“…turnin’ nouns into verbs braids into crowns
The poem from which the above quote was taken, “people of watts,” by the late playwright and poet Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was originally published in her Wild Beauty collection and more recently in the special spring 2020 edition of African Voices Magazine dedicated to Shange and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison (1931-2019). The quoted lines summarize with agonizing eloquence the work Shange and Morrison have done to resurrect the lynched legacies of African American women. I hope they apply as well to my poem, “A Song of Toni Morrison My Soul Now Sings,” included in African Voices’ celebration of the authors’ amazing lives.
Publisher Carolyn Butts, in her introductory note, spells out the importance of the women’s literary triumphs: “Part 2 of our Ntozake Shange issue honors two Black women writers whose language ignited movements around the principles of self-love, healing and interconnectivity. Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange freed us from restricting cultural mores while stretching our language and shifting our gaze. We tip our pens in gratitude…”
Balancing Scales of Recognition
Women have always occupied major positions in my nonfiction books, fictional works, essays, poems, and journalism. That may have become more evident over the past year with the inclusion of my work in the art catalogue, Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades, and announcement of my forthcoming lecture at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia.
Morrison in particular has been a recurring subject. However, by comparison, I’ve written far too little about Shange. That realization comes as a major surprise because I recall clearly the controversies stirred over her iconic play: For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and the impact it had on me and others.
Described as a choreopoem by Shange in the late 1970s, the play had already become a cultural phenomenon (much like the TV production of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has today) by the time I saw it at Temple University in Philadelphia. The playwright had set astonishing witnessed truths, some of them beautiful and some of them horrifying, to linguistic music, and dressed them up in skirted dancing hues. It was as visually captivating as it was dramatically innovative and exhilarating.
Male friends had declined to go see it with me because they bought into the hype it was “anti Black men.” While there may have been grounds for such an argument, I had grown up with too many sisters and female cousins to fail to recognize the shocking validity of Shange’s voice. I had read the works of too many of her predecessors–like Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, and Lorraine Hansberry––to fail to accept that hers was a major authentic contribution to a dialogue essential to African Americans’ expanded understanding of African Americans. As a young writer looking to develop his own voice, how I could I not be astounded by what she had done with hers?
It is not the destiny of literary sisters like Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Shange to rest in peace. Legacies such as theirs tend to lift our love for and memories of them ever higher in power. That is something for which we can always be grateful.
© Women’s History Month 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
Just before I took off running from Hurricane Matthew as it slammed the southeastern United States in 2016, presumably courtesy of the still-raging global climate crisis, I wrote the following notes on Duncan McNaughton's contemporary poetry classic, Valparaiso (Listening Chamber publishing, 1995):
As seen through the lens of this reader's experience of his work, McNaughton is a hunter and gatherer of significant meanings, and names, obscured by time and human negligence. Both a dissector and a sculptor of forms (as well as formlessness), a skillful translator of elusive moments crammed as much with pointless absurdity as with essential insights.....
Three years later, following a very narrow miss from Hurricane Dorian, I opened a copy of his SOMEWHERE IN THE STREAM (Blue Press Books, 2019). With this latest addition to the impressive and too often overlooked corpus of McNaughton's titles--now in fact time is the time for publication of a volume of his collected works--for some reason I felt a little less threatened by upheavals of physical-world conditions. Hurricanes seemingly indicative of negligent environmental stewardship, flaming tempests of political corruption, and suicidal addictions to war and hate fueling suicidal addictions to drugs and violence all took less of a toll on my personalized corner of the world. Maybe there was a reason for that.
A reader contemplating the title of this most recent volume of grace, wit, wisdom, and genius from someone often dubbed a poet's poet might suddenly ask: "Somewhere in the Stream" of what exactly? Potential answers--at least for those unfamiliar with McNaughton’s earlier works or unaware of his connections to genre-influencing poets like Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Diane di Prima--could turn out to be as ambiguous or obscure as they might precise and informative.
Since the poet is McNaughton, stream of individual consciousness gives us one good possibility. So does stream of collective memory, or of human comedies, absurdities, tragedies, antipoetic ironies, and language. It makes sense also to consider the stream of life, or existence, in general. How it manifests, flows, diverges, halts, dims, or glows to the rhythms of its own self-determining frequencies with seemingly little, if any, regard for human intentions constitutes a recurring observance, if not an actual theme, in many of the 51 poems contained in this collection.
So why does any of this matter? Because McNaughton's sensibility is one which surfs brilliantly through history, layered philosophical concepts, and rhythms of multiple languages with startling ease to collect observations well worth the attention of Gen-Z, Millennials, Baby Boomers, and Traditionals alike. Tagging along gives the feeling at times of accompanying an interdimensional space explorer seeking confirmations of intelligence and civilizations outside boundaries of known planetary systems. Or popular literary conventions. As such, his poemized captain's log (if you will) documents the many strange contradictions of what it means to be human.
Read the short title poem at the volume's beginning and you are immersed instantly in a sense of intimate familiarity:
Always an empty space out
Here, space in the physical (on the page) sense appears to underscore prominence in the emotional sense. A thorough embrace of human intimacy, romantic and otherwise, unimpeded by space or time, is one of the great gifts of McNaughton's poetry--and also one of its respectable challenges. On a planet home to billions where so many still find themselves condemned to a strangling sense of alienation, the poem lets readers share in the luxurious comfort of knowing a place exists where one is always expected and always welcome. It allows the narrator to become anchored in affirmations of community tinted with soul-sustaining beauty.
This sense of community as represented in McNaughton's poetry has never been restricted to zip codes, national boundaries, or even a single period of history. It has always welcomed the voices of different poets and thinkers grappling with the frequently-cruel and yet often-humorous demands of existence itself. With that in mind, his poems may read as engaged conversations, private letters, public editorials, or notes to a singular self taking inventory of a singular life. Many of those "who matter" the most do indeed "drop in" for cameo appearances in the pages of SOMEWHERE. Among them are both historic and more contemporary poets and authors such as: Bill Berkson, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Jack Collom, Robert Grenier, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Jack Kerouac, Jack Spicer, Osip Mandelstam, Colin Christopher Stuart, Walt Whitman, and D.H. Lawrence--just to give a quick sense of the wide range of literary territory this astonishing title covers.
How a given society judges or misjudges some of the most powerful, if not necessarily most influential, voices humanity has produced is not always encouraging. In "AT THE HOUSE OF COMMONS,"(caps McNaughton's) for example, the narrator observes:
The small man alone in the corner is
With Blake, one of the original titans of Romanticism, sitting ignored in a corner, the elephant in the room is the huge unasked question about our modern times. When an over-dependence on technology methodically shortens attention spans and ruling oligarchs pass demagoguery off as democracy: how wise it not to care about the sustained life-example of a poet-artist such as Blake?
NEXT: Floating along: A Review Essay on Duncan McNaughton’s Somewhere in the Stream Part 2
Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
April, when both Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month are observed, is always a special time at Bright Skylark Literary Productions. This year it is doubly special because in addition to featuring several re-posts of classic articles and essays about poetry and jazz on this site, we have also teamed up with our Charter for Compassion partners to present the timely new 4-part series: Poetic Traditions of Compassion and Creative Maladjustment.
The celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month actually got underway with Jarreau Jazz-riff Earth-tunes for the Angel of Compassion, the poem and essay published in tribute to the late great Al Jarreau after his passing earlier this year. Jarreau in recent years had been among the headliners for the annual International Jazz Day concert and one of the premier talents of the modern jazz era. You can check out part 1 of the tribute by clicking here and part 2, which includes the poem, by clicking this Postered Poetics artwork:
A Confluence of Compassionate Sensibilities
In addition to commemorating NPM 2017, the series showcased on the Charter for Compassion website does two important things:
1) It explores the conceptual relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for a creative-maladjustment approach to civil disobedience and author Karen Armstrong’s recommended strategy for living a compassion-empowered life.
2) It utilizes as lens through which to examine poetic traditions of compassion, short biographical profiles of the Sufi genius Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning Harlem Renaissance and Chicago Renaissance poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Prague, Czech Republic-born author of Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke.
You can begin enjoying the series by clicking either of the following graphics:
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives addressing race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
“Individuals often turn to poetry, not only to glean strength and perspective from the words of others, but to give birth to their own poetic voices and to hold history accountable for the catastrophes rearranging their lives.” --Aberjhani from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays. ©Postered Poetics based on original poetry Spencerian calligraphy art by G.A. Gaskell. #NPM16 #PocketPoem
The launch of National Poetry Month, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, in April 1996, came just three years after the debut issue of the Savannah Literary Journal in 1993. In addition to 49 poems by 35 brilliant writers with regional and national reputations, the 1996 edition of the journal featured six works of fiction and three pieces of creative nonfiction.
My contribution to the journal that year was a personal essay but the title of it, Angels and Shakespeare (later published in I Made My Boy Out of Poetry), revealed the central place verse has always held in my life. So did this epigraph borrowed from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
“For this reason Monday burns like
Both National Poetry Month and the publication of the journal (up until 2001) could be considered as invitations to readers, writers, and publishers to explore a more deeply intimate relationship with language. These invitations coaxed them as well to experience the different levels of power words can wield when endowing our lives with either newly-claimed or wholly-unexpected meaning.
The responses, now 20 years down the timeline, have mushroomed into a worldwide cultural mainstay where National Poetry Month (NPM) is concerned. In regard to the Savannah Literary Journal, published by the former Savannah Writers Workshop, it has confirmed the value of one of the city’s most prized artistic legacies.
Of Bloggers and Nobel Laureates
But what should we say of poetry as a whole during the last two decades when life as so many once knew it shape-shifted into a spinning mass of digital signals, globalized communities unbounded by geographic borders, and astounding varieties of terror clashing head-on with determined demands for liberty?
That now populous demographic of humanity known as bloggers did not exist in 1996 and programmer Peter Merholz would not condense the term “weblog” to invent the word “blog” until 1999. Nevertheless, poetically-inclined bloggers during the first and second decades of this 21st century have done a great deal to ensure poetry occupies a prominent position within the global imagination and humanity’s collective ethical consciousness.
Moreover, the ever-mindful Nobel Prize Committee actually saw fit in 1996 to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." And in 2011 it bestowed that same honor upon Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer , "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."
A Movement Designed to Inspire
Obviously the Academy of American Poets’ commitment to recognizing, honoring, and documenting literary excellence within the work of American Poets did not begin with the establishment of NPM. That happened back in 1934 when founder Marie Bullock surveyed America’s literary landscape and came to a certain conclusion.
Despite the quietly-evolving cultural canonization at the time of such poets as Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), and other American quill-masters of the period, it became apparent that more needed to be done to place poetry on some level of esteem comparable to what it stirred in the literary capitals—such as Paris, London, and Dublin––of Europe.
National Poetry Month more than half a century later represented a game-changing upgrade from previous efforts. Since its start, affiliated programs each successive year have helped observations to grow in scope and influence. Initiatives such as Poem in Your Pocket Day (observed this year on April 21), the Dear Poet Project, and Poem-A-Day (via email) contribute immensely to sustaining the sweet joyful howl of poetry in these new millennial times. The key words and hashtags that dominate social media every April––like #npm16, #pocketpoem, #jazzpoetry, #celebratingpoetry, and the tagged names of favorite poets––denote only one small measure of how successful the campaign has become.
It also did not hurt when citizens of the United States elected a lover and writer of poetry, Barack H. Obama, as their first African-American president in 2008. The following is from a 2009 essay written to commemorate both NPM and Jazz Appreciation Month:
…The birth of the Academy meant the birth of a movement designed to inspire, cultivate, and preserve the voice of American poets. And although it likely was not his intention to do so, President Barack Obama extended that movement not only by bearing the “stigma” of being an accomplished wordsmith but by inviting Elizabeth Alexander––an author of several books but of whom many had never heard until Obama spoke her name––to serve as his Inauguration Day poet.
If there is one thing populations of the world have needed, and received, from poetry for the past two decades, it has been inspiration. But not only inspiration in that classic form which reaffirms the value of faith.
Poetry in our post 9/11 era provides the kind of inspiration that defiantly raises poets’ voices against the brutalities of war, the insanities of terrorism, and the indignities of oppression in all its toxic forms. It empowers the simplest of lives to confront the most extreme sorrows with courage, and motivates the mightiest of offices to humbly heed lessons in compassion.
Although the last edition (to date) of the Savannah Literary Journal was published in 2001, its legacy continues to stand as a richly inspiring one. Many of the poets, essayists, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers featured in its pages have since gone on to win national and international acclaim in various fields. These are but a few listed in no particular order: Janice Daugharty, Linda Rocheleau, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, David C. Hightower, Susan Johnson, Lily Keber, Ja A. Jahannes (1942 -2015), Errol Miller, Kathleen Thompson, Toussaint St. Negritude, Dufflyn Lammers, Anis Mojgani, and Vaughnette Goode-Walker. Again, these represent only a few.
Most would probably tell you their greatest contributions to the literary arts thus far have not been particular poems or stories or books. They have instead been the relationships cultivated with the hearts and souls who heard what they had to say and then drew from that hearing enough motivation to speak their own truths to power and pain and joy.
Despite the Cacophony
Whether through contributors to literary journals, the sustained dedicated efforts of members of the Academy of American Poets, or bloggers content just to have a platform where they could post lines at will, poetry has maintained a dynamic living breathing presence in the world.
Despite the cacophony of bombs and bullets which so often drown out the music of laughter (or possibly because of them) poetry at this point in history may very well be more commanding than any other previous time. There are many reasons to believe its potency, and its beauty, shall grow even stronger in the future.
© National Poetry Month 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.