Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections and renewed hopes (part 1 of 2): remembrance
"He used the word 'nourishing' to refer to Vann's work. And the more I looked through the work seriously, and took my time, that term [seemed] quite apropos. The art and poetry of Elemental nourishes the soul, the mind, and the aesthetic."
Every now and then I get a good sense of what it might feel like to be a phoenix waking up as a pile of ash and bones which suddenly burst into new flaming life. It was kind of like that recently while continuing my ongoing recovery from the hurricanes of 2016 (Matthew) and 2017 (Irma) to prepare for the 2018 stormy-weather season.
In the course of going through yet another pile of unsorted thumb drives, DVDs, CDs, and mini cassettes, I discovered a lost treasure: a DVD filmed by the gifted polymath Benjamin Bacon (known to friends and colleagues as BeBe) labeled "Elemental, Early Morning Light Productions, by Luther E. Vann, Final Cut, Jepson Gallery, Savannah, GA, May 29, 2008." It is not something which will ever challenge the global impact of director Ryan Coogler's game-changing Black Panther film, but it has added immeasurably to the 2018 10th Anniversary Celebration of the publication of Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love (ISBN 9780972114271).
The video, shot just as YouTube and social media were developing their considerable digital muscles, captures in raw fashion a singular moment in the history of cultural arts in the United States. The program that evening included my friend Luther's debut effort as a videographer, a short bio-documentary titled Coming Home, in which he recorded me reciting the poem from which the video took its title, and chronicled his days in New York City pursuing his craft while living in the basement of a friend's apartment on Washington Square.
In addition to Luther, program participants included: Dr. Ja A. Jahannes, musician Travis Biggs, The Telfair's Friends of African-American Art (who did so much to make the evening possible), its then director Steven High, curator Harry DeLorme, and many patrons, supporters, and fans. They all combined intentions and resources to demonstrate art's ability to endow a diverse community with a single beautiful purpose. That potential is one which has eluded too many in 2018 as educational institutions and organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts have seen their budgets butchered at a time when what creatives gift to society possibly has never been more needed.
The current political assaults on freedom of the press and individual expression make it even more important to savor the kind of rarity represented by Elemental's launch ten years ago. Moreover, the event takes on greater and greater significance because some of the key geniuses who made it happen are no longer with us on the physical plane and others have taken on new missions in different cities or countries. Vann died April 6, 2016, and Jahannes on July 5, 2015. (I last communicated with violinist Travis Biggs a few months before Luther passed but since then have not received any responses to phone messages or emails).
Dr. Jahannes' contribution to the celebration remains particularly memorable because with his eloquent, insightful, and often humorous comments on the art and poetry of Elemental he both "stole the show" and gave it back to the audience as a perfect gift. He had been asked to introduce the Coming Home video precisely because of his familiarity with our work both as individuals and as a team. In his words:
"Aberjhani and Luther Vann have dynamic synergism in their poetry and their paintings...'Luther Vann's paintings will enrich our community for years to come,' said Steven High in a preface to Elemental. So will the poetry of Aberjhani..."
He spoke with infectious ease when comparing Luther's work to that of painters as diverse as the Norwegian master Edvard Munch and the iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. He did the same when pointing out parallels between it and musicians such as the classical composer Antonin Dvorchak and giants of jazz John Coltrane and Miles Davis. An accomplished photographer himself, Jahannes further described as Vann as "a remarkable storyteller" and "a sensory artist" whose images engage viewers' attention on multiple levels:
"He's a master of sensory brilliance. His work is visual, captivating, and viscerally engaging... If you look at these paintings, you can almost hear them. They are auditory. There are voices emitted by color and arrangement. They're kinesthetic. Energy [is] generated by the arrangement of pulsating hues... They are tactile. You can almost feel the texture by the way he layers and juxtaposes color and arranges symbols and images..."
These observations have since helped various scholars and art lovers to more fully understand what they are viewing when going through the pages of the book, or standing in front of Luther's work at the Telfair Museum of Art or elsewhere.
The Deep Road to Infinity
Long before Elemental made cultural arts history in Savannah, I had become an admirer of Dr. Jahannes's poetry and essay collection, Truthfeasting. For that reason, I felt more than a little honored by his generous comments on the body of my published works and was thrilled to hear him recite the following passage:
We take the deep road to infinity.
His willingness to lend his voice in service to something greater than either of our individual ambitions was a large part of what defined Elemental's thematic substance. It brought to mind the great Lucille Clifton’s famous dictum that when it comes to identifying yourself as a poet and actually writing poetry, "One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated."
The celebratory evening of May 29, 2008, marked the culmination of an almost two-decade campaign to breathe life into a project which had survived, and in part been shaped by, the turbulence born of two creative individuals' private, social, political, and professional lives. The luxury of having finally reached a point of relief nearly overshadowed the excitement of having achieved a long-sought triumph. We soon realized we had completed only one more stage of a perpetually interactive process which would, much like the book, continue to unfold in layers of color and sparks of revelation.
NEXT: Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections & renewed hopes (part 2): illumination
“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
Anyone in the habit of keeping journals––as I have been for many years––has probably noticed the advantage they provide when the need arises to confirm specific incidents or meetings from the past. Writers of memoir, biography, and autobiography in particular can appreciate such leverage.
The habit of journaling becomes especially useful when looking back and discovering you were part of an extraordinary occasion, or associated with an exceptional individual, whom you somehow failed to recognize for their greater value. It was only after Time placed within your hands the proper tools of knowledge and perspective that you could recognize the experience for the individual nugget of golden significance it was. The possibility of claiming such overlooked treasures the first time around is only one reason to consider making it a habit to recognize the innate potential for beauty and worth inherent in all things.
Connections Known, Unknown, & Rediscovered
As wisely as most of us guard against over-sharing on the internet, there are some ways––literally and figuratively––it functions as a supplemental journal of our lives. Celebrities who have seen extremely private photographs suddenly made public can testify to why that is not always a good thing. Researchers who have needed to identify leads to critical hypotheses proposing connections between seemingly unrelated elements can demonstrate why and how it can be.
I had given little thought to either prospect until receiving an inforapid infographic illustrating different facets of my literary connections. Most of what it shows has long been a matter of public record and knowledge. What, however, caught me by surprise were the associations it identified from my time at the New College of California in San Francisco.
Although it is a great honor to see my name beside that of such superb modern talents as the author of The Opening of the Field, Robert Duncan, and Black Mountain Poets founder Robert Creeley, the one name I would have expected to see was not there. That would have been educator and poet Duncan McNaughton, who established the school’s Poetics Program and with whom (as pointed out in my recently-updated literary profile) I actually studied. Yet, ironically, the New College of California poets identified do represent a legitimate substantial line of influence on the evolution of my literary aesthetics.
I say more in the pages of a current book in progress about important lessons learned from McNaughton after making my way to class following eight full hours at work, but for now I will focus on the dynamics of reclaiming contexts and meanings. Since I was only one of many that McNaughton taught at New College, it is unlikely that he would remember me as well as I remember him. Still, while revisiting this period in my life to complete the noted work in progress, I have been greatly inspired to read online about his more recent literary activities and publications.
Seeing someone who served as your mentor decades ago continuing to burn his literary candles at both ends in 2015 has a way of obliterating any excuses you might want to latch onto for not completing challenging work. In this case, I was particularly intrigued when I came across a piece titled “Rewilding Poetry,” by Canadian poet Sharon Thesen, in which she discusses an aspect of McNaughton’s poetics that runs parallel to recent observations of my own:
“What San Francisco poet Duncan McNaughton referred to as ‘sweetness of heart’ strikes me as a possibly interesting move toward a re-wilding that I believe is constantly trying to take place anyway. Sweetness of heart, McNaughton says, is ‘what is really common to our desirous souls, the quality which overcomes all barriers in order to circulate anew the heart’s creative feeling among men and women, who have more than enough reason to despair.’ To radically expand the field of feeling seems an unintended ongoing work of any poetic practice of the wild.” –– (Sharon Thesen, Rewilding Poetry, 2015 Cascadia Poetry Festival)
The term “rewilding poetry” was new to me until I read Thesen’s essay (she actually expresses a preference for the phrase “re-worlding poetry”). However, the essence of the concept is one I began contemplating after the late Ja A. Jahannes edited and published Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry.
Jahannes looked to a strategy of demographic inclusiveness to practice rewilding poetry after noting, like Amiri Baraka before him, the sterility some would impose upon contemporary poetry through an institutionalization characterized by elitist exclusion. Impressive intellects, and sometimes even seductively beautiful minds, may still be found periodically within such superbly-positioned chambers but any “sweetness of heart” tends to be less readily available.
An Exercise in Mindfulness
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.