ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Art for Life: My Story, My Song
By Kalamu ya Salaam
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
* * * * *
Six. The Reconstruction Of A Poet (contd.)
A Black Poetics
Creating and producing our poetry is really not the hardest part of our struggle, however. The most difficult step is to develop a theory and critique of what we were trying to accomplish.
Earlier on I mentioned Amilcar Cabral. In my office there is a poster sized portrait of Cabral which I obtained in Cuba. It was Cabral’s seminal essay “National Liberation and Culture” which opened the theoretical way ahead for me. I quote Cabral’s “aims of cultural resistance” as they are the basic framework which I use to define my own cultural work.
Development of a people’s culture and of all aboriginal positive cultural values
Development of a national culture on the basis of history and the conquests of the struggle itself
Constant raising of the political and moral awareness of the people (of all social categories) and of patriotism, spirit of sacrifice and devotion to the cause of independence, justice and progress
Development of the technical and technological scientific culture, compatible with the demands of progress
Development, on the basis of a critical assimilation of mankind’s conquests in the domains of art, science, literature, etc., of a universal culture, aiming at perfect integration in the contemporary world and its prospects for evolution
Constant and generalized raising of feelings of humanism, solidarity, respect and disinterested devotion to the human being.
Based on my study of Cabral, I advocate the importance of cultural specificity, cultural integrity, and the legitimacy of cultural accretion.
Cultural specificity reflects itself in the need to be grounded. One must really know one’s culture (whether native or adopted). That calls not only for objective study but also subjective immersion. Being grounded (i.e., “knowing your culture”) is not an anthropological study but rather is a commitment to the study, propagation and perpetuation of the culture “as a citizen of that culture.” In this way, culture is not simply an object of observation but rather is also a mode of operationculture is not something which one studies outside of and detached from the self, but rather is also a way of living which defines the self.
Part of my struggle as a writer was to both learn and project New Orleans culture. In my work there were three ways to use the specificity of New Orleans culture: 1. as content, 2. as style, and 3. as a structural model. Although content is an obvious approach, and although I have written a large body of prose which focuses on New Orleans, I have very few poems that “image” New Orleans as a geo-cultural space. Indeed, the majority of my poems which reference New Orleans are praise poems for specific cultural figures. Given my oral orientation, it is understandable that my use of New Orleans culture would lean more toward style and structure.
Cultural integrity requires an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses plus a genuine acceptance of one’s cultural identity. One can not hope to preserve or project cultural integrity if one, a) objectively does not know and understand the culture and, b) has not accepted that one’s culture is a legitimate and valuable expression of human culture. Especially for African Americans, who live in both physical and psychological proximity to a dominant and dominating culture, accepting the legitimacy of African American culture is not easy.
A word about “knowing” African American culture. None of us truly knows our culture because so much of our culture is unknowable. This is true precisely because our culture has been destroyed, dispersed, masked, and disrupted. Indeed, those of us who champion African American culture are actually championing the reclamation, reconstruction and reevaluation of our culture. All the surface aspects we talk about are just thatsurface.
For example, no matter how much we claim to love Black music, how can we be “champions” of our culture, when we have done so few studies of our music? To the truism: one could tell how “Black” an intellectual was by looking at her or his library, I used to respond with my own saying: if you really want to know “how Black” (meaning how “cultured”) an intellectual is, check out their record collection.
Why? Because our music is universally recognized as the greatest, if not the only, American contribution to world cultural arts. Because our culture has been recorded but not written. Because books may be assigned in school, but records you generally buy on your own based on your own tastes whatever they may be. Because your record collection is the truest gauge of the depth of a person’s appreciation for our culture and here I am not elevating one genre of Great Black Music over another. I mean quite simply that the embracing of our music is a sine qua non of the embracing of our culture.
At the same time, I must recognize that “our” music is essentially American music in the totality of its expression even though the core of it is the creation of African American culture. We are both African and American. As paradoxical as it may sound, Elvis Presley, Country&Western, hard rock, all of those examples of American music are entwined in and can not be separated from the core elements which African Americans created. There is no one more American than African Americans, even as there is also no one in America as African as African Americans.
Third, we must move forward and recognize that cultural accretions are not only inevitable, they are also essential. Accretionizing is a seminal force in the life of all Afro-centric cultures in general, and, African American culture specifically is an “American” culture which by definition means that it is a “Creole” culture. Our strains are various, and even though some of us may be east bound, the west is nevertheless in us.
The concept of cultural accretions helped me to put my high school experiences at St. Aug in proper perspective. My initial memories are full of anger and rejection, but those initial memories are not factual; in fact, they are self-serving. I hated the goals of St. Aug, but, emotionally, I both loved and hated St. Aug and all it stood for.
I was a Baptist so there was a conflict of religious beliefs, but more important than that, I was working class oriented by social experience and by ideological commitment (via the civil rights movement). St. Aug’s agenda was to create the talented tenth: doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists. It is no accident, that many of my former classmates have gone on to become Black professionals. Further, it is no accident that many of the managers of city government post 1973 are alumni of catholic schools in general and St. Aug specifically.
I was influenced by my fellow studentsmost of whom did not share my civil rights activism. I played ball and went to parties with them. I could not fail to be impressed by their intelligence (actually their “education” rather than native intelligence). My first true love, Thelma Thomas, was a physician’s daughter. One of my best friends at St. Aug, Emile LaBranche, was the son of a pharmacist.
They all lived in a very different part of New Orleans. The physical differences between the neighborhoods where we lived was analogous to the differences between Black and White neighborhoods in other cities. Many of them were Creoles. My rejection of St. Aug was partially a reaction to that world’s rejection of my world and my own inability to understand the attraction and repulsion I felt for the lifestyle of Black professionals.
All of the psychological turmoil notwithstanding, St. Aug gave me intellectual tools that were denied most of the people who lived where I lived. Later, in FST, and, to a lesser but still noticeable degree, in Ahidiana, the educational differences were obvious obstacles which we had to struggle mightily to deal with. At Ahidiana we called it “uneven levels of development.”
As I read more and more of Fanon and Cabralespecially Cabral with his work on “class suicide” of the petit bourgeoisie in the context of revolutionary struggle, and also his conceptualizations of “returning to the source” to define the integration of the professionals into the ranks of the massesit all became clearer to me. I was then more able to understand the conflicts and separate the wheat from the chaff in those experiences.
While I never did get a four year college education, my ability to read and write was clearly superior to most of the people in my neighborhood as a child and superior to many of the people with whom I shared civil rights and Black power/Black liberation struggle. Although certainly neither created nor ideologically defined by St. Aug, my reading and writing skills certainly were qualitatively enhanced by having a strong college preparatory curriculum in high school. There are all kinds of dimensions to this question. Suffice it to say, Cabral gave me the intellectual tools to appreciate my history.
To some, none of this has anything to do with creating poetry. To me it has everything to do with creating an authentic African American poetry. Paradoxically, my codification of a Black aesthetic made significant leaps while working in haiku, a foreign form.
Haiku is a Japanese poetry form which structurally consists of three lines and a total of 17 syllables (five on the first and third lines, and seven on the second line). Once I began writing in haiku, I wanted to figure out how to incorporate an African American aesthetic into that form.
For me this was more than simply a technical question of how to write it on paper, it was also a question of how to perform haiku. I would not consider myself successful until I had figured out how to recite haiku with the same force as I did my blues and jazz based poetry.
I knew I had to deal with at least three different elements: rhythm, rhyme and soundplus, they needed to carry the weight of irony. Of course, I did not expect each poem to contain every element but I was striving to have each poem manifest at least one of those properties. I did not study any traditional haiku nor read any books on writing haiku. I was not interested in learning the Japanese tradition, I wanted to use the form in my own way.
This was a left brain/right brain problem. I needed a creative approach for the performance and a technical approach for the writing. I stored it away and let my subconscious work on the performance part.
The writing part was easy once I focused on what I wanted to do. Eventually, I did rewrites as I perfected my techniques. I moved away from similes and went straight into personifications. I made the natural world an extension of the human self. I used imagery but also dealt with the Afro-centric tradition of proverbs, mother wit and “mama say.” I used alliteration, rhyme and rhythm. I wanted to reach for the Creolization of concepts, bringing together concepts that were not usually thought of as part of a whole. Beneath all of that I wanted to maintain a feminine/masculine referencing.
Haiku #79 is a good example.
i enter your church,
you receive my offerings,
our screaming choirs merge
It’s written in three with the emphasis on ONE-TWO-three. The “three” is an open beat, meaning I could recite it ONE-TWO-three or
ONE-TWO-three/three/three/three-ONE-TWO-three. Usually, I recite it rubato, without any particular rhythmic emphasis, but I keep the three feel in mind so that the words are emphasized like this:
I EN-TER your church
YOU RE-CEIVE my offering
OUR SCREAM-MING choirs mergeeeeee.
Unfortunately, there is nothing on the page that can tell you how I am using rhythm except that I have set the poem up with the emphatic words at the beginning of each line. Additionally, each line opens with two words, the first word is one syllable and the second word is two syllables, which is also a reinforcement of the three feel, but it’s a three within the first two counts of the larger three.
Here is a haiku which leans heavily on the use of the “ssss” sound contrasted against the abruptness of the terminal “t” sound.
savoring the flesh
of your kiss, i chew sun &
spit out midnight stars
The rhythm break is like this:
of-your KISSSS, i-chew SUNNN
and-spit (pause) / out
Once again, I’m using three. Here is a more ambitious piece. I wanted to write about sadness, the breaking up of one into two separate pieces. I wanted to capture the feel of separation. I use rhyme (“gone/flown/song/sung” are all half rhymes), and rhythm (the middle line sets up an interesting swing with the use of the “s” sound repeated five times within seven syllables), as well as image. The image alone would have been sufficient, but the rhyme and rhythm emphasis add the Afro-centric.
In this selection the last word, “harmony” which is three syllables long contrasts quite unharmoniously with all the preceding words which are either one or two syllables long; in other words, it breaks the unity that had been set up. The irony was that it is the word harmony which breaks the rhythmic unity of the poem.
love gone is bird flown
sad sunset song tartly sung
Haiku #48 is what I call a “perfect” haiku, meaning it has exactly seventeen words. Here is an example of using blues imagery. This haiku is a direct variation on the blues line “fattening frogs for snakes.” I personify the night, the quality of hurt, and then use a simile to make complete the reference to the blues line.
night moans grip my waist
the arms of hurt snake round me,
i feel like a frog
Here is a piece which has a rather involved origin. The basic line is taken from Ho Chi Minh who wrote “when the prison doors fly open / the dragons fly out” referring to political prisoners. I had learned that Ho Chi Minh lived for a brief time in Harlem and had been influenced by Marcus Garvey. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison I wanted to capture the feel of that. Upon seeing Mr. Mandela step into the sunlight what immediately struck me was the beauty of his smile.
Also, Malcolm X and George Jackson approached prison as a school. I had read about imprisoned ANC militants also approaching captivity as a school. The implied cocoon is the school.
Finally, it occurred to me that the whole process was one of transformation. So, I wrote this haiku.
haiku #112 (for Mandela)
emerging from jail
their dragon/our butterfly
his smile is so huge
I was well on the road to using haiku as text, but I still had to figure out how to make haiku work as speech. I don’t remember when the answer came to me. It was probably when I heard a musical selection that reminded me of an Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) concert which I experienced in Atlanta. The AEC performed one number entirely on large bamboo flutes with shimmering gongs in the background.
There was an incredible quality of peace and tranquility achieved by using long, low extended notes. I had already mastered the ability to mimic musical instruments and the key was to figure out how to achieve that feeling/sound. I tried and tried and eventually was able to achieve a sound similar to a bass flute but not quite as mellow as the big bamboo flute.
Once I had the sound, I figured then I could improvise the words in the sense of repeat them, extend them, repeat phrases, in-between blowing the flute notes. The key was to get inside the sound completely. There is no set melody. No set rhythms. I use however I am feeling at the moment, close my eyes and listen to my breathing. As I begin reciting sometimes it takes a minute to begin, sometimes longer. Generally I can not do more than two or three haiku at a time because it takes so much energy. But I had figured it out. The test, of course, was to perform it. It works!
There is another component. I use microphone techniques which I have learned not only from performing but also from radio work. I know how to blow across, next to, and into a microphone so that the noise of the air mixes with the sounds/words emanating from my larynx to form the total sound of the haiku presentation. At one point, I wondered could I do it without a microphone. The answer was yes, as long as I was in a small room and was very close to the audience.
What I had previously done in the long form, in the blues and jazz forms, I could now achieve in the haiku form I was close to figuring out a theory of Black poetics.
I knew that I had to have an audience and that it had to be orated. Working with the haiku gave me a missing part: how to put the aesthetics into the text so that the piece could stand on its own as text and, at the same time, serve as lyric for the ultimate oration of the selection. I have been working on this for the last five years. Experimenting. Studying. Talking with other poets. Actually, I have been working on this for many, many years; it’s just that over the last five years I have been focused. Why?
On the one hand, reciting poetry was easy. But explaining what I was doing and how I did it, was not so easy. I wanted to be able to articulate the theory as well as articulate the poem. Moreover, I understood that there was a need to compete in the arena of text.
I was clear that if my poetry was going to be published by people other than myself then it had to achieve viability on the page and be able to stand up as text in comparison to most English poetry. I wanted to create a body of poetry that would make a contribution to the African American literary tradition. I was not in search of popularity what I wanted, and have always wanted, was relevance. The difference is now I view relevance not in the present tense but rather in the continuum.
Tom Dent articulates a belief that I share. Rather than in the present, our most important audience may be in the future; those who find antecedent and inspiration in the work that we do. I want to posit poetry worthy of that audience’s perusal and study. This is a major shift in my thinking. I have moved from immediate feedback from our contemporary community as validation. I now believe the validation of our work comes not solely from the community as it currently exists, but also from the community as it existed in the past and as I think/hope it will exist in the future.
How does one receive validation from the past? By consciously incorporating the tradition and keeping alive the spirit of the ancestors. How does one receive validation from the future? By consciously creating cradles that will support future efforts.
I go back to Langston Hughes. It is not enough just to write poetry. I must also gather and uphold the dispersed work of early poets (many of whom were overlooked in their time much like many of us are overlooked now). I must close the circle, reconstruct the calabash. I must dare to care about my ancestors and make a fitting home for them within whatever contemporary space I call home because “my home” is not truly home unless and until my ancestors are there with me. At some point we must understand that “caring” for our history is also a creative act.
The western notion of “self” (in general, and of the artist in particular) as an autonomous individual is what we are struggling against. When I collect and cause to be printed (or recorded) the works of ancestor poets, I have, in the collective sense, written poetry.
This is why in 1990 I edited, and, in conjunction with Felton Eaddy, produced WORD UP, Black Poetry Of The 80s From The Deep South. That anthology featured 67 poems by 40 (evenly divided female/male) poets, representing each of the nine deep south states excluding Alabama and Arkansas.
In my introduction I addressed both the question of “poetry” per se and the rationale behind the title. Listen:
Poetry is a revealer. And a connector. By revealing the essence of us, our differences as well as our commonalties, poetry makes it possible for us to know our individual selves, our collective selves, and also know others on a visceral level through the power and impact of art.
At the gut level, the only substitute for first hand experience is art. Quality poetry emotionally connects us to the world it both helps the world “know” and, hopefully, understand us while simultaneously and dialectically helping us to know and understand the world. When the poet is really poeting, the poet becomes the voice of our heart as well as the window on the souls of others.
While it is important to look out on the world, we also desperately need to understand ourselves, our condition, and, yes, our slavery nurtured psychosis it is painful to realize how well we aren’t. Our art helps us recognize and cope with both our negatives and our positives.
Though this recognition of the reality of our condition might be unpleasant at times, rather than papering over these differences, art delves deeply into them. Great art is always specific, always telling in how well it details the interior lives of those who create the art and those who are the subject matter of the art.
Although African Americans are one people, there are contradictions and differences among us, especially now that the great leveler of segregation has been lifted slightly. The gender gap, or the age gap, or the class gap is sometimes so wide that often only the mediation of art enables us to make the connection between where we are and where our sister or brother is.
Only after we actually feel the difference, only then can the majority of us even begin to feel what the other feels, and only after making the emotional connection can we earnestly commit ourselves to building community and closing the gap between us. Art enables us to care about others, others whom we might otherwise ignore.
But beyond that, we are dealing with another need. This anthology is for those of us who not only love and recognize the connective potency of poetry, but indeed, who actually need poetry to survive. Although music is generally considered the sine qua non of African American life, there is no contradiction in elevating poetry to the level of music because, from our perspective, poetry, which is the music of spoken language, is just another way to sing.
Listen some more:
We decided on the name WORD UP because it implied not only an (re)ascension of the Afro-centric aesthetic, the very name WORD UP also reverberates on the term “Word.”
“Word” is both a popular expression of the 80s and a concept of historic resonance for African Americans. Most of our people are familiar with the concept of “word” from the bible (as in: “in the beginning was the word and the word was God”). But there is also the racial memory of traditional African concepts such as “nommo” which find their new world corollary in the concept of “word.”
Additionally, by saying “Up” we not only implied that we were coming “up out of the south,” we also implied that we were attempting to raise the WORD to a higher level.
So, thus we created WORD UP as an effort to provide exposure for and to display the works of African American poets who were working in the deep south, and who also, consciously or unconsciously, espoused an Afro-centric aesthetic sense which bases their work in the day to day lives, loves and aspirations of working class African Americans. Although we did not impose any aesthetical or political guidelines, most of the poets who responded, clearly adhere to this perspective.
Compare the “sound” of the introduction to WORD UP with the sound of the pieces quoted from NKOMBO I do not disavow nor repudiate those earlier works, for they accurately represent their place and time. I am simply speaking now from a different place, sounding what I see, and suggesting that while the objectives are approximately the same as we had in the past, and while the subject remains the same, the song/sound itself has been deepen by carrying the weight of experience.
From the specific standpoint of writing poetry as text, once I understood what I was trying to do, I then went back to theoretical text I had read, back to interviews, back to discussions I had had with others. I reviewed and updated.
* * * * *
Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.
An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men
* * * * *
music website > http://www.kalamu.com/bol/ writing website > http://wordup.posterous.com/ daily blog > http://kalamu.posterous.com twitter > http://twitter.com/neogriot facebook > http://www.facebook.com/kalamu.salaam
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
02_My_Story,_My_Song.mp3 (24503 KB)
(Kalamu reading “My Story, My Song”
Track List 1. Congo Square (9:01) 2. My Story, My Song (20:50) 3. Danny Banjo (4:32) 4. Miles Davis (10:26) 5. Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03) 6. Unfinished Blues (4:13) 7. Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53) 8. Intro (3:59) 9. The Whole History (3:14) 10. Negroidal Noise (5:39) 11. Waving At Ra (1:40) 12. Landing (1:21) 13. Good Luck (:04)
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
updated 23 July 2010