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The Profanity Blahs, Part 2 [The art of ass-kicking isn't hard to master]

Amiri Baraka, TSE 2012

Continued from Part 1.

"Sophocles confirms the European origin of the motherfucker. Most Coloredpeepas known this a long time."
—Amiri Baraka


3    What the _____ is He Talking About


Maybe you are in Graduate School or attending one of the popular Writing Conferences, maybe Bread Loaf; and it’s workshop time and someone who you were introduced to earlier in the week as “a really good poet” (Poets love to say, by way of introduction, so and so is a really good poet) is about to read his-her poem in workshop. It’s a sunny day, no phone reception on the mountain, so your brain is clear. Even the effects of the drinks that chased you to a strange, wondrous bed other than your own a few nights ago have found their own lonely sabbaticals.  Last night was nice. You were visited by an older muse and you slept like the first third and second third lines of a handwritten, double Italian sonnet, probably in your favorite poetry socks—the ones embroidered with H.D. Six of the seven poets in the workshop have coffee cups and moleskin journals, paired in front of them on the table. Presented with a daguerreotype (an idea of the thing not the thing itself) of this, what would Socrates make of the soul of Melville’s character rising from the cups, content or container?  Uh-oh, trouble, the poem about to be read is stapled, at least three pages. And the poet, prefaces the reading with, "This is from a series of poems about FDR’S inability to pass Congressional Legislation after his discovery of Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret, female lover.” Ok, a real false flag. The poem begins with found material from a radio transcript, makes a comment (not imagery) about the lyric shape of pipe smoke in the West Wing, then muses on the nature of foreign policy by comparing it to the rhythm (not meter) of laughter (or is it embarrassment?) waltzing between the First Couple’s rocking chairs. There are references, structural intestinal ones, to several unrelated things, just thrown in, likely a display of Richard Hugo’s notion of “Writing Off Subject” on steroids.  No one in the room looks up or at the poet because, “What the hell is he talking about?”


4   Did They Really Pick That ____ Over My ____


Here’s my rule: I don’t submit to literary projects that my friends are the editors of, and recently when one, a poet I’ve known since 1994, asked me for poems for an issue of a magazine he was Guest Editing, I simply said, “You know I don’t like that magazine.” It’s difficult, I admit, turning down a literary freebie as difficult as it is to squeeze into good literary journals but there is nothing worse, to me, than becoming Table of Contents filler in a magazine you only picked up because your poem was allowed into that particular issue. I try to make every publication count because I view publication as entering a conversation and when I enter a non-conversation, I have my poems to answer to. It’s like Michael S. Harper said to me in Graduate School when I offered a one-dimensional poem to workshop, “Ellis, if I let you get away with that, I’d have to answer to five dead people” and he preceded to name them.  I have the same feeling about literary contests and I would be lying if I said that I have never looked at the winners list for a Poetry Prize and thought, “Whaaaaaaaaaaat, they picked that shit over my shit.” It’s true, cool or not. I remember all those years when applying for the Yale Younger, “Whaaaaaaaat, that shit over my shit,” and my responses wasn’t limited to book prizes. All of my NEA attempts, Whaaaaaaaaathe…not that shit over my shit.” Often, too, your friends or former friends are even the judges of the major contests that your book is being considered for and if your book is not selected, you are stuck with the book that won, in the classroom, in Used Bookstores, all over Amazon.com. You are even stuck with the judges who did not select your book, judges who themselves keep getting selected to judge, who picks them? And worse, closer to home, stuck with the judging-friend. You may not mention it but you remember it—“…that shit over your shit.”


5   Ain’t That A ______


I recently found myself saying “Ain’t that A Bitch” in a situation related to the poetry of and the passing of poet Amiri Baraka. Up until a few months ago, I was the Poetry Editor of the Baffler. For four issues, I included poems that I thought were representative of the changing and varied creative American literary landscape. Sometimes the Editor gave me a theme for the issue  (usually at the last minute), but mostly I was left alone to shape the magazine’s poetry however I liked. I cast the net of solicitation wide but was limited to six to eight poems per issue. A few times I pushed my luck and nine were included and, once, a poem that I did not accept appeared in the issue—an accident of communication, perhaps. Early on, I wrote to Mr. Baraka for a poem only to reject the poem a few days after it arrived. Admittedly, this was difficult, so I waited and wrote to him again a month or two before he became ill and accepted “Getting Less & Less Safe Out Here (Tin Tin Deo, Diz)." The poem made it all the way to the page proof stage, but was pulled at the last minute (while Mr. Baraka was in the hospital), because—as the Editor put it—“…it contains lies.” The Editor admitted to not having heard of Mr. Baraka or his work but did mention having done his own bit of Internet work after reading the poem. I was also informed that the magazine had lost faith in my judgment as the Poetry Editor (among other things) and that two other poems were also being pulled, limiting me now to six poems per issue. Of course I quit, but before I did I said out-loud, “Ain’t that a Bitch.”


from Getting Less & Less Safe Out Here

(Tin Tin Deo, Diz)

...Shit, like you know they got

With Malcolm and Dr. King

The crazy white folks was screaming so loud

They shd die, there was even some negro zombie preacher...

(Amiri Baraka 2013)


Looking back I like to think that I helped Amiri Baraka, the Poet Laureate of what’s left of Black America and all Blues People, give the Baffler a mad dose of Whiteache—if nothing else, they didn’t know him, hmm, and now they do, hmm, or still don’t––as well as anyone else who thinks that a poem has to express a truth that everyone believes and agrees on, or rather anyone who thinks that he or she can stand outside of a cultural criteria and set of creative standards (including its political stance, and yes art can be political without losing its artfulness) and judge the art object without having had any groundwork-footmarch in the shoes of the particular artist except for a general education in poetry, which in America means a tradition of selective exclusion. I don’t think that I have ever read a poem that wasn’t constructed of lies. One of Mr. Baraka’s gift was his ability to scratch beneath the surface of official news, something most American poets aren’t interested in, perhaps, because it requires a brand of courage and training that has absolutely nothing to do with the book-only approach to engaging society. Poet Thylias Moss once said that a poem should invent truth but what about when the known truth, the truth before the poem itself, actual reality, is a series of lies, then what? Then it becomes nearly impossible for “Fake Defector Programs” like the Baffler and “Fake Defector Program Poetry Editors” like Thomas Sayers Ellis to say "Just Fuck It" without a flight or a fight.

Originally Published: May 2nd, 2014

Thomas Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington, DC, and earned his MFA from Brown University. He is the author of Skin, Inc. (2013) and The Maverick Room (2005). He cofounded the Dark Room Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and received a Whiting Award in 2005. Ellis has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Case Western...