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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Nadhiri's digital poetry

Asili Ya Nadhiri's Digital Poetry and Performance


After both reading and listening to Nadhiri's tonal drawing "wandering here in this dark where it eating up the light" (, I observed:

This double-voiced rendering of the tonal drawing is an example of what might occur when a poem escapes the prison of print and page and becomes an item in digital poetry.  In a traditional live reading, it would not be possible to have the overlay of sound without the help of some time-delay mechanism. This digital tonal drawing allows us to hear subtle differences in emphasis of inflections in voice 1 and voice 2 as well as echoing that produces a state of "rendered-ing" or "rendering-ed."  Nadhiri's conceptualization sends us to performance theory to find language to discuss self-reflexive echoes.

Good models for such language abound in Black Performance Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez.


Nadhiri replied on his website  to the observation on July 25, 2015 at 10:21 p.m. ---"Jerry, you are making me consider extending this manner of expression more presently."   My observation was concerned with poetry and physics, but Nadhiri's email to me (also July 25) redirected me to philosophy and poetry.  He had written that "perhaps the form birthing in 'wandering here in this dark...' might be suggesting one in which the universality impliciting in my latter work might be made more expliciting."  This remark seems related to a thesis Reginald Martin and  I will elaborate in our book Words and Being:

Although common sense is not immune to deconstructive critiques, it is our most powerful tool in efforts to minimize confusion in studies of African American and American cultures and cultural expressions.

Martin and I are not philosophers, but the thesis will make our book  philosophical by accident, especially in our commentary on poetry. Nadhiri's proposition regarding form coming into being can be shifted from the conditional to the declarative.  The aesthetic impact of his tonal drawing is present progressively universal, and it is an occasion for grasping uncommon knowledge. In its digital manifestation, a tonal drawing can initiate deep, common sense thinking about why innovation in  African American poetry matters as we perform literary and social positions.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    July 26, 2015


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When Classmates Die

When Classmates Die


We think your life was spent

environed by thugs, roses, dogs, fried chicken,

jackasses, mashed potatoes, violence, and buzzards---

all ill-intended to bend your mind,

twisting and breaking off your goals.


Cold, the world-womb, bleeding quick, pregnant

trash-grown ideogasms the young and gifted

are fed daily  by the crazy and the dead.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            July 21, 2015


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Harper Lee's Moral Reckoning

Harper Lee's Moral Reckoning


After reading the Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks  of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, I wrote on my Facebook timeline:  This novel obviously upsets some people because it sets the record straight about Southern literature.  A much better novel that deals with a white woman's discoveries about her racist father is Minrose Gwin's The Queen of Palmyra.

According to Sacks, Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is "the most beloved novel in American history ---more popular than even the Bible in numerous polls."  It would be a waste of time to correct Sacks's sense of American history or to argue that some other American novel is more beloved than Lee's.  I doubt that the unnamed polls reveal what Mr. Sacks claims, but I do not dismiss the possibility that they tend to confirm that  the fictional Atticus Finch did "become a symbol of the nation's moral conscience." In that case, we can say with confidence that Finch replaced William Faulkner's ambiguous Gavin Stevens (Intruder in the Dust, 1948) as the white male unambiguous heroic figure and moral voice in Southern fiction.  Who defines what is ambiguous, however,  remains a question to be answered.

Sacks clears his throat so as "not to damp the enthusiasm of expectant readers but to introduce a friendly word of caution. 'Go Set a Watchman' is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'  This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion."

Truth is like oil in the Gulf of Mexico.  It upsets animal, plant and human ecology.

Tough-minded readers should applaud Harper Lee for striking an iconoclastic blow from an assisted living home in Monroeville, Alabama.  At age 89, Lee is rich (her net worth is estimated at $35 million) and on the brink of having to explain herself to a Supreme Being.  She obviously wants to do the right thing, to be on time in Time.  Thus, she is forcing naive readers who relish and consume American idealism to savor Southern realism; with Go Set a Watchman, she is obligating readers to give moral bankruptcy a name.

President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.  President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2010.  It is just that she should thank her country for these honors by telling a truth before she dies.  It was no accident that she helped her friend Truman Capote with his research for In Cold Blood. In 2015, blood in the United States of America is an ice cube for all of us who are waiting for Godot or watching to see who has an eye on the sparrow.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    July 12, 2015

for BK Nation

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Note on "Poem 72"

A NOTE ON "Poem 72"

July 9, 2015


In order to write "Poem 72," I had to begin with the following cluster of words:


tissue  somewhere peril peripatetic biopolartics filmic collusion of neoliberal bondage

(e)lucid sex synergy symbolic ecology disappear violence intimate detachment

allegory glue of privacy token autocritography omniscient freak ground of never -colony

antimimetic mother witch rebeling woman a pink banker of niber hate narrative ethics

causalities unnaturals middle objects reformance eschatological

It has become increasingly difficult to write a simple poem.  It may be that the cluster of words is the interpretation for "Poem 72."


Poem 72

who is neverlonger

a question


jokejester asked

for an answer


for a reason

deemed autocritographical


who mother(out)witted

a black whole of how





Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 6, 2015


Sunday, July 5, 2015

From an Open Letter

From "An Open Letter to a Writer"


July 5, 2015


Since we talked back in May, our world has made good progress in collapsing.  When I was much younger, my spirit would have trembled.  Now it laughs, because one can laugh freely if one is Roman Catholic and not Christian, if one is faithful trickster.  Thus, I smirk when African-descended people "forgive" a Satanic thug in Charleston for murdering their relatives and friends in church  ---  a church associated with Denmark Vesey.  We deserve nothing better than to celebrate July 16, 1822 in 2015 by recalling that Christian black folk are insanely good.  They trash the sacrificial intentions of black revolutionaries and walk into the genocide of salvation.  We no longer laugh to keep from crying.  We laugh to keep from killing.


I remember the moral disengagement hatred demands and maintain some distance from it.  As I mentioned to one of our fellow-writers, I write to prevent my becoming a serial killer.  Killing people rarely resolves the systemic problems which encage us.  I write to assassinate time.




Stay well and stay strong in this eternal battle we have to fight.




Jerry W. Ward, Jr.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Drawing Terrance Hayes



Hayes, Terrance.  How To Be Drawn.  New York: Penguin, 2015.


You could be drawn to the work of Terrance Hayes by way of Elizabeth Alexander's advance praise for How To Be Drawn, a statement that draws you to such words as dust, urgency, necessity, by any means necessary (the latter cluster evoking an injunction from Malcolm X); in addition, you could be drawn by noticing poems by Terrance Hayes are anthologized in Angles of Ascent as instances of "Second Wave, Post-1960s" but not in What I Say or The BreakBeat Poets, and the notice is a signal either that you are curious about where the cipher (a good Arabic zero) or that you do have non-trivial questions about inclusion/exclusion and probabilities/possibilities; it is better that you could be drawn by accessing


to find "notes, reference, and inspiration for the poems" in How To Be Drawn.  Maximize your options.



Truth could tell itself by revealing that you are drawn initially by none of the above.  You were drawn to the poems of Terrance Hayes by sustained interest in the innovative poetics of Asili Ya Nadhiri as manifested in his "tonal drawings."  The required proof is located at



The device of ekphrasis may be one motivating link between the poems of Nadhiri and Hayes, because that device draws attention to how American poetry is a process which defies consensus. It motivates a few readers to think beyond the belief that "poetry" exists independent of a historicized reading and to ask whether poetry is actually or really necessary.  Answers vary according to your choice of adverb ---really or actually.   A poem lacks a fixed definition of its identity.  It does have descriptions.  Thus, an imagined conversation between Hayes and Nadhiri is rewarding, because it begins to cast light on why some readers actually fear poetry while other readers so love poetry that they argue for the validity of any and every form that a poem can assume.  The Republic of American Letters is becoming the Democracy of Writing in a slow hurry.


Truth also tells on itself when you access Terrance Hayes's website to acquire the information needed for intelligent reading of the academic poems in How To Be Drawn.  Hayes provides a most welcomed, common sense definition of what an academic poem is.  When he answers the question "If you could be any tree, what would you be and why?" with a rich accident: "I'm trying to think of something clever here?  I like the word magnolia.  I like the smell of pinewood. I like the flowers of dogwoods.  I'd be an apple tree."  The accident, for which Hayes is not responsible, is conjuring the relevance in the context of the question of Michael S. Harper's  remarkable Photographs: Negatives: History As Apple Tree (San Francisco: Scarab Press, 1972).  The last five lines in Section 9 of Harper's long poem are


let it become my skeleton,

become my own myth:

my arm the historical branch,

my name the bruised fruit,

black human photograph: apple tree  (n.p.)


Hayes made a good choice, as good as the choices he made of which poems to include in How To Be Drawn,  which remarks to make in the Spring 2015 "Anything But Invisible"  audio interview with Studio 360, and which forms to give "Black Confederate Ghost Story, "How to Draw an Invisible Man,"" Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report," and "Reconstructed Reconstruction"  ----poems I would recommend that my Chinese colleagues would teach in their American and African American literature courses.  No.  Those are my favorite poems.  Good pedagogy requires that all the poems in How To Be Drawn should be taught, so that poems can themselves teach us something.


Navigating among works by Hayes and Nadhiri and all the poets who are in the most recent anthologies brings a jolt of recognition to people who have taught literature for several decades.  Close reading and re-reading of texts are still worthwhile procedures as we transform dead print/drawings into vibrant literary events.  But close reading now depends greatly, though not exclusively,  on the use of the Internet, digital tools, and audio-visual information.  New ways of "reading" give some credibility to the notion that a poem in the canon is not innately superior to a poem which is not so archived or museumed.  Inclusion or exclusion seems to be a result of a poet's having the "right" connections or a dynamite agent, having more than demitasse spoon of genuine talent, and having the blessings of Fortune in an over-crowded market.  You are indeed drawn in to be lessoned by the closing lines of Hayes's poem "Ars Poetica For The Ones Like Us"------


Do not depend on speech to be felt.

Remember too that the eyes are not flesh,

That crisis is irritated by the absence of witness,


That Orpheus, in time, became nothing

But a lying-ass song

Sung for the woman he failed. (96)



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

June 30, 2015



Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jabari Asim Revisits Realism

Jabari Asim Revisits Realism


While reading the uncorrected page proofs of Jabari Asim's Only the Strong: An American Novel (Chicago: Agate, 2015), I take a break to suggest to a poet who knows St. Louis intimately that he might like this novel.  He might like how the novel minimizes those stereotypes too often taken as givens when some writers depict contemporary life and the city.  Only the Strong avoids parading its characters as if they were ads for a famous brand of American beer; the story doesn't pander to readers who are in a hurry for a fix.  Asim, as I later informed one his fellow first-novelists is not selling the designer drugs of urban literature.

Asim wants his readers to have the equivalent of listening to Jerry Butler's 1969 recording of "Only the Strong Survive" and Butler's 1971 duet with Brenda Lee Eager of "Ain't Understanding Mellow."  Popular music of the 1960s is a crucial element in the novel, and astute readers will take advantage of the aesthetic pleasure that audio memory of the golden oldies provokes.  Asim's take on realism is neither magic nor social in the sense that traditional criticism would use those variants.  His realism is real in the sense that Roberta Flack would force you to compare to what.

People from the inner circles of American publishing want to compare Asim to Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler and Edward P. Jones.  And there's more than a grain of precision in doing so for the purposes of marketing.  On the other hand, Asim is savvy about levels of publishing and is smart enough not to invite his readers to confuse what is reportedly pathological and correctly stereotyped with what nuanced fiction refracts about what is "normal." He writes with just the choice of diction and careful use of allusions to enable Only the Strong to survive in a vortex of complicated reader responses.  Many a first novel is so busy with its story that it forgets its language.  That is not the case with Asim's work.

For an older generation that lets John A. Williams, Alice Walker, and John Oliver Killens set bars for good fiction,  Asim does not disappoint.  If asked what is good about his work, a few of us elders will reply, without apology, "It is good for the purpose of assaulting your postmodern ears that have been theorized to be deaf."  It is good to remind us that humanity does not willingly inhabit a zoo of correctness.  As a novelist, Asim earned the respect that in an imagined past he would have got from Ralph Waldo (either Emerson or Ellison; take your pick).  Writing about St. Louis as a lifescape named Gateway City, Asim moves the plot along smoothly by using subtle indirect discourse as well as sympathetic authorial control.   His characters are truly characters more than they are social types.  If you can dig what President Obama preached in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, you can dig the amazing grace of Only the Strong.  Do not confuse grace with perfection.  Grace has just those slight flaws that rescue us from "a will to historical forgetfulness" and confirm that our consciousness "is a product of our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting, and by our hopeful suspension of final judgment as to the meaning of our grievances" (I just stole the quoted words from Ellison's essay "The World and the Jug.")  If you know Jack, you know what Ellison proclaimed and what Asim delivers is the real thing.

Asim's novel does echo some typical features of how Himes dealt with the urban condition; it has some very tender reminders of how Killens handled the truth of relationships between women and men in 'Sippi.  And something provocative might emerge from using geo-spatial software to text-mine Only the Strong.  The characters, regardless of their moral vices or virtues, do "represent" what went down back in the day across the river from East Boogie.  Asim is very clear that those who survived then and those who continue breathing in the non-fictional  present will have scars.  No one with the probable exception of Reuben Jones' youngest son survives Gateway City without a scratch.  Like music, baseball as played in the Negro League is a crucial structuring device in the novel; every time you think you know what's coming across home plate, Asim throws a curve you did not anticipate.  The ending of the novel skates on some thin ice and threatens to fall into Lake Melodrama, but Asim maintains his cool, his ceremony of poise" throughout the four main segments ---"Leg Breaker," "Tenderness," "Trouble," and "The Storm."  He knows just when to insert motherwit from the laughing barrel and when the text can bear Mozart or the seductiveness of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" monologue.

One of the best novels published so far in 2015, Only the Strong repays a patient reading.  Asim's affection and respect for St. Louis and some of the people who lived there in the 20th century signal that African American literature thrives.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.        June 28, 2015