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 Never Missing a Beat

by Abdul Ali

 

Hettie Jones

Even before I started calling myself a writer, I enjoyed meeting people. I didn’t think of it as interviewing then. It was my own way of listening to the rhythm of someone else’s thoughts. Where were they from? What was it like? Did they pick honey suckle like I did as a child?

Earlier this week, I interviewed poet Hettie Jones. I encountered her work under the strangest of circumstances. Back in college, I was dating a young woman who always teased me for my literary ambition. She once said, you know if you become famous, I can write a book like Hettie Jones (she wrote How I Became Hettie Jones) did. The moment she said that, I wanted to know who Hettie Jones was. And, I don’t mean who she was in terms of her marriage to Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones.) I mean, who was she on the page. And what was it like to be one of the few women involved with the Beat Generation?

It turns out she was as fascinating as I believed she would be. And, for some reason, I keep thinking of my grandmother whenever I think of Hettie Jones (as my grandparents too were an interracial couple.)  But more than that, Hettie had some solid things to say about the Beat Generation. Above all, she said, we were intellectuals. We read everything. We were very passionate about what we believed in. None of us grew up with silver spoons in our mouths. We were influenced by the Black Mountain school of poetry that purported: each line contained a breath.

Though, I wasn’t of that generation. I appreciate the framework, the inheritance of it all. That poetry does not belong to the elite. That it was for all of us. That it’s okay to pepper your poems with curse words (used judiciously, of course). That it was okay if your poem come in the shape of a bird, as long as it flies off the page.

Weather

My folder of poems
labeled "weather" holds
no clues as to whether
or not there’ll be any 

weather to count on, say,
a hard rain like "little nails," or
that deluge "plunging radiant"

now that we’ve plunged into war
and wars don’t stop like rain stops

like that last slow drizzle
onto the old tin bathroom vent

sweet hint of growth
in the soft wet drift north

fire or ice, fire or ice

are you breathing, are you lucky enough
to be breathing
 
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POETRY 101

by Abdul Ali

 

Dr. Jon Woodson

Since I left college, I’ve learned that sometimes the professor who always offered honest critiques helped you grow as a poet much more than those who praised you and made you feel great. I caught up with Jon Woodson, Ph.D and asked him a few questions. His perspectives about art—poetry in particular— are always interesting and earth shattering.

AA: What do you consider good poetry?

JW: When I was eleven years old I was taken to see Carl Sandburg read. It was a tremendous experience, and I was probably never the same. Sandburg was the most interesting person I had ever seen. He had imagination, conviction, personality, and he was completely convincing and captivating.  And despite the fact that he was an old man, he was a better child than I was. He was a great showman and his material was poetry. That is my standard, and I now see that it is very high because often I am amazed that poets are so lacking in nearly everything that they need to bring to the endeavor of poetry. Now that I am an adult, I see that he was a very serious man with very deep concerns, but he knew that if he was a bore he was not getting anywhere. He was smart enough to know that if you are not able to communicate with children you are just kidding yourself. There is that primal element of amazement that is the foundation of poetry, and that is what has to be present so that the poet and the audience are on the same vibration of rapture, vision, dream, and discovery.

AA:What’s your criteria?

JW: All over the place I keep coming across the same idea—that poetry has to be interesting—that old idea that it should make the hair on your neck stand up—that it’s autonomic and involuntary. In general art is a realm that gives you access to areas not otherwise available in life. I just watched two women get drunk on Bloody Marys while eating a huge brunch, and something like that brings home to me the pathetic nature of ordinary consciousness. One of them said—“Babies are cool, that’s why you like them.” That is typical of the level of ordinary consciousness.  People are robots, and they need to have access to more authentic moments of consciousness: that is the role of art and the function of poetry.  I mean it’s obvious that in the example above somebody needs to explain to them what a baby is. Of course, there is the problem that most poets don’t know either, so poetry is not automatically of any usefulness most of the time. Poets are as robotic in their poetry as most people are at brunch. So, you have to be careful not to give yourself  too much credit for knowing what you are doing.

AA: And what do you perceive to be some challenges for poets coming up today?

JW: It’s not possible for most people to be human beings.  They buy into all of the forms of modern insanity, and thus they are unattractive and uninteresting, often dangerous or merely exhausting to deal with. We live in a dark age. Most people do not seem to realize the darkness of this period of history. I am not sure there are any special things about barbarians who consider themselves to be poets. I imagine that a real poet can be expected to be badly misunderstood by the robot poets. It’s a struggle to be an artist at any age, but we have all sorts of delusions, so many things get undeserved credit. Gurdjieff called this “word prostitution” and I think that I ought to do a t-shirt and make it possible for that concept to enter the culture more widely. Perhaps the challenges are always the same—in fact nobody knows. If anyone were able to actually know how to develop into an artist, perhaps we would be making progress as a planetary culture. But this is not one of the things that seriously engages us: instead we just give ourselves credit for nonsense and are content with mediocrity.

JON WOODSON is the Graduate Professor of English at Howard University, received his Ph.D. from Brown University. Woodson is a scholar and teacher of Modern American literature with interests in poetics, the novel, and the long poem. In 2006 Woodson was a visiting Fulbright lecturer in American Literature at the University of Pecs and at ELTE in Budapest. His articles have appeared in Obsidian II, African American Review, The Furious Flowering Of African American Poetry, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, The Harlem Renaissance: a Gale Critical Companion, and The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing. His critical studies are To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and The Harlem Renaissance (1999) and A Study of Catch-22: Going Around Twice (2000). Anthems, Sonnets, and Chants: Recovering the African-American Poetry of the 1930s is forthcoming from Ohio State University Press. Recent work is directed toward a study of the Egyptian materials in Z. N. Hurston’s fiction. Jon Woodson’s chapbook, Cage with a Live Mouth, has just been translated into Hungarian and is forthcoming in a bilingual edition. His poems have been published in Poet Lore, Northeast Journal, Arjuna Library, Baltimore City Paper, and Manzanita Quarterly. He has also published two chapbooks, I Slept Like Liquid Paper and Worry Dolls.

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searching for old erykah
 

Erykah Badu

For the better part of the past 48 hours, I’ve been consumed with listening to Part II of the New AmErykah trilogy. Listening for what is being said, how it’s put together, how it differs from the previous albums. Trying to figure out what I feel about the “Window Seat” video. (I dig the song, by the way.) Measuring all of this into what’s suppose to be a review of the album. I feel that the whole album is now eclipsed by the video.

I decided to let my draft of the review sit for a while and I’ll come back to it tomorrow morning. The important part is that I do what I feel any culture writer (I dare not use the word critic) should do–to see and contextualize, search for meaning, implications, etc.

I pray that’s what I’m doing. It’s very difficult to write objectively about things you’re passionate about. We’ll see what happens.

Meanwhile, I’d like to say for the record that I miss the headwrap wearing Erykah. The down to earth one. The one who kept her clothes on. The one who’d break out into a chuckle out of shyness. I guess I miss the less eccentric Ms. Badu.

Has anyone heard this song, Annie Don’t Wear No Panties?
I’ll post the review for TheRoot once it’s all final.

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Looking for Poetry Outside of Poems

by Abdul Ali

 

The entire week I was in New York, I carried my notebook with me and created a breathing ticker tape. Anything and everything that caught my attention I wrote it down, forcing myself to give it a name. This is the work of a writer, particularly a poet: to give names to things that aren’t obvious.

This is what I wrote my first day as I was staying with my pops who has a place on Far Rockaway Beach:

waves crashing

rain, wind

sea salt

music, grafitti

home

white castle

water running through earth

cemetaries crowded with chipped teeth…

This is what makes writing so interesting to me. How do I name something that is the result of two different worlds colliding?

I asked my Dad to accompany me to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and it was one of the most stimulating museums I’d ever visited. There were about four floors. There was modern art, of course, but also avant-garde experimental work that I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

See for yourself:

Two Women Staring at Each Other

 

Is this art? And what are the standards these days?

I could put something together that belongs here. How do you like?

 

See you soon.

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Writers are Obsessed about Home

by Abdul Ali

 

Writers are obsessed about home. Well, at least I am. I haven’t lived in New York in over ten years. Yet each time I return that all seems to fade away and I taste New York as if it’s my first time yet I’m familiar. Sorta like making love to an ex after years have passed.

Since Monday, I’ve been in New York City. Some people call this the Big Apple, the hub of the art world.  A great place to shop, and so on. I call it “home.” Each time I return to New York there’s an unselttled feeling like both New York and me are ghosts that are too restless to stay buried. I’m always amazed at how much takes place in this city. There was a Black Writer’s Conference in Brooklyn that I didn’t attend but I was able to connect with my good friend, Courttia, who came all the way from across the pond to be in the city.

Here are some things I’ve done so far:

I took my writer friend, Courttia Newland to Harlem for a lunch at Sylvia’s.

 
 

Courttia

I went to visit my family in midtown. My uncle and his two kids; they’ve gotten so big. I’m an only child so cousins are quite special to me.

 
 

Abdul and Ndidi

Niles

I’m preparing for an interview on the Josephine Reed show on WPFW this morning at 10:30am. Check it out if you can at, www.wpfw.org

I hope you’ll join me in this month of Poetry.  I’ll see you next time.

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Happy National Poetry Month
and
Welcome to the Writers’ Playground!
First in the sandpit, Abdul Ali!

(Photo Credit: Emile Benjamin)

Abdul Ali is a graduate of Howard University where he studied Literature and Theater. He was an active participant in the arts scene where he revived the literary magazine, The Amistad, which comes from a distinguished lineage of journals at Howard dating back to the 1920s when Zora Neale Hurston was a student and wrote for Stylus edited by the faculty of the Humanities Department.

In 2007, he won the CLA Creative Writing contest and in 2008 he won the Mt. Vernon Poetry Festival, a competition among area colleges with a poet representative from each school. He has worked as a literary organizer since college bringing a diversity of poets together on college campuses, coffee shops, on the radio waves, and most recently in an exhibit of select area poets in The Washington Caravan.

He is a member of Poets-in-Progress, an initiative started by the Poet Laureate of DC, Dolores Kendrick. His play Homecoming had a modest reading and reception at The Writer’s Center in April of 2007. He has been published in several literary journals including Gargoyle, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Tidal Basin Review. His work has been read on National Public Radio. His work has been anthologized in It’s All Love edited by Marita Golden and a new anthology of DC Poetry edited by Kim Roberts, Full Moon on K Street.

Ali, a distinguished interviewer and reviewer, has his work in The Washington Post, The Root, Mosaic, Essence, The Grio, among others. He has read on several college campuses, creative spaces around the District, and was invited to read in New York City at the Brecht Forum after poets Amiri and Amina Baraka and is currently at work on his first poetry manuscript.

Abdul Ali was one of the organizers for the poetry festival, Split This Rock. He is also a recipient of an Artist Fellowship grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

In addition to blogging for the Tidal Basin Review, Abdul maintains his own blog, which is pretty great might I add! Check out Words Matter!

Welcome, Abdul!

Paz,

Melanie Henderson,

Managing Editor, Tidal Basin Review

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