ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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 During the two years I was in New Orleans in the mid 1980s, most of my time was

spent with six writers/poets, namely, Gillian Conoley . . . Lee Meitzen Grue. . .

Yictove . . . Ahmose Zu-Bolton . . . Yusef Komunyakaa . . .    Mona Lisa Saloy



A Poetic Journey with Writers in New Orleans

By Rudolph Lewis


Strange indeed how events converge, come together to create significance and meaning. For me that is the artistry of New Orleans, and the role  it has  played in my life. In the beginning for me, it was only  a place of escape,  to which I ran away from troubles of intimacy, from the responsibility and turbulence of an awkward and failing marriage. That was in the early 1970s; then I was in my early twenties with still much to discover about living in the world, though possessed by decided opinions about life situations, views mostly acquired and gathered from my rural upbringing in southeaster Virginia.

At odds with my young wife, while courting an older and married woman in the college community of Charles Village (Baltimore),  sitting at her dining room table, her Siamese lurking about, I heard Muddy waters singing about  getting a mojo hand and I believed he was urging me on, so I sold or gave away all I had, which wasn't much, bought a bus ticket and journeyed to New Orleans to find the happiness I sought and the power I seemingly lacked to direct my life.

Nawlins then, I believe, had its desired effect on me, but mostly on a subconscious level. I stayed in flop rooms for derelicts and vagabonds in the Canal Street district for five dollars a night  and  spent most of my time in the French Quarter learning how to drink beer, checking out the sights, and  the sensuality of the native women. I wandered and wondered and soon within a couple of weeks ran out of money and then borrowed funds  to return to Baltimore to resume my quarrel with my wife and a doomed marriage.

New Orleans remained a place of fantasy, not fully realized, until I returned there in the mid 1980s, to teach writing and literature at the University of New Orleans. Like a very large village, New Orleans,  I found,  was exceedingly easy and friendly and I fell among a great number of poets, writers, and visual artists. Maybe this ready acceptance came about because, as in Africa and other Third World countries, the educated  are valued and given due appreciation in New Orleans. Some of these artists were natives; others, like myself, had come there for the romance and mystery that is New Orleans.

On this trip I had more mobility, a '78 orange Volkswagen, automatic shift, and found a place more suitable than the flop house I had a decade before found my rest. For awhile I lived in an apartment in one of those white clapboard houses New Orleans is known for, west of and not too far from the Canal Street district. It was a working class neighborhood. Maybe it was on a street called Baudin. Later, I moved into a more middle-class, furnished apartment with a bed with a mirror for its ceiling, on the corner of Royal Street just above the Quarter in the 9th Ward, and then later, into what had been a fish market, which Ahmose Zu-Bolton, Yusef Komunyakaa, and I attempted to remodel and develop into an independent community arts center. And when Yusef left town, he asked me to move into his house at 818 Piety, where for awhile I lived with Mona Lisa Saloy, who had just recently returned home to New Orleans from her spiritual journey in California.

So it was in New Orleans I first developed an appreciation for flesh and blood poets and for the writing of poetry. Of course, I studied poetry and rhetoric in my five years of university studies in the English department at College Park, Maryland, where I wrote essays on various poets and poems. I even lived for awhile with Sibbie O'Sullivan who got her graduate degree by writing a volume of poems. But none of that struck me as serious and worthy of my undivided attention. My life had been one of rhetoric and polemics, politics and social struggle. The poem Sibbie wrote of me or for me (I am not sure which), when I was about to leave for Africa, became valuable for me only after I returned from New Orleans. I found it among my papers boxed away.

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All these adventures--my places of residence, the community arts center, my relationship with women, my teaching at UNO--are of little import for this writing. But rather, it is the effect that a number of  writers had on me, that has left an indelible mark, that is the subject I am trying to get at so that I can provide an explanation for the dominance of writers of Louisiana in my poetic vision and why they play such an important role in the development of ChickenBones: A Journal.

During the two years I was in New Orleans in the mid 1980s, most of my time was spent with six writers/poets, namely, Gillian Conoley, who helped me to put together Cricket: Poems & Other Jazz, a ragamuffin pamphlet of poems and graphics (appeared in three issues); Lee Meitzen Grue, whose poetry workshop I attended often and who first published my poems and essays;  my sweet Mona Lisa Saloy, whose distancing indifference caused me to leave Louisiana sooner than I had desired; Yictove, whose voice and artistic talent has yet to be fully exploited and exposed and whose mother made me a gift of Selassie photos; Ahmose Zu-Bolton, whose unpaid debt to me of five hundred dollars and lunchtime drinking led to a bloody battle and an ending of friendships; and, finally, but not the least of these, Yusef Komunyakaa, like an older brother (for awhile we were inseparable) and indeed my poetic mentor.

To this list of six I must add a seventh, the ghost of Marcus Bruce Christian, to whom this site is partially dedicated. A decade before I arrived Christian taught at UNO in the English and the history departments and his family after his death dedicated his papers to the archives there. My teaching at UNO inadvertently led to my exploration of Christian and his writings. I copied at great length what was in the archives. Yusef assisted me in pulling out from his thousands of poems what we believed were the best of the lot. I copied diary notes, letters and poems. I have lugged his work around with me in boxes for the last seventeen years.

Many of those poems can be found on this site. With the assistance of Xavier Review Press, a volume of fifty of these poems were published in book form, under the title I AM NEW ORLEANS & OTHER POEMS By Marcus B. Christian  (1999). The Times-Picayune spent a half page in a favorable and glowing review. Dillard Today, the alumni magazine of Dillard University, printed a shortened version of the "Introduction," a seminal essay on Christian's poetics. The Louisiana Endowment also gave this book of Christian poems a good but short review and its director Michael Sartisky sent me a letter of commendation.

Only five hundred copies of that work was printed and it is now out of publication. Because of an inability to find a publisher that shared my vision of Christian, ChickenBones: A Journal was created to provide a forum for his work and so that he could remain before the public eye for a continuing reassessment and so that those in the academy might be encouraged to reinstate him in the canon of African-American literature. We remain hopeful that more of his work can be put before the public, especially the one hundred  poems in my possession, and that within the year.

During the mid 1980s, there were several other New Orleans writers with whom I had brief contact, namely, James Borders, Tom Dent, and Kalamu ya Salaam.. All three were familiar with Christian and gave me first hand information about this poet/historian. Borders may have taken a class with him. Tom Dent knew him as as child and wrote and important essay on Christian that I have made use of in my own essay on Christian's poetics. During this period, Kalamu was the executive director of the New Orleans Jazz Fest (later taken over by Tom Dent), and he was then working on the writing of haiku, one of which I published in one issue of  Cricket: Poems & Other Jazz. He gave me "Haiku No. 30," which led off this final issue.

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Of all these writers, Kalamu ya Salaam has been the one whom I have been most closely engaged in the last several years and that is primarily the result of his listserv e-drum, on which I have posted a number of messages. I have kept abreast of his travels and his speaking at conferences and his poetry readings across the US and abroad. I have found his energy and insights striking and extraordinary. His sacrifices with e-Drum,  with its non-commercial aspect, unique and important. He seemed not satisfied and content with the status quo for he continues to reach out to create communities interested in the activities of  the black diaspora and the human condition in general. I feel that he,  more than anyone writing today, spoke to my own interests, concerns, and ethics.

I had already placed a number of the fore mentioned writers and their works on the site. But I did not have anything by Kalamu and so I contacted him by email about posting some of his poems and some of the work from two of his anthologies, namely, 360° A Revolution of Black Poets (1998) and From A Bend in the River (1998). Both books he gave me while I was at an ALA conference in New Orleans (1999) at which he read a number of his poems. He gave a thrilling presentation. It was the first time I had heard him read, perform his poems. I discovered he's a master of the stage. He gave me his consent about publishing some of his poems.

I asked him for a  short bio that I could use with the poems and he emailed the short bio and  his neo-griot piece. But Kalamu was exceedingly gracious. He suggested I publish an interview of him as well as the poems I wanted. I thought he already had an interview or was going to send me an interview. But he insisted I interview him. I was a bit overcome by such an opportunity. The idea of an interview via email never occurred to me. He later emailed me much more than I asked for and much more than I imagined I would get, including the 92-page Art for Life  (his very instructive poetic autobiography), and essays on writing haiku and writing sonnets.

All of this was a bonanza extraordinaire. I had read Kalamu briefly and sketchily. But here I was given a special treat. I dove into these writings and sent him a set of preliminary questions. With a few exchanges an interview arose, an interview much longer than either of us had expected--about fourteen pages or more. Still I was at a disadvantage because I was not familiar with the great corpus that was his--thirty years of writing. 

He sent me by post his book What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self(1994) and his new manuscript of poems, "Nia: Haiku, Sonnets, and Sun Songs."  After a reading of these two works, Kalamu consented to additional questions. Two more interviews  began to develop. The one on "Nia," the manuscript of poems, was completed and approved. We had gone way beyond the two weeks I thought it would take to complete the entire process. Over a month had elapsed. We both were exhausted and overwhelmed. Kalamu became ill. I too was getting worst, as far as health, with a sinus infection from cigar smoking and fluid in my middle ear. The interview on the book of essays, What Is Life? has yet to be completed. But we had more than enough to run, nearly 200 pages of material. Kalamu had make ChickenBones: A Journal his literary home.

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But I was still not done. During my interview process with Kalamu, I recalled I did an interview with Yusef at his home on Piety in 1985. I pulled it out of the box, typed it up, and laid it out. I conferred with Kalamu and asked did he have a problem with my running the Yusef Interview concurrently with the ones I had done with him. He found no problem. These two Louisiana writers, I believe,  provide an interesting contrast in background, styles, and philosophical perspectives. 

They are however equal in skill, talent, and creativity. Kalamu, however, is much more diverse in his talents and abilities and definitely more socially-oriented, that is, concerned about bringing about revolutionary changes in this country, than Yusef, who tends more toward a maintenance of the status quo with a few modifications, here and there. There is much to learn from both. I have also included, for sentimental reasons, material on Tom Dent, who was vital in Kalamu's development and important for me in my work on Marcus Christian.

So there you have it. There is much to learn here about the history and continuing development of African American letters. I hope all will enjoy and profit from what we have pulled together.

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Ancient African Nations

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