Interviews Rudy on Poetic Process
When selecting your wording what do you pay most attention to?
Does sensitivity or does content play a greater role when you
choose your words?
I want English words. I mean Anglo-Saxon root words, rather than
Latinate words. I want words that come up from the folk. These
words are simple, hard, and usually contain images (or once
referred to an image or an imaged action). The folk speech
sensibilities are less polluted by modernism. I suppose I
learned this lesson from reading the poetry of New Orleans
poet Marcus Bruce Christian .
want my poems to be concrete, visual, primarily, even if the
poem is dealing with the interior landscape, maybe even more
importantly then. I want people to “see” the world as it
appears inside me, to experience as I the visual, tactile drama
of the bizarre world we are forced to live.
love the speech of black folk in America and their wondrous use
of language, how they give new meanings to Anglo-Saxon words. It
is their oral literacy that sees the world, uniquely, like
nothing you can find in a book. Well, that entrances me. I want
freshness that they discovered in their interaction with nature
and the nature of men in America.
listen to Mississippi folk singers (mostly men singers) a lot,
like Muddy Waters
saying, “I’ll snap a pistol in your face” or Robert
Johnson crying, “Blues . . . killing me by degrees” or
Howling Wolf asking, “How many more years I got to let you dog
me around?” or Tiny Bradshaw singing, “Rocks are my pillow,
the cold ground my bed, the highway is my home. . . . I got to
find my mama’s grave.”
I’m looking for words that will keep my sentiments grounded. I
want the speech of the folk, their soundings, and emphases. But
I also want variety, so I don’t just want Anglo-Saxon.
Latinate words express in English more abstract ideas that
cannot be ordinarily found in Anglo-Saxon words. So I want a
kind of gumbo, one unique to my speech.
it is not just the words. It is how the words combine themselves
to form new and unexpected ways of looking at the world. Those
revelations cannot be planned.
When did you first get involved with poetry?
I started late. I mean I only started seriously considering the
writing of poetry in the mid-80s on meeting
Meitzen Grue and
Komunyakaa . Etheridge Knight
encouraged me a few years earlier to write poetry, before he
recited his poems, half drunk before an admiring university
audience. I was completing graduate school, then.
was while I was teaching at the University of New Orleans I
started to write poems so that I could hang with Lee and Yusef
and other poets in New Orleans. They were the coolest people on
the scene. I wrote a poem on the blues
of Buddy Bolden, a performance poem (in the manner of Baraka
and Askia Touré).
It is probably the best of the lot. I recited it when Tom Dent
made a visit to Copastetic on Piety, our cultural center, Yusef
and Ahmos Zu-Bolton
also started a poetry rag called Cricket: Poems
& Other Jazz.. Three issues came out which included the poems of
Marcus Christian, Lee Grue, Yusef, New Orleans poets (Mona
Kalamu ya Salaam,
Mackie Blanton, for instance) and a few white professors at the
university, like Gillian Conoley,
who helped me with layout.
was a sensuality (or a sensuousness) in New Orleans that
liberated, in a manner, my emotions, my feelings, especially in
matters of love and sexuality. In this odd setting (I’m from
Virginia) Lee Grue first convinced me finally that I was a
writer and encouraged me to write and to be a contributing
editor to the New Laurel Review. My confidence as a
writer grew. Through Lee I met the great Russian poet
Yevtushenko, and wrote an article about the encounter.
was twenty years ago. I looked back recently at that poetry
manuscript created then. It is god-awful. But it evidences
certain skills – enjambment, juxtaposition, attention to line
and ending, concreteness, surreal visions. Some nice
expressions. The titles are dynamite, the poems however did not
live up to them. If I am indeed a poet, I think I’m a better
one now than I was then.
Do you think that special situations are needed for writing
poetry? Does poetry live within you?
I have a poetic sensibility. I’m certain of that. I do not
know that I’m yet a poet. Not like Baraka or
Marvin X or Lee
Meitzen Grue or Kalamu ya Salaam or Yusef Komunyakaa or
Etheridge Knight, or E.
Ethelbert Miller. These are all poets I admire. They were
born poets, I believe. At one time or another I have tried to
imitate what it is that they do, usually failing miserably.
Louis Reyes Rivera
has been schooling me about poetry for several years now. He’s
good and teaches poetry on a regular basis at Sistuh’s Place.
We are both in the promotion of the arts. From him I’ve
learned more about the line, choice of words, use of space,
endings. So maybe I’m trying to make myself into something
that I’m not essentially.
know that I’m a writer. But I’m still learning how to write
poetry. I have had to work against a kind of analytical,
critical approach to literature. For that is what they teach
primarily in university English departments, how to interpret
writing rather than how to write – poetry, plays, songs, the
more imaginative literature. That’s what happens in our
undergraduate and graduate schools.
is this tendency to versify prose, to make arguments. That’s
where we all usually begin, even if we just rhyming. We are all
guilty of that fault at one time or another. For me poetry is an
uncertainty. It rises in such instances. That uncertainty is
sometimes pursued for its beauty, its prescience, its starkness.
Doubtless, writing of poetry is indeed a special situation.
It’s as close as or on the same plane as writing down
revelations. The art of course is structuring or forming them so
that they make sense and move the hearer.
course, I can force myself to set down at a blank page. I have
developed a method that allows me to write rather than just
stare at the page. Maybe similar, it's not "automatic
writing," however. But it does attempt to draw out the
interior landscape. I often keep notes of expressions or notions
that come into consciousness or others say, that stand out for
me. Or I listen to old blues records and copy those words or
expression that are just special. I’ll play around with them,
shifting them back and forth. There are revisions after
revisions. The whole art (craft) arrives in the revisions.
something interesting and coherent comes to the fore I begin to
improvise or extend the thought. I’ve learned in this
kind of ink-blot exercise the mind orders. It must make
sense, it is that which brings order out of chaos. One thus
takes advantage of this necessity. And there is always some view
or notion aching to get out from inside. Maybe it is that god or
angel that resides in each of us, whispering, guiding.
learned from Yusef Komunyakaa what is a poem and what is a good
poem. He took my meager efforts seriously and gave me feedback,
which I suppose were skills he learned in earning his MFA. Those
skills were advanced when Yusef and I undertook to publish the
poems of Marcus Bruce Christian, a New Orleans poet. We looked
through a 1,000 or more of Christian’s poems stored in a
university archives. I finally came up with what I thought was
the best 100. I had fifty of those published and the
selection received excellent reviews.
Can you comment on the development of literature (in particular
of poetry) and the stage, which it has reached today? (In
today’s mass media and era of high technology of
communications, do you think that literature has been untouched
by these – can mass media convey the messages in poetry or
Kalamu ya Salaam would be the best writer to give that point of
view. He has written well on the history of African American
poetry. I have used him as a guide, especially on African
American poetry from the 60s to the present.
came of age when poetry was highly politicized, highly
racialized. I found it in Negro Digest/Black World.
I saw a play in 1968 (before the riots) by Baraka here in
Baltimore at a local church. I heard his Black Mass on
record. I heard Nikki Giovanni’s poetry on record and her poem
about Aretha. James Earl Jones on wax reciting poems of the new
Africa. In those days there was also a new music – John
Coltrane and James Brown.
was a kind of political rapping that was indeed poetry. It was
all quite new to me, I only up from the countryside a few years.
So there was a speech much more militant, much more urbanized
and vigorous than anything I had ever heard. And it was
Black Muslims had their special speech. The Panthers, also. But
it was Stokely Carmichael and
his poetic speech that first amazed me, his public speaking. I
had never heard a black man speak so boldly in public, so
intellectual in the hearing ears of white men. Stokely
orchestrated a public farce (in words) to shame the white man,
to reassert the freedom of black manhood. To free him from
centuries of fears, of violence, and death.
poetry concerned itself with race, power, political oppression,
identity and the need for a new consciousness, like much of what
is called “black poetry” (from the late eighteenth century
to the present). A good collection of 20th century
writers can be found in Arnold Adoff’s anthology The Poetry
of Black America (1973).
the 80s this Black Power/Black Arts
Movement (of the 60s, 70s)
was dead, or dying. A more personal kind of poetry, bereft of
attacks on white society and the white culture of oppression,
began to grow popular. Black poetry, one might say, became more
feminized, more self-questioning. The ethic of “do your own
thing” became a ubiquitous chant. The “Me Generation” took
its place on the social and artistic stage.
began to focus more on the ambiguities of life, of being human,
of states of consciousness, on feelings, on religious or
spiritual states, on nature, on gender relationships, on the
quirks of observation. Adrift at sea, yes, rudderless.
media and the era of high technology have only amplified the
production of this poetry of self-indulgence. As you know rap
and hip hop have become a billion-dollar business and it has
been internationalized so that everybody is rapping and rhyming,
in Africa, in Asia, in Europe and the Americas. There’s money
to be made if you got the right rhyme, the right voice, the
right music producer with the right bank account.
there’s what is called “spoken word,” a first cousin of
rap, and very much apart of the hip hop cult. Almost anyone who
can put pen to paper with a sexy voice can burn a cd and sell it
for $19.95. It does not have to be good, only sound good, sound
hip, a good rhythm, like you know what you talking about because
you been suffering, you know, with an attitude – anti-male, or
anti-female, hip sex and hipper violence. This is the personal
gone postmodern primitive. The quality of sentiment or
intent or expression or even the hurt falls short of the real
profundity of life and its sufferings.
there is a balance that we want between the personal and the
political so that both exist at once. I’m not certain how that
is done to produce great poetry.
Do you think that poetry can change our world? Why poetry?
If a poem were a gun or could be one as Baraka suggested in his
maybe it could change the world. But I’m not sure that it
would be better for it. Or that we would be better for it. Armed
men change the world, or lack of them; wealthy nations with
massive armies change the world, and usually for the worst;
politicians whose feet are kept to the fire change the world,
our relations with fellow citizens and the people of other
course, poets and artists have a role to play in heightening a
sensibility for the quality of life (in how we perceive it, and
live it), or in our appreciation of humanity in all its wonders.
Poets can create the conditions, the situations in which change
can take place. For poets and artists speak to the deepest
aspects of our humanity, our souls, our conscience, our sense of
beauty and order. Words probably more than image are most potent
in moving us toward change. With image, vision is possible.
no romantic, like Shelly, who saw poets as the new legislators
of the world. Poets are not better men, or women, a higher
species of being. They are vessels that act upon themselves.
Yes, they have special talents and skills. But they can be
horrid, even murderers and godless. There are times I feel the
sentiment of Plato, Spare us the Poets!
How do you relate the essence of the poem with its style?
The source of my poetic sensibilities lies in the folk music of
my people, the spirituals and the blues, as a religious music
the former had precedence in time and in maturity. They are a
mighty fount. Both forms use rhyme and repetition (memory and
passion). Both use ambiguity, irony, and fantasy. Both are at
once a protest and a recognition. The forms for the spirituals
seem in ways much more varied than those of the blues, which
obtained a classical form of a three-line stanza, the second
repeating the first with variance, and a snappy or heightened
comment in the third line.
blues contains an individual assertiveness that is absent in the
spirituals, which was a congregational style of singing,
ritualizing identity and community.
blues is modern. It is the farm boy, the ex-slave restricted to
the land trying to escape the harshness of a slavery that still
existed, picking cotton in great heat and humidity for a gin for
pennies a day, trying to make a way out of no way in a new world
of machines, an industrial, mechanized world ruled by white men
who hate black men. They fear the sexuality of black men—their
stain, their contamination. It is slightly different when they
are hungry or sick. Whites can at times be rather proud of their
is a world where death like Satan stands waiting on every
corner. A traveling man, the blues man lives in this surreal
world, a world of absurdities. Only his words approach that
unique reality of black life in America.
essence of the blues and spirituals is drama – natural, human,
and cosmic, sometimes all three at once. The intent is to move
the soul, the consciousness, the body toward being, a becoming.
It is passion and intellect tending with the other to the death.
traditional blues I do not rhyme, which is somewhat shunned by
contemporary poetics. I usually write in free verse. But I have
been experimenting with a syllabic verse in which I can compose
a blues. I like what Michael Harper did in his poem
which has two-line stanzas, each line nine to eleven syllables.
This kind of syllabic versification allows more of a continuous
narrative than the classic blues, which can have a strange
assortment of stanzas strung together, like a patchwork quilt.
In your view, what makes a poem relevant for the future?
I have been reading Adoff’s The Poetry of Black America.
I started at the back and I’m working my way to the front. So
I’m encountering poetry of the 60s and 70s. A lot of it was
quite excellent, poems by August Wilson and Stanley Crouch. Some
are dated and will have little relevance for the future outside
of social history. Those poems had more to do with that
individual instance, that politic of the time, or that ideology
of the moment. Where all those elements at their best converge
into a more universal longing one gets such brilliance as in
Langston Hughes’ “I’ve Known Rivers.”
this poem was written when Langston was a teenager and it is his
most recognized, most read, the most sung. In my mind he was
writing the blues in a modern free verse and contemporary mode
even before he began experimenting with the classical blues
form. In a way it was downhill from “I’ve Known Rivers,”
though there are such memorable poems as “Life Ain’t Been No
Crystal Stair” or the poem with the line “like a raisin in
the sun.” All these poems have a blues sensibility.
Like most blues men, my view
is that you can’t lose with the blues.
Ceylan (poet, translator, editor) is seeking to pull
together a book of interviews of poets who would respond to the
six questions above. I thought they were an exciting group of
questions that gave me an opportunity to clarify for myself my
poetry making. Mevlut Ceylan can be contacted at the
following address -- firstname.lastname@example.org
posted 17 June 2005
* * *
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
Life on Mars
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection.
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The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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