A.E.: You do have to do directly with the contemporary ferment in African American poetry. Kindly tell us about your direct involvement… the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club for example, the Soular System Ensemble and so on.
E.B.R.: Well, I was involved from the very beginning in the Civil Rights Movement out of which the Black Arts and Black Power movements grew. In East St. Louis, Illinois, it was expected that teenagers—even younger children, and certainly adults—would attend speeches, rallies, and marches aimed at stamping out racial apartheid. We did this quite vigorously until we collapsed the walls of segregation and discrimination in all areas of local society. I was active in the arts at the same time, participating in school talent shows, playing in a jazz-blues combo, and writing doo wop lyrics for local crooners. It all spilled into the St. Louis-East St. Louis variant of BAM and BP including my work as co-founder of Black River Writers Press and with the Black Artists’ Group, Katherine Dunham’s Performing Arts Training Center, and militant-cultural entities like CORE, the Black United Front, and Black Culture, Incorporated. We wrote, performed, agitated for social/racial change, ran publishing houses, distributed broadsides, posters, flyers, and circulars, and staged plays, seminars, festivals, workshops, concerts, and combinations of all the foregoing. The EBR Writers Club, which turns 20 this year, was an outgrowth of Rap/Write Now Creative Workshop of the 1960s, and the Henry Dumas Creative Arts Workshop of the 1970s. The Soular Systems Ensemble is the performance arm of the EBR Writers Club with the word “soular” expanding on the concept of planets circling the sun and suggesting that the rituals of African peoples are “soulful” and steady as a “rock”—and “roll.” The SSE embraces traditional African/world techniques, concepts, and expressive modes to deliver “conch/us/nest”-raising fuselages to the people—acoustically, gesturally, and spiritually.
A.E.: To take you back to the political activism in African American poetry…It is understandable that people under a yoke are likely to ask hard questions. I see this in a lot of African American poetry, in South African poetry of the Apartheid period, in the work song on the plantation; in the Negro spiritual, the blues and in rap and, counter culture generally…From all that should we understand that America is still much polarised by class, race, and power; the pot still melts?
E.B.R.: Of course . . . except we modified the “melting pot” concept and made it “gumbo,” “stew,” and “salad,” dishes that embrace all elements within their midst without insisting that each “melt” into one “white” identity. AA poets, activists, and scholars withdrew from white society initially, a kind of segregation in reverse, in order to marshall forces—and hammer out aesthetic, political, social, economic and racial manifestos—during BAM and BP. Class and race issues, seen vividly, and devastatingly during the reign of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, remain central to the theory and fact of AA struggle and art. Some poets, for example, are even speaking of a “Fourth World” culture—within places such as the U.S., Britain, and France—since people of color/poverty within national boundaries do not fit easily into the concept of Third World like the countries of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the islands. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Ralph Featherstone attempted to bring the issue of Third Worldism for Black Americans to the public consciousness—via the United Nations—in the 1960s. The poetry right now, from the acoustics of Def Jams to the optics/oralities of Drumvoices Revue reflects the race, class, and power struggles of African peoples in particular and Third/Fourth World folks in general.
A.E.: Now this brings me to a sensitive issue. The question of the urgency of the message in African American poetry; does it not sometimes negatively affect the quality of its poetry today?
E.B.R.: Yes, in both seasoned poets and newcomers. But such has always been the case—from the slave poets like George Moses Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to post-slavery bards like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Haki R. Madbubuti. And while it is more the “exception” than the rule, there has been—and still exists today—a “school” of poetasters who “work” the “message” angle of poetry primarily. We don’t have time and space to answer your question fully but let’s say there are “schools” of poets—acoustical and optical—that thrive on “messaging.” Baraka, whose life and work I certainly admire, does not edify me with every protest-laden poem, the same with Larry Neal’s work. Ditto for some others, Sanchez, Troupe, and Salaam included, even though I overwhelming support and get a “push” from what they create. The advent of the spoken arts phenom, with its slams and open mics, and movies like “Love Jones,” has opened a window to the negative impact of placing sentiments over structure. At the same time, all of “poetry’s” variants come from the great folkloric “trunk,” meaning, as we used to say in the 1960s, “Africa the Root! America the Fruit!”
A.E.: I believe that even within the popular forms trying to break the traditional canonical views of poetry or literature generally, there should be a standard. Is standard not being subsumed under message and the untamed emotion with which it is sometimes delivered?
E.B.R.: Yes, but “iron sharpens iron,” as we say, and the “cream rises to the top,” so the future of poetry is, I think, quite secure. Of course, that assertion also requires definition of poetry, especially since millions of (mostly young) people today have a definition that correlates with “popular,” “oral,” “slam” and you name it. The energy and art of popular forms will deliver the “silt” of the new voices of poetry. We’ll have to hold on and perhaps believe with talented slam master Roger Bonair Agard who says that the “best of the slam poets” will also be “the best literary poets.” Perhaps. But it remains to be seen. In the meantime, many are welcoming the “real” use of “reels” to proselytize rather than poeticize. It’s an uneasy time—and the best time—for poets and poetry as the world switches from a reading-based culture to a high tech/speakerly rife one. The sentiments are strong but the craft? The technique? The aesthetic? The worksmanship/workswomanship?
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #40
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...Since 2002
ISSN 1479-425X March 2006