“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”
The death of author Maya Angelou on May 28 and the murderous massacre in Isla Vista in Santa Barbara County, California, on May 23, 2014, occurred within a week of each other. Both forced me to turn my attention away from work on the final proofs for Journey through the Power of the Rainbow, Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry. Then both, in the end, for different reasons, persuaded me to remain as focused as I could and to get the work done.
That last phrase in particular––“get the work done”––stood out because I recalled Angelou using it when noting how prolific James Baldwin (as an author of novels, plays, poems, essays, short fiction, and screenplays) had been in comparison to Ralph Ellison (celebrated during his lifetime mostly for a single history-making novel and collection of essays). Angelou acknowledged Ellison’s towering achievement with Invisible Man but also felt Baldwin deserved recognition for the more extensive body of critically acclaimed work. Therefore, upon her passing, those words thundered through my skull with the full volume of her majestic articulation: “Get the work done.”
It was a wholly different matter in the case of the misogynistic implosion that Elliot Rodger unleashed in the form of a psychotic detonation that took the lives of six people, wounded seven more, and scarred countless others. The introductory essay in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow talks about how the book was inspired largely by social media’s adoption of a certain quote that might have helped Rodger change his troubled mind. It is one that encourages individuals to seek, claim, and celebrate their innate value as human beings rather than suffer from––or make others suffer from––delusions of rejection and insignificance.
The Man in His Mental Mirror
Rodger acted from the perspective of a mental model––or image of the world held in his mind–– that gave him a lot of misleading assumptions and generally bad information. He assumed his experience of college life must necessarily mirror that of the stereotypical representations so often depicted in popular films and TV programs. Otherwise, it meant either he was failing as a human being or others were failing him.
He convinced himself that being a virgin at the ripe old young adult age of 22 was a reason for self-condemnation. He persuaded himself––while enjoying forms of privilege and luxury unknown to most––that others disliked him when he probably spent too little time actually communicating with anyone to learn whether they truly did or not. Or to determine if it mattered as much as he apparently thought.
Please Click to Read Part 2: Maya Angelou, Elliot Rodger, and Getting the Work Done Part 2
Recently I found myself on the verge of crossing over from ambivalence into guilt due to the amount of time and creative energy devoted this year to online journalism and other forms of prose-writing as opposed to a more luxurious immersion into the rich flow of poem-making. There were actually at least two instances in 2012 when I managed to combine the genres: the first came in February when writing about the death of Whitney Houston and the second came, ironically enough, in August when writing about the life of one Michael Joseph Jackson.
Although the poems included with the stories can stand well enough on their own, the fact that they were generated by journalistic concerns instead of employed as an initial means to a necessary end in themselves made me feel somewhat negligent. After all, where journalism was concerned I had written stories on a variety of topics ranging from the creative arts to political battles. And I had even launched two major series projects–– Paradigm Dancing and Guerrilla Decontextualization.
Maybe remorse had crept up on me because in the beginning of my breath-taking literary adventures poetry had been my first great love and journalism a secondary acquired passion. An early reading of essays by Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin had hinted at the possibility of a sustainable marriage between the two.
This being the year America decides whether or not its first black president has earned enough love, trust, and respect to grant him a second term, failing to address the political dynamics of the hour journalistically has not proven a viable historical option. Therefore, I eventually arrived at that precipice of doubt and anxiety where I could hear poetry weeping that I had abandoned it while journalism proudly gloated over its ostensible dominance. Had I been writing political poems––such as Claude McKay’s commanding “If We Must Die” or W.H. Auden’s “Spain 1937”–– I likely would not have experienced this crisis of literary conscience.
Then, looking back over some of the articles’ titles, I stopped at Poetics of Paradigm Dancing in the 2012 Presidential Election Campaign. Out of my natural tendency to bend and mix literary genres the way visual artists sometimes combine compositional media, I apparently had not abandoned poetry at all. In one sense I had suffused a number of articles with it, through titles and narrative text alike, and thereby expanded journalism’s capacity for enhanced creativity. Doing so had not only enriched ––as I practiced it––journalism’s ability to communicate the mundane with stylistic appeal. It had also increased the number and variety of venues in which poetry might be regularly featured in a manner that demonstrated its marvelous and flexible utility. Moreover, it expanded considerably the potential audience for such work.
In the end, journalism had presented itself as a metaphorical framework for poetry-- and poetry had allowed its use as an elegant canvas for journalism. Each clarified and intensified the meaning of the other, which perhaps is exactly what writing of intended significance in any form should do.
author of Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.