I am sitting in a local coffee shop, Common Ground on Tompkins Ave in Brooklyn, this Friday afternoon. The sun tries to shine. We are having a reluctant spring after a relentless winter. Everything about 2011 is complicated, challenging, exhilarating and exhausting and Easter has not come. We need relief.
I’ve been thinking about pranks, prankster and the need for clowns. Earlier this year, a Cutout of Langston Hughes was swiped from BusBoys & Poets, a DC restaurant and cultural space. It was done on behalf of Black poets in particular and poets in general to GET MORE RESPECT including dear Mr. Hughes. So during AWP when like every other poet in America was in town, cardboard Langston was liberated. A wonderful picture of those who secured Flat Langston was circulated on FB and both the prank and the picture brought a smile and occasioned this poem “Flat Langston (let my cutout go)” and the poems ends thusly:
What now for the poets alive surrounding my figure in white, what
will they do between now and the next controversy? If I had a gift
It was to say that no matter what, the poet stands ready comic or tragic
To mock bite or embrace.
The problem with becoming part of the canon is that we assign certain ideas about poet and artists and their work and they are flattened by the reverence. Hughes was intensely ambitious and understood how to manipulate his image to market his poetry and enhance his including that silly busboy picture. But is can also keep us from remembering the width and wit of his work –indeed one of his best book titles is Not Without Laughter. But whether as a cardboard cutout or on that canonical pedestal, our best known writers are held to conventional shapes as if they are not allowed to mess up, mess around or scratch their asses.
I love comedy, comedians, and the comic. People are always surprised that there is so much humor in my work. But there’s a great deal of humor of the work of poets I really enjoy—you can’t get to wisdom without finding that point where pain gives way to understanding, headshaking and sometimes downright laughing. Lorenzo Thomas, Charles Bernstein, Maureen Owen, Elaine Equi, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Pedro Pietri, Lydia Cortes, Ntozake Shange, Willie Perdomo, and Adrian Matjeka make work that erupts with serious fun. At least to me.
I grew up during a time when American comedy was vibrant and biting. Mort Sahl, Mike Nichols & Elaine May, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, and Lily Tomlin on the White Side. And Oh my stars— Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson and glorious glorious Richard Pryor on the Black Side. I saw many them by staying up way past my bedtime watching The Tonight Show—Johnny Carson was no slouch back then and Jack Parr’s shows on Friday Nights.
Thulani Davis, a great poet as well as novelist, journalist and librettist for the Opera X and I used to talk about how much we learned about the world from watching/listening to the comics working in the sixties. If you want to see how certain psychological relationships are played out look at those Nichols/May skits—downright scary. And Dick Gregory & Godfrey Cambridge were so damn erudite. If you want someone to deflate the Ways of Racists White Folks–they could do it without cursing while wearing super sharp suits. Now curse words were used in the “blue” albums made by Redd Foxx, et al. These party albums were for ADULTS, thank you very much and were intensely scatological (from what little I got to hear). Moms Mabley was hilarious—“Don’t bring no old man” still reverberates in my brain. And I can see the cover art for Moms at the White House—perfect. But Pryor trumped them all. I am sure I saw his first ever appearance on The Tonight Show and besides laughing so hard I am sure folks in Marianna Arkansas heard me, he had to have been the skinniest grown man I’d ever seen.
Many comics working now are not as interesting-language is all about curse words and adolescent behavior. Eddie Murphy in his early hungry for the world days and Chris Rock are terrific, but the one comic in the past few years that I really enjoyed was Bernie Mac. Like Pryor he came from the Midwestand deeply understood the ways of Black folks and the other folks Black folks interact with. While Pryor’s demons were well known, Mac had a more straight arrow image (family man, working guy). But in different ways, they worked hard to create a space for what are really moral tales told with gusto. Pryor’s tale of his assault on his car is one way to say Kill the thing, not a person and it is one of the funniest monologues, ever. And Mac’s stories of caring for and his frustrations with his extended family as crack cocaine and prison exploded the fragility his own home and of African American families across this country says more about “responsibility” then these endless Right Wing and Religious admonitions targeted at “minorities.” Well there are Black Folks (wealthy and otherwise) in every city, town and village in this nation taking care of someone connected by blood or circumstance. Two Black men from the heart of this complex nation make me laugh when I see film clips and remember a line, a story or a shrug: as if to say, yes we really do this so we make that better day.