ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
I may repeat lines and sometimes improvise phrases and fragments as I recite, but as for the poem
on the page, each word is carefully chosen. . . . I achieve lyricism by using sound devices:
mainly internal rhyme rather than end rhyme, alliteration, assonance and enjambment.
Books by Kalamu ya Salaam
My Story My Song (CD)
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Is A Sonnet More Than “Fourteen Lines”?
By Kalamu ya Salaam
Of course. Fourteen lines is just the basic length. During over eight centuries of existence, the sonnet developed specific conventions in three broad groupings: the Italian or Petrarchan consisting of an octave and a sestet; the Spenserian employing three quatrains and a closing couplet; and, the English, or Shakespearean, likewise using three quatrains and a closing couplet however with a different rhyme scheme from the Spenserian. A major feature of the classical sonnet is its rhyme scheme.
While I am aware of many of the classical conventions, I choose to use the sonnet the way jazz musicians use the music of their times. The form is basically a jumping off point to voice my concerns, share my emotions and to impose a different aesthetic on the shell of the sonnet.
For me, in terms of crafting the sonnet, there are only two considerations: 1. length: 14 lines, no more, no less; 2. lyricism: a “singing” quality to the poem. Everything else (including themes and subject matter) is up for grabs.
At first look, fourteen lines of unmetered verse (notice, I say, “unmetered” rather than “free”) may not seem much of a restriction, but actually fourteen lines shapes the poem and forces you to drive directly toward a conclusion. Unlike the haiku, whose 17 syllables, impels you to hit it and quit it, juxtapose an image or two and be through, the sonnet gives you room to say something but no room to meander. In a sonnet, the reader expects to see a fully developed, but very lean, poem.
Regardless of length, every poem should be responsive to the rule of succinctness. Elegance in poetry is achieved when a poet uses only as many words as necessary to communicate the essentials of the particular poem.
Density of thought, emotion, and imagery are hallmarks of most text-oriented poetry. In my case, since I use a music-based aesthetic, my density must be achieved through both clever and thoughtful use of imagery and an advanced use of rhythm. Even though my diction tends to be colloquial and/or in the Black vernacular, there is nevertheless care taken in word choice, word placement and especially with economy.
In reciting I may repeat lines and sometimes improvise phrases and fragments as I recite, but as for the poem on the page, each word is carefully chosen. Thus, whether I use one word I achieve lyricism by using sound devices: mainly internal rhyme rather than end rhyme, alliteration, assonance and enjambment.
As rappers have indicated there is more to rhyming than just true rhymes at t he end of lines. I consistently use a technique I call “rhythm-rhymes,” i.e., words which have a rhyming (full or half, true or forced) quality that is based not on single words that sound alike but on groups of two or more words matched with a similar sounding word or phrase.
For example in “Making Whoopie (in chi)” I use the rhyming units “suede soft” matched to “sauntering toward”. Without the repetition of the “s” sound in “suede” and “sauntering,” soft/toward does not even faintly rhyme, yet with the appropriate alliteration up front, the two come off as kissing cousins.
I also like to use what I call “echoes” â the repetition of a rhyming word or phrase further on in the poem. The third appearance recalls the earlier use of the rhyme scheme. Echo works best when you have the first two rhyming units close to each other, and the third (and all subsequent units) further removed. Thus, in “Making Whoopie,” whereas the rhyming unit first appears at the end of line two and the beginning of line three, the echo occurs in the middle of line five. When you get to “one accord” the reader/listener’s ear recalls the “suede soft/sauntering toward” sound, even if not consciously so.
Lyricism implies a floating quality, a horizontal motion, long line lengths or at least long phrasing units. When one hears or hums a beautiful melody, that song will generally be awash in half and whole notes; this corresponds to the use of long vowels and with sounds such as “ing” and “ion.” Another technique I use to emphasize horizontal motion and length is enjambment. I think of continuing the sense and sound of a line from the end of one to the beginning of the next as playing across bars: imposing a long phrase in the space where the ear expects two or more shorter phrases. These techniques require a good feel for the rhythm of words â a sureness (based on experience and experimentation) with manipulating both sound and syllables to keep up the momentum.
In the second stanza of “Making Whoopie” I set up the long phrase by “doubling up” — using double or more phrases in a space where one might expect there to be only one. In the second stanza of “Making Whoopie” the first two lines contain four phrase units and the next two lines contains but one. Plus, the fifth line, although actually the shortest line in the poems, achieves impact by contrast and by similarity; contrast because of length, similarity because of the use of echo.
the private dance you flash as you shudder crash
into the dark density of my palpitating chest
triggers rigid response geysering a seminal liquidity
bursting forth into the flesh seam of human life
i stutter shout a surging yes”
The four short phrase units are: 1. “the private dance you flash”, 2. “as you shudder crash”, 3. “into the dark density” and 4. “of my palpitating chest”. The one long phrase unit is “triggers rigid response geysering a seminal liquidity busting forth into the flesh seam of human life”.
I use the “flash/crash” rhyme, the “dark density” alliteration, and the “crash/chest” alliteration to make these short phrase units apparent. Notice also that single syllable words predominate in the first two lines. All of this sets up a strong contrast with lines three and four, a contrasting tension which is released by the fifth line that consists of only one and two syllable words: “i stutter shout a surging yes”.
My goal is not to ignore form and technique, but rather to substitute a different aesthetic, one which emphasizes sound and rhythm, and simultaneously maintains lyricism.
In “he gets off at 4:30 / it’s 6:09 now” I approach the problem of lyricism from a blues angle. The lines are shorter, there is repetition and heavy use of irony. Throughout I use call and response by setting up descriptive phrase and responding to those phrases.
The opening is totally unorthodox for a sonnet. Line one is a single word “here” with an ellipsis suggesting there is more but more is not said.
The next four stanzas each contain a descriptive phrase of multi-syllabic words set off by a slash and followed by a verb-object imperative (“taste me”, “kiss me”, “embrace me” and “enter me”). Then the concluding three lines consist solely of monosyllabic words and ends with a slash-separated question rather than an imperative.
Again, I used the same basic techniques but now the model is blues rather than jazz. This shift is significant although the difference between the jazz and blues devices may not be apparent to those who are unfamiliar with the musical forms.
In order to successfully use music as a basis for a literary aesthetic, the poet is required to have an advanced “feel” for, if not a technical understanding of, jazz and blues in addition to a mastery of poetic sounding and rhyming devices. After all is said and done, there is no substitute for discipline and the conscious use of an aesthetic (whatever that aesthetic may be).
Whether writing in iambic pentameter or unmetered; whether using the convention of raising a question in an opening octave and resolving the question in the concluding sestet, or using repetition and irony in a call response pattern; regardless of the choice, the key is that the poet has consciously made a choice and is using skill and talent to maximize the effect of the poem based on a specifically chosen aesthetic.
We can employ an existing form or impose/create form as we go along, either way, ultimately what matters is how well we do whatever we choose to do and how overall effective our choice is. I choose to write sonnets using a jazz and blues aesthetic. It is up to you, the audience, to judge how effective I am.
New Orleans writer Kalamu ya Salaam directs NOMMO Literary Society, an African American writers workshop. He is the leader of the WordBand, a poetry performance ensemble and the moderator of CyberDrum, an on-line community of Black writers and diverse supporters of literature. Salaam can be reached at “email@example.com“.
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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
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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)
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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
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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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By Andrew B. Lewis
With deep admiration and rigorous scholarship, historian Lewis (Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table) revisits the ragtag band of young men and women who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Impatient with what they considered the overly cautious and accommodating pace of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr., the black college students and their white allies, inspired by Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and moral integrity, risked their lives to challenge a deeply entrenched system. Fanning out over the Jim Crow South, SNCC organized sit-ins, voter registration drives, Freedom Schools and protest marches. Despite early successes, the movement disintegrated in the late 1960s, succeeded by the militant Black Power movement. The highly readable history follows the later careers of the principal leaders. Some, like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, became bitter and disillusioned. Others, including Marion Barry, Julian Bond and John Lewis, tempered their idealism and moved from protest to politics, assuming positions of leadership within the very institutions they had challenged. According to the author, No organization contributed more to the civil rights movement than SNCC, and with his eloquent book, he offers a deserved tribute.
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By Noam Chomsky
In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forwardin the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest “real progress toward freedom and justice.” Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. “This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the worldto millions, I suspectfor the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him.” John Pilger In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of American empire and class domination, at home and abroad, Chomsky continues a longstanding and crucial work of elucidation and activism . . .the writing remains unswervingly rational and principled throughout, and lends bracing impetus to the real alternatives before us.Publisher’s Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 14 January 2012