Alvin Aubert A Biosketch

Alvin Aubert A Biosketch


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



In “Black Aesthetic,” he reverses the imagery of Marcel Duchamp’s Cubist painting

“Nude Descending a Staircase” to illustrate the ascent of the black man.

 Aubert also experiments with syntax and punctuation in this poem



Books by Alvin Aubert

Against the Blues  / South Louisiana: New and Selected Poems  /  If Winter Come: Collected Poems 1967-1992

 Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems

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Alvin Aubert: A Biosketch


Alvin Bernard Aubert, born March 12, 1930, in Lutcher, LA; son of Albert (a laborer) and Lucille (Roussel) Aubert, is both a skilled poet and  the founder of Obsidian, a literary journal of African-American literature and criticism.

The youngest of seven children, Aubert left school at fourteen, but in 1955 he earned a GED after a tour in the Army during the Korean War. In the army Aubert discovered poetry anthologies. In an autobiographical piece that he submitted to Contemporary Authors Autobiography (CAA) in 1994, Aubert wrote about the significance of this moment: “Only after I went into the army and caught my first glimpse of the inside of a library did I realize the existence of such books.”

At Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in French. Aubert was awarded a Liberal Arts Scholarship for his final two years of study and completed his bachelor’s degree in 1959. After graduating from Southern, he received a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, which allowed him to enroll in a graduate program at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Aubert completed a master’s degree in English Language and literature in 1960, after only a year and a half of study at the University of Michigan.

In 1960, he returned to Southern University as an instructor where he remained for a decade.  In October of 1960, shortly after his return to Louisiana, Aubert married a second time, this time to Bernadine Tenant, a teacher and librarian, whom he had met years earlier as a member of the Riverbend Players. Then, in 1962, Aubert was promoted to assistant professor and given the first of two sabbaticals for post-graduate study at the University of Illinois, where he was able to concentrate on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature and begin work on a doctorate.

After his first sabbatical ended in 1964, Aubert returned to Southern and was promoted to associate professor in 1965, at which time he returned to Illinois for the second of his two sabbaticals. Eventually Aubert chose not to complete a doctorate and, instead, returned to Southern to continue teaching. While at Southern, he finally had his first poems published in the January 1967 edition of the Xavier student literary magazine Motive. That same year, Aubert had two of his poems published in an anthology, Southern Writing in the Sixties: Poetry.  His poetry was published also in such journals such as Black World, Black Scholar, Black American Literature Forum, and the Journal of Black Poetry. Aubert’s poetry tends “toward objective description and dispassionate personal reflection,” which was in contrast to the political charged poetry of the 60s and 70s.

In 1967 Southern University also decided to offer its first course on African-American literature, which Aubert was assigned to teach. He had never studied African-American literature as a student and there were few books available at Southern, and so at age 37, Aubert began for the first time to study black literature and history. This study would eventually have a huge influence on his own writing, as he became more aware of other African-American writers as he read their works. In 1968 Aubert received the first of many awards for writing when he was selected as the Bread Loaf Scholar in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

In 1970 Aubert left Southern University for a position at State University of New York (SUNY), in Fredonia, where he became an associate professor. After the move from Louisiana, he found it easier to write about the South. In his 1989 interview with Jerry Ward, Jr., Aubert said that he “needed the removal, the distancing from the area of primal experience” before he could gain the perspective necessary in order to write more poems about his life in Louisiana.

While at SUNY, in 1975, he launched Obsidian. Its editorial board included Kofi Awooner, Ernest Gaines, Blyden Jackson, Saunders Redding, and Darwin Turner. Obsidian became an important outlet for African-American literature and criticism. “My two main purposes in starting Obsidian,” Aubert told CAA, “was to provide a place to publish for young writers who had difficulty in getting their works published elsewhere; and to create a forum for the critical discussion of works by African and African-American writers generally.”

Aubert’s first volume of poetry, Against the Blues, appeared in 1972, a collection of poems that reflected Aubert’s personal experiences in Louisiana. As Norman Harris notes in Dictionary of Literary Biography, “the kind of poetry that Aubert wrote was not especially in vogue with many younger black poets who still adhered to the black aesthetic that emerged from the black arts movement of the 1960s.” Commenting on “Whispers in a Country Church,” another poem from Against the Blues, Harris writes, “This poem, like several others in the volume, achieves universality through its personalized portrayal of a relatively local incident of random gossip.”

Except for the references to Smith and, in another poem, Nat Turner, the immediate subjects are personal experiences, just like the blues. The singer-poet presents first-person experiences in ways that will make them typical.

His success as a writer led to his receiving a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant in 1973. That same year two of his poems were selected for inclusion in another anthology, Contemporary Poetry in America.  

In 1976 Aubert produced a second volume of poetry, Feeling Through. contained the familiar personal reflections of the sort found in his first book but also included more political poems about black cultural heroes and heroines. Aubert attempts to address some of the contemporary social issues that received little attention in his earlier work. In “Black Aesthetic,” he reverses the imagery of Marcel Duchamp’s Cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” to illustrate the ascent of the black man. Aubert also experiments with syntax and punctuation in this poem, using all lowercase letters and inserting periods mid-sentence to create a staccato effect. According to Reilly, Aubert’s “characteristic syntactic economy” is “almost elliptical.”

The following year, two of Aubert’s poems were selected for inclusion in Celebrations: An Anthology of Black Poetry, and in 1978, two poems appeared in Contemporary Southern Poetry. Even while he continued to write poetry, Aubert was also teaching and editing Obsidian and spending time with his family, which now included two daughters, Miriam and Deborah.

Aubert received another honor in 1979 when he received an Editorial Fellowship Grant from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. His last year at SUNY was 1979, afterwhich, he was appointed professor of English at Wayne State University. Aubert and his family moved to Detroit in 1979.

While at Wayne State, Aubert taught creative writing and African-American literature, and continued to write poetry. During his first year in Detroit, he contributed four poems to another anthology, A Geography of Poets. Then, in 1981, Aubert received a second National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant for poetry, which enabled him to once again concentrate on his writing. A third book of poetry was published in 1985, South Louisiana: New and Selected Poems.

As the title of his third book suggested and as he would tell Xavier Review years later, Louisiana retained a hold on Aubert, even though he had not lived there for 15 years. “All of my poems are undergirded by it,” he explained, “ome more explicitly than others.” As he continued to write and teach, Aubert assumed administrative positions at Wayne State. In 1988 he accepted the post of interim director of the Center for Black Studies. During that same year, Aubert received the Callaloo Award for his contribution to Afro-American cultural expression. After two years as interim director, Aubert stepped down and accepted a new position as interim chair of the department of Africana Studies. He finally retired from Wayne State in 1993 after a total of 33 years teaching.

Aubert retired from teaching in 1993, but he still continued to write poetry. A fourth book was published in 1994, If Winter Come: Collected Poems 1967-1992; followed by a fifth book, Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems in 1995. In 1999,  Aubert began donating his collected books and periodicals to the Xavier University Library. His donated books totaled more than 2500 volumes, many of them very rare and quite expensive. He also donated copies of Obsidian, as well as many of his personal papers. In acknowledgement of his gift, Aubert was the inaugural recipient of the Xavier Activist for the Humanities Award in 2001.

In a July 2003 interview with Contemporary Black Biography, Aubert mentioned that he has continued to write poetry, “as the spirit moves me,” but admitted that “the spirit has been somewhat sluggish,” and so he currently has no plans to submit poems for future publication.

Commenting on his own writing, Aubert wrote:

I grew up in a small Mississippi River town about midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and this locale–particularly the river–and the people, but especially the people, continue to motivate me; not to the extent of my finding out exactly who and what they were (if that were possible), but of initiating and maintaining a spiritual connection. Most representative of this influence are poems of mine such as `Baptism,’ `Remembrance,’ `Feeling Through,’ `Spring 1937,’ `Father, There,’ `South Louisiana,’ `The Housemovers,’ `All Singing in a Pie,’ and `Fall of ’43.’ I like to think that all of my writings explore various aspects of the human situation and celebrate human existence at a particular and consequently universal level

Alvin Aubert comments:

A poem is a verification of experience in thought and feeling but mostly the latter, for feeling is the means by which essential experience is received and transmitted. If the feeling is right, the intellectual content is also, which is to say that in the poem that works there takes place a mutual verification of thought by feeling, feeling by thought. I am African-American and conscious of my roots in south Louisiana, with its confluence of African, Native American, and European (French and Spanish) cultural influences. My sensitivity is of course African-American, thus leaving no doubt as to the source of the experiences that verify my poems as well as find verification in them. My thematic concerns are as universal as they are particular. The themes identified by James Shokoff—”death, the shapes of the past, the terror of existence, and the pain of endurance”—are all there and then some. Their particularity is perhaps best identified in Tom Dent’s observations about my south Louisiana origin.

Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006

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Excerpts from a review by Marilyn Nelson, University of Connecticut, of Alvin Aubert. Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems. Lotus Poetry Series. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1995. 56 pp. $10.00.

But there are many pleasures in this book. “Dreamscore,” for instance. In this long, unpunctuated poem Aubert dreams he introduces himself on a city bus to a rough gang of teenaged girls as “Chubby,” because in “one of my sudden rushes of heightened humanity i get the urge to be included.” He dreams he’s lying, and that the girls know it: ” … the littlest of the three girls sitting across from me says you don’t look like no chubby to me you ain’t got enough fat on you to fry a gnat’s egg.” As the girls laugh at him, he remembers his real nickname, and its history:

. . . my nickname’s not chubby but tubby short for tub boy which my uncle jake started calling me on account of the way they said i liked playing around in those old fashioned galvanized wash tubs we used to bathe in out in the country down in louisiana where i grew up.

The memory leads him to re-experience the sound of the tub’s rattling handles: “a/tambourine gone wild in the wind.” Now, there’s a fine line. One of the teenagers wakes him from this dream-within-a-dream by reading his mind. Referring to his reverie of his game of shaking the tub from side to side, she observes that “you don’t look like no damn shaker to me either.” And with that, he wakes up. What a delightful poem!

“A Cappella” is another delight, another long, unpunctuated sentence. It seems a shame to subject to analysis the many pleasures offered in the poem. There’s something absolutely magical about it. At first making us recognize the folk traditions which hold that the seventh son of a seventh son has special power (I believe Malcolm X was a seventh son of a seventh son) and that a single surviving twin carries a special gift, Aubert spins out for us a fascinating genealogy which ends with his blood relationship to “Fats” Domino as well as the origin of Domino’s name:

whose father made the long trek

from british nova scotia to the swamplands

of south louisiana as the boy

who was to become the common law cajun

spouse of an afro-native american woman

named marie last name domio which

my cousin the rhythm & blues man

altered to domino for the stage

Thus, in his poem of self-definition Aubert describes the complexities of Aframerican and American identity. We know ourselves through our personal histories, and our histories do not begin with our birth. Aubert’s poem begins with the assertion that “i know who i am.” The page-long sentence in which he recites his place in his family proves him right. In an apparent reply to those who might question his sense of self, as a man, as a black man, as an American, Aubert responds, “and i am not supposed to know/who i am? i know exactly who i am.” How lucky are those black families that have passed on the gift of history. And what a pleasure it is to read this poem.

Several poems in the book give similar pleasures. But beyond pleasure, “A Secular Prayer” offers deeper introspection, a sharing of pain and doubt. Here Aubert confesses to “the loneliness” most often hidden behind smiles and pleasantries, the hope against hope of one who searches, yet believes:

. . . I listen

for your call yet stand as one doomed

to everlasting faithlessness, resolved

that the summons will never come

that nowhere in your world is there voice

enough for any call i am likely to hear.

Don’t we all listen for that huge call, unmindful of the many small voices with which God calls us by name? Yet Aubert turns the poem around in the end, no longer awaiting God’s call, but instead fashioning in his poems “my humble pipe of reed” with which to seek words worthy of being addressed to God:

… you who in the words

of your poet paul claudel “speak to us with

the very words that we address to you,”

to what disturbance of nature, storm

or roaring conflagration, should i turn

for the right words for you?

This is a thoughtful and a wise poem, not at all content with the easy path. In it Aubert wrestles not with straw men (as he does in the title poem), but with the question of meaning. In this poem and the other strongest poems in the collection, he opens for us the heart of a black man secure in his self-worth, generous in his sympathies, and honest in his confrontation with aging and death. The best poems of Harlem Wrestler touch us with their intimacy.

Source: African American Review, Summer97, Vol. 31 Issue 2

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Against the Blues (poems), Broadside Press (Detroit), 1972. 

Feeling Through (poems), Greenfield Review Press (Greenfield Center, NY), 1976.

A Noisesome Music (poems), Blackenergy South Press, 1979.

South Louisiana: New and Selected Poems, Lunchroom Press (Grosse Pointe Farms, MI), 1985.

Home from Harlem (play; adapted from The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar; produced in Detroit, 1986), Obsidian Press (Detroit), 1986.

If Winter Come: Collected Poems, 1967-1992, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh), 1994.

Harlem Wrestler, and Other Poems, Michigan State University Press (East Lansing), 1995.


Liberal Arts Scholarship, 1957-59; Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, 1959-60; Bread Loaf Scholarship in Poetry, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant, 1973; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant, 1981; Callaloo Award, 1988; Xavier Activist for the Humanities Award, 2001.


Southern University, instructor, 1960-62, assistant professor, 1962-65, associate professor, 1965-70; State University of New York at Fredonia, associate professor, 1970-74, professor, 1974-79; poet, 1972-; Obsidian, editor and publisher, 1975-85; Wayne State University, professor, 1979-93, interim director of the Center for Black Studies, 1988-90, interim chair of the Department of Africana Studies, 1990.


J. W. Corrington and Miller Williams, editors, Southern Writing in the Sixties: Poetry, Volumes I and II, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 1966.

M. Williams, editor, Contemporary Poetry in America, Random House (Garden City, NY), 1973.

Arnold Adoff, editor, Celebrations: An Anthology of Black Poetry, Follett, 1979.

Edward Field, editor, A Geography of Poets: An Anthology of the New Poetry, Bantam (New York City), 1979.

Guy Owen and Mary C. Williams, editors, Contemporary Southern Poetry, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Williams, editor, Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms, Louisiana State University Press, 1986.

Leon Stokesburg, editor, The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, University of Arkansas Press, 1987.

Also author, with Von Washington, of one-act play Decision at Detroit. Contributor to Contemporary Novelists, 1972, and Writers of the English Language, 1979.

Contributor of poems, articles, and reviews to literary journals, including Nimrod, Black American Literature Forum, American Poetry Review, Black World, Prairie Schooner, Black Scholar, Iowa Review, Journal of Black Poetry, American Book Review, and Epoch. Book reviewer, Library Journal, 1972-74.

Advisory editor of Drama and Theatre, 1973-75, Black Box, 1974–, Gumbo, 1976-78, and Callaloo, 1977–; founding editor of Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, 1975-85; senior editorial consultant, Obsidian II, 1985–.


Modern Language Association of America, National Council of Teachers of English, African Heritage Studies Association, National Council for Black Studies.

Papers, books, and Obsidian Contributed to Xavier University:

Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006

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update 20 December 2011




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