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Scattered Scripture

Reaching, Claiming, Lunging for the Universe of Things




Books by Louis Reyes Rivera

Sanchocho: A Book of Nuyorican Poetry / Scattered Scripture / Bum Rush the Page

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Interview with Prize-Winning Poet

Louis Reyes Rivera


Part 3

Rudy: The setting for the poems in Scattered Scripture range from Puerto Rico to New York, or maybe I should say, from the Caribbean to the U.S., but generally the setting sweeps across the Americas, which is the world this book of poems attempts to encompass. Of course, at the edge or at the borders of this world are Spain and England (Europe) and Africa. In this world of the Americas, from your poems and their historical perspective {e.g. “(grito de lares)" and "(like Toussaint, so Marti)”}, we observe and experience colonial expansion and destruction of native cultures and peoples; political and military intervention and the destabilization of governments and economies.

You believe, I understand, that the most crucial period for the Caribbean was 1850-1898. That during this period there was a real possibility that the Caribbean could have gained an autonomy that could have prevented many of the problems that presently exist for the peoples of the Caribbean, among the nations of the Caribbean and between them and the United States. Does your perspective take into consideration the internal differences -- culture, language, race, proclivities, etc. -- of the peoples and the states of the Caribbean? Is it possible that the problems of the Caribbean and Latin America may be more internal than external?

Louis Rivera: First, your understanding of the range and hemispheric connections in Scattered Scripture is on target. Understand as well that while the Caribbean is central to the book (as it is also the geographic center of the hemisphere), it is still just a metaphor for a planetary condition, i.e., all roads led to the Caribbean!

Second, in terms of the internal differences you point to, "culture, language, [definition of] race, [your own national and individual] proclivities" are factors you inherit from the past and are conditioned into accepting as true.

As my footnotes to Scattered Scripture indicate, six major European nations invaded and established settler states in the Americas: Spain, Portugal, England, France, the Netherlands, Denmark (with Sweden). We inherit not only each of those respective idioms, but as well, the warring differences between the so-called "mother nations," even to the point where we absorb their tribal hatreds/political conflicts, one with the other, and make them ours.

The reason I wrote the book and focused on certain aspects of the history was to point to those contradictions that we have all inherited from European conflicts (British West Indians, French West Indies, Spanish Caribbean, Anglo-American arrogance and eventual usurpation --like "manifest destiny," and what that implies). The ties that bind the cultures in the Caribbean are both the European contradiction and the African connectives, both of which have served as mutual hallmark to both cultural contradiction and sovereign self-assertion throughout Caribbean history.

Culturally speaking, the problems of the Caribbean and Latin America and North Anglo-America all stem from European imposed cultural dictates and from something we are all in denial of... the caste character of class distinctions: creole, mestizo, mesclado, octoroon, quadroon, mulatto, Negro, African, Indian-- are all terms that have come to define the quality of access that each of us have --what defines, according to some other, the degree (check that out!) to which we are to be viewed and treated as humans.

While much of today's conflicts do bear internal contradictions (peonage, creole class, mestizo rule, "high yellow" octoroonisms), still much is determined by external economic forces at work. The Big Seven (Canada, U.S.A., Italy, France, England, Germany, Japan), as bases for conglomerates, determine much of the economic development taking place throughout the Americas, as can be seen through the stranglehold on the Caribbean, which still serves as breadbasket to external interests. Neo-laissez faire economic systems still play havoc upon national/ regional/individual self-determination, and those systems are much stronger as factors here than the cultural differences we accentuate.

Cuba, by the way, is the only nation in this hemisphere that actually addresses the issue head-on. Don't forget that what defeated Michael Manley in Jamaica was his insistence on Jamaican-Cuban economic relations being a matter of sovereign choice, not a matter of whether or not Jamaica should submit to the dictates of others, i.e., the USNA. As well, what served as political ruse to the North American public justifying a Reagan invasion of Grenada and the elimination of Maurice Bishop was the fact that Cuba was helping Grenada update its tourist-centered airport. But what many here don't know is that the Cubans have been putting out a quarterly journal through Casa de las Americas which publishes articles from throughout the Caribbean in the languages that they were originally written in --English, French, Spanish, Papimiento, etc. -- as part of its insistence on open dialogue within the region.

Third, what makes the period 1850-98 so crucial a period for everyone to study includes the following factors: (1) this is the period in our history that has served as part of the continuum begun with the Haitian Revolution, including its influence on the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt in Virginia, the 1822 Vesey Conspiracy in South Carolina, etc. From 1795-1844, Haitian agents provocateurs were constantly being sent out to help organize revolts in Cuba, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, etc. Enter the 1850s, with Belvis, Betances and Hostos, each of whom were constantly at work during their lifetimes (culminating in the 1898 so-called Spanish-American War) serving as bridges of possibility.

(2) with regards to Afro-United States history. The 1850s begin with the reassertion of the Fugitive Slave laws built inside the US Constitution and culminates in John Brown's scheme to organize and direct guerilla war in Appalachia, which itself grew out of the fact that guerilla war was already being waged there by Runaway bands. The 1860s mark the end of serfdom in Russia, the Dutch abolition of slavery in their colonies, the US Civil War that itself culminates in emancipation, the beginnings & weaknesses of the Reconstruction period, etc. This is happening at the same time that Puerto Ricans are pushing for joint ventures within the Caribbean region. Bear in mind that the Ten Years' War was organized and participated in by Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Haitians, Sephardic Jews, etal, willing to find ways in which to eventually undo what the six European colonizing nations had set up as contradiction between them.

Central to a clear understanding of the relation between Afro-U.S. history and contentions is the Caribbean role in it all, from the beginning of the Columbian voyages and introduction of Africans as chattel slaves straight through to the actual beginning of an hemispheric African American Renaissance that runs from at least 1888 through to tomorrow.

In short, the period, 1850-1898, is wrought with parallels that bear repercussions throughout the planet.

Yes, internecine contradictions within the Americas, the Caribbean islands, etc., are still plaguing us all. And I do keep that in mind. Don't forget that the poem, “(what are they doing...)” points to that contradiction in Puerto Rico (as a metaphor)... "dividing pardos, free but colored/ from triguenos, slightly colored/ from morenos, simply colored/ from prietos negros, warm but black/did you hear Betances, Puerto Rico..."

Until we are willing to engage the redefinition of ourselves, this curse of caste will remain with us as a point of contention.

When you don't eat as well as I do, you and I develop enough differences between us as to render us in conflict. When both of us are not eating well, we will jump at one another's throats. When others place us in competition for the little bit we each can garner, we see enemy when we look upon one another.

Today, NYC "native" residents view Mexican, Korean, Dominican and certain East Indian immigrants as enemy, directly in competition for the lower level jobs available, as an immigrant (not knowing the rate of pay) will work for less. Fifty years ago, that conflict was between Ricans & Blacks. But all of that is rooted in class and caste differences and contradictions. Meanwhile, the ones who manipulate it all are apparently exoneratedly overlooked.

Rudy: Religion and the church do not stand for very much in your poems. Or maybe I should say that officials of the church and religion are not highly regarded from your poetic perspective. I have two poems in mind: “(jonestown in question)” and “(beneath the robes of a priest).” One might say, however, that “(one short note)” is a great contrast to those two poems. In this memorable poem, a religious song, an ancestral memory, is transformed into vitalizing social values. Are we to thus to assume, then, that religion and the church have important roles to play in the struggle for social and political liberation?

Louis Rivera: Not so much the issue or point of religion and the church, but the religiosity of people, their spiritual sides which they never deny. Please note that all three poems deal with different aspects of our condition and our relationship to that condition through belief systems. (jonestown...) explores and exposes the jackleg preacher --in this case, white-- as hustler and demagogue. Bear in mind that the "preaching pimp" objectifies the believers searching for something to call their own and relying on their faith in his congame to realize their aspirations. For me, the believers are to be subjectified --the subjects, not objects, of the poem, even while they are being objectified by others. It's their hope that is central. And to believe in one human as ultimate savior, instead of holding onto and living the principles that we all contribute to our own liberation, is dangerous. Holding distorted belief systems can do us in. Religion here is likened to a bird of prey. The contradiction here is our capacity to believe in something "other than ourselves," our own capacity to do.

In (beneath the robes of a priest), we have the earlier forms of contradiction, in that the woman believes she has no choice but to bring her raped daughter to the priest, only to learn the hard way that he is as much a rapist as the slaveowner's son. This, by the way, was written long before the church scandals regarding pedophilia became prominent in the news. I discovered in my readings that the priests were the largest single class of miscegenators in this hemisphere. That issue, without insulting the need for faith, had to be dealt with.

(one short note), conversely, exemplifies the way in which, despite our condition, we keep a faith and create a culture out of the transformation of old beliefs (kumbaya) and new condition (come by here, lord) into maintained faith. While this poem affirms that we do not deny our spirituality, the other two poems forces the reader to look at the exploitation organized religion exemplifies in our daily lives.

Rudy: I am very interested in the relationship of poetry and music. I read the comments you wrote about Weldon Irvine and “his ability to extemporaneously swing right with the voice of each poet.” That says a lot about the sensitivity of Weldon. But what about the poet--how does he translate the music in his head into music of words? From other statements, I know you have an admiration for Langston Hughes and his efforts at connecting poetry to blues and jazz.

Technically, I know nothing about music, though I know how to listen for emphasis and rhythm. Your poems I read aloud, I can attest to the music in them. But I am not quite sure what I mean when I say that. I assume many feel your “(cu/bop)” poem is a very musical poem. According to Kalamu ya Salaam, there is a lot of misunderstanding on this question of music and poetry. He says one has to understand “the subtleties and nuances of music” in order to make music in a poem truly effective.

Does any of this, what I am asking make any sense? Your poems are philosophical and introspective, yet many of them beg to be read aloud. Isn’t that somewhat unusual?

Louis Rivera: Let's work backwards here. George Edward Tait says something to the effect that poetry is the music of literature as music is the poetry of sound. Urbanized African American and Nuyorican poets in particular tend to write poetry that is both heard and read. That is viewed as "innovative" or "unusual" in the sense of the European dictate. I remember when I first published Sekou Sundiata's volume of verse, FREE!, a reviewer wrote that to appreciate the full range of Sekou's poetry, "Indo-European pace and nuance simply won't do." Sekou asked me what I thought that meant. I answered, they don't know what to do with your work. They like simple categories.

To be read and heard at the same time is partly attributable to that African holdover principle that integrates music, dance, poem (call and response) as interconnective and inseparable. The philosophical introspection you speak of is "the story line" -- the substance of why I write. The condition I'm faced with is "what" I write about, what I respond to; but how to effectuate it in poetry cannot be philosophical, nor can it be prosaic just for the sake of propaganda. It's poetry. That means that it is a blending of sound and sense and color (i.e., the rhythm as flow, the experience as substance, the image as metaphor, respectively) into one composition. Of course, I grew up in a church; of course, I was taught to listen to Bird and Monk and Nina; of course, I come out of that Salsa, Bomba, Plena, Calypso-Merengue beat inside the home; of course, I was nurtured off that urban blues sound (doowop, rhythm & blues, rock n roll) -- they all frame my nuantic ear as I connect syllabication with the image that I'm painting on a page -- And it is for purposes of making that line jump off the page directly into your ear.
Keep in mind that poets are not published or viewed as publishable anywhere near the same manner as fiction writers, porno materialists, essayists, journalists. For poets to make any dent, as in the word "career," they have to read their works out loud to live audiences, in order to sell their (more often than not) self-published samplings, and thereby garner audience and interest in their work. But your audience doesn't have a copy of your poem in front of them. So you have to make that poem come off the page and into the ear. Consequently, your sense of the poetic will be fashioned accordingly --the line is structured to be heard as much as read and contemplated upon.

Like Ellington said (it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing), "Now, that's Jazz!" So that when you can do it on the page with words, well, that's poetry!... The subtleties and nuances that Kalamu refers to is not so much that you have to study musical notation, but that you have to listen to the sounds that you yourself are making with that particular line, that image, that specific juxtaposition of words you are exploring, that statement you wish to make. But poetry is not just statement. It is sound. Sound is word. Word is music. Music, or musicality, is very much part of your arsenal of devices simply because you are human, and humans bring music into everything they do, from the process of being birthed and engaging that very first breath. It's spiritual, i.e., part of your consciousness.
What we call diction and language are refined elements that are also part of the conscious/unconscious/subconscious sides of what you are. What you put out there is your conscience, your ethic, your self-assertion and affirmation. But how do you, the poet, make it work as a line, a poem, a lyric? You learn to listen to that which moves inside of you sans diction --which is what they mean with onomatopoeia. The sound is and is not a word
Technically, you do know quite a lot about music, because it does require listening to the emphasis of a word, a syllable (how do you say outloud these two words: soft and demand?), a beat beat rhythmic tilt and lilt. It's all around you --birds, leaves, wind, breeze, teardrop. If you can use the word, caress, you know both the sound and the meaning, otherwise you could not "attest" to the music you hear in the poems I write. And check it out: I was able to compel you to do both: contemplate the image of what I was saying and hear the sound in how I said it. Now, that's Jazz!

Do you remember the first time you heard Coltrane in a dimlit room with friends and wine, and someone commenting about this one lengthy chord of notes he hit, "did you hear that?" And you said, "yeah."

Rudy: I was quite struck by your contrast of James Baldwin and John Oliver Killens. I know a couple of leading black writers who swear by Baldwin. As for myself, I like Killens. I would even say I am fond of Killens. I enjoyed his And Then We Heard the Thunder and his Cotillion. I can’t say I have really enjoyed Baldwin, though I think his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was important for me, that is, on the question of the role of religion in black life. Many writers and literary people think that Baldwin is extremely important for them as a stylist, for framing the right question. In setting up your distinction between Baldwin and Killens, you said that "Baldwin, for the most part, wrote to a so-called white audience" and thus was "more acceptable and absorbable." Killens "spoke and wrote more directly to African Americans" and thus, you more or less conclude, has become a "forgotten phenomenon."

In this instance, or in general, is there really an objective way of judging what excellent writer is the better writer and more influential -- or why one excellent writer is held up and another ignored? Do you think that Killens having been your father-in-law may have influenced your preference for him and his style and emphasis?

Louis Rivera: First, Baldwin is not a novelist. He's an essayist. So he can frame the question in a way that is compelling. A great essayist and a compelling writer. But from 1947 through 1970, who was the audience for the essayist? And how do I explain to you what my pain is?
You see, that is not a detraction of Baldwin. However, bear in mind, that except for Go Tell It On The Mountain (the novel) and The Fire Next Time (which moved me too as a brilliant essay), he was explaining his (our) pain to the other, more so than to us, to one another.

The novelist, on the other hand, does not argue. He paints an entire picture, a mural; or to mix a metaphor, he is creating an entire world. That's harder to do than to argue inside points of contention about whether or not my humanity is equal to yours. Who should be my audience there, in that world I create? Whom am I trying to reach?

Second, I read a lot. And if a teacher told me this person or that was the one to read, I'd read him. My favorite novelist from the United States was John Steinbeck. He touched me more than any other (from this country) up until the time I met the woman who was to be my wife. And since her father, with whom I was not at all familiar (who gets promoted and packaged and who doesn't?), was a writer too, I figured that I should find out who this fellow was by reading his work. I started with his first novel, Youngblood, and worked my way through the rest of his books in the order that he had written and published them. Well, after Youngblood, there was ...Thunder. And when I finished that one, I told Steinbeck to move over. There was a contender for his throne. His books speak directly to those who struggle with the condition facing them, appeasing no one. And on his terms. And with finesse, craft, movement, much more poetic than he would give himself credit for.

Third, my response to the question you posed: the tendency in this country and culture here, as with Europe in general, is to look at things only in the form of absolutes. Bad play. There are so many degrees of possibility and variation existing inside the space that separates the poles of absolutes that we cheat ourselves when we don't look at difference and degrees as part and parcel of the whole. There's room only for "one at a time." Who's the baddest or the meanest or the most gifted? That's like taking a droplet of water out of the river and playing like the droplet is the river itself. What about the trillions of other droplets that make a river possible?

Clint Eastwood makes a movie about Charlie Parker, called Bird. You see the movie, and, except for Dizzy Gillespie, you would think that no other Beboppers were out there, not Monk, Bud Powell, the Afro-Cubanists, Trane, Ben Webster, Max Roach, etc. Similarly, Motown puts out Lady Sings the Blues, with no one but Billie Holiday and a backup trio exists, not Ella or Sarah, or Carmen McRae, much less her relationship to all those musicians, beginning with Lester Young. You dig?

We look only at Langston Hughes, hardly anyone else from the 20s, 30s, 40s. With Killens and Baldwin, they start at roughly the same time, publish their first books about the same time, are equally influential and impactive, particularly on the Black literati and overall community, even die within a month of one another, but it's Baldwin, not both, who makes it into the classroom.

No one asks which is greater --Hemingway, Faulkner, Pound, Eliot, Cummings, etc. With Killens and Baldwin, I find it most interesting that Killens remained in the U.S., directly influencing how many writers (inestimable number -- as with how many were influenced by Sterling Brown as by Langston Hughes) over how many generations from 1947 thru 1987, while Baldwin preferred exile (a la Richard Wright) and to influence a black literati from a distance.

But without getting into such fine hairs, my argument is that: (1) each generation converges as a grouping, not as singles; (2) when it comes to the period they represent, you cannot speak of Baldwin without speaking of Killens, like Martin and Malcolm, without doing disservice to history and actuality themselves; and (3) we accept too quickly, without hardly a question, the yardstick of "one at a time" that is pushed upon us directly because the imposer of such yardsticks cannot accept the fact that the river does comprise such many droplets. Art & Literature, cultural work, like movement itself, comprises an entire range of bad, poor, adequate, good and great --all of it together. To view it otherwise is to say it does not exist except as anomaly, which, in effect, is antihuman.

Rudy: What do you mean Baldwin was not a novelist? There was much more than Go Tell It on the Mountain, considerably more. You might not like them, but there are at least five other novels -- one of which, If Beale Street Could Talk, I thought was pretty good. Not the usual Baldwin fare, but good. There are probably those who think Giovanni's Room and Another Country are better novels than his first. And surely his short stories deserve considerable praise, like "Sonny's Blues," which is well-anthologized.

So what is the meaning of such a cryptic, curt remark, as Baldwin was an essayist? Can one leave such a remark hanging? Obviously there is a value judgment in there somewhere, one that needs considerably more explanation.

Louis Rivera: It could be that this is simply a matter of my opinion. I'm a poet, an essayist and an editor. Where is my strength? In which of the two genres, in which of the three slants? I believe that while I can edit my ass off and come up with some fairly solid essays, the poetry is where my real strength comes out.

Killens wrote screenplays, dramas, essays, short stories, novels. Where is his strength? His heart? The screenplays were good (Slaves & Odds Against Tomorrow were made into movies), his essays are strong, but his fullest strength is in the telling of the yarn, creating an entire world and having fun while sweating each aspect out. That's his heart. He's a novelist.

I read Go Tell It On The Mountain, The Fire Next Time, Blues for Mr. Charlie, a number of his short stories, etc. Giovanni's Room, I tried to read no less than on three occasions. It was boring, no action, making it impossible for me to get past the first 40 pages. Put it down, picked it up again (mostly because I liked him so much), but couldn't get past the same 40.

I actually liked Another Country, though I found it lacking in many respects, particularly with elements missing: climbing climax, weak denouement, one basic likable character, no real conflict, but like a couple of hundred pages on self discovery. Still I liked the attempt.

Where Baldwin really turned himself on and made me look at his wonder was in the essay, even when couched in fictionalization. Brilliant questions, even more brilliant analysis. You hear him talk, and he runs with everything. Compelling. But the strength is in the argument, the phrasings, the analysis. I've seen him in person, heard him discuss, being interviewed, even in roundtable discourse that was more private than public.

For me, his strength, his heart was what we call the essay form. So, I say that. Maybe I should look up Beale Street. That one I missed. By the time it came out, my head was elsewhere. Maybe it is a matter of simply first impression. But I devoted 14 years of careful study of every form of writing there is --I mean study--before I decided on Poet First, and I believe (however incorrectly) that I can call it (the form).

When someone says Langston Hughes, I think Poet, first and foremost, even with Simple. The Ways of White Folks was a solid attempt at short stories and worth reading. But Poet first and foremost. Similarly, with Baldwin (probably among the very best), Essayist, first and foremost. Killens, Novelist, first and foremost.

Believe it or not, I do not consider Malcolm to be Orator First and Foremost, because with his speeches the Spirit of Poet is all inside there. And if folks were to evaluate him as a literary figure, some may very well agree with me that he was probably the single most outstanding extemporaneous [Slave] Narrative Poet the United States has ever produced.

The distinctions I make have more to do with the strength of you, the heart of you. Not to be taken as judgment of you, but as evaluation of the work in print, on its own terms. Am I missing something? Okay. I don't object.

Rudy: Your response was excellent. Instead of the "Janitor of History" maybe you should be called a Muhammad Ali of literary analysis and response. You sure know how to stick and jab and move away before a blow can be landed. Ali even as Cassius Clay was my childhood hero. He was a wonder and so are you.

Louis Rivera: Well, what do you know? So I made sense, huh? That fascinates me; not that I don't know that I can think, but that, given the standard view (what they call 'prevailing wisdom'), I wonder sometimes if I'm the one not looking at "what" correctly. So, whenever someone says, "I understand," I'm still amazed. Thank you

Rudy: Let’s move onto another topic

<<---Previous        Part 1  Part 2 Part 3  Part 4  Next--->>

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Bill Moyers and James Cone (Interview)  / A Conversation with James Cone

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John Coltrane, "Alabama"  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"  / A Love Supreme

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

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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Salvage the Bones

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

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

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Ancient African Nations

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