UNIVERSITY OF IOWA WRITING PROGRAM
MAY | 10
S A M P S O N I A WAY We CanYelp, Woof, and Moan A Conversation with Lynn Emanuel and Terrance Hayes
lished new collections of poetry. While very different works, their books share an urgency of voice, something Emanuel characterizes as “social rage.” At the center of Emanuel’s Noose and Hook is a series of “mongrelogues,” or short dramatic scenes in the voice of a dog. The dog keenly observes the American landscape with a bitterness offset by flashes of humor. He quips, “We iz livin in mid evil an medicated times … make the best uf it.” and “R yew that dogg/ the countree iz goin’ to?” In Lighthead, Hayes also inhabits personas conjured through idiom. With a tenderness rooted in complexity, he confronts issues such as war, racial violence, and history. He writes, “Maybe Art’s only purpose is to preserve the Self./Sometimes I play a game in which my primitive craft fires/ upon an alien ship whose intention is the destruction/of the earth.” On March 17th, we gathered at Make Your Mark Café in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood to talk about their new works, the differences between politics and poetry, and the importance of humor.
In March, 2010, both Terrance Hayes and Lynn Emanuel pub-
We CanYelp, Woof, and Moan: A Conversation with Lynn Emanuel and Terrance Hayes
By Elizabeth Hoover
TERRANCE HAYS MAY 2010
As you were reading each other’s books, were you seeing connections between them?
When you write these characters, do you also imagine to whom the speakers are talking?
Emanuel: I thought what connected our books was a kind of social rage. When I was writing my book, I was obsessed with money—who had it, who didn’t have it. What does money sound like? What does it not sound like? There is a lot of social rage in Terrance’s book. There’s a kind of biting commentary in the poems.
Hayes: I always feel like I am bearing witness. I don’t feel like I am in conversation with the characters I write, rather that I am privy to their minds, which are like little mechanisms in glass jars.
Hayes: It’s hard to think about connections because Lynn was my teacher so whenever I look at what I’m doing I think, now, did I get that from Lynn? With Lynn you really get to see how the mind works and how language is opening up.
Emanuel: I always want to be turning my face to the reader. And you do that too, Terrance, there are poems where the narrator swivels around and speaks directly to the reader. Lynn, your book contains a series of poems in the voice of a dog. Can you tell us how you started writing in that voice?
In both your books there are highly voiced poems in which you create entire fictional characters in a short space. Emanuel: Absolutely. There is this line in Terrance’s “For Brothers of the Dragon,” “Tell my story, begs the past, as if it were a prayer/for an imagined life of a life that’s better than the life you live.” I feel that about all these poems. There’s a kind of fictional shimmer to the work even when it pretends to be autobiographical. Hayes: That’s good. Because that’s what Lighthead is—it’s the illumination of the imagination. In “All the Way Live,” two boys are lynched, so it’s also the fire of being lynched.
Emanuel: Dogs started in Alabama where I was a visiting writer at the university there — the same position Terrance has now. I had never lived in the South before. The heat was like God; the cockroaches were as big as hummingbirds; if you stepped on a grasshopper it crunched like a seahorse; the plants grew up to heaven; and as soon as I opened my mouth I was the Yankee other.
I felt like I was in another country. Southern speech has a kind of playfulness and metaphorical quality. I was listening to the radio one night and some guy called in and said “Would you play ‘Hunk of Burning Love’ ‘cause I got that.” The DJ said, “If you’ve got a hunk of burning love you need a penicillin shot.” I was living in the house for visiting writers, and there was a weird library of stuff people left there. One was a book of poems by this old newspaper columnist Don Marquis in the voices of an alley cat and a cockroach. I thought, I can’t talk but I can yelp and I can woof and I can moan. So that’s what I am going to do. I started writing the dog in Alabama, where I felt like a dog. Lynn, when I saw you had poems in the voice of a dog, I thought, uh-oh, because it could easily tip over into the cute or the precious. What was so exciting to me was the precariousness because it never tipped over but that danger was there. Emanuel: Thank you for saying that! It was a huge risk. Especially choosing a dog. Because everyone thinks I am a dog person. Hayes: It’s audacious! Emanuel: I have a restless sensibility and I get bored. I think you are a restless sensibility and you get bored. Hayes: It’s because I am obsessive compulsive. That’s why I am obsessed with changing forms, because all my poems are about the same thing.
I am interested in what Lynn said about social rage and it seems to me that there is a lot of anxiety among American poets regarding political poetry. Where do you think that comes from? Hayes: There’s a lot of baggage to the term “political poet.” The term for me is more “social.” Is the poet socially engaged? It just leaves more room to deal with things. Emanuel: Poetry is a kind of communal activity so there is a place for butterflies and moths and a place for a politically or socially engaged poetics. Political poetry is a way to persuade, and persuasion is a different activity than being culturally enmeshed in a way that is more complex. Hayes: The complexity is where the excitement is. It’s impossible for me to be clearly on one side, because the imagination wants to look over and see what’s on the other side. Thinking the impossible is really the exciting part, but once you pick a side there are just places you’re not allowed to go. The richest work is the kind of work that humanizes Stalin, while we critique him. MAY 2010
Emanuel: I don’t know about humanizing Stalin! Hayes: That was an example! What can you discover in that space between the sides? That makes it difficult to say where are you in the fight. The writers in exile in City of Asylum maybe face more pressure to choose a side, because there are things at stake and you don’t have the luxury to be in the middle. We worked with some of the writers in exile when we did Jazz Poetry in 2008. I was anxious for folks like Horacio Castellanos Moya and, the following year, for Khet Mar. But they were so comfortable. You couldn’t put me on stage in another country and say, OK, read your poems ... and the audience may or may not know what you’re doing. Terrance, do you find you face a kind of pressure to “take sides” as an African-American poet? Hayes: I did a reading at a community college in Houston, and the audience was predominantly Hispanic and black. Afterward this guy came up to me and asked, “What do you think if your poems make black guys look bad?” And I said, “I am usually the one who looks bad, so I don’t have any problem with that.” The conversation veered toward obligation. I eventually said to him, if you are rigorous with a poem it will be righteous. If it fails to illuminate and make things complicated, then it’s not done. I don’t go into a poem saying this is the side I take but I know I have to work through
them, so they become righteous and virtuous. Writing into a moral stance is the object of craft.
Emanuel: That’s an interesting idea, that poetry should be virtuous in some way. Hayes: Well, what does art do? Does it bring on evil or does it bring on good? Bad art might bring on evil. Emanuel: I think Robert Lowell embodies an indigenous American poetry. He had a way of being a really complex political poet. Hayes: No one talks about Lowell as a political poet, but he was engaged. He refused to go to dinner at the White House. He’s the kind of poet—just like Lynn—where you just get to see the mind engaged. You see him processing all these things that are going on around him. It becomes political because politics floats into his consciousness. That’s what I want to do in my own poems: float between those spaces instead of just writing a poem about one thing. Instead I want to look across and get Obama and French fries.
Emanuel: Lowell absolutely implicated himself in everything. He was in a privileged position because he was a Lowell. He could have just partitioned himself behind gorgeous writing and disengaged. But he never did that. He knew he was implicated because he was a Lowell and because he was a white male. I don’t think enough poets do that. Hayes: That stance won’t work in politics. Imagine a politician standing up and saying, “I’m what’s wrong, I’m what’s wrong.” It’s the right position but then people are going to say, “Hey, I’m going to follow someone else.” Terrance, you have a series of poems in the pecha kucha form. What is that? Hayes: It’s a Japanese form that’s a cross between a PowerPoint and a slam. The premise is you bring in people from lots of different backgrounds and give them a particular topic and provide the images. You basically have 20 images that last for 20 seconds. I like the way it is tangential but also organized around a single idea. It’s another way to show the mind at work.
Right now poets are in a global village formally, so we can write in a Japanese form or in a play. And then there can be those purists, who are only interested in the sonnet for the rest of their lives. Was there a kind of freedom that broke open for you when you found the play form? Emanuel: There was a freedom in being an animal. I had to invent an idiom for an animal. Two things informed that, and one was the cartoonist George Harriman who did the cartoon “Krazy Kat” during the 1920s and 1930s, a beautiful and ominous comic about a cat, a mouse, and a jail. The language is completely Elizabethan. The second was that I took a class in Middle English, that’s before English was an imperialist language. It was the language of a people who couldn’t win if their lives depended on it. I wanted to write the dog poems in Middle English! It was when I got to the idiom that it broke open. Then in a sense, it didn’t matter what happened. If I had a voice I had everything else.
Lynn, what drew you to the form of a two-act play? Emanuel: I didn’t know I was writing a play. I was just writing small scenes with a central character. Then I realized I had the context of an urban space in my mind. Then I decided on the play form.
Hayes: The answer is still about form, about finding that voice and that freedom. How do you think living in Pittsburgh has informed your work? Hayes: I don’t feel like a Pittsburgh Poet the way Gerald Stern is or Jack Gilbert is. But being here has made me think more about being Southern. Emanuel: I don’t yet feel like I have a right to write about this city. There is a special culture here that I am still on the outside looking into. This city is the most interesting city—geographically, architecturally. It’s like a hallucination. There’s
always some bridge or some body of water, and you’ll get lost somewhere that looks like the place time forgot. Then suddenly you’re in some stainless steel hallucination of what a building should look like. Hayes: I feel that way too. Of course, I don’t get lost. I wanted to talk about humor. There is a lot of humor in both your books. Emanuel: I think we come by it naturally. You can’t fake it. If you do ... boy, that would be embarrassing. Humor for me comes out of a certain rage, from when you
Lynn Emanuel Emanuel teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is the recipient of numerous awards including the National Poetry Series Award and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. Noose and Hook is her most recent work. Her other books are Hotel Fiesta, The Dig, and Then Suddenly—.
are really afraid or really angry. It’s a coping mechanism. Hayes: The kind of humor I shoot for is an uncomfortable laughter. The kind where you’re laughing, but you’re also thinking something deep. Emanuel: The interesting thing about humor is that it can change really fast. It can really twist a reader around. It is also a way to guard against being sentimental. It’s a ballast against sentimentality.
SEE LYNN EMANUEL AND TERRANCE HAYES READ AT COA/P JAZZ POETRY FESTIVAL
Terrance Hayes Hayes is a Professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Alabama. Publishers Weekly named his book Wind in a Box one of the 100 best books of 2006, and Hip Logic was the winner of the 2002 National Poetry Series Open Competition. Lighthead (Penguin Poets) is Hayes’s fourth collection of poetry.
Photos: Renee Rosensteel
Between Squalor and Splendor: Haitian Literature and National Crisis By Elizabeth Hoover
On January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake rocked the nation of Haiti. The country’s writers—both at home and abroad—responded with poems, articles, and interviews. However for more than a hundred years, Haitian writers have been writing from and for a nation marked by both natural and manmade catastrophe. During the country’s history, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have fled or been exiled, creating a sizable and culturally productive diaspora.
In many ways, Chauvet’s life and work is emblematic of the history of Haitian literature. She was born in 1916, during the American occupation of the island.
Photo: Anthony Phelps
In Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1968 novella Madness, three poets crouch in a barri-
caded shack as what they call “devils” crawl through the streets of Port-au-Prince shooting everything that moves. On the verge of starvation, one poet calls out in agony, “Do you remember …they amused themselves by slapping us and making us crawl naked on all fours like dogs. No doubt about it, they persecute poets here.” During the brutal dictatorship of François Duvalier and subsequently his son Jean-Claude (1957–1986) the government not only persecuted poets; they armed a militia of the desperate poor and set them loose on the country to reduce the population and paralyze opposition through fear of torture. Government persecution of artists and intellectuals for subversion led to their mass exodus. Writers of the Haitian diaspora have produced a rich body of literature. These writers include Edwidge Danticat, Stanley Péan, and René Depestre, who, in addition to producing their own work, promote and nurture other Haitian writers. There is also a vibrant literary community within Haiti that has survived occupation and dictatorship. Writers such as Frankétienne, Lyonel Trouillot, and Gary Victor have produced a body of work marked by artistic daring.
These writers and others promote literature through public readings, theater productions, and publications in a country where almost half of the nearly 10 million inhabitants are illiterate and nearly 80 percent live in abject poverty. The few publishing houses on the island mostly produce educational material and reprints of Haitian classics, so writers in Haiti rely on French, Canadian, and American publishers. Because there are only a few bookstores on the island, writers often distribute their work privately How much of the fragile publishing industry in Haiti survived the January 12 earthquake remains to be seen. What is clear—in the outpouring of letters, essays, poems, and speeches—is that Haitian literature remains undaunted by the disaster and that writers are ready to respond in the best way they know how—in words. Speaking to UNESCO about the role of artists after the earthquake, Frankétienne said, “Our painters, craftspeople, musicians, and dancers are our wealth, a wealth that is sacrosanct, as it exists in the imagination, in this cathedral of the human skull.” For generations Haitian writers protected this wealth in clandestine meetings, smuggled books, and remembered poems. In Chauvet’s Madness, the poets crouch in a squalid shack overcome with the stench of their chamber pot and a body rotting outside. However, they write feverishly, even in the dark. “I write with my hand and my heart,” one poet says. “Not with my eyes.” In many ways, Chauvet’s life and work is emblematic of the history of Haitian literature. She was born in 1916, during the American occupation of the island. Haiti is the world’s first independent black republic. When America occupied Haiti, African-Americans were still fighting for the right to vote. This may explain the hallucinatory quality of the American occupation in Chauvet’s writing. Chauvet depicts the occupation’s brutality and exploitation in her novella Love. Claire, the protagonist, discovers her voice by writing secretly in a journal. She describes how she spends nights listening to the screams of prisoners and days listening to the trees crashing to the ground as American companies systematically
“Our painters, craftspeople, musicians, and dancers are our wealth, a wealth that is sacrosanct, as it exists in the imagination, in this cathedral of the human skull.” FRANKÉTIENNE
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/ PEN American Center MAY 2010
deforest the island. Her talent makes her “like a fruit fallen before ripening, rotting under the tree unnoticed.” Despite the stultifying atmosphere of surveillance by her neighbors eager to ingratiate themselves to the occupiers, Claire stubbornly continues writing and, as writing awakens her consciousness, she begins to resist through physical means. Eventually, she commits an act of rebellion that the men around her are incapable of and stands up to the commandant, who regularly abducts women to rape and torture them. Like her character Claire, Chauvet persisted as a writer despite living under the near-constant surveillance of a brutal dictatorship of Duvalier. She hosted meetings of the Les Araignées du Soir (Evening Spiders), a group of poets and writers of whom she was the only woman. She sent a trilogy of novellas to France to be published as a single book titled Love, Anger, Madness. Though the novellas are set during the American occupation, references to the Duvaliers are unmistakable. When Haiti’s ambassador to France saw an advanced copy, he became concerned that it might offend the government and they would retaliate by jailing or even killing Chauvet. He asked the French publishing house to halt the distribution of the book long enough for him to arrange for the author to leave the island. Chauvet hoped the book would cause such a scandal that it would attract international attention to the conditions in Haiti, but it quickly disappeared. After its limited release in Haiti, Chauvet’s husband bought as many copies of the book as he could find and destroyed them in order to protect their family members still on the island. Pirated copies and private editions surreptitiously circulated, but the book wasn’t distributed internationally. In 1973, Chauvet, then 57, died of brain cancer while in exile in Queens, New York. By that time, the dictatorship had passed from “Papa Doc” Duvalier to his son, “Baby Doc.” Foreign investments had established an exploitative sweatshop system, and the Haitian government had started shipping its own citizens to work in sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic like slaves, as Edwidge Danticat writes in her introduction to Love, Anger, Madness. Writers and intellectuals left the country en masse. “Exile is certainly one of the dimensions which ... gives Haitian culture its coherence,” wrote author Yanick Lahens in a 2003 essay for Callaloo magazine. Today nearly half a million people born in Haiti reside in the United States, and some 80 thousand live in Canada. This means places such as Montreal and New York are sites of Haitian cultural production as significant as Port-au-Prince.
Language is contested terrain for Haitian writers. The vast majority of the population on the island speaks Haitian Kreyól, a polyglot idiom with influences from French, Arabic, indigenous Caribbean languages, various African languages, and—more recently— English. In 1969, it joined French as the official language of Haiti.
There is a tradition in Haitian diasporic literature of the exiled intellectual as vagabond. It can be traced back to the influential novelist Jacques Roumain, who was exiled during the 1930s because of his support of Communism. During his exile, he met many other writers, including Langston Hughes, and worked in the ethnography department of Columbia University. Reflecting on the idea of the exiled Haitian intellectual as a citizen of the world, poet Depestre said, “As I have been Brazilian in São Paulo, Czech in Prague, French in Paris, Italian in Milan, Cuban in Havana, Haitian at every human crossroads of tenderness and freedom, each succeeding self will have created my identity at this time of global cultural interrelationship.” Exile also creates a sense of distance from one’s home country and culture, one which Chauvet was perhaps trying to close in her final work, Les Enfants D’Ogoun (Children of Ogoun); Ogoun is the Haitian god of war. In Haitian tradition, gods cannot cross water, but perhaps Chauvet still considered herself a child of that faraway god. She completed only a few pages of the novel before her death. For other Haitian writers, exile imprints itself on the level of language. The poet Anthony Phelps, one of Chauvet’s fellow Evening Spiders who now lives in Montreal, wrote, “In the algebra of exile/I can only play/with words which cannot form sentences.” Language is contested terrain for Haitian writers. The vast majority of the population on the island speaks Haitian Kreyól, a polyglot idiom with influences from French, Arabic, indigenous Caribbean languages, various African languages, and— more recently—English. In 1969, it joined French as the official language of Haiti. Most Haitian literature is in French, while Kreyól is the language of public life, oral tradition, and theater. Published in 1859, Stella is considered to be the first Haitian novel. It was written in French by Emeric Bergeaud, while he was in exile for participating in an unsuccessful coup against President Faustin-Élie Soulouque. Like much work of that time period, the novel is heavily influenced by European romanticism and symbolism. MAY 2010
Jean Jonassaint, professor of Francophone and Caribbean literature at Syracuse University and native of Haiti, argues that immediately following independence and through the American occupation Haitian writers felt a pressure to write in and master French as a way to “prove to the world that blacks weren’t barbarians.” He added: “If you are a black man or a black woman you don’t want to act like a slave, but you don’t want to be a master. Instead you want to take things from the master because they are useful.” During the American Occupation, a group of intellectuals and writers started pushing back against the primacy of French. They argued that Kreyól should be the language of literary expression. This movement was lead by writers including Suzanne Comhaire-Slyvain, the daughter of Georges Sylvain, whose 1901 Cric? Crac! is the first book entirely in Kreyól. The renaissance of Kreyól literature was “Why would you call a writer to ask about the Haitian economy. Ask an economist! People forget that Haitian writers are trying to be part of a larger literary tradition. It’s a racist position that Haitian writers must be political.” JEAN JONASSAINT
part of a movement called Indiginisme, which advocated a return to African roots. Given this history, a writer’s choice of language carries significant political freight. “Our story is very complex, and you can’t tell it in just one language,” Jonassaint said. “You have to map Haiti in more than one language.” While critics argue about the political ramifications of language, writers make choices based on aesthetic considerations. Many writers contend with Haiti’s complex tradition by stitching together French, Kreyól, English, and Spanish in formally innovative works that reflect the fracturing of Haitian culture. Chauvet’s work, though largely in French, is peppered with Kreyól phrases. It is saturated in both Haitian oral culture and classic French literature, with references to voodoo sitting comfortably next to quotes from Balzac and Dumas. In his more than thirty works including poetry, novels, and plays, Frankétienne constantly shifts idioms in a way that makes his work difficult to categorize. Jonassaint, who has studied the artist extensively, places him in the company of experimental writers such as James Joyce and John Dos Passos. “The first concern Photo: Catherine Benoît
of a writer isn’t social or political,” Jonassaint said. “It is the specific use of words and how one form relates to another form. People ignore that. They want to put Haitian writers in a political box.” Jonassaint argues that the freedom of exile comes with the shackles of political expectation. He said “some Haitian artists feel they could lose support or audience if they don’t write about Haitian politics or the ‘Haiti Problem.’ They also face pressure to be spokespeople for their country rather than artists dealing with issues of poetics.” “Why would you call a writer to ask about the Haitian economy,” Jonassaint asked. “Ask an economist! People forget that Haitian writers are trying to be part of a larger literary tradition. It’s a racist position that Haitian writers must be political.”
Jonassaint also encounters an expectation that Haitian literature should be simple “after all, we are a simple people, right?” Jonassaint pushes against overtly political and simplistic readings of Haitian literature in his scholarship, which treats Haitian literature with the same rigor as Greek tragedy. The fall of the Duvaliers in 1986 opened up freedoms for Haitian writers, though the country remained politically unstable and desperately poor. In recent years, there has been a growing audience for Haitian writing. Contemporary works by young Haitian writers are rich in complexity and diverse in terms of form and craft. These include Danielle Legros Georges’ 2001 poetry collection Maroon in which she creates intricate metaphors and Lahens’ novels in which she filters scenes of daily life through virtuosic narrative experiments. Lehens’ Aunt Résia & the Sprits was published earlier this year by the University of Virginia Press.
Photo: (left) UNESCO/Logan Abassi, (right) UNESCO/Fernando Brugman
In America, interest in Haitian literature has been growing since 1998 when Oprah chose Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory for her book club. In 2007 Danticat received a National Book Critics’ Circle award for her memoir Brother, I’m Dying and a MacArther “Genius” Fellowship in 2009. She has used her fame to promote Haitian writers, penning introductions to countless works, editing anthologies, and ferrying others through publication. In 2009 the Modern Library published Chauvet’s “lost book,” Love, Anger, Madness in its first English translation. In her preface, translator Rose-Myriam Réjouis writes that Danticat was instrumental in the book’s translation. Réjouis added that the work “offers a literary means of articulating the challenges Haiti’s history poses to its citizens and to the rest of the world, an articulation that is possible only because her protagonists are complex thinking subjects and not simply romantic heroes.” The January earthquake poses a new challenge for the citizens of Haiti and, indeed, the rest of the world. Haitian writers appear poised to accept the challenge. Lehens has been keeping a diary since the day of the quake. “This event, no matter how trying it has been, did not succeed in extinguishing the writer in me,” she wrote. At the time of the quake, Frankétienne was in the midst of rehearsals for his new play, Melovivi or Le Piège. Eerily prophetic, the work takes place after an earthquake as survivors crouch in the rubble. The play was performed in Paris at the UNESCO-sponsored forum, “Rebuilding the Social, Cultural, and Intellectual Fabric of Haiti.” In Michel-Ange Hyppolite’s poem “Speech,” he writes about a student who has lost his voice, but the final words of the poem could also describe the writers and artists of Haiti and its diaspora: “His voice is/ the artillery of words loaded/ to uncoil our strength.” READ MARTIN SMARTT BELL’S ARTICLE “PERMENANT EXILE: ON MARIE VIEUX-CHAUVET” FROM THE NATION READ AN EXCERPT OF JEAN JONASSAINT’S “HAITIAN LITERATURE IN THE UNITED STATES 1948-1986” FROM AMERICAN BABEL ON GOOGLE BOOKS READ JEAN JONASSAINT’S “SUR UN CHAMP MINÉ DE BONNES INTENTIONS” IN FRENCH IN FRANCOPHONE POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES
Selected Recommended Reading
Prepared by Nadine Pinede and Danielle Legros George
Félix Morisseau-Leroy, Haitiad and Oddities
Jacques Roumain, Masters of the Dew
Danielle Georges, Maroon
Lyonel Trouillot, Street of Lost Footsteps
Marilene Phipps, Crossroads and Unholy Water Patrick Sylvain, Love, Lust and Loss
Young adult novels Joanne Hyppolite, Seth and Samona
Anthologies Edited by Claudine Michel, Marlene RacineToussaint & Florence Bellande-Robertson, Brassage: An Anthology of Poems by Haitian Women
Jaira Placide, Fresh Girl Tales/Picturebook
Edited by Edwidge Danticat, The Butterfly’s Way
Diane Wolkstein (compiler), The Magic Orange Tree: and Other Haitian Folktales
Edited by Paul Laraque & Jack Hirschman, Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry
Walter Dean Myers, with paintings by Jacob Lawrence, Toussaint L’ouverture: The Fight for Haiti’s Freedom
Fiction Jacques Stephan Alexis, In the Flicker of an Eyelid; General Sun, My Brother Georges Anglade, Haitian Laughter Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory; Krik? Krak!; The Farming of Bones; The Dew Breaker
René Depestre, Festival of the Greasy Pole
Jan J. Dominique, Memoir of an Amnesiac
Haitian Studies Association
Dany Laferriere, Heading South
Women Writers of Haitian Descent
René Philoctete, Massacre River MAY 2010
LAKE By Silvia Duarte
“I Like to Jump to Things For three days in March, Oliver Lake visited Sampsonia Way on Pittsburgh’s North Side where City of Asylum/Pittsburgh has a row of houses for writers in exile adorned with original artwork. Lake has travelled to Pittsburgh for five consecutive years to participate in COA/P’s annual Jazz Poetry festival. However, this time Lake was here as a painter, preparing to design the Oliver House, a yellow and blue house on the alley that will soon be covered inside and outside by murals and ornaments of his design. In this interview with the well-known composer, saxophonist, flautist, and bandleader, he discusses many of the other disciplines he is involved in, particularly painting. Just as he improvises with his sax on the stage, in this conversation he answers fast and precisely. Even though most of people know you as a musician, you are an accomplished poet, painter, and performance artist. When did you start combining these activities? My background goes back to The Saint Louis Black Artists’ Group. That was in 1968. There were musicians, poets, dancers, actors, and visual artists. I always think about it as my school. I primarily consider myself a musician and a composer, but working there with the poets I was inspired to start writing my own poetry; after watching the visual artists, I started to painting. When I moved to New York (in the mid-1970s) I was doing one painting a year. But about five years ago I started to spend more time in painting.
Iâ€™ve Never Done Beforeâ€?
Photo: COA/P Archives, Paintings: Oliver Lake Archives
Why did you change your routine five years ago? It was the inspiration of a friend of mine. I told him that I wanted to paint more, but I didn’t have time. And he asked me if I had 15 minutes by day. I said, “Yes I have 15 minutes.” He said, “Well, you can start painting”. So you started by painting everyday for 15 minutes? Everyday I painted for 15 minutes, and then I did it for 30 minutes. After a year I had enough work to do a show. My friend made me realize that I shouldn’t have stop because I didn’t have lots of time. Now, I do it maybe an hour a day. Some days when I’m writing music, rehearsing, or travelling — I still travel a lot — I can’t make an hour, but I always try to make time.
Put All My Food On the Same Plate! A world-renowned musician, Lake has also published a book of poetry entitled Life Dance, exhibited his unique paintedsticks, and toured the country in Matador of 1st and 1st, his solo performance piece blending poetry, theatre, and music. Though his greatest reputation exists in the world of jazz, Lake’s eclectic musical approach is best expressed by his popular poem SEPARATION: put all my food on the same plate! VIEW OLIVER LAKE’S WEBSITE HERE
You also make unique painted-sticks, which were exhibited at the Montclair Art Museum. Where did the idea of the sticks comes from? They started out just as walking sticks. My family and I used to go to camping every year and we would grab some sticks and paint them. Then I did it with my kids. Now I have a whole wall of them with different names: talking sticks or life sticks, for example. In fact, nobody uses them as walking sticks anymore; people who have purchased them purchase them as pieces of art. Do these different disciplines (such as poetry, performance, music, and painting) affect each other sometimes? Are there times you really want to be writing poems and you are playing music? No. Everything is everything. I don’t feel like I missing anything when I’m doing a certain thing. If I’m writing poetry or I’m painting, I’m doing that. But you also have priorities… My priority is music — to play the saxophone and to compose for the various groups I’m in. The painting started as a hobby and, as the time has gone on, I have been able to participate in some shows. And this project with City of Asylum— the Oliver House—is the biggest project that I ever had. How did you react when City of Asylum asked you to collaborate with them and design the Oliver House? It was a big surprise and I was really excited about it. I’m always a person who likes to jump to things I never done before. When they spoke about painting the house, and about having an “Oliver House” with my signature, I was very excited: I’m looking forward to starting it. As you see, I started to make some sketches to get ideas of how the final design will be. Let’s talk about your relationship with City of Asylum. Tell me about how you became involved in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Festival in 2005. I had an agent, who actually was the one in touch with Henry Reese (Director of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh). Henry called him looking for another musician, and my agent told him that I was a better choice for his project because I did poetry MAY 2010
and I have worked with poets. So it was a kind of serendipity to be here. When I talked with Henry, he mentioned the fact that I would be working with Huang Xiang, a Chinese poet who didn’t speak English. That became my first reason to do it. Now, we have done six years of this in collaboration with bands in which I play. I came as a soloist the first time, and then I came with the World Saxophone Quartet, then with Trio 3 and Gerri Allen, our special guest last year. And this year I’ll bring my 17-piece big band. So the relation continues to grow each year and this is exciting for me. In the City of Asylum’s Jazz Poetry Concerts, you have improvised music for writers from around the world. What does this particular experience mean to you? City of Asylum is very unique in how they deal with exiled writers. Working with the poets who are speaking in foreign languages and trying to make my music compatible with what they are saying —even though I don’t understand them — is another challenge for me. I’m very happy that Henry has asked me to do the composition and work with the poets in the last five or six years. Your performance with these poets and your work with many bands evinces your ability to collaborate, a unique skill. How did you develop this ability? Well, I go back again to talking about the group I mentioned before, The Saint Louis Black Artists’ Group. And I have been working with World Saxophone for over 35 years and with Trio 3 for over 22 years. Both of them are cooperative groups and in order to be part of these groups, you have to being able to cooperate and communicate with each other on the stage and off the stage. That is a kind of work I have been doing all of my career and I’m always have been level-headed with my musicians and friends through all my life. That, I think, is part of my personality. I saw you in some rehearsals and one thing impressed me so much is your humility. Your focus was on the work and enjoying the collaboration rather than on being the center of the performance. How did your life experiences inform your humility? All the experiences I had made me who I’m. But in terms of humility, I never thought about myself in that way, but now you say it, maybe being humble is crucial when you are working with bands and cooperating with musicians. I think that another aspect that helps me to work with the group is self-confidence. WATCH LAKE READ HIS POEM: DO YOU REMEMBER THE TIME? WATCH LAKE’S INTERVIEW WITH DUARTE WATCH A VIDEO OF LAKE SHOWING HIS SKETCHES
Photos: Renee Rosensteel
Oliver Lake Lake is a featured artist on more than 50 recordings. Lake has created chamber pieces for the Arditti and Flux String Quartets, arranged music for Björk, Lou Reed and A Tribe Called Quest, collaborated with poets Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange, choreographers Ron Brown and Marlies Yearby and actress/author Anna Devere Smith. He is co-founder of the World Saxophone Quartet and Trio 3 and leads his Steel Quartet and Big Band.
“I never thought about myself in that way, being humble, but now you say it, maybe being humble is crucial when you are working with bands and cooperating with musicians. I think that another aspect that helps me to work with the group is self-confidence.” OLIVER LAKE
Miloš Djurdjevi´c, a Croatian poet, essayist, and translator, felt fortunate to be going to Iowa City to participate in the University of Iowa’s 2009 International Writing Program. But within days of arriving in Iowa, he and a handful of the program’s other international writers found themselves leaving the literary-minded, college town, and heading to the post-industrial, working-class city of Pittsburgh. There they were to perform their poetry for the Jazz Poetry Concert sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P).
Photos: Renee Rosensteel
“ I am not just a poet-essayist-fiction writer,” said Meena Kandasamy, an English lecturer at Anna University in Chennai, India. “I am also a grassroots activist. At the end of the concert, it was so comforting to know that the angst of my poetry could strike a chord with the audience; that they could empathize with me, cheer for the anti-caste struggle, and above all, be so generous with their appreciation.”
Strange Attractors Two programs for international writers join in a common mission
By Desiree Cooper In 2004 businessman Henry Reese established COA/P as a refuge for creative writers suffering from persecution in their homelands. Six years later, COA/P is a series of row houses fronting on a narrow alley called Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh’s historic Mexican War Streets district. Endangered writers in exile receive two-year residencies. To date, COA/P has welcomed writers from countries like China, El Salvador, and Burma. Jazz Poetry is the organization’s premier public event. It couples international writers with American jazz greats on stage for a free, community-wide celebration. For Croatian writer Miloš Djurdjevi´c, the opportunity to participate in COA/P’s Jazz Poetry event was beyond his imagination. “I was so excited, especially when I learned that I would be on stage with Reggie Workman and Oliver Lake,” he said. “I saw them in Zagreb at one small jazz festival held at the beginning of the 1990s, so it was like my dream come true.” MAY 2010
The odds may be slim that a Croatian poet would recite his poetry accompanied by the music of Guggenheim-Fellow Oliver Lake before an eclectic Pittsburgh audience of jazz fans, poetry enthusiasts, and neighbors. But those are exactly the kinds of synergies that City of Asylum/Pittsburgh strives to achieve. “The collaborations between the musicians and poets performing in languages like Mongolian, Urdu, Arabic, and Burmese, have helped to make Sampsonia Way a home for free expression,” said Reese. “Art is an especially important way to build bridges to others, even your neighbors. And the joy of the performances is totally thrilling, actually physical. When you are watching and listening, you understand the power of creative free expression and why it is so vital to living a full, free life. And hopefully you take this feeling with you and use it.” The world in their backyard Jazz Poetry began with China—or at least with a particular Chinese poet. COA/P’s first at-risk writer was Huang Xiang, often called the Walt Whitman of China. In 2005 he painted his poetry on the outside of his residence on Sampsonia Way, and “read” his house to an awestruck audience. “Huang Xiang’s voice was operatic,” said Reese. “He danced, jumped, rolled on the ground, and did anything but stand still, acting out his poems. I thought that it would be natural to have him ‘sing’ to music.” The idea for a Jazz Poetry concert featuring international writers reading in their native languages was born. “Jazz musicians seemed to be perfect collaborators,” said Reese. “Because they are experienced in listening to one another and collaborating improvisationally.” Not only that, but jazz is emblematic of American democracy in the way that it honors and melds individual voices, said Reese. In 2006 Nobel Prize-winning, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was the featured author for the concert. “The audience almost doubled the second year, so we decided to continue the experiment and invite poets from around the world for the third year,” Reese said. But where would he find enough international poets to round out the program? “The Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) seemed like a natural partner,” said Reese, who first contacted IWP in 2007. “I had met Chris Merrill, who is the director, so I asked if him if their international writers might find it interesting to come to Pittsburgh and try something unusual.” For more than 40 years, IWP has been the premier writing residency for international writers. “We bring about 35 writers from overseas for three months each fall,” said Hugh Ferrer, IWP associate director. “While the writers are here, we like to create other opportunities for them both locally and nationally.”
The partnership has helped build the reputation of COA/P’s Jazz Poetry. It is generally in the fall, only a few days after the writers arrive in Iowa. “Henry and I look over the roster as soon as we have one, and talk about who might fit,” said Ferrer. “We like writers who can help clarify what Cities of Asylum means. If we have writers coming from totalitarian governments, we start there. Having a writer from Cuba makes more sense than four writers from Scotland.” ´ (CROATIA) LISTEN TO IOWA WRITERS 2009 SOHEIL NAJM (IRAQ), MILOŠ DJURDJEVIC AND MEENA KANDASAMY (INDIA) TALK ON POETRY VERSUS GOVERNMENT
Along with Djurdjevi´c, two other IWP writers performed last fall, including India’s Meena Kandasamy. Kandasamy is a woman, a Dalit (an Untouchable, the lowest rung of India’s ancient caste system), and a Tamil (an oppressed minority in Sri Lanka)—three identities that have subjected to her persecution. “I am not just a poet-essayist-fiction writer,” said Kandasamy, an English lecturer at Anna University in Chennai, India. “I am also a grassroots activist. It was the most marvelous moment of my life to perform with these jazz legends and to read my poetry before the American public. At the end of the concert, it was so comforting to know that the angst of my poetry could strike a chord with the audience; that they could empathize with me, cheer for the anti-caste struggle, and above all, be so generous with their appreciation.” Home away from home Catherine Ryan lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years before eventually moving to Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets in 2007. “When I heard that City of Asylum needed volunteers to house international writers during Jazz Poetry, I offered our home,” said the freelance graphic designer. She and her husband, Entezam Sahovic, have hosted several poets from the Middle East. “When we lived in the Middle East, we received so much hospitality,” said Ryan. “I wanted to return the favor.” Ryan has maintained contact with her 2008 houseguest, Iranian poet Maryam Ala Amjadi. The experience made her more aware of what it was like to live under fear of government reprisals. “I have emailed her more than once and then said to myself, ‘What was I thinking?’” said Ryan. “I forget that I have to think about what I say, or I could jeopardize her. She emailed me back and said she was studying in India and that it was OK. But you forget that you can’t be free.” John Allison is another neighborhood resident who has hosted poets during Jazz Poetry. Allison and his wife, Cécile Desandre, met in Prague in the 1990s. He felt kinship with their last guest, Djurdjevi´c. “My wife is a filmmaker, who’s done translating,” said Allison. “I’m an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This is right up our alley—these are my people.” MAY 2010
Djurdjevi´c felt equally at home, citing the generosity of his hosts during his stay. He was also impressed with the venue. “The alley on Sampsonia Way in fact functioned as theatre space,” he said. “It has good acoustics, and an attentive, grateful audience. It is one of those rare and precious spaces that with a minimum of intervention could sustain artistically very complex and technically demanding events.” Kandasamy agreed: “I loved the homes, the art on the homes, the warmth of the alley, and how every single aspect came together to create magic,” she said. “A poet has to bleed before people. That I could do on Sampsonia Way. I have read in lots of spaces, but nothing matches the sheer delight of throwing your words at hundreds and hundreds of people of all ages and colors and walks of life.” WATCH VIDEO OF KANDASAMY AT THE JAZZ POETRY CONCERT
The favorable experience is one reason IWP continues to partnership with COA/P. To date, nine IWP writers have performed in Jazz Poetry, including writers from Mongolia, Iraq, and Cuba. “It goes back to Henry’s vision about how to use arts to build a neighborhood and how to make a neighborhood a good place for arts,” said Ferrer. “This is all happening in an intimate way.” A South African discovers snow In addition to partnering with IWP for Jazz Poetry COA/P offers some of the IWP writers a three-month residencies following their stay in Iowa City. South African novelist Maxine Case came to the United States in 2009 to get away from her grueling schedule as a senior writer for the development organization Cape Town Partnership. “I had a fulltime job that was quite demanding,” said the winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book in Africa. “I would often wake up at 5 a.m. to write fiction.” She came to the IWP in 2009 hoping to find solitary time to write. “However, in Iowa City, about 30 of us lived on the same floor of a hotel,” Case said. “My writing was often interrupted by a call to play poker, go out to play pool, or to go out for a meal. Still, Iowa freed the fiction writer in me and once more gave me a voice.” Maxine Case Photo: Courtesy of Author
An extra three months in Pittsburgh helped solidify that voice. “Once the mercury dropped in Pittsburgh, there was very little to distract me from my writing,” she said. “I told a friend about how much writing I was getting done, and he reminded me how prolific so many of the old Russian writers were, given the long, extremely cold winters.” The South African added: “I can also write quite confidently about snow.” Of course, Case had time to relax in Pittsburgh, too. “I’ll definitely remember singing karaoke—‘Purple Rain’ by Prince—in Nico’s Recovery Room,” said Case. “It was great that I was not only not booed, I was actually applauded.” Two other IWP writers extended their stay in the United States with the threemonth residency at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh: Glaydah Namukasa of Uganda and Marius Ivaškeviˇcius of Lithuania. Vijay Nair of India stayed for one month. A collaboration that delivers us the world The synergy between IWP and COA/P has benefitted the tiny Mexican War Streets district and the writers themselves. “The effects have been both playful and profound,” said Reese. “But I hope that they all have lead to a deeper appreciation for diverse voices—and empathy or perhaps self-questioning—and for the importance of creative free expression in everyday life. Each writer has been extremely productive, so the residencies seem to work well for the writers too.” The collaboration has also benefitted IWP. “We value the collaboration between IWP and Pittsburgh as a City of Asylum for writers at risk, and the many vital connections forged between our two literary cities,” said Christopher Merrill, director of IWP. “We look forward to reading the next chapter in this book!”
Photo: Courtesy of Author
Photo: COA/P Archives MAY 2010
A Conversation with Lynn Emanuel and Terrance Hayes