If you were to write something beside poetry, what would it be?
Lately, I’ve been drawn to plays as much as poetry. I’ve always loved reading plays. Amiri Baraka said that every poet should be a playwright; I don’t really believe that’s true. Of course, holding that idea in my mind I could start with William Shakespeare, and then go down the line of playwrights I’m drawn to. To my thinking, it seems poetry has long struck a deal with playwrights and novelists. When I was in the sixth grade, Ms. A. L. Hannibal taught us to memorize passages of “Julius Caesar.” We would march up to a big tape recorder and speak our lines into the machine. I didn’t realize then that this was indeed a rehearsal for the future — even if my mind was also on baseball. I am still beckoned by playwrights who in their hearts are poets. I am taken by Adrienne Kennedy, who was influenced by Tennessee Williams, both poet-playwrights. And consider the story of a young Edward Albee slipping W. H. Auden a sheaf of poems, and the poet later saying to him, “Have you thought about becoming a playwright?” Perhaps poetry sharpens the tongues of characters in amazing ways, and at times achieves rather experimental dimensions, shattering conventional dialogue, plot and structure. In some cases the would-be poet becomes a better playwright or novelist, and this seems especially true in the case of William Faulkner. One hears the influence of poetry in all the works of August Wilson and Toni Morrison (it is difficult for me to stop believing Toni didn’t write poetry — always approaching the sacred and profane, both willfully entangled with each other through the art of insinuation). When I first read Richard Wright’s novel “Black Boy” I felt poetry in his description of the land, and I wasn’t surprised to later read his prose poem “Between the World and Me” and the 800 haiku poems written in places including a hospital in Paris. Or consider how Jean Toomer’s “Cane” is interwoven with poetry, that the book’s inventive structure is shaped out of the author’s allegiance to the work of lyrical poetry — how each trope comes so close to song. If a phrase sparks the gest of song memory endures longer — like the hum of a taut string in the dark. And in this sense, such an action, even if it’s merely generated by a feeling, is political. So, yes, I find myself at this juncture where poetry has actually taken me down numerous mysterious roads and avenues, especially when I think about my present work. In fact, I’m not surprised to find myself writing lyrics because it brings me to a bond forged decades ago. When I was 4 I would hug the tall mahogany radio in the living room, with an ear against a speaker. I loved singing my own words in the damp woods of Louisiana, but never thought I’d find myself writing lyrics for Susie Ibarra, Tomás Doncker, Hermine Pinson and Vince di Mura. Nor did I ever dream of writing for large ensembles. But here I am writing libretti and performance pieces where composed music embraces my words and feelings, to moments of ascension: Sandy Evans’s “Testimony”; Susie Ibarra’s “Saturnalia”; T. J. Anderson’s “Slip Knot” (adapted and arranged for production at Northwestern University by Rachael Gates, Noel Koran and Rhoda Levine); Bill Banfield’s “Ish-Scoodah” at Princeton Atelier (directed by June Ballinger); Anthony Davis’s “Wakonda’s Dream” (directed by Rhoda Levine). It was also the cadence of the line and the underlying subject of friendship that led me to create “Gilgamesh: A Verse Play” with the dramaturge Chad Gracia. And here I am now in the middle of two in-progress performance pieces: “Endangered,” with music by the Tomás Doncker Band and paintings by Floyd Tunson, videoed by William Murray; and “Echoes of the Great Migration,” composed by Vince di Mura. Because sometimes I create phrases seeking rhythm, a few composers and musicians have sought out my poems. This began when the composer Elliot Goldenthal chose two poems for “Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio.” The sounds of language converge or there’s counterpoint to the instruments as in what the Norwegian choral group Trondheim Voices achieves in the performances of “On Anodyne” and “A World of Daughters” (the poem that begins “Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth”). I feel that it is in my nature to seek meaning that then somehow sings itself true.
Do you see where your poetry has evolved over a course of your career? In what way?
I have long said that there isn’t any topic that’s taboo, but a system of aesthetics is important. Now, I feel that more recently my work has gotten closer to that concept. The jazz musician — such as Coltrane blowing 14 hours — speaks about honing one’s chops. But it isn’t only about technique or chance; most likely there’s sweat on the page before the surprise lives. And one may laugh, and say, Damn! Where did that come from? Yet, the spark isn’t accidental. I think my subject matter — my idea of what a poem is — has finally grown because I believe I am able to embrace what “mental optics” meant to Phillis Wheatley. I feel that she was talking about freedom without compromise. Everything humans have invented worked their way through the imagination — for good or evil. Now, I trust my imagination to deliver me to truth. A poem isn’t the beginning or conclusion of a research paper; it must seek the light of a deeper place. Although there’s much rehearsal and practice, such journeys are not scripted. And, at times, the poet must be willing to be struck dumb — momentarily blinded before the gift.
What do you plan to read next?
My friend June Ballinger loaned me a book that’s different from what I’ve been reading the past few years, titled “Jersey Justice: The Story of the Trenton Six,” written by Cathy D. Knepper. Being a poet from the South, I must admit, sometimes I’m conscious of signs and premonitions: Over a decade ago, after the first performance of my play “The Deacons,” a woman gave me a paper bag filled with newspaper clippings of the Trenton Six trials. And a week or two ago I opened a book on Charles White’s portraits of Black Americans to be confronted again by the Trenton Six.
You are throwing a literary dinner party. What three writers, living or dead, do you invite?
I would invite Marguerite Duras, Albert Camus and Chinua Achebe.
Do you organize your books?
No, I don’t organize my books anymore. After the Army I used to organize everything, but then came creative randomness. I have five spaces for bookshelves, and I still love walking over and taking a book up, not thinking about author or title. Sometimes there’s surprise.