Friday, August 7, 2015

William J. Harris, black arts discourse, and Broadside Press

William Harris's first volume and a page from the table of contents of Arnold Adoff's The Poetry of Black America

Yesterday, William J. Harris was raising a question to me on Facebook. "What does it mean," he asked, "that my first book was published by Ithaca House instead of Broadside Press? What does it say about my social position and opportunities, etc.?"

Broadside Press, founded in 1965 and operated by Dudley Randall, was one of the most prominent African American publishers during the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its small size and shoe-string budget, the press published a large roster of poets, and gained a reputation as a leading force in the production of the Black Arts Movement. After reading  Harris's question, I went and took a look at a catalog showcasing more than 60 Broadside Press titles.

So what does it mean to publish with Broadside as opposed to Ithaca House? For one, poets who publish with a particular press are virtually linked to a common imprint, a suggestion that the poets are aligned in various ways, even if that's not the case. Still, the poets with Broadside were connected to an interconnected enterprise that was different than poets who may have published, say, at Ithaca House.

The place where poets publish their works suggest -- for better and worse -- that they are inside and outside of distinct circles. Ithaca House was not on the radar in black arts discourse the ways that Broadside Press and Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press were. Thus, it was possible to miss Harris's work and contributions in some ways.

But he was there.

Arnold Adoff's The Poetry of Black America and Harris's Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment (1974)

Just this morning, I was looking at  Arnold Adoff's edited collection The Poetry of Black America (1973), and Harris is right there in the mix. His work appears in Nine Black Poets (1968) along with Charles Cooper, Kattie M. Cumbo, Julia Fields, Carole Gregory,  Lance Jeffers, Alicia Loy Johnson, James Arlington Jones, and Richard W. Thomas. Harris appears in  Abraham Chapman's collection Black Voices (1968) and in Ted Wilentz and Tom Weatherly's Natural Process; an Anthology of New Black Poetry (1970).  

But there's no doubt that Broadside Press gave and signaled a certain kind of social capital, which is not to say that capital was fixed or sustained all poets well past the 1970s. It worked for maybe a select few, better than for all. Perhaps we need to hear from more poets on what it meant for them at a particular time -- like at the moment of publication and then decades later -- that they published with a certain publisher.

Black World magazine, another major publishing institution for black writing, closed in 1976, and Randall sold Broadside Press in 1977, both of which signaled a decline of the Black Arts Movement. Harris published another volume, In My Own Dark Way, with Ithaca House in 1977. Moving forward, he began establishing himself in other realms of writing and editorial work.   

A collection of Harris's works, spanning three decades
Among other things, he developed a reputation as an Amiri Baraka scholar. He published The Poetry and and Poetics of Amiri Baraka (1985), and he edited The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991), which has had multiple printings over the decades. It's hard to say what publishing with Broadside Press would have meant for those endeavors.   

I took some time last night and this morning to think about the look, feel, and content of Harris's first volume in relation to some Broadside titles. It occurred to me that Harris's Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment (1974) somehow felt different that a kind of  representative Broadside Press poetry paradigm. Here's a sample of some of those titles:

Excerpt from Broadside Press catalog
Black Feeling, Black Talk by Nikki Giovanni
Black Man Listen by Marvin X
Black Pride by Don L. Lee
For Malcolm edited Dudley Randall and Margaret Burroughs
Homecoming by Sonia Sanchez
My Blackness is the Beauty of This Land by Lance Jeffers
Panther Man by James Emmanuel
We Walk the Way of the New World by Don L. Lee
Not all, but many Broadside titles seemed to directly channel African American commonplaces through terminology, most notably through the use of the word "black." There are "serious" and militant tones that seem less prevalent in Harris's work, again, generally speaking. What's particularly noticeable to me with Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment, though, is the presence of humor, and his focus on what I've called "the wonder of everyday moments" in relation to Christopher Gilbert's poetry. 

Harris, the poet, was likely in a different social location than Marvin X, Sonia Sanchez, and Don L. Lee (Madhubuti). But he was also in a different place in terms of his with amusing sensibilities. And those differences are important when we think about the ways that black arts poetry is often falsely characterized as too narrow and just one thing. Looking back on Harris's poetry reminds us of again how diverse the discourse actually was.     

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.'s & William J. Harris's serious commitments
William J. Harris's Robot Poem   
Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment

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