vag with Boston.) I wrote about him again in 2008, when I posted "As John to Patmos," the first poem by him I ever read, when I was in junior high and I happened upon it in a poetry anthology my class was using. If I remember correctly,  we were not assigned Walcott's poem but the poem's final lines immediately drew me to it. I did have the pleasure of meeting Walcott a few times over the years, including all the way back to the early Dark Room Writers Collective days, when he read with Martín Espada. His delivery of his poems that night was as unforgettable as the lead up to the event, when several Dark Room members had to go fetch him, I think, and later, as his inimitable entrance into the Dark Room house, with a little entourage. Every reading thereafter I always measured by that first one, and he rarely disappointed.

Even before I'd met him in person, I'd heard about him as a teacher, including the good--his brilliance in finding ways to help poets reshape and perfect their poems, his many nuggets of wisdom, his sharp eye--and the bad; the year before I started college, he was called out for having sexually harassed an undergraduate student, and he was called out again a few years later for the same behavior. His life's complexities and complications are there in the work, which drew upon a range of traditions, including English formalism and Caribbean orality and its trove of storytelling and myth-making. The rich fusion of this poetics is apparent from the very beginning; Walcott's first book, In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960, was more accomplished than the second or third books of highly praised poets. It reaches its apogee, I think, in the later work, particularly his masterpiece Omeros (1990), which stands as one of the great long poems of all time in English, and a landmark in Anglophone, Caribbean and Black Diasporic literature.

Here is the 1lth section of "The Schooner Flight," another of my favorite Walcott poems. You can find the entire poem here, on the Poetry Foundation's website.

From "The Schooner Flight"
11 After the Storm

There’s a fresh light that follows a storm
while the whole sea still havoc; in its bright wake   
I saw the veiled face of Maria Concepcion   
marrying the ocean, then drifting away
in the widening lace of her bridal train
with white gulls her bridesmaids, till she was gone.   
I wanted nothing after that day.
Across my own face, like the face of the sun,   
a light rain was falling, with the sea calm.

Fall gently, rain, on the sea’s upturned face   
like a girl showering; make these islands fresh   
as Shabine once knew them! Let every trace,   
every hot road, smell like clothes she just press   
and sprinkle with drizzle. I finish dream;   
whatever the rain wash and the sun iron:
the white clouds, the sea and sky with one seam,   
is clothes enough for my nakedness.   
Though my Flight never pass the incoming tide   
of this inland sea beyond the loud reefs   
of the final Bahamas, I am satisfied   
if my hand gave voice to one people’s grief.   
Open the map. More islands there, man,   
than peas on a tin plate, all different size,   
one thousand in the Bahamas alone,   
from mountains to low scrub with coral keys,   
and from this bowsprit, I bless every town,   
the blue smell of smoke in hills behind them,
and the one small road winding down them like twine
to the roofs below; I have only one theme:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,   
vain search for one island that heals with its harbor   
and a guiltless horizon, where the almond’s shadow   
doesn’t injure the sand. There are so many islands!   
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.   
But things must fall, and so it always was,   
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;   
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one   
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.   
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,   
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.   
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don’t work, I study the stars.   
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam   
as the deck turn white and the moon open   
a cloud like a door, and the light over me   
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.   
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.

Derek Walcott, “The Schooner Flight” from Collected Poems 1948-1984. Copyright © 1990 by Derek Walcott. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved. Source: Poems 1965-1980 (Jonathan Cape, 1980)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Fitzcarraldo Wins Republic of Consciousness Prize for *Counternarratives*!

Republic of Consciousness
Prize Announcement

Yesterday evening in a cozy room in London, as I moved through my usual Thursday workday, meeting with students and giving a mid-term exam in Newark, the ceremony for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses was underway. Last fall I blogged about this new prize, which author and publisher Neil Griffiths established to honor smaller British presses that took the financial risk, which is substantial, of publishing more formally and thematically challenging writing. As the RoCP's initial announcement stated, the prize selection criteria could be boiled down to two elements, "hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose." In November the British edition of Counternarratives, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, was named to its longlist, and subsequently its shortlist of eight finalists in January.

Neil Griffiths, speaking to RoCP's
ceremony audience, Fyvie Hall
At the packed London ceremony in Fyvie Hall on Regents Street, Griffiths, accompanied by the judges, and in the presence of the nominated publishers and their staff, journalists, writers, editors, and other members of the British literary world, announced that Fitzcarraldo was the winner of the first Republic of Consciousness Prize for Counternarratives! In their unanimous decision, the six-judge jury described the collection as a "once in a generation achievement for short-form fiction," and lauded its "subject matter, formal inventiveness, multitude of voices, and seriousness of purpose." Fitzcarraldo publisher Jacques Testard and Fitzcarraldo PR guru Nicolette Praça were there to accept the prize, and Testard offered remarks about the award's importance for Fitzcarraldo and for small presses in the UK and everywhere.

Fitzcarraldo received the top £3000 prize, and the shortlist finalists, which were Tramp Press, which published Briton Mike McCormack’s novel Solar Bones (winner of the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize) and & Other Stories, which published Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield’s novel Martin John, each received £1000. In addition, publisher Galley Beggar received the Best First Novel or Collection Prize and £1000 for UK author Paul Stanbridge’s Forbidden Line, which Griffiths praised for its "multitudinous energy." The Guardian wrote up the ceremony; you can find the article here. Publishing site The Bookseller also wrote about the prize here. You can also hear Testard and Griffiths spoke about the award and small presses in a radio interview on the Robert Elms show on BBC Radio London (beginning at 1:09:20).


I've never had the pleasure of meeting Jacques Testard in person, but he, Nicolette Praça and everyone affiliated with Fitzcarraldo have been a dream to work with, and I am very thankful that he took the leap of publishing my book. (And especially delighted still in the press's choice of Yves Klein International Blue for its fiction covers!) Many thanks also to the prize jury, who unanimously chose Counternarratives, and once again, a million thanks to Neil Griffiths for establishing the award, for his work as an author and publisher, and for his advocacy of small-press publishing.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Random Photos

A few random photos from the last month. I've been so busy with school-related work (multiple search committees, thesis projects, etc.) that I haven't been able to get out much. But here are a few images from recent weeks.

The façade of Aljira, a Center for Contemporary
Art, announcing Zachary Fabri's show
From the Wolf to the Fox
which closed on January 15 
A detail from Fabri's Areola: Black
Presidents, digital print
Detail, Zachary Fabri, Eu
Mino Minas Gerais
 (I Mine
Minas Gerais, Brazil), 2010.
Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor
speaking at the opening of Express Newark
at the newly renovated Hahne's Building, Newark 
One of the glassed in reliquary spaces
at the new World Trade Center PATH station 
In Las Cruces, New Mexico 
Las Cruces, New Mexico 
The flyer for the conversation I had
with the utterly brilliant, lovely Christina Sharpe,
who also read from her must-read
book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
Marble-polisher, WTC PATH statoin 
Worker relaxing, WTC PATH station
A display being erected or dismantled,
it was unclear which was the case,
WTC PATH station 
Workers polishing all that slippery, easily scuffed
marble, WTC PATH station (perhaps
someone will think of laying rubber pathways
to lessen the possibility of slips and tumbles
when it's rainy or snowy outside)
Union Station, Washington, DC 
What I found when I left my office on Monday;
someone had smashed into my left sideview mirror 
Dorothy Wang of Williams College delivering her talk
at Rutgers-Newark on Amiri Baraka, Ed Dorn,
and the politics of literary history and valuation

Monday, February 13, 2017

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American
History and Culture, from the north view
Last week I ventured to Washington, DC to attend the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference, which I'll say a little more about in a subsequent post, but one of the highlights of the trip to DC was the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Designed by British architect David Adjaye in conjunction with the Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, the museum sits on the National Mall, across the road from the Washington Monument. Long in planning, the NMAAHC was authorized for construction by the Congress and George W. Bush in 2003, and opened in ceremony led by the United States' first African American president, Barack Obama, last fall, September 14, 2016, to considerable acclaim for its architectural beauty and substantial collection.

The flag of the Bucks of America,
an American Revolutionary War
Black regiment
I'd been warned that acquiring tickets to the NMAAHC would be a challenge, but a colleague, Tayari Jones, was able to score me a ticket for 3:15 pm, and I made sure not to be late. The NMAAHC's building immediately commands the eye, rising in bronze from its site like a series of stacked wicker baskets or bowls that both convey solidity while also shimmering with the shifts in light. (The bronze carapace aims to and convincingly symbolizes a Yoruban crown, invoking one of the ethnic groups from which a sizable portion of African peoples in the New world share descent.) As it turns out, the museum is too large to see in one day, so I chose to head to the historical section, which presents a rich panorama, full of visual and material artifacts, from the 1400s through the present day. To view this section, museumgoers have to descend in an elevator to the bottom-most floor, and then slowly ascend, via a ramp, stairs and escalator, to reach return to the ground floor. In essence, everyone viewing this portion of the museum is physically and symbolically in the ship and in the hold, to borrow two key phrases from Christina Sharpe's remarkable study In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke, 2016).

More manacles and shackles
On the day I went, the afternoon crowd wasn't especially heavy at first, though my cabdriver assured me that the museum was, in his experience of the last few months, the most and best-attendance attraction in the city. By the time I'd begun the tour, however, the waves of museumgoers, of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds, began increasing, and I found it a challenge at times, especially at the beginning of the exhibit, to linger over the displays and artifacts. It was also at times uncanny to read the plaques and descriptions, since I was familiar with much of the material from prior study in college and personal research, including in preparation for Counternarratives and other works, but I nevertheless found myself learning a lot that was new, and was impressed at how well the exhibits accessibly contextualized the various eras and moments from the dawn of the Atlantic Slave trade through its decline and the Civil War. At times I found the artifacts so moving I was moved nearly to tears--and at least once did tear up. Among the exhibit's revelations for me was a flag by the Bucks of America, an organization of Revolutionary War veterans whose members included a historical figure who serves as the model for the protagonist of the novel I'm currently working on; another was a whip, formerly wielded by a plantation overseer, whose metal end and thick cording exceeded most models you would find today and emblematized the brutal conditions of African American labor not only in the past but today.

As I walked through the exhibit, taking notes and snapping photos (which are, thankfully, allowed), stopping to discuss the experience with friends, and frequently moved by what I was seeing and reading, I felt incredibly grateful that this institution now existed, that millions of people would have the opportunity to see and experience it, that millions of black people, from the US and across the globe, as well as million of non-black people, would be able to walk through its rooms and learn and see and feel. What I also felt and feel, however, as a black person, as an African American, is that one museum or even several dozen, if one adds in all the smaller and single-person related museums, the various Civil Rights memorials and museums, and various key archives, collections and monuments, will only scratch the surface of my and the collective black experience, especially compared to the many thousands of museums, as well as the vast and expanding network of interlinked and dominant media, dedicated to white people, European culture, and so forth, that exist all over the United States and the globe. That said, the NMAAHC is a gift to the country and the world, and I highly recommend visiting it. I plan to return as soon as I can, to explore more of it. To all who made it possible, I say thank you!

My timed pass 
The ground floor
The beginning of the historical exhibit
A visual display featuring scenes
from African American history
Closeup: James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston
In the elevator: Booker T. Washington
From the 1400s on
"The Atlantic Creoles"
Actual slave manacles and shackles 
Timber and iron ballast from
a slave ship, the São José 
Nat Turner's Bible 
A close-up of Nat Turner's Bible
An important historical list
And another
The country, divided after the entry
of my native state, Missouri
Point of Pines Cabin, an actual stlave
cabin from Edisto, South Carolina
Artifacts, including a note in Arabic 
Harriet Tumbman's artifacts,
including a shawl and a Bible
Historical marker for Nicodemus,
one of the original free Black town
established in Kansas 
Inside one of the formerly segregated
train cars, from the 1940s 
A multimedia tableau from the
Civil Rights era, with Medgar
Evers at bottom right 
Bayard Rustin display
(Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
with Rustin at right)
Malcolm X
("by any means necessary")
A Black Unity jacket
(belonging to a Vietnam veteran) 
Amiri Baraka and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure)
Black Power display 
Muhammad Ali and
Black Panther badges
A young Nikki Giovanni
Toni Morrison receiving
the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1993 
The 1990s
Public Enemy

A Langston Hughes quote that graces
the final wall leading out of the
history exhibit
Oprah Winfrey Theater
(Oprah donated $22 million+ to the museum)
Yours truly (photo by Tayari Jones)