About the Author:
The former Deputy Director of the National Endowment for the Arts and a founding member of the Black Arts Movement, A.B. Spellman has also been a regular commentator on jazz for NPR and is the author of Things I Must Have Known and Four Jazz Lives, a classic in the field of jazz criticism. During his thirty-year tenure at the NEA, Spellman deferred poetry publication resulting in this long overdue, first full-length collection—a masterwork of previously unpublished poems.
A.B. Spellman in conversation with Pearl Cleage
Pearl Cleage: In your autobiographical poem “The First Seventy,” you confess to writing no poems for twenty years. Why did you stop and what made you begin again?
A.B. Spellman: Of course there was no instant when I said to myself, “I’m going to stop writing poems now, because . . . ,” though there was a day when I decided, “goddamnit, I’m going to start making poems again if it kills me!” I went to work at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1975 and two things happened: I became an administrator (which calls for behavior that is corrosive to the creative mind for anyone who is not considerably more disciplined than I) and, because of federal conflict-of-interest laws, I was precluded from publishing in the not-for-profit press or reading at not-for-profit-sites, including colleges and universities, which took away a large measure of incentive. For the first time in my adult life, my relationship with art was second hand, even arms length, and before I knew it I had stopped hearing those pregnant first lines that are clarions of poems waiting for delivery.
Then, somewhere in my sixties, I started thinking of legacy. I had the not-so-funny thought that if I died right then, my tombstone would read, “Here Lies A B. / He Wrote Great Guidelines.” It was a depressing prospect, as you can imagine.
It was very hard to begin, which is why I get evangelical with arts administrators who have given up their chops. It’s too hard to master an arts discipline to throw it away for a job schedule and I now see the years of not writing as one long, unforgivable procrastination. My senses were untuned. I had no eye, no ear, no literary pulse. I put myself through all of those awful exercises that I used to lay on my poetry workshop participants. I wrote a series of Shakespearian sonnets to my daughter—real doggerel with lines like “angels nest in Kaji’s limpid hair.” (I tried to make them funny, as you can see, but no, don’t ask, you can’t read them. I threw them out.) These helped me regain my ear and the scan of my lines. I went to the National Gallery and wrote poetic responses to paintings, mainly Picasso. Awful stuff, but it did help my eye.
Pearl Cleage: Is your process very different now or did you simply pick up where you left off?
A.B. Spellman: The first draft is the same: I write as much as I can as fast as I can in longhand. You will recognize this as a function of the fact that I am a very slow and inaccurate two-fingered typist (which you once, most unsympathetically, attributed to my adolescent sexism). The computer has changed revision, and, as you know, I revise forever. It’s one of the few things I like about the computer. And you don’t have to decipher my handwriting anymore. I should have put something about that in “Song Of The Luddite.”
Pearl Cleage: Music, especially jazz music, is such an important part of your poetry. How does music inspire and inform these poems?
A.B. Spellman: More than to any phenomenon in the world, I find myself able to submit to music, to lower my guard, to delete all other stimuli. My music poems are the residue from the listening experience. Jazz is so propulsive, so unpredictable, so new every time I experience it even on recordings, that the best of it leaves me completely turned on. I was surprised when I realized that the longest part of “The First Seventy,” was the section on hearing John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk live at the Five Spot, which, I think, indicates that this was the most important experience in my life.
Pearl Cleage: You included one of my favorite poems from 1968, “When Black People Are,” which was written in the midst of the often violent political upheavals of the period, but manages to convey both the acceptance of the necessity for struggle and an appreciation for the ways that struggle is shared between those who engage in it fully. There is also the ambivalence of the poet forced by the times to arm himself and prepare for the battle ahead. Is that battle ongoing or did one side emerge victorious? How did the outcome affect your poems?
A.B. Spellman: Of course the battle still wages, though in a way that’s even less formed than in the formless sixties. Voting rights are inhibited, not by grandfather clauses or poll taxes or men burning crosses on your lawn, but by the kind of hard-to-get ID cards that Georgia tried to impose, or the fraudulent disqualification of thousands of voters that Ohio pulled off in ’04. Don’t get me started on Florida in 2000. To be sure, some fights were won. The signs that told you which part of the bus you had to sit in have been taken down, but the bus still takes most of us to a slum. The schools aren’t called “black” or “white” anymore; they’re called “good” or “bad,” and the black kids, coincidentally, are sent to the bad ones. Educated, middle class African Americans have more opportunity than ever before, which has turned the “mute” knob on much of the population that articulated the sixties, but the black underclass keeps growing and growing worse off, and that’s not what we struggled for. I think that it’s time to get back to the streets.
As to how all this leads my poetry, I seldom succeed with political poems. I don’t know why this is so. You know that I am a very political man, but when I set out to write an issue poem I usually get something flat, or rhetorical, or obvious. Perhaps this is because I write so often out of introspection, or whimsy, or love . . . I don’t know. The poem that you mentioned, “When Black People Are,” is a very inward looking poem, in which I plunge down to that inchoate place that reason tries to escape.
Pearl Cleage: How significant was your involvement in the Black Arts Movement in terms of shaping both the style and substance of your poems?
A.B. Spellman: My basic style was, I think, in place before I became involved with the Black Arts Movement. Some things changed, though. Before, I was much more into a Creeley-ish concern with enjambments, with ways of making the eye dance with line breaks. The Black Arts Movement poets, as insistently oral as they were, opened my poems more, helped me become more comfortable in the vernacular. I am still a two-dimensional (page) poet at heart, though I think that many of my poems are conversational enough to read well aloud.
As to substance: not just the Black Arts Movement, but the general struggle of African Americans in the years of my young adulthood, made me think and feel much more about what it meant to be black in America, a sensibility that finds its way into my poems now—not just in their meaning, but also in their syntax and cadence.
Pearl Cleage: As a young woman, your daughter Toyin once objected to some of the joyously sensuous poems in your chapbook The Beautiful Days. What impact, if any, does the knowledge that your friends and family will read what you have written influence the words that you choose to describe them and yourself?
A.B. Spellman: You are referring to a conversation that you had while walking on the beach with the twelve- or thirteen-year-old Toyin in which she asked you about the first poem in The Beautiful Days, which began, “the simplest pleasure is getting high / in the afternoon with 2 fertile women . . . ” She was mortified that her father had written or even experienced this. (For the record, no sex occurred that day.) That poem also embarrassed my younger daughter, Kaji, when she was a freshman at Penn when some guy told her, “Hey Kaji, your dad is really cool. He smokes weed and has sex with two women.”
Eliot wrote that he never considered audience when writing, but I doubt that. I try to let the poem be its own judge, to admit no censor to the flow, but there are all kinds of phantoms reading over my shoulder when I write. The two poems in the book that are dedicated to you, “Pearl: a secular love poem” and “Pearl (2): Four Aperçus With Gnomic Appendices” (will anybody other than you and my wife Karen recognize that utterly pretentious title as just another example of my sense of humor?) certainly were intended to please you, as were the two love poems to Karen, which actually were birthday presents. “Toyin’s Sound” is a father telling a daughter how proud he is of her, and how much he loves her music. “Oriki,” for Kaji, is a song of praise for a daughter who had been pissed for years that her older sister had a poem when she didn’t.
Pearl Cleage: In “Conclusion,” you write, “I would replace understanding with passion.” Is that a choice that you can make as a poet, or is the change unavoidable with the passing of time, and how do you balance the two?
A.B. Spellman: I used to think that wisdom came with age. Perhaps it does if “wisdom” is not defined as clarity of perception or lucid resolution of complex issues, but rather as the capacity to see all sides of a question and catalogue one’s own confusion. Certainly I am “wiser” than the priapic young man who wrote The Beautiful Days in that I make more rational decisions, but there’s a lot that I miss about him. He went into places where I no longer venture. He believed and therefore he fought harder. Take, for example, this grotesque war—yes, all wars are grotesque, but this one . . . The younger me marched and marched and marched in protest of the Vietnam War, provoked my firing from a great radio job, wrote hard polemical essays. My gut burned over it. Now I have this feeling of having seen it before. I know how it comes out, which is fucked all the way up.
Choice? One never can say there is no choice, but for most of us age abrades the edges. Reach for your weapon and it isn’t there. I’ve tried several times to write poems about the war or the dangers of the prelapsarian unctuousness of contemporary laissez faire conservatism, but I’ve yet to produce one that works. That’s one reason that I admire Amiri Baraka—he’s kept his razor sharp.
How do I balance the two? Not very well.
Pearl Cleage: In “The First Seventy” you write, “i had to turn atheist to save my soul,” though even when you’re writing about politics, and especially when you’re writing about love, there is a strong spiritual element to your poems. Do you see a change in your new poems when it comes to the big questions of life, death, god, and whatever comes after?
A.B. Spellman: “Spiritual,“ you say? I’m not so sure. Is it spiritual to write about spirit? Words like “spirit,” “soul,” and “god,” are metaphorically useful even though I don’t believe that there’s a soul or a god or an afterlife. What is another word for “life” if “life” means the sum of all you are that isn’t meat? What is it that is missing from you when you’re lying in the box, other than the electrical current that propels the muscles? “Soul” is a good metaphor for that except that the soul is supposed to survive the meat, which I deny. But the belief is so strong in all societies that it fascinates me.
As to my poems, I recognize two things going on in this regard: I’m old and getting older, so I think a lot about death, and, also, I somehow reared an ordained minister. I’ve become addicted to books on religious history, particularly Christian history, in recent years, and I’m fascinated by how others think about the big metaphysical questions. I do try hard not to disrespect others’ faith; I don’t think that I’m better or smarter than them because I have none, but I think I’ve managed to make some decent poems by trying to imagine what they see.
Pearl Cleage: What do you consider the writer’s role in wartime?
A.B. Spellman: Particularly in a war as madly unjustifiable as this criminal idiocy in Iraq, the writers’ role is the same as any sentient citizen’s: to do whatever can be done to bring it to an end and to bring those who started it to account. As a writer, I haven’t been able to make a poem out of it that was worth publishing, but I work it into all my speeches and lectures, and I’ve started introducing resolutions on it at arts conferences. Funny how uncomfortable these make most of the other attendees.
Pearl Cleage: If you could trade in the notes that flow from your writing pen for the ones that you might coax from a tenor saxophone, would you do it?
A.B. Spellman: In a syncopated heartbeat! But there is the fact that I tried music. I used to sing around before I knew you (see “The City Poet On The Stroll”): a few clubs, some church gigs. I had a very good bass-baritone voice, sort of a heavier, chestier Billy Eckstine sound, but no talent. It was a drag to realize that I had this instrument, but nothing to say on it. My singing never stopped the conversation in the room. So I worked harder on this other, silent horn that I had; I found that I could surprise myself with it. It’s the most satisfying moment in the world when I finish the last revision of a poem and say to myself, “damn, A.B., that’s pretty good.” Of course, that feeling doesn’t last very long, but then, neither do orgasms.
But yeah, every poet or painter whom I know well enough to call friend wishes that he or she was a jazz musician. Including you.
Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta based writer whose works include plays, poems, novels, essays and many indignant newspaper columns. Her sixth novel, Seen It All and Done the Rest, will be published by Ballantine/One World in April 2008. Her friendship with A.B. Spellman began when she moved to Atlanta in 1969 and has survived his move to Washington, D.C., his years at the National Endowment for the Arts, and his notoriously difficult to read handwriting. The inclusion of several poems written especially for her in this new volume of poetry gives her great pleasure and extreme bragging rights among their mutual acquaintances.