An African-American experimental poetry/poetics
An interview of Tyrone Williams (2008-2009)
Tyrone Williams, teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. An experimental poet of a rare breed, Tyrone has authored two books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002) and On Spec (Omnidawn Publishing, 2008)and a number of chapbooks including AAB (Slack Buddha Press, 2004), Futures, Elections (Dos Madres Press, 2004)and Musique Noir (Overhere Press, 2006). The following interview was conducted over several months between fall and winter of 2008/09. .
Brenda: Tyrone, you have several book length projects in the making. Could you speak about the working dynamics of these manuscripts?
Tyrone : Actually I have completed both projects, a collection of pre-c.c. poems entitled the Hero Project of the Century, and a collection of new poems, tentatively called MI Howell. The former is more narrative driven than recent work and concerns—again—the cultural ramifications of empire building not only—not evenly primarily—in the political arena but also in the cultural, religious and social arenas. MI Howell has, at its center, the Oklahoma bombing of 1997, though other parts of the work explore the ethical, ecological and historical matrices from which McVeigh and his cohorts sprang.
Brenda: I liken McVeigh’s disillusionment to organ failure within the internal system of the industrial military complex. His dubious, destructive actions point to self-implosion of a system even as the system becomes ever more imperialistically outward. His is the botched/self-distorted activist stance. The Unabomber and also eco terrorists come to mind as subversives whose quests fail drastically to adequately address the menacing aspects of empire that inspire their actions. The specter of violence nullifies the activist critique they are attempting to make, I think. Yet, their actions are systemic, problematic reactions in a system percolating toxic social woes. Condemnation doesn’t seem a viable response. Their actions bring attention to the insidiousness imbedded in cultural norms and self-righteous ideologies that prop the empire up propagandistically. What got you interested in Mc Veigh’s saga?
Tyrone: I don’t recall exactly what got me interested except a minor newspaper error that claimed Terry Nichols was from a small town “near Howell, Michigan.” Well Decker, the township, is nowhere near Howell, so I began mapping the distance between the two places. I’m from Michigan and I recall my dad taking us through Howell and other small towns and villages occasionally on those now defunct “Sunday drives.” I began reading up on Howell, Michigan and that took me deep into the histories of the small towns in Michigan, New York and Arizona from which Nichols, McVeigh and Fortier hailed. I agree that the bombings are symptoms of systemic problems within the imaginary of empire and so the Howell project traces some of the other reifications of violence in the 20th century. At the same time it also surveys some particular histories of cruelty to animals.
Brenda : You begin your most recent book, On Spec (Omnidawn, 2008) with Written By H’Self—a poem that aligns (and jars) the individual (the self) and the social (public) in an impressively economic word play of addition and subtraction. The first stanza equates "the signature public" as the "only avant-garde behind invention". This populist statement though it reads a bit tongue in cheek, also mocks, subtly, what can be seen as elitist, stand-offish conventions for rarified meaning making. The US has just witnessed a major transformation in the political landscape where participation in politics has increased significantly. We elected a president who understands there’s agency in grassroots efforts. The idea that the individual finds power in group formation has been an historical mode of the civil rights movement as well as other social struggles. The way you situate the lyrical I is always in relation, always socially operative, always acknowledges historicity. Please comment on these selves coming together with other selves...
Tyrone: That poem—and those lines in particular—refer to the conundrum of literacy vis-à-vis African American history, though it applies readily to all immigrants to the United States of America who must confront the irony of having those designated the "first" immigrants function as the standard bearers for language, law, etc., even though they themselves borrowed, stole and plundered those "other" immigrants already "here"...The conundrum refers specifically to the straitjacket of a literacy nonetheless deemed necessary to establish one’s humanity even as the King’s English was being transfigured into Yankee English. Hence the necessary ambiguity of "behind" —as in support of but also lagging…It’s also important that the "lyrical I" does not appear in that poem, though the lyrical "he" and "she," as the objects "him" and "her," are announced by "H," a letter which serves to inscribe and erase "gender" throughout the book...
Brenda: I understand the poem addressing divergent forms of literacy too—the complexities of avant-garde poetry where variegated speech acts easily destabilize clear, functional, power infused King’s English. Your poem addresses language’s capacities in this regard. At least that’s some of its meaning for me as a reader. Please say more about the way you are addressing gender here…I find myself using non-gendered Spivak pronouns lately for various reasons...
Tyrone: On a literal level, the elision of the gendered vowel consonant after “h” is simply a shorthand for gesturing toward men and women who were slaves (the title alludes to slave narratives); ditto for the suppression of consonants before that “e” in the penultimate stanza. Nonetheless the capitalized “H” in the title links up, however deferred, to that “e” as evidence of the inevitable return of normative gender rules in writing and reading—the male is always unmarked, always presumed to be the case unless otherwise indicated.
Brenda: How do you see race operating within the poetry communities you relate with?
I don’t know that race “operates” at all except by way of the eye of the other beholders. Having been so used to being the only non-white person in a given room, I am only stunned into race consciousness when I find myself in the presence of another “person of color” amidst a sea of white. I’m sure those others feel the same way about me when I am the only other person of color: what’s his/her story? How do you know these people? And perhaps, guiltily, why do you know these people? This consciousness is less present, needless to say, when a certain critical mass (more than two? three?), however rare, is reached.
Brenda: Tyrone, how do you situate yourself within an African-American experimental poetry/poetics? What vectors that are important to you come into play under the descriptor, experimental poetry? What discussions are taking place around African-American experimental poetics at this time that you are participating in ?
Tyrone: One of the issues under discussion on a special listserv set up by Evie Shockley and Terrance Hayes for Jubilat is precisely the essence and/or attributes of the "experimental," not only in terms of poetic and prose form and content but also in terms of cultural, social, economic, philosophical, historical and political contexts. As one of the ethnicities marked--and self-marked--ethnic by hegemonic apparatuses situated in the spheres cited above, African American, black American, Afro-American, colored and Negro artists have, by dint of circumstance, experimented the moment we deigned to read--literacy itself was, and still can be, an act of insurrection, an experiment in re-definition of self, others, etc. As several people--Geoffrey Jacques, Douglas Kearney, Fred Moten and John Keene in particular--have pointed out, Phillis Wheatley's Augustanesque poems, like Claude MacKay's and Countee Cullen's sonnets, like William Stanley Braithwaite's entire literary career, are radical experiments in articulation of sound, to say nothing of sense and form. The same can be said for the poetry of Aime Cesaire, Derek Walcott, Kamau Braithwaite, Marlene Nourbese-Phillips, Dionne Brand and others. All of the above--including me--are readers of not only poets and writers of the African Diaspora but also of internationally known poets and writers in general. My "experiments" in poetry are not only informed by avant-garde and lyrical poets within the American tradition, both past--Dunbar, Wheatley, Poe, Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes, Duncan, Eliot, Pound, Oppen, Lowell, O'Hara, Baraka, Lorde, Feinman, etc.--and present--Baraka, Hirsch, Howe, Brady, Halpern, Palmer, Waldner, Phillips, Toscano, Young, Prevallet, Hunt, etc.--but also by my limited but intense interest in Celan, Rilke, Trakl, Mandelshstam, Radnoti, Lorca, Guillen, Neruda, etc. I think of my own work as specifically avant-garde (though it's been dubbed post-avant by Reginald Shepherd), which is to say it is informed by experimentation with a specific purpose (it was Hirsch who emphasized to me the importance of purposefulness), one that is largely political--to defamiliarize, retool, re-imagine, the languages and lives with which, through which, we struggle.
Brenda: Akilah Oliver in an interview with Rachel Levitsky (Coffee House press release) uses the term investigative poetics to describe her practice. Here’s what she says, “…in A Toast in the House of Friends (Akilah’s new book) I use various frames that I hope house the investigations (as I now like to think of poetry, as this investigative practice…). They are frames that hold in an expansive way I hope, the shape of the thinking (which is also to say, of the imagining) of the pieces that also render themselves up as an offering to the reader.” There might be more equity in the term investigation. I personally think experimental is a fraught term, overly determined and missing the point of much practice that comes under the heading avant garde. For me, experimenting relates a subject position that is fully in control of the terms of the experiment, how it is set up, what outcomes are looked for and studied, etc. (This is so rarely happens to be the case.) It assumes a power position with tools and materials that doesn’t really correspond to the practice of poetry, at least this is what I perceive through my feminist lenses. In most cases, there is permission needed to experiment. Also, there is something nonchalant about experimentation. The way you apply the term experimental is of course insurrectional to all the ways I just mention it functioning. Do you have any reservations about the term experimental?
Tyrone: Akilah's remarks are almost perfectly congruent with my stance toward writing--every poem, every investigation, as she calls it, is a house. I do think of experimentation in the way you describe, with all the attendant problems of the lab, the scientist, the object under scrutiny, etc. However, the power dynamics you correctly note are almost always present. After all, the author is just that, an author, and however multiple and egalitarian the source material selection process, be it flarf, Language Writing or deep image lyricism, the author is the one who, in the end, has his or her name on the "results" of the experiment. I think John Keene said something like all poetry is, strictly speaking, experimental and I agree. After all, a sestina or sonnet only determines form, the circuitry of meaning, but neither determines in advance how the words and phrases, jostling up against one another, will "mean" or if they will "mean." To that extent Language Poetry was truly experimental because it reworked these forms--to say nothing of inventing new ones-- at the level of the sentence, phrase and word (depending on the writer or the particular work at hand). The absence of closure in much of Language Writing was not in itself innovative--some of the Beats and Black Arts practitioners, to say nothing of the Objectivists, were arresting the closed loop of epiphantic disclosure and semantic coherence associated with certain modes of "mainstream" poetry--but what was new was the absence of recognizable procedures and assumptions about what constituted poetry. In brief, the experimental is a horizon shaping and determining the normative. Without one another both terms would be incomprehensible. And since the syntactic, semantic and formal spheres of "poetry" are always changing, what counts as normative and what counts as experimental incessantly shift. Under the historically determined pressures of originality, the experimental and innovative can, in certain contexts, be much more conducive to market absorption than the normative since the market is nurtured on the obsolescent/innovative dyad. This critique, which we might recall as the cultural conservatism of certain Marxists (I think of Adorno, for example, or the begrudging concessions of Benjamin), still has a certain force, a certain validity, even if the marginal market status of poetry inoculates it to the more vulgar forms of utilitarianism.
Brenda: The We comes through so strongly in social movements—like the Black Arts Movement. The I isn’t diminished, it is in solidarity with ideas that take the personal to a much broader level. There’s always this interplay between the self and the polis and a conscious effort to shape society person by person. Efforts by individuals are never underestimated. There’s a powerful essay by Larry Neal in Volume 12 Number 4 of The Drama Review, published in the summer of 1968—edited by Ed Bullins. The essay begins, “The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community.” How do you situate your own work within a community framework, and do you see your work as activist? Neal quotes a Baraka poem in the essay:
We are unfair
We are black magicians
Black arts we make
in black labs of the heart
The fair are fair
and deathly white
The day will not save them
And we own the night
Baraka’s concept of the lab is very meaningful I think--to combine magic and science together IN THE BODY is poignant. I’m also interested in his use of We instead of I.
Tyrone: As it happens I taught a graduate course on the Black Arts Movement in the spring of 2008 and that specific essay and specific quote by Neal was scrutinized by the class. Neal’s essay and quote remain significant because it de-romanticizes, or what amounts to the same thing, historicizes the Western concept of the artist alienated from society as a relatively new phenomenon. The Western artist-as-alien can be found in Eliot, Pound (but Stevens, for example, is more problematic), and the Fugitive Poets, but their alienation is of a different order than that of Oppen or Reznikoff. This might explain why Paul deMan, for example, in the essays that comprise Blindness and Insight, reinforces this Romantic notion (his book title can be read as analogous to Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp) under the cover of deconstruction (see Derrida on Rousseau in Of Grammatology for a thoroughly anti-Romantic reading): he too is heavily invested in a certain kind of Romantic anti-industrialism which kills two birds—mercantile capital and its belabored workforce—with one stone. Driven by the Crusean notion that culture forges consciousness, Neal and other Black Arts proponents had to insist on the organic artist, one at one with his or her community. As the literary products of Neal, Baraka, Bullins and others demonstrated, the inalienable responsibility of the black artist did not foreclose criticism; on the contrary, it made criticism the raison d’etre of cultural production. Hence their anathema toward “protest literature,” literature directed outwardly, away from the community, toward a white “mainstream” audience. This concept of the organic or inalienable artist meant that, strictly speaking, there was no difference between the “I” or the “we” in literary work, another reason why so many black artists—me included—felt like we were in the stands at a tennis match when the “identity politics” wars were raging between the Language Writers and almost everybody else. As for my own work, I no longer see it as part of a community in the traditional sense (I’ve written about this issue elsewhere). Even in the anti-establishment, alternative cultures that comprised the Cass Corridor around Wayne State University, I understood that this community was hardly the community imagined by Neal and others in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, I did think of my work as having an active function in relation to the Corridor when I lived in Detroit. Now the community in which I imagine my work is more virtual, more “intellectual,” I suppose, though, as I’ve said before, I still think of my work as addressing black men and women (not African Americans, usually) who have ordinary jobs, sturdy families and bullshit-proof minds.
Brenda: How have Marxist ideas been important to your work? Could you talk about how you see Marxist theory and practice shaping avant garde practices, specifically with African-American writers? I will tentatively propose that Marx is to Europe what Fanon is to Africa and Asia (but very much also the USA—Malcolm X, et. al.) What do you think? How do you parse Marxist doctrine? Anti-colonial liberation movements? Please talk about the Négritude movement and its influence on your work as well as how you see its effects on your peers.
Tyrone: What you say about Marx's relationship to Europe and Fanon's to Africa and Asia is, despite its over-the-top generalization, somewhat true if we think of these thinkers in terms of their primary audiences and the contexts of their writings. Like a lot of college students in the Seventies I read Marx and Fanon through the lens of my own interest and curiosity. But, like many students at Wayne State University in Detroit, I read both through the lenses of the various revolutionary and radical movements in and around the Wayne State University area—that is, the Cass Corridor, sandwiched between downtown Detroit to the south, General Motors and the Cultural Center to the north, the Medical Center to the east and the John C. Lodge freeway to the west. I was and remain convinced of the centrality of Marx's diagnosis of Western economic development up to its most recent iteration--global capitalism--even if, like everyone who continues to read Marxists and Marxism's critical proponents and detractors, I understand Marx's and Marxism's limits. Ditto for Fanon and the limitations of ethnic nationalism (though the work of Harold Cruse remains crucial as a diagnostic tool). So, in the mid- to late-Seventies, at the end, so we are told, of the Black Arts Movement, in the contexts of Angela Davis, George Jackson and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Negritude appeared to me as an important but not pertinent artistic movement, no more or less important than the Harlem Renaissance. Because I was not involved in, did not "feel" the struggles for freedom outside the United States except via their simulacra in media (journals, books, films, etc.), the relevance of Negritude per se was lost on me. So my own writing was shaped by homeland issues, including the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, though that struggle was as mediated as the ones in Cuba, Angola, and Central and South America. A poet like Kim Hunter, with whom I became close friends after I left Detroit (though we'd hung out a little at parties at the university school newspaper for which we both worked), is right on the media stuff, no doubt in part because he has worked for a number of media outlets in Detroit. That being said, I don't know that Negritude has meant a lot to him in the way that, say, Baraka or Madhubuhti has been. In fact, I can't say I know any African Americans for whom Negritude has been a central influence. It's interesting that when I've attended academic conferences on Negritude or even on West Indies poets like McKay, the audience and presenters have almost always been overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white...
Brenda Iijima and Tyrone Williams and the group after-party celebrating Tyrone’s reading in Brooklyn. (Jan, 2009)
Photo Credits: Dottie Lasky and Thom Donovan
Brenda: Please say more about Harold Cruse…Also, what’s your stance on identity politics at this juncture?
Tyrone: Cruse manages to combine a Marxist perspective--he understands the relationship between the means of production, labor and the cultural sphere (inc. the arts)--even while emphasizing black nationalism as a necessary, if strategic, maneuver for power (political, economic and cultural). Nevertheless, Cruse appears aware that his critique--circa 1965-1967--has actionable value only for a specific period of time. That is, he understood that civil rights "integratonism" [his term] would gradually dilute black unity as it siphoned off the most talented members of the black communities. Consequently his 1967 book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was as much a clarion call to arms as an incisive diagnosis of the cyclical rise and fall of nationalist and integrationist tendencies in black American history. He would doubtless understand "identity politics" as a necessary component of the overall strategy for black empowerment even if it, like Marxism, like every form of political and social activism, has its limits. I agree.
Brenda: The conceptual sparks in your work really interest me. Your work has a way of localizing and then disseminating along nerve networks intense social, historical, political, personal registers—succinct sonic flares. These registers are ignited spontaneously throughout your phrasings. Craig Dworkin blurbs your book On Spec by stating, “Williams reminds us that the semantic skin of the word—like any interpolated subject—is always a performance, adapting to the pressures and camouflage of context however hard we work to fix it.” The axons and dendrites on the feeling skin (largest human organ) connect up these pulsations with the functioning systems one lives within: the ecological, biological, social, historical, economic, etc. Could you comment about action, reaction, interaction, performance (which I take to mean a highly conscious set of maneuvers) and intuition (which certainly informs performance but is spontaneous and often subconscious) in your work?
Tyrone: There can be nothing to say, by definition, about “intuition” in my work, nothing that is other than the poem itself, the way it does or does not manifest aspects of the intuitive (and how one would know that is beyond me). About, however, more conscious maneuvers, I can say that several tributaries feed the work—the phrase, the concept (I have an idea for a poem—not the same, obviously, as a poem of ideas…), snippets of overheard conversations, etc. I work from these and other pre-existing materials—I keep a journal—and go back and forth between writing and assembling along both the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes. In doing so I am trying to literally “perform” history, perform culture, as I understand it. That’s why linear narrative cannot be dispensed with—history as narrative is oppressive and enabling. But that’s also why surrealist and Dadaist effects, punning and wordplay , even play at the level of the phoneme, are also indispensable—the rough edges, the bumps, the intractable, etc. constitute precisely the materials that history has to pave, has to smooth over, in order to articulate, first and foremost, its own coherence. In a poem in the Hero Project book, this phenomenon gets articulated in an aphorism: "I remember—but so do you."
Brenda: Your work finds so many flexible modes to interrogate reality. There’s of course, “Four Dialogues, Five Fish, One Bowl (interrogation procedures)”—a group of poems half way into On Spec. I don’t think I could possibly summarize what you are doing in those pages. Please expound...
Tyrone: I got into reading Derrida as much for pleasure as anything else, but teaching him is another matter. So I decided to write up my gloss on one of his books I was teaching, The Gift of Death. I had that around for a long time. Meanwhile I was working on the Prefaces, which were going to be part of a book I was calling AAB (eventually that became a chapbook). I was thinking about Baraka, in particular, his Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, when I wrote those pieces. All four of them turn upon the question of responsibility and irresponsibility, which happen to be one of the central theses of The Gift of Death. So in On Spec I stage a “dialogue” between me and Derrida explicitly (all writing is at least dialogic, if not polylogic), and since at least two of the Prefaces concern African American culture while the story of Abraham and Isaac is, for Derrida, a paradigmatic rendering of the interrelation between irresponsibility and responsibility, that section can be understood as a conversation between race and ethnicity, between African American and Jewish culture, thanks in large part to a Sephardic Jew.
Brenda: My last couple of questions focus in on your manuscript MI Howell. I read in your work an operative sense that one of the responsibilities at hand (in the Derridaen sense) is to switch focus from a lofty, abstract metaphysical conjectured possibility to the actual, physical, experiential, intellectual strata of history and the lived social realm. Your work critiques metaphysics—whether its source is philosophy or religion—yet it is presented in your work. Could you say more about the metaphysical as it pertains to your manuscript Howell, MI?
Tyrone: I don’t know that metaphysics as such is the immediate object of critique in MI Howell, but you are correct that religion and philosophy, to the extent they attempt to build self-enclosed explanatory systems, are among the epistemologies under scrutiny. Above all else, however, is the nation and the project of nation-building—these are the immediate objects of criticism in the manuscript. This concern derives directly from my interest in McVeigh and his investments in the metaphysics of nationalism. And since the concept of the nation is founded, in the West, on discrete systems of philosophy and religion, all three constitute the holy trinity I question.
Brenda: Three consecutive sections in MI Howell contain a series of graphs: Le Sinthommee and Δunt Sally and unt Sally (Prisoner’s Dilemma). How did you conceive of these graphs?
Tyrone: The latter two are derived from my readings in contemporary game theory; Aunt Sally is one of the names of an English game from which we get bowling, horseshoes, billiards and similar games. Le Sinthome is a separate section; its title and poem titles derive from Lacan. I read McVeigh as a symptom of the larger problems discussed above, the mutually reinforcing agencies of nationhood, religion and philosophy.
Brenda: In MI Howell you include Malachi Ritscher’s suicide note. Ritscher’s self-immolation was a protest against the war with Iraq. How did you decide to add that statement to your manuscript? Several of your poems are dedicated to Rischer—did you know him?
Tyrone: Jennifer Karmin is largely responsible for the inspiration for this section, a fitting coda to the manuscript, I think, especially to the extent it poses Ritscher against McVeigh. She sent a note to the Poetics listserv in November 2007 reminding everyone of the anniversary of Ritscher’s suicide in Chicago a year earlier. I went to his website—where the long note was still posted—and was moved by his story, enough so that decided to celebrate his life and, most important, his ideas and courage in those sixteen poems that close MI Howell. I did not know him, but I wanted his words to speak out from his website, to speak in a different venue, in this case, a book of poems.
Brenda: Are you in-between projects now? What are you working on?
Tyrone: I wish I were but what can I say? The ideas keep coming. Arnold Kemp, a NYC-based artist and poet, and I are working on a long project structured around the format of the daily newspaper. I’ve had this idea for a long time, long before I finished the poems for c.c. in 2000, so I hope to get with Arnold in 2009 to discuss our ideas for the project.
Brenda Iijima is the author of Animate, Inanimate Aims (Litmus, 2007) and Around Sea (O Books, 2004). Her book, If Not Metamorphic was runner up for the Sawtooth Prize and will be published by Ahsahta Press. revv.you’ll—ution, is forthcoming from Displaced Press sometime this year. She is the editor of Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs: http://yoyolabs.com/. She is editing a collection of essays by poets concerning poetry and ecological ethics titled )((eco (lang)(uage(reader). She is the art editor at Boog City as well as a visual artist. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Cooper Union.