In the early 70s, when I came to New York Cityin the early seventies, I loved the song “you got to have friends” sung by the incomparable Bette Midler. I once met the songwriter at a loft party downtown—he was burly and funny and not at all like what I thought a songwriter should look like. But then, what did I know. I came from a small town in Arkansas and while there were musicians and artists and possibly poets there, no one claimed those titles. Coming to NYC was my journey to Oz for me and of course I found friends to join me in my adventures on these sidewalks of. But it is that coming from Arkansasthat fascinates—I would tell people I was from Arkansas and they would blink and say “you’re the first person I’ve met from Arkansas”. Was I an alien from the strange planet, Arkansas? And when they found out I was a poet, they would ask me I knew Maya Angelou who was like 30 plus years older than me—No, never met Ms. Angelou, but I do like Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Poets from Arkansas are few and far between. Frank Stanford is the misunderstood genius. Ms. Angelou, the inspirational standard bearer. C. D. Wright, a few years older than me is part of the establishment-major awards, teaches at Brown. And then there’s Henry Dumas, long dead, still admired. He was from Sweet Home and I have no idea where that is. But in his very short life he produced poetry and fiction. And here is where the friend thing comes in. We know his work; we have his work because of Eugene Redmond. Play Ebony Play Ivory published in both hard cover and paperback in 1974, a few years after his untimely death at the hands of NYC policemen. I inscribed my hardcover volume thus: Second copy, first copy lent out and never returned, 1978.
Redmond and other admirers of Dumas’ work including Jay Wright who wrote the introduction for the collection were able to keep alive a talented poet who was already a star in the making in the Black Arts Movement, engaged in his study of African history, philosophy, etc. and enraged atAmerica’s slow pace of change like everyone Black and young and hungry for a future—a future denied him. His most accomplished poem “Knees of a Natural Man” begins:
My ole man took me to thefultonfish market
we walk around in the guts and the scales
my ole man show me a dead fish, eyes like throat spit
he say “you hungry boy?’ i say “naw, not yet”
The education of the Negro is a delicate thing, he seems to be saying. This isn’t about teaching somebody to fish–it’s about survival by hustle and not much has changed since the 1960s when this poem was written. In Play Ebony Play Ivory, his poetic range is evident from lyrics to angry polemics to gutbucket blues songs. Maybe it was hisArkansas roots that allowed his mind to roam so freely over so many things. Mr. Redmond’s efforts allows us to see “what the new breed” was bringing in the 1960s. Dumas left the planet at age 33 or was it 34. His poems continue to play ebony, play ivory.
Earlier this year, Akilah Oliver, a wonderfully intellectual and adventurous woman and an amazing poet passed away unexpectedly. She also left several chapbooks, performance tapes and a poetry volume A Toast in the House of Friends from Coffee House Press. One of my favorite texts by her is from The Putterer’s Notebook (Belladonna Books):
The dream itself becomes commodity & how should I live, decomposing [as I am]&
Irretrievable, how should I live, dreaming like Jimi Hendrix in red suede, homesick, this body a
serial topography laughing drunkenly in grandmother’s robes,
in the looking glass,
Who reflects the dead?
Being a friend I have to do some praise work of poet friends. Giovanni Singleton and Julie Patton are Black Women poets who deserve much wider audiences. I met Giovanni at Squaw Valley in the early 1990s and she was on a very different literary path from all of us. Like Harryette Mullen, Tonya Foster, Erica Hunt, Christopher Stackhouse, et al, she is fascinated by the process as well as the expressive qualities of making texts. She is the editor/publisher of nocturnes (re) view, an important and ambitious literary journal; I’ve not seen any new issues, but I am sure there are past editions still in print and worth the price. Julie Patton is the trickster queen of poetry, working her art fueled, Afro centric magic in texts and songs and visual art that showcase a deep knowledge and love of Black people and the Black Arts Movement that made a place for us all. She is the author of Using Blue to Get Black and Notes for Some (Nominally) Awake. We share a friendship with Sandra Payne, a wonderful NYC based artist who has made “movies” of our poems on her website, www.sandrapayne.com.
C. D. Wright sent me a copy of One With Others. She explores Arkansas’ legacy of racism, corruption and brutality focusing on a march led by Suhkarah Yahweh then known as Sweet Willie Wine—a march against fear—that ended with mass arrest and horrific treatment of my townspeople in 1969. Outside of the Little Rock Nine in 1957, very little of what happened in Arkansas during the Civil Rights era has made it into the popular consciousness. Her book tells a very under told story, that of a few White folks who actually opened their eyes, their hearts and one who took the major step to join the Black folks in that march. Of course, she was vilified and made her way to New York City where she made new friends and carried on her life. Wright’s book is amazing and yes she thanks me and my family for our input. Several of the poems in my first collection, The Weather That Kills talk about growing up in the Delta during that time and one major incident in which my neighbors were brutalized by the Klan. In that poem I talk about my “family’s ordinary courage.” And it is and was the ordinary courage of Black folks in the Delta who made a way for me to be who I am. It is good that Wright took up the gauntlet to seriously deal with race from her perspective and those of the townsfolk. Many are still traumatized and yes the Klan operates there, albeit quietly..
As a Black poet I have written about poems for weddings; Billie Holiday as a goddess figure : lust, love and loss; poems against violence and police brutality; Jimi Hendrix (twice); the Age of AIDs; walking the streets of Munich in 1989 and my favorite shade of lipstick. All of these poems arrive via a prism of race, gender, nationality, geography. I do not apologize for subjectivity. And I know that is because of the talent, energy and yes sacrifices of poets such as Henry Dumas and Lorenzo Thomas that I am able to be the poet that I am. Other Black poets may choose different paths to make their work. Black poets should not have to carry the weight of race and racism in our work unless demanded by the poet. There is no one size fits all version of Blackness or any other “ness.” If there was, we’d be dull and dull people rarely have friends.