Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I have been waiting for Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone for damn near 40 years. The subtitle of this brand new book, co-edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen & Lauri Ramey & just out from the University of Alabama Press, says it all: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans. For some time it has been completely evident that if it was hard to be a post-avant poet in America, it was ten times harder if one operated on the margins – or beyond – of the counter-institutions that literary insurgents had created in order to make their own work possible. People who might choose to be on, or beyond, those margins just might be people whose historical community is not the white world. You can’t find Bob Kaufman in the Allen anthology. Nor Ted Joans. Nor Steve Jonas. Nor Gwendolyn Brooks. In retrospect, that’s just nuts. So it has been obvious for a very long time that something like a black Allen anthology was needed if for no other reason than fill in the historical record. It’s not only important for readers to know that these poets have been here all along, but it’s equally critical that people understand which books these poets did not show up in, so that we can begin to ask how come.

I’ve known for a long time that when this volume finally got edited and published what my own personal test of it was going to be – does the book include William Anderson? Anderson had as I understood it followed his friend Jack Gilbert to San Francisco in the 1960s where he’d developed a style that reflected Gilbert’s influence along with those of Jack Spicer & Steve Jonas. Anderson was a wonderful poet, but extremely quiet, generally avoiding the poetry scene that certainly seemed available to him at the time. And while I never met a poet who knew his work who didn’t respect William Anderson, so far as I know, he never published any books & I can’t say that I ever saw any of his work in print after 1970. If the editors of the first post-avant African-American anthology can find this guy’s poetry, then I’ll know for certain that they’ve done their homework.

And here Anderson is, the second of the volume’s 38 authors. Along with the names you expect to find: Amiri Baraka, Jane Cortez, June Jordan, Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, Joans & Jonas, David Henderson, Clarence Major, Calvin Hernton, A.B. Spellman, Joseph Jarman, Ed Roberson, Melvin B. Tolson & Cecil Taylor. And lots of names you ought to know but might not, at least not yet, like Russell Atkins, Norman Pritchard, William J. Harris, Tom Weatherly & Oliver Pitcher, to name just a few.

This book is a cornucopia alright, yet it’s also disturbingly imperfect. The editors acknowledge & address this, albeit a little obliquely, in their introduction:

Anthologies may be read as simultaneous gestures of greeting and exclusion. While the editors make no pretense to encyclopedic coverage of avant-garde, black poetics from the decades following the Second World War, we continue to feel the deepest regret as we reread poems that we are not able to include here. Some artists elected not to be included. Some bodies of work are surrounded by legal difficulties of considerably greater complexity than the verse itself. Some readers will no doubt think that we have elided a crucial candidate. The gathering assembled here might best be regarded as a preliminary sketch….

Which is exactly the right way to read this book. I regret only that the editors pulled their punches and failed to name names in the passage above. Or at the very least suggested who else they would have wanted to include. I have my own list, which would have pushed this anthology to just over 50 contributors – doable at 400 pages, tho pretty cramped if Alabama held them to the 300 found here. I would have included the editors themselves, both of whom are fine poets, plus at least the following 13 writers: Will Alexander, C.S. Giscombe, Renee Gladman, Erica Hunt, Nate Mackey, Mark McMorris, Harryette Mullen, Ibn Mukhtarr Mustapha, Kofi Natambu, Willie Perdomo, Claudia Rankine, Ntozake Shange, Al Young. That’s an awfully awesome group of poets not to be in this collection. And I’m sure that there are others who might have included the performance work of the Last Poets, Umar Bin Hassan & Abiodun Oyewole. What about Chuck D.? or Speech? The whole question of orality is open to discussion. Or what about a poet like Pat Parker, who was part of the first wave of new feminist poets in the 1960s & ‘70s before cancer cut her down? She, along with Judy Grahn, Paula Gunn Allen, Susan Griffin & others, was writing for an audience nobody even acknowledged existed at the time. What’s not innovative about that? Or Essex Hemphill & the idea of innovative writing by & for gay men of color?

There are all kinds of other questions that might be asked, as well, and almost no doubt will be: a book of this sort – and this important – is almost by definition ONE HUGE TARGET. One series of important questions might be about the organizing principle throughout. The editors have taken the most passive approach, the alphabet of surnames, but even if they had followed a standard historical method, using birthdates (Tolson appears to be the oldest, born in 1898, Jodi Braxton & Eloise Loftin, both born in 1950, the youngest), the problem remains that for some poets – like Anderson, whom I believe was born sometime in the second half of the 1920s – there just may be no surviving biographical data, no way to fix his position. It would have been difficult if not impossible perhaps to have tried to group these poets, to cluster them, even in the crude half-fictitious fashion of the Allen anthology. But it might have been instructive to try, if only to underscore just how many of these writers have had to struggle in some form of isolation.

While I’m sure that there are quibbles one could make throughout, the editors show their rigor in their selections within poets as well as among them. The obvious test here is the selection for Amiri Baraka, whose life has been one of constant reinvention. At 28 pages, his contribution here is the longest (Steve Jonas is the one other poet to get more than 20 pages) and, yes, maybe half of them are devoted to the early writing, poems dedicated to Robert Creeley & Charles Olson among them. But the longest piece of Baraka’s – indeed in the entire book – is reserved for “The City of New Ark,” a 14-pager from 1989.

So this is a great collection & an important moment in the history of American poetry. Period. But it is also I hope the start of a great conversation. Not only just about this book, but about the condition of African-American poets and the role of diversity of American poetry per se. Like just how is it that this book comes out eleven years after Walter Lew has edited an equivalent volume for North American Asian poetry, Premonitions? Or even why are there so few African-American bloggers writing about poetry & poetics? You would think that this medium could go a long way toward reducing the isolation someone might feel who’s testing out innovative writing strategies. Lets hope that all the questions get asked. And that everybody listens carefully.