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Had Been Here All Along
Patricia Spears Jones has paid her dues as a poet since arriving in New York City in the early seventies. Her book of new and selected poems—A Lucent Fire—just came out. Her poems tell stories about her, people, landscapes and cityscapes. Her work is welcoming and musical. Some of her lines give essential place to the painterly and the erotic:
There she sits in regal nudity.
No scepter, no sash.
Her brown skin bespeaks the earthen hues
Of her voluptuous body. The face kneeling at
Her crotch wants her. Wants to eat her. Wants
All of the earth within her. This face forgets
To leer. This is serious.
(See ”Wearing My Red Silk Chinese Jacket”)
The milieu she thrives in notwithstanding, no honest reader will accuse her work of being hermetic. She is transnational and cosmopolitan in outlook. Well-read and outspoken, sophistication trails her.
She grew up in Arkansas, landlocked. That place, she said, affected her worldview and aesthetics. While there she felt stifled and reacted by fleeing to New York. On arriving in New York she went to the Poetry Project at St Mark’s and enrolled in a poetry workshop. This took place between 1973 and 1975 and marked her serious beginning in writing. She says she writes about what it means to be an autonomous African-American woman. Her first volume of poems, which was mimeographed, captured her first fifteen years in New York where she was also involved in theatrical productions and hung out with Rock and Jazz musicians. She believes artists are great learners and generous people. I believe that too.
She reveals that she doesn’t think in terms of poetics, but poems and poets. The poems of Lorine Niedecker, Lorenzo Thomas, Audre Lorde, and Frank O’Hara fascinate her. Empathetic, romantic, against injustice, she writes poems with politics in them, but not political. Says she likes the work of June Jordan but can never write a June Jordan poem. Why? She answers that she doesn’t feel or have that kind of urgency. When she writes it is the interior looking at the exterior. To her, the hallmark of American Poetry is the use of “High and Low Art/Culture.” She enjoys the “American Song Book.” She loves couplets and ballads. However, she is not a formalist; she has the willingness to take risks, cross borders, be vulnerable, be strong. Reading poems out loudly to audiences is necessary for her: ”Where you are standing to read to an audience is a sacred spot. A poet should give, speak out loudly to an audience generously.”
I am sitting in a café reading A Swarm Of Bees In High Court—Tonya M. Foster’s first full-length volume of poems that came out a few months ago. Right from the first set of idiosyncratic haikus that started the book, you are immediately made aware that this poet prizes art over entertainment. The lines flourish:
“As”-always t/here. Is
unravel (h)ems of was/will
be(es), (h)is huhs, (h)er tongues.
(See “Harlem Nocturn/e/s”)
Artfully, atonality threatens narrative. Surprising changes in word placement and semantic order. There is a sensitive portrayal of Harlem that does not cheapen, sensationalize, or exploit the place. I know of no other serious contemporary poet who has made such passionate artistic incursion into that famed abode of color and people of color. Mapping existential shifts, the personal and the civic collide. Even her preference for challenging forms, structures, and lineation seems egalitarian. This is from “In/Somniloquies”:
red as blood butterflied across the seat and white of summer
red as blood that says woman, maybe mother, says watch
red as blood velvety cakes she thawed and ate over two
months mo(u)rning times.
red as velveteen curtains she wanted to drape around this
The lines come at you with full force. A variety of subjects are positioned in different styles and poems. There is an enduring affirmation at the heart of expressions like:
Don’t think the body
don’t think the body don’t think
by feeling its way
Foster channels a mutant’s existential perplexity and resists the tyranny of rationality. Poems that range through the poet’s inner life abound here too. I look forward to encountering more of her writings.
3. BERNADETTE MAYER & THREE ROOMS
A pleasure meeting this prolific and stylistically diverse poet after reading her Midwinter Day. On the edge of chanting and not chanting. Music cues, beads, wine. Curiosity’s the name of the game. Touching all the familiar bases on poetry, family, travels. In flesh she is energetic, open-minded, committed to her work and dreams. As she speaks about her working methods and some of the sources of her creative enterprise stretched across the decades, I am struck by the fact that she doesn’t run away from controversies. In fact, she thrives on them. Plainly she is used to being almost unclassifiable as a poet/writer. Reading through Midwinter Day, details—books, recipes, weather, familial presences, children, colleagues, companions, reveries—appear in charged long lines; prose-like lines and sentences. As a reader I wonder how she was able to write such a lengthy book in one day! She was born in Brooklyn and sees her infrequent visits to the borough as homecomings. Talking specifically about how she prepared for and wrote Midwinter Day:
—Spoke into a tape recorder as ideas came to her; noted her physical and psychic environments.
—Saved the newspapers of that day—December 22,1978—to incorporate into her manuscript.
—Went to a bookstore and listed books seen.
—Wrote down the books she read to her daughter Marie.
—Said she felt that the words of “Midwinter Day” seemed to be already there before she started writing.
—Also thought a lot about the book before she started writing it.
Later she pointed out the importance of her collaborations with other writers, visual artists, musicians—Vito Acconci, Anne Waldman, Philip Good, Clark Coolidge etc. Collaborations aid her works-in-progress because she doesn’t just sit waiting for inspiration to strike. Being almost always at work on a creative project helps her in learning, generating ideas, focusing and producing poems and other kinds of writing.
As you enter the first room you notice there is no curtain on the lone glass window. Air does not circulate freely; the ventilation is awful. A shiny wooden floor creaks when I walk around. On the left wall is a four-tiered bookshelf. There are books by Albert Camus, Ama Ata Aidoo, Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Ingrid Jonker, Dennis Brutus, Dambudzo Marechera, Kofi Awonoor, Bessie Head, Vasco Popa, Obi Egbuna, among many others inside the shelf. A coffee table is in the center of the room and on top of it are art magazines, poetry journals, newspapers, pens. Near the right wall is my sleeping bag.
Vinyls litter the floor of the second room: the music of Arthur Lee & Love, Pink Floyd, Mdou Moctar, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sonny Rollins, The Doors, Celestine Ukwu, Sonny Okosun, Onyeka Onwenu, Patti Smith, Osita Osadebey, The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Jello Biafra, Nina Simone. A brown t-shirt is draped on the back of a swiveling chair. Inside a saucer on top of an unstable table is a half-eaten apple. Sneakers and boots are lined up near a wardrobe. A prayer mat is at the foot of a queen-sized bed. Over the bed is a mosquito net. A whirling and noisy fan adds to the chaos in the room.
On all the walls of the third room are posters of Nelson Mandela, James Brown, John Lennon, Iggy Pop, Diamanda Galas, Lydia Lunch, Miriam Makeba, Virginia Woolf, Bob Dylan, etc. Four suitcases are stacked behind a door that leads into the room from a hallway. Under a louvred window is a leather couch. Tins of cashew and almond nuts flank a radiator. The smell of incense permeates the modest space. There are pants and shirts and jackets heaped on a wooden bed. On the ceiling is a fluorescent tube. The noise of passing trucks on a nearby highway invades the room intermittently. This room attempts to herd coincidences into resolutions. This is where I write poems, essays, songs.
4. C.D WRIGHT: SUFFICE
The poet C.D Wright, who died in January this year, never believed there was a limit to poetry’s possibilities. My connection to her is mainly artistic—through her edgy poems and essays. I never met her. I found and find her work essential. Her visceral lines; her imagistic lines. An exciting and formally daring poet. Her flaming wit:
Is it. Is it.
It is. It is.
An object of worship.
An object of contempt.
asshole it thought it said.
Whistle it said. Just whistle.
Her artistry is far from aimless. An immersion in her writings primes one for the magical. She recoiled from America’s consumerist materialism. She had no use for cant and fuzzy literary one-upmanship. She saw in poetry an escape from literary, political, and spiritual dictatorships. On the night of February 22,2016 (an event dubbed “As Ever: A Tribute To C.D Wright”) some of us in Brooklyn gathered and publicly read her works and acknowledged our indebtedness to her. Among the poets who came to salute her spirit were: Karen Lepri, Jay Deshpande, Christopher Salerno, Claire Donato, Josh Kurtz, Lawrence Kaplun, Monica Youn, Danniel Schoonebeek (the event’s organizer), Nina Puro, Valerie Hsiung, Molly Rose Quinn, Uche Nduka, Dawn Lundy Martin, Jeff T. Johnson.