Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum

Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum


This is called “The Author Reflects on His
35th Birthday.” 35? I have been looking forward To you
for many years now So much so that I feel you and I are old Friends and so on
this day, 35 I propose a toast to Me and You 35? From this day on I swear before
the bountiful Osiris that If I ever IF I EVER Try to bring out the Best in folks
again I Want somebody to take me Outside and kick me up and Down the sidewalk or
Sit me in a corner with a Funnel on my head Make me as hard as a rock 35, like
the fellow in The story about the Big one that got away
Let me laugh my head off With Moby Dick as we reminisce About them suckers who
went Down with the Pequod 35? I ain’t been mean enough Make me real real mean Mean as old Marie rolling her eyes Mean as the town Bessie sings about “Where all
the birds sing bass” 35? Make me Tennessee mean
Cobra mean Cuckoo mean Injun mean Dracula mean Beethovenian-brows mean
Miles Davis mean Don’t-offer-assistance- when-quicksand-is-tugging-some-poor-
dope-under mean Pawnbroker mean Pharaoh mean That’s it, 35 make me Pharaoh mean
Mean as can be Mean as the dickens Meaner than mean When I walk down the street I
want them to whisper There goes Mr. Mean “He’s double mean He even turned the
skeletons In his closet out into The cold” And 35? Don’t let me trust anybody
Over Reed but Just in case Put a tail on that Negro too. See, this guy doesn’t trust himself. –That’s from the
book “Chattanooga.” What is…what do you see see as the difference in your poetry in that
book? What’s Chattanooga as a metaphor? –Chattanooga…I was…Chattanooga was the seat of the Cherokee Nation. We have a lot of Cherokee
relatives and as a matter of fact when I was a kid I was taken care of by a Cherokee woman for a year and “Chattanooga” is a Cherokee word meaning “the top of
the mountain.” The summit of Lookout Mountain and Lookout Mountain is also a
scene of one of the most important battles of the Civil War, called The Battle
Above the Clouds, which was a turning point in the Civil War and there are a lot of place names that are dear to me and it’s
autobiographical and the title poem “Chattanooga” I wrote
when I really began to think about place. I think what you do is you leave your
hometown, you leave your origin, and you go out and you, you know, you go out
into the world and you have a lot of experience and then suddenly when you
get my age you start thinking about origin. You know what I mean?
And I was feeling…I was thinking about, you know, when I was a kid
living in back…in front of the Tennessee River. The Tennessee River is, like, down a path from where we were living and I remember the most gorgeous sunsets
that you’d ever want to see and I could see Lookout Mountain, you know, from my
backyard when I was a kid. So all these… And I was thinking about my relatives who
were all, you know, the people who took care of me who are dead now, and, you know, that was like a…a sentimental poem. You know, my parents were pioneers. You know, they uprooted themselves from Tennessee and came to Buffalo. They
didn’t know what to expect. A lot of people don’t have that much daring. They
like to be where they are. I learned more about writing living in New York for
about six or seven years that I did at the university. Actually going to poetry
readings and talking to writers. And this may be the best way to do it. You
get a master or something. Somebody… Like I’m studying…I’m talking to architects these days, interviewing architects, and they’ve really improved my eye. I can travel around the city, cities where I go to and I can identify certain roof
styles and, you know, certain patterns and designs in houses. I wanted to get
out of New York because New York was too good to me. I come up from like a very
Slavic harsh self-reliant kind of town like Buffalo, you know, where people get
suspicious of things being made too easy for them. You know? You know, these are
pioneers up there. You get immigrants up there and they’re like all the same, the
Blacks and the Poles and the Germans and the Italians. These are very rugged
people and it’s a harsh town. It was cold in the winter. And so I said well,
you know, I wasn’t accustomed to anything like this, being treated like royalty, and
all this, so I said I got to get out of here and go someplace where it’s really rough. You know what I mean? I had 50 bucks and went to Los Angeles and held up in this…on this block called Echo Park Canyon, where…it’s a
deserted street where everybody is over 90. I was the youngest…my wife and I were
the youngest people on the block and at the bottom of it is a lake that Fatty
Arbuckle drained once to do a movie. A silent movie, see? So I held up there and I wrote “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down” which is like my first real serious attempt to
write a voodoo novel combining different forms like the Old West, you know, the
Western and hoodoo. So I did the research, I started the research, on hoodoo at the Los Angeles library. And that was the beginning of it. It involves
prophecy and it involves conjuring and it involves dance and it involves
mystery and it involves painting and involves sculpture and all the arts. It
was like multimedia. And these uh these rites were practiced in New Orleans in
our country in the nineteenth century and I began reading material on this and
I found we had a gold mine and I’ve, you know, continued getting into it, learning
French for example and trying to read everything I can put my hands on because…I think you can understand it when you talk about maybe Yeats and some of the Irish poets trying to bring back their mythology.
I think if you going to a people’s past and see what’s consistent in their art
you can find their mind. –Do you see this as… –In other words you lose your mind. –Is this a Black source or an American source? –No, it’s not a Black . . . it’s eclectic. Hoodoo is eclectic. You have whites and Indians in South
American voodoo. And voodoo was merely a term for all…the synthesis that took
place in his country when different tribes came together, you see. You had Fons and Fon people and Ibos and Angolans, Dahomeans. You know, there was no distinction when people were brought over here. Brought over different tribes, and
tribes that wouldn’t ordinarily come in contact with each other even in Africa
put all their skills and their mythologies and art forms together here.
And they were influenced by Indians, like in…like I understand that when the
African gods or spirits loas were brought here
they were very gentle but they came up against Indian influence in Haiti, the Haitian Indians, and they became…some became mean. And there were even white influences. For example, Legba is a crossroads symbol in Africa and here. Papa Legba
stands on the…at the crossroads and he stands for the intersection of the real
and the…real world, and the world of the invisibles. Well this is the same thing
as St. Peter does in a sense. And so when you get here you get St. Peter
substituted for Legba. But that’s all a technical discussion. What I’m
interested in…what I’m interested in here is that the Afro-American artists
have been able to use the processes of this art form, which it really is, and I
think take it farther. So you get ragtime. The same process that
led to new spirits being created in South America with no antecedents in
Africa led to ragtime here. You read an early anthology by James Weldon Johnson. He
said “Nobody knows how ragtime came about. It just grew.” You
see? That’s what I…that’s why I have Jes Grew in “Mumbo Jumbo.” As being a
spontaneous rising. Hoodoo is always changing and it’s always adapting
and it’s always…it’s like…it reminds you of your early white religions, which were…
which were very very similar to hoodoo. When Augustus, for example…
now this way hoodoo works. When Augustus heard that there was a new God, Jehovah,
you know, he said “Well let’s put him in the palace, we’ll worship him too.” Who cares, you know? The more the merrier. That’s where we are. Any amount of spirits, you know. Any amount of art forms. We’re very tolerant. –You talk about going back in the past. Why are the 20s so important to you? –Because I think the 1920s
gives a good…you can…there are a lot of parallels between 1920s…I found a lot of parallels between the 1920s and the 1960s that were useful to me. For example
there was a renaissance of Black writing in 1920s so you had that here. There was a government scandal and this was written before
Watergate but I had to have Harding, since I was writing about the 20s. But it just so happens that I was juxtaposing certain pictures with the
text and I just luckily happened to get one of all of Watergate conspirators on
a balcony looking at a May Day demonstration. I had Mitchell, Kleindienst John Dean, LaRue…guy named LaRue…all of them were on a balcony and I just put that in there using it as background to a text
about Warren Harding. Who was more interesting, incidentally. You know. I mean, you know, Warren Harding was a libertine, you know. Ann Longstreet Roosevelt said if you went up
to one of his rooms in the White House you might have found his mistress or the
liquor bottles left, and the poker cards. You know, at least the guy was human. In Brazilian religion they have a… they have a figure named the Black Man, the Old Black Slave, and people who get possessed… and whites get possessed by the Old
Black Slave. And there…certain things you do, like you have to…you smoke a cigar, and you walk like an old man and the Old Black Slave in Brazilian religion
represents the collective… collective unconscious of all the slaves
who died on the crossing from Africa to here. –So, like Railroad Bill? –Yeah. Yeah, yeah, well yeah. That kind of figure. And so we see this old wise man
and heritage rising in the 70s. I think one thing I’ve done, I’ve been able to do
through my research on neo-hoodooism, is that a lot of young kids are talking
to their grandparents now. Lot of young Black kids are talking to their grandparents and they’re going through the trunks, the family trunks, and
all this kind of thing. Because in the 60s they were very…people
very future-oriented because the basis of a lot of the politics that were,
you know, that we were exposed to were Marxist, you know. Which is
future-oriented. People call somebody who goes back to the 20s or to the Civil War or someplace to get material for his work and who
lives in this country…that’s called nostalgia. But if I went
back to “Upstairs Downstairs” that you see on public educational television or if i went back to Kenneth Clark’s time they don’t call that nostalgia, they call that civilization. And
I think the reason that people called it nostalgia–these people in New York
called it nostalgia because they really yearn to be in another country or they
yearn to be someplace else. That’s why Turgenev…I don’t say Turgenev and these guys are not great novelists but I hear a lot of Turgenev and Dostoevsky and Kafka and all these names bandied about in New York City when we
have our great writers in this civilization. So I think people who say
that you’re using the material…you’re using this because you’re nostalgic are just people who have contempt for the the American past and don’t think it’s worthy of
being treated as serious art or being useful for serious art. But see a person
like me who’s had like a lot of ancestors, you know, white, Cherokee, black, buried in this country…I have a different opinion about it you know. If I
can go back five generations, you know, I’m really a classical American, you know,
if I can, you know. Because my people are buried here and I can go walk around their
tombs and look at their, you know, pictures in scrapbooks and things like
that, then I have a different feeling about this. This is all I know.
I don’t know England and I don’t know France. I mean if you’re if you’re thinking
about I’m gonna be Rimbaud or somebody all the time or you have…you know, that
can cripple somebody, you know. That can frustrate you. But I think…like when I
was in school people said it’s not a good idea to rhyme. I mean, don’t rhyme. Don’t do any singsong kind of rhyme stuff. And I said
oh that…you know, be sophisticated. So, I’m beginning
rhyme again. I mean, who cares, you know? And I enjoy it. And sometimes other
people like it. This poem’s called “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem.” Which
guarantees a reader will read it, see. I grabbed this off the tube, too. Cause I
don’t think you have to go to any esoteric place to find images for poetry.
“Tonight thriller was about an old woman so vain she surrounded herself with many
mirrors. It got so bad that finally she locked herself indoors and her whole
life became the mirrors. One day the villagers broke into her house but she
was too swift for them. She disappeared into a mirror. Each
tenant who bought the house after that lost a loved one
to the old woman in the mirror. First a little girl then a young woman then the
young woman’s husband. The hunger of this poem is legendary.
It has taken in many victims. Back off from this poem. It has drawn in your feet. Back
off from this poem. It has drawn in your legs. Back off in this poem.
It is a greedy mirror. You are into this poem from the waist down. Nobody can hear you, can they? This poem has had you up to here. Belch. This poem ain’t got no manners. You can’t call out from this poem. Relax now and go with this poem. Move and roll
on to this poem. Do not resist this poem. This poem has your eyes.
This poem has his head. This poem has his arms. This poem has his fingers. This poem has his fingertips. This poem is the reader and the reader, this poem. Statistic: the
United States Bureau of Missing Persons reports that in 1968 over 100,000 people
disappeared leaving no solid clues nor trace, only a space in the lives of
their friends. –Thank you. –Sure.

3 thoughts on “Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum

  1. Thank you for the upload. I was recently introduced to Ishamel Reed by way of east coast rapper ELUCID (1/2 of duos Armand Hammer and Scallops Hotel). I look forward to reading and studying Reed's work and the cannon it was derived from and produced. "This poem has your eyes."

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