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I 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.



Mevlut Interviews Rudy on Poetic Process


Mevlut: 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?

Rudy: 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 .

I 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.

I 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. 

I 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.”

So 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.

But 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.

Mevlut: When did you first get involved with poetry?

Rudy: I started late. I mean I only started seriously considering the writing of poetry in the mid-80s on meeting Lee Meitzen Grue and Yusef 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.

It 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 were there.

I 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 Lisa Saloy, Kalamu ya Salaam, Mackie Blanton, for instance) and a few white professors at the university, like Gillian Conoley, who helped me with layout.

There 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.

That 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.

Mevlut: Do you think that special situations are needed for writing poetry? Does poetry live within you?

Rudy: 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.  

I 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.

There 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.

Of 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.

When 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.

I 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. 

Mevlut: 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 art—changes?

Rudy: 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.

I 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.

There 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 music. 

The 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.

This 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).

By 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. 

Poetry 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.

Mass 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.

Then 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.

Ideally, 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.

Mevlut: Do you think that poetry can change our world? Why poetry?

Rudy: If a poem were a gun or could be one as Baraka suggested in his “Black Art,” 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 nations.

Of 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.

I’m 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!

Mevlut: How do you relate the essence of the poem with its style?

Rudy: 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.

The blues contains an individual assertiveness that is absent in the spirituals, which was a congregational style of singing, ritualizing identity and community.

The 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 Negroes.

It 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.

The 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.

Unlike 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 “Caretaking Supreme,” 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.

Mevlut: In your view, what makes a poem relevant for the future?

Rudy: 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.”

Now 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.

Mevlut 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 --

posted 17 June 2005

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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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.     

Professor Perry 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 Caucasian babies.

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 indiscriminately.

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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.—WashingtonPost

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Life on Mars

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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 White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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