Thursday, August 13, 2020

Susan Harris discusses her Mark Twain book

A few months back, I read and blogged about Susan Harris's book Mark Twain, the World, and Me: Following the Equator, Then and Now (2020). The work merges literary criticism, travel narrative, cultural history, and memoir. Last week, August 6, Harris gave a talk about her book online for the Trouble at Home series sponsored by the Mark Twain House & Museum. (Here's a link to her presentation.)

It was cool hearing Harris discuss the book, her motivations, her ongoing concerns, and her travels. I often get to hear poets and novelists discuss their works. However, I somehow get fewer opportunities to check out literature scholars talking about aspects of their books.

It was special listening in on this conversation in the context of a group of Twain scholars who were represented in audience because so many of them were quite familiar with Twain's work. During the Q & A, Harris was deftly fielding a variety of specialized questions, demonstrating her expertise well beyond what she covered in the book. 

At one point, someone asked her about the inclusion of "Billy" (her husband William J. Harris) in the book. He traveled with her on some of the global excursions. Unlike conventional scholarly writing where authors avoid first-person narrative, Harris included herself in the narrative, and it was natural to acknowledge William Harris traveling alongside her as she processed what she experienced. 

It was through William Harris, who was and remains one of my professors, that I first learned that Susan Harris was writing a book on Twain and her travels. On social media, he would provide photos from the various travels and when I asked what he was doing in all these far-flung places, he mentioned that Susan Harris was writing a book. His travel posts prepared me for Mark Twain, the World, and Me.    

Listening to Harris discuss her book gave me even more ways into her book and approaches. I'm also now on the lookout for more literature scholars reflecting on their work and the processes of producing it. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Notes on the Enduring Legacy of Toni Morrison event


Among its many attributes, the Toni Morrison Society (TMS) is well known for getting a range of talented people together in a common space to discuss the life and writings of the organization's namesake. That was the case on August 5, 2020, when the TMS coordinated "The Enduring Legacy of Toni Morrison," a discussion featuring Edwidge Danticat, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Deborah McDowell, Maryemma Graham, Imani Perry, and Yolanda Pierce. The conversation was hosted by Dana Williams, and TMS founder, Carolyn Denard participated as well. 

So many wonderful Morrison minds in one place. Of course, our current moment of social distancing means that getting together often occurs virtually. Accordingly, this TMS event took place on Zoom.   

The speakers gave personal reflections on time that they spent with Morrison, and they also interspersed responses to the novelist's work. They covered the general topics: "Toni Morrison and the Academy," "Toni Morrison's Publics," and "Toni Morrison and the Humanities." 

Graham, Williams, Angelyn Mitchell, and I served as the planning committee for the event. We devised the topics as points of departure for the various speakers. We set the date for gathering on the one-year anniversary of Morrison's passing.  

Dana Williams, Imani Perry, Edwidge Danticat

Denard opened with brief remarks. McDowell and Graham began by speaking on the subject of Morrison and the Academy, followed by Danticat and Perry on Morrison's Publics, and then Griffin and Pierce talked about Morrison and the Humanities. The event closed with all of the speakers providing reflections. They have all collectively been producing work on Morrison's writings for decades, so it was inspiring and informative to hear them talk informally about her and her novels. 

At one point, McDowell told an amusing story about traveling on a train with Morrison in France. Morrison had insisted on their group eating fried chicken, so in route to an event that's what they had. It was funny and at the same time touching to hear McDowell laughing as she fondly recalled that moment. She gave us a view of the esteemed novelist to which we rarely have access.   

Beyond her status as one of our greatest authors, Morrison was, Denard noted in her opening remarks, a daughter and mother, a sister and a friend. A grandmother. A neighbor. I'm not sure about everyone else, but I do need occasional reminders that the author of the masterpiece Song of Solomon (1977) was an actual human being. Without such reminders, I've been inclined to forget. 

In all seriousness, "The Enduring Legacy of Toni Morrison" was an important moment to pause and get our bearings. So much and so little, it seems, have happened since we lost Morrison a year ago. As always, she's wonderfully unsettling our sense of time.   

We do have some idea of what the last fifty years of scholarship on her writings looks like. So what will the subsequent decades covering Morrison's work entail?  Listening to McDowell and Graham, Danticat and Perry, and Pierce and Giffin gave us a glimpse at the possibilities. 

During the conversation, someone in the chat section mentioned how amazing it was to have all these prominent writers and scholars together *right here* -- in this one Zoom session. This global pandemic had created the impetus for us to think creativity about what a TMS event could look like in this moment and perhaps in the future.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

C. Liegh McInnis's concentrated cultural catalog on black poetry

Some of the volumes included in C. Liegh McInnis's catalog

By and large, you read reviews of African American volumes of poetry one-at-a-time. Scholarly articles might deal with a few poetry books. But coverage of more than two dozen contemporary volumes by black poets published in one year? Nah, rarely happens.

For that reason, I was drawn to the amount and range of C. Liegh McInnis's coverage in his article, "Thoughts after Reading Twenty-Five Collections of Black Poetry in Twenty-Five Days." His attention to so many poets and poems in a single article represents what I refer to as as "concentrated cultural cataloging," which refers to writers presenting and referencing a large number of historical figures, concepts, and sites in a single composition. As a result, they produce an extended record or catalog. 

It's perhaps true that scholars are inevitably always creating cultural catalogs of some sort when they go about citing various works and scholarship. I'm particularly fascinated, though, when folks who don't primarily define themselves as scholars present us with abundant artistic references. This is what McInnis does in his poetry article. 

Over the years, I've noticed McInnis producing cultural catalogs in his poetry. Or put another way, he'll have a poem with multiple black cultural references. In his poem, "The Bridge (for Medgar at the Crossroads)," for example, he references a variety of subjects related to Mississippi, Civil Rights, and his subject Medgar Evers. 

In a way, such references and allusions are typical for poetry, right? Yes, but it's been useful for me to think of black creators composing cultural catalogs as I consider their common practices across genres and modes of presentation. I enjoy thinking about the realms that are familiar to various composters.  

McInnis demonstrates his interests as a reader in the catalog that emerges in his article on those twenty-five books of poetry. The article extends to works well beyond those focal texts. Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frantz Fanon, Larry Neal, and many others make appearances here. As noted, it's not surprising to see so many citations in a scholarly text. It is, however, somewhat rare to see scholarly writing that foregrounds so many volumes by African American poets published in the late 2010s.

Moreover, McInnis does not privilege his identity as a scholar. Instead, he often opens his byline with the note that he is "a poet, short story writer, instructor of English at Jackson State University." Unlike many conventional scholars, he has been committed to self-publishing, though over a long career of writing, he has published in traditional journals as well. 

Still, his interest in self-publishing was important for what he produced with this article. He read and wrote about two dozen volumes released in 2018 and published his thoughts on the writing in the same year. The comparatively slow processes of scholarly journals mean that you are unlikely to encounter articles that appear in the same year as the books they examine. Of course, it's not unusual for magazines and newspapers to publish timely reviews of poetry volumes, but again, they typically focus on one book at a time, and sometimes two or three, but never twenty-five.  

What I'm trying to say is that McInnis's work is unique in important ways. I wonder what the critical discourse on black writing would look like if more poets and scholars were inclined to share their extended thoughts, as McInnis does, on a large body of contemporary compositions that they covered. To do so would require an engaged interest in a creative domain and an ability to produce the work outside of conventional scholarly venues.    
This article, "Thoughts after Reading Twenty-Five Collections of Black Poetry in Twenty-Five Days," represents an expanded record of a couple dozen poetry books that McInnis read during a concentrated stretch of time in 2018. Reading what he wrote had me thinking about all kinds of possibilities for producing similar kinds of compositions. Among other things, I guess concentrated cultural catalogs are also inspirational.  


Friday, July 31, 2020

77 poems about vulnerable black boys & black men (for Jerry W. Ward, Jr.'s birthday)

Amiri Baraka and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. -- September 2004

My book on African American writers and creativity focuses on vulnerable black boys and bad men. I started thinking in serious ways about representations of vulnerable black boys in literary art over twenty years ago when I first encountered Jerry W. Ward Jr.'s "Don't Be Fourteen (in Mississippi)."     

In honor of Ward on his 77th birthday today, I decided to curate a list of 77 poems focusing on vulnerable black boys, bad men, and black men in general. 
black boys and childhood reflections 
• "Don't Be Fourteen (in Mississippi)" by Jerry W. Ward Jr.
• "The Whipping" by Robert Hayden
• "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks
• "Letters to Joe Frazier from Mike Tyson" by Derrick Harriell
• "The Lost Boys: A Requiem" by Reginald Harris
• "Po' Boy Blues" by Langston Hughes
• "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes
• "leadbelly’s lessons" by Tyehimba Jess 

black fathers 
• "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden
• "Bereavement" By Kevin Young  

Black men and music 
• "Jazz to Jackson to John" by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
• "Digging Max" by Amiri Baraka
• "lomax v. leadbelly in new york: letters to home, 1934" by Tyehimba Jess
• “Don’t Cry, Scream” By Haki Madhubuti
• "Milestones" by Eugene B. Redmond
• "Juju” By Askia Toure
• “Ode to John Coltrane” By Quincy Troupe
• "The Armageddon of Funk" by Michael Warr

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Concentrated Cultural Catalogs

In my book Bad Men, I introduce this term "concentrated cultural catalog," which refers to writers presenting and referencing a large number of historical figures, concepts, and sites in a single composition. These cultural catalogs are concentrated based on how much is covered or presented in one place. 

Amiri Baraka was a wonderful cultural cataloger. His poems "Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test" and "Digging Max" make references to dozens of people. Black Thought's most famous freestyle is an amazing feat of cataloging with an abundant array of people, historical events, and artifacts listed in the course of a single performance. Consider too Robin Coste Lewis's "Voyage of the Sable Venus" as a concentrate cultural catalog with her citing a profusion of art objects from 38,000 BCE to the present. In his novel The Sellout, Paul Beatty incredibly mentions hundreds of people, places, things.  

  It's good to see the work of  vigorous cultural catalogers. They give you a sense of all these elements, items, or people that comprise a creative domain. You check out their catalogs, and you get a sense of how immersed they are in a particular realm, or you witness them making connections across multiple areas of thought. 


Monday, July 27, 2020

C. Liegh McInnis on imagery in black poetry

Lift Every Voice and Sing by Augusta Savage

“Form, especially the mastery of imagery, is important to me,” writes C. Liegh McInnis in an article he wrote about reading twenty-five volumes of poetry by African American poets in twenty-five days. His focus on imagery elevated its importance for me. 

"Of course, I do not mind the extended use of vocabulary, but these poets are using the terms as if having a large vocabulary is equated with or deemed as impactful/powerful as mastery of imagery," he writes at one point. "Yes, creative writing is about vocabulary, but, at its core, is it not about painting with words? Moreover, is it not about painting with words to create a vivid and specific or concrete understanding of an idea or concept?" (2). 

At one point, he lists off the 20-plus volumes of poetry that he read and provides brief comments or notations on the pieces. He notes that several of the poets show "Excellent use of imagery,” or their poems reveal “Excellent imagery." There are moments when he is turned off by obscure/vague in some volumes, but he expresses being moved in positive ways because of the imagery. McInnis is most interested in poems that achieve "the right balance of well-crafted imagery while being intellectually challenging without being obscure/vague" (13). 

I've been taking a break, but when I work my way back to reading poetry on a regular again, I plan to think and write more seriously about imagery than I have in the past. I'm interested in exploring some of the issues that McInnis has highlighted for me in his article. I'm curious about how folks are constructing and references vivid scenes in their works. 

And why stop with just verse? Fiction writers are dealing with imagery and so are prose writers. So it might make sense to consider a little more attentively to what some of the folks are doing. 


Here's more in my series on his article

C. Liegh McInnis on obscure/vague language, references in poetry

I recently returned to C. Liegh McInnis's article, "Thoughts after Reading Twenty-Five Collections of Black Poetry in Twenty-Five Days." 

In addition to offering praise for the many works he covers and highlighting his interest in imagery, he presents various critiques. As I was previously noting, it's somewhat rare to witness a black writer offer public extended critiques of black poetry for a variety of reasons (fears that such critiques could be taken the wrong way, possibility of professional retribution, the code of silence within black communities, which Amiri Baraka once referred to as "colored patriotism").
In his article, here are a few critiques of poetry and the field of poetry that McInnis raises: 
"Maybe that’s my problem—that I keep expecting poets to be precise in their meaning through a crafting of images that makes one understand their idea on a tangible level. I do not mind the emotive, but, often, the notion of the ethereal or even magical nature of poetry just seems like a copout for someone who cannot or is too afraid to make a specific statement, which is ironic since so many of them are so hell-bent on peppering their poetry with precise, scientific terms that rarely yield a preciseness in meaning" (2).

"As someone who loves determining/searching/researching the meaning to a word puzzle, I do not mind the search. I am just growing tired of there being nothing tangible/precise at the end of the search" (4).

" would be better severing of poetry and humanity if more editors and critics simply admit that the vast majority of poetry that they reject or omit is because of socio-political sensibilities than for craftsmanship" (6).

"My head loves the manipulation of form, but it has always been the works that impact or embed themselves in my gut that I remember. A bunch of beautiful/vivid, well-crafted images that combine to mean nothing precise do not impact me, do not remain in my gut.." (7). 

"It is like watching a movie with great parts but no cohesive narrative. Clearly, that is fine for most, but I am often left intellectually and emotively unfulfilled. There are lots of enjoyable metaphoric moments, but, again, I would like those moments to 'payoff' in a more precise way" (34). 
One of the extended critiques that he offers concerns works that he views as too "obscure/vague." I was most drawn to that point, or series of points, because it emerges so often among the students and various other readers that I have worked with over the last decade. Like, McInnis, many folks enjoy and even crave puzzles, but they are a little let down when the payoffs don't seem worthwhile. But they grow impatient with some obscure or even incomprehensible references. 

I've talked to a few black poets about reader concerns along these lines. The poets responded that readers "need to do the work." That is, the readers should take more effort to understand the coded references and ideas being explored. So there's an impasse. 

I think there are many reasons why obscurity emerges seemingly often in contemporary poetry, by which I mean right here, volumes of poetry published since 2000 . It's a relatively small field and thus a small number of gatekeepers who can dictate the norms and expectations. Further, for better and worse, there is no strong imperative to appeal to really large audiences. Accordingly, I suspect what some poets may view as perfectly clear could come off as obscure to many readers. And those  folks within some realms of poetry cherish ideas, language, and references that mean little to those who reside in other domains.              

Whatever the case, McInnis's article gave me reasons to return to the issue of obscurity in poetry and consider why and how it emerges and sometimes frustrates readers. 

Here's more in my series on his article
  Returning to C. Liegh McInnis's critical work on poetry