One of art’s more subtle functions is its ability to remind the audience other aesthetics exist, and that there is no one “right” way to appreciate art. A local painter looking at a series of works that anatomized guns admired Walter Rutkowski’s craft and his incredible graphite work; others looking at the same show were repulsed by his unhealthy affection for guns. Today, riot grrl bands hearken back to the days in womyn’s music when there was a debate over whether or not women should play electric guitars since they were traditionally male “power” instruments. When women finally did play electric guitars, that simple act made the music powerful for many women. Today Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Tribe 8 make hard, confrontational music that is valuable precisely because young women are hard and confrontational. Those looking for conventional charms are likely to miss some remarkable music. Fertile Ground, an anthology of African-American writing further reminds readers that there is more than one way to appreciate art. In his introductory essay, co-editor Kalamu ya Salaam states,”We have created this publication not simply to showcase our own writing but really to empower black literature through rounding up some of the most creative work we could find…in our effort to shape literature blackly.”The writing here in one way or another confronts or ignores-for lack of a better term-“white” notions of “good” writing passed from the Greeks to the universities to us. The result is material that often refuses to conform to conventional literary models, creating instead personally and culturally resonant hybrids. “In the Matter of Memory” by” Toronto’s M. Nourbese Philip wrestles with history and memory, and giving memory a physical presence, but his writing isn’t any one genre. It is an essay, but it includes journal entries, first person anecdotes and reflections; in its most dramatic moment, he uses a poem to answer the question, “Where is the tangible evidence that these events did take place – the African holocaust?” The piece’s logic is emotional and poetic as often as it is conventional, making the essay intensely personal because of what is at stake for him as a black man. In Fertile Ground, ya Salaam and Kysha N. Brown have collected an impressive body of prose work. Like Philip’s essay, Kofi Anyidoho’s “IntroBlues: A Poetic Voyage into SoulTime” crosses genres, centuries, continents and musical styles in the course of twelve pages. Less radical pieces include a discussion of the oppression of African-American women and the Million Man March, and an excerpt from Kathleen Neal Cleaver’s autobiography in which she writes about her relationship to former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Special attention is paid to the work of Stephen E. Henderson, whose aesthetics of black poetry essays have been unpublished since the Seventies. Much of the poetry in the anthology comes from a series of writers’ workshops-New Orleans’ Nommo Literary Society (of which the editors are members), The Carolina African American Writers’ Collective, and Liverpool’s The Griot Workshop, and if these poems are representative, these are strong workshops. The Liverpool group’s jazz influence makes their work initially distinct, but, as Henderson writes,”Not only is music the metaphor of the Black Experience, it is the embodiment of the essence of that experience.” All of the poetry here, in one form or another, is informed by soul musics: blues, gospel and jazz. Some, such as Tom Dent’s haunting “Blues for D” and Keorapetse Kgositsile’s “Cassandra Wilson Will Sing” announce their musical roots. More often though, the music is witnessed in the riffing that celebrates freedom. Kalamu ya Salaam’s “Ruby Dee Eyes” and Sonia Sanchez’s “Coming Full Circle” possess a saxophone’s authority, moving seamlessly through a series of themes that – like the best solos – initially surprise though once finished, seem natural and obvious. Little that is literary is natural though, but values begin to seem natural when repeated and reinforced. Fertile Ground articulates other possibilities stated in clear, compelling black voices. Many will celebrate the liberation declared in every line, page and photograph. Sadly though, some white readers are threatened by pro-black art; the centrality of whites in ‘American history makes it hard to imagine anything excluding whites. If that stops them from finding the red-blooded vision of life in this anthology, that will be their loss. African-American writers are not the only ones confounding the Academy today. A professor in New Orleans told students to ignore many of the poets anthologized recently in American Poets Say Goodbye the Twentieth Century because, to paraphrase, that is not what poetry’s about. It is a safe bet that few of the poets collected by Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal have written poems about how wearying it is to be 30/40/50/male/female/employed/unemployed/alive, and if they have, they’ve found authentic voices rather than the false voice that simulates authenticity. To see this voice in action, check out the average poetry book published by university presses. As the title suggests, Codrescu and Rosenthal have asked over one hundred American poets to address the closing of the Twentieth Century. The period from 1999 to 2001 has become a touchstone for everything from Prince’s epic parties to Arthur C. Clarke’s extraterrestrial contact, and people seem unable to wait for it. These writers are saying goodbye a few years early, though not as early as The Ramones, who declared,”It’s the end, the end of the century” in 1980. The X-Files have similarly sped up Clarke’s prediction, and in Wilco’s,”I Got You (at the End of the Century)” the ominous shadow the approaching millennium throws tinges a quintessential pop song. In American Poets…time is an issue. Joe Cardarelli, recognizing that like a birthday, the days after the hullabaloo will be like the days before it, wrote:
The idea that one terrible century has
ended so another
more hopeful may proceed
is a mistake on a major scale
born of a similar confusion
that daylight savings time
gives more useful sunlight
Johanne Kyger echoes this theme, writing simply:
The same Moon in the next century!
Paul Auster, now best known for the Movie Smoke, examines the effect of time on communication:”It’s not just things that vanish-but once they vanish, the memory of them vanishes as well….What still exists as a memory for one person can be irretrievably lost for another, and this creates difficulties, insuperable barriers against understanding.” Gloria Frym’s concerns about communication are more parochial, scolding academics for their “airless grammar, sexless nouns and tortured verbals,”but most concerns are more human and humane. New Orleans’ Joel Dailey and Tom Dent each show, in Codrescu and Rosenthal’s words,”proletarian sympathy.”Dent’s “So You Leave the Project to Look for Work” articulates the dehumanizing process of looking for jobs as acutely as Theodore Dreiser in the last hundred pages of Sister Carrie. Dailey reminds us who’s cut out of the American Dream right now:
The masses still embrace
mass production, the intellectuals
the custodians their broomhandles…
Like Fertile Ground, much of the work confounds traditional aesthetics. It would be interesting to see Dr. Samuel Johnson try to figure out Armand Schwerner’s “Ectroterifisic’l’,” which comes complete with diagrams that don’t make understanding the piece any easier, or Anselm Hollo’s “West is Left on the Map,” which comes with footnotes that don’t help much. These poets may have the right idea; what is more appropriate than to address the fragmented, often incoherent end of the century in language this private?
For the most part, American Poets… is a very readable collection, helped by a title that focuses readers, and by the modernity of the work. The world we live in is on every page, usually in terms we recognize, though often in combinations that surprise. When Pat Nolan writes,”E=MC2 equals what me, worry?” Einstein and Alfred E. Newman are juxtaposed to suggest the relationship between Mad magazine, our consumer culture and science. Like Nolan, many writers are almost too ironic to be more than thought-provoking, but occasionally someone gets it exactly right. Robert Creeley speaks for all of us when he asks:
But couldn’t it all have been
a little nicer,
as my mother would say.
As information is progressively cut up like meat for a four year-old and changed like MTV every five seconds, anthologies may be the form most in sync with the times. Unfortunately, they are notoriously uneven, and too often defeat readers searching for a poem worth finishing or an essay worth starting. In these anthologies, that is not a problem, and though Fertile Ground and American Poets Say Goodbye To the Twentieth Century have very different purposes and contexts, each presents readers art that forces them to open their minds a little wider and think about things a little differently.
Fertile Ground is available from Community Book Center and from Afro American Bookshops or by mail order (including Mastercard/Visa/AmericanExpresslDiscover) by calling 1-800-879-4214. American Poets Say Goodbye to the Twentieth Century is available in most book stores. The Nommo Literary Society meets every Tuesday, 6pm to approx. 9 or 10pm at 2218 Brainard Street. There is no fee for participation.