In The Armageddon of Funk Update:
- My Upcoming and Recent Book Events, and Other Poet’s Readings/Performances
- Report on “Poeming” for Obaba, Revisiting “Friendly Fascism,” and About My Dear Adrienne
- My Answers to the Fabulous Ms. Michelle Tea’s Questions
UPCOMING POETRY READINGS/PERFORMANCES:
Sunday, October 14, 3:30-5:30pm, La Palabra Musical/The Music of the Word with Avotcja. Poet Michael Warr and Poet “Tiny” Gray Garcia (Journalist Poor Magazine). (Donations accepted. Bring congas, guiros, Maracas, Panderetas, etc.) Casa Latina (Taqueria, Bakery and Cafe), 1805 San Pablo Avenue @ Delaware, Berkeley, CA.
SANTA CRUZ, CA.
Official Tribute to Adrienne Rich to be announced.
Michelle Tea’s RADAR Reading Series
Obama Fundraiser in the Oakland Hills
Conversation and Poetry on The Justin Desmangles Show
OTHER BAY AREA POETS EVENTS:
Bitchez Brew Twelve Festival
Flor y Canto
Projector Magazine Screening
See Litseen for a comprehensive listing.
“Poeming” for Obama, Revisiting “Friendly Fascism,” and Speaking of My Dear Adrienne
Life has been spilling over with poetry stuffing. I was “the poet” for a President Obama fundraiser in the Oakland Hills a few weeks ago, pinch-hitting for friend and globetrotting poet Camille T. Dungy. Thanks for the hook up Camille. No the President was not there. However, a few weeks after my “poeming” for Obama the President enjoyed a bump following the Democratic Party Convention and “beat” Mitt Romney in fundraising for the first time in three months. A coincidence? The power of poetry is never coincidental. All joking aside, I have experienced the sensation of coincidence and realization too often in poetry and politics to discount serendipity.
Leading up to that fundraiser and confronting the poet’s dilemma of what poems to recite, I found myself drenched in the daily dumping of lies, code, distortion, and general fear-mongering emanating from the “right.” I’d been meaning to reread Bertram Gross’ Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America, and this seemed the perfect time.
I found myself pulling all my books on the “right,” as well as fascism, off my shelves. I checked out even more books on the subject from the library. They littered the floor, were-stacked and un-stacked and re-stacked, cluttered the dining room table, opened and closed, all being read in no particular order. The language and tone of propaganda, the social-economic conditions, the mass hysteria, that emerges from these readings is dismayingly relevant. Mussolini’s words are more telling than ever: ”Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power.” It takes a fascist to know fascism when they see it, propose it, or impose it, right?
Books on fascism dominated my reading as I contemplated what poems to share at an Obama fundraiser.
I was in a fascism funk before the Obama benefit. I had no time to write myself out of that funk — poetically at least – before the event so I just starting joting down the words that I was hearing, thinking, and reading. The list included theft, thugs, wake up, Rand, misguided, uber guided, altruism, warning signs, hate, communists in Congress, neo nazi music scene, forcible rape, un-forcible rape, demagogue, demagoguery, ideologue, homeland, suppression, immorality, purity, food stamps…and more ever expanding verbiage.
I learned of Goebbels gleefully writing “Outside the SS Troopers are marching. The weather is just beautiful.” Hitler concluded speeches with the word “amen.” Fascism diplays a cultural reflection, however, in its “implementation,” not necessarily its trappings, it is rooted in the specificity of a national culture. What would “friendly fascism” look like? Would it look nostalgic American Style? American nostalgia is a deep cultural well.
Fascism may be far-fetched in the current American reality. There is, however, definitely a political, ideological, and cultural movement aimed at turning America back or backward. There is a thinly veiled reactionary yearning for the old America. An America where blacks “knew their place” as opposed to knowing the White House or running a teachers union that has occupied the streets of Chicago.
Langston Hughes wrote in “Let America Be America Again” “(America was never America to me.)/Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–/Let it be that great strong land of love/Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme/That any man be crushed by one above./(It was never America to me.)” There is a lot of conniving and scheming in effect these days that attempts to apply a democratic or “friendly’ angle on ambitions of tyranny. All manner of twists and turns are thrown in to the media fray to justify unjust affronts to even electoral politics. Reactionaries call on their fellow nostalgists to “take American back.”
Just as W. Kamau Bell says when Romney calls for Obama to “go back to Chicago,” that he means back to “Chicongo” not far from “MozambOakland,” I hear in “take America back,” an underlying, historically-based, too reactionary to be openly spoken message from the Republican presidential candidate, as he attempts to appeal to what I call the “pigment-controlled psyche” in “An Open Poem To Clarence Thomas.” In this chant for an America of yesteryear I hear the call for a country even more backward and alienated from the American dream than the one Hughes described. Intolerance is rampant and unbridled hatred is unabashedly promoted and even violently manifested. I don’t know where this examination of the “right” and reaction is leading in terms of my writing, however, it is weighing heavily on my thoughts and is daily spiking on my poetry radar screen.
I am also re-reading Adrienne Rich (Dark Fields of the Republic and every other book I have of hers.) The brunches Patricia Zamora and I had with she and Michelle Cliff at their Santa Cruz home would always meander to the current political environment after Adrienne asked everyone around the table to tell she and Michelle what they have been up to lately. I long to hear Adrienne’s always piercing, sane, informed, poetic analysis of our current climate. Fortunately much of what she wrote over the years is prescient of exactly what we are confronted with today.
August was permanently etched in awesomeness when I was asked, along with Robert Hass and other poets, to recite Adrienne’s poems, and a few of my own, at the official Adrienne Rich memorial in Santa Cruz later this year. I was stunned and happily honored to receive the invitation to this event organized by the families and Bookshop Santa Cruz. Adrienne was a mentor, a comrade in poetic arms, a friend and a North Star in my attempt to consciously navigate revolutionary thought and poetry in the world. I will have an opportunity to see Michelle for the first time since Adrienne’s “passing” and look forward to reminiscing with her about Adrienne and hearing her own take on the world — a take that is always laced in her encyclopedic knowledge of history and culture.
September was special for many reasons, one of my favorite was appearing in Michelle Tea’s RADAR Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library. Thanks again Michelle for the book review, the attention, the stage, the audience, and one of your home-baked cookies. The reading and Q&A was captured by my friend, colleague, and outrageously talented film and media producer Dimitri Moore. Check out my reading of Duke Checks Out Ella As She Scats Like That (also to be posted here one day my reply to a Cubs vs White Sox question. Yes at a poetry reading.)
An edited version of my interview with Michelle Tea, which appeared originally on the RADAR Productions website, follows (I asked to respond in writing). Keep reading if you want to learn the connection between W.E.B. DuBois, Public Enemy and Elmo.
Michael Warr Answers the Fabulous Ms. Tea
for RADAR Reading Series /San Francisco Public Library
Michelle Tea: Michael Warr is a poet who has recently been traveling all over the place reading from his latest collection, The Armageddon of Funk (recently named an Honor Book by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association). He’s going to be at RADAR tonite, so read up on the man here and get your questions ready for the cookie-centric Q+A at the close of an awesome lineup featuring Warr, Chase Joynt, Mariko Tamamki and Susan Straight!
MT: What makes you get up and write in the morning?
Michael Warr: I am trying to remember the last time that happened. Definitely not today.
MT: Wait – do you write in the morning, or evening, or what? What is your writing discipline like?
MW: I’ve always been an early riser. Even as a kid I seldom watched cartoons on the weekends because my family hit the streets at ungodly hours interrupting the sleep of other San Franciscans with the door-to-door peddling of a spiritual alarum known as the Awake. I was young enough to wear a beanie cap and shorts. As an adult inevitably some non-poetry related deadline is waiting on the other side of sleep. Two days ago the call at an ungodly hour was completing the summary of a non-profit organization’s “core values. ” Yes, I am a poet and a consultant.
We all have to make a living. Walt Whitman was a printer and editor. Williams Carlos Williams was a doctor. Pablo Neruda was a diplomat. Lucille Clifton was a government employee. Vaclav Havel became a president. I have plenty of friends teaching in MFA programs. I am still on a quest for the often-allusive balance between living and making a living. And I am probably the least disciplined writer I know. I do seize on the sudden moments that allow me to write – whatever time of day they emerge. I see the potential of poetry in every thing. Still I am stingily picky about what poems I attempt to write.
Ultimately I want to have the far-reaching poetic scope of a Neruda, from the Ode poem “A Lemon” to his beautiful but scathing “The Dictators.” I don’t claim to reach that level of art. I do manage to reach that level of scope. When I do write I tend to hone in on what I feel absolutely needs to be said, specifically by me, as poetically as possible. Taking the poem to term is a serious investment of time, self-deprecation, scrutiny, and pain. Still, I am most at peace in those rare moments when I can remain still and do nothing else but write.
That I ever actually birth a poem is only because my mind is poetically promiscuous. Constantly searching for what is poetically stimulating in what crosses my path. I am not consciously on the prowl for the poem, but I try to capture the essence of a possibly poetic interaction when it strays by. I seldom follow a writing discipline other than incessantly thinking poetic possibilities. Often the chasm between those poetic thoughts and an actual poem is way too wide. Getting to the poem can be a messy process.
Early and messy sketch of Michael Warr’s poem “Gravitas – In Three Movements.”
The poetic process represents the part of my life that starts simple, grows complex and chaotic, and by force of pure will and desire, is gradually reorganized into some expression of creative sanity. I love it. But the process is sloooooooowww. I edit while I write. I am a ruthless self-critic. I agonize over each word. I am the creator and the words are the DNA. If a word mutates outside of the rules of the English language I want to be conscious of owning and nurturing that mutation.
I try to distinguish between what I consider art and what I consider a laundry list. A laundry list can be art only if the artist has the intent of it being something more than a laundry list – even if the difference is somehow made by a single relevant and distinguishable word or letter. I try to throw out the words and lines that I consider pedestrian, unless a pedestrian effect is what I happen to be searching for at that moment.
Adrienne Rich gave me a wonderfully sage piece of advice that she picked up from Miles Davis about the vital role of the “empty space” or “air” between the notes in his solos. Apparently Debussy said, “Music is the space between the notes.” Wow, that is some serious name dropping, Debussy, Miles, and Rich all in the same spill. Anyway, Adrienne told me she was always looking for what to cut. I was also always looking for what to cut, but far more so after that conversation.
Finding the artful emptiness in your art is, simply put, challenging. I try to use sorting out the “pedestrian” as a gauge. Again, words are the DNA of the poem. Estimates of the number of words in the English language range from 450,000 to 1,000,000. And I will steal words from other languages if it serves the poem. The words are free. I see it as my duty to use as many of them as possible. That does not mean they always work, but sometimes words that seem diametrically opposed to a poetic line can work. I try to pull this off in “Her Words,” my praise poem to Gwendolyn Brooks, my earliest poet mentor and the first Black poet to win the Pulitzer Prize.
not a lexicologist, figured it
out. The word was a woman.
the Oromos of Ethiopia,
brandishing a painter’s
brush in a dig territorially
defined by string,
the archaeologist swept away
ancient crust and sediment
finding language, alive
and agitated, instead
of the fossilized femur
of a long-dead ramapithecus…
Gwendolyn Brooks, first Black to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Warr’s first poet mentor.
Poets are often advised to avoid multisyllabic words, let alone scientific ones. I love multisyllabic words because in my mind the syllables are like musical notes and my dream is to play poems like a jazz musician plays a solo. I want access to as many notes as possible. That is the philosophy that underlies my consideration and choice of a word like “ramapithecus.” And once you know it, it rolls off the tongue. I learned years after “Her Words” was published in TriQuarterly that a science dictionary used the poem to illustrate its usage. I partially attribute my excavation of non-pedestrian words for the circuitous route that those poetic lines traveled from manuscript to book, to TriQuarterly, to a science dictionary, and eventually back to me on the Internet.
While I preach this anti-pedestrian gospel in writing workshops, I really only insist that it be applied to my own writing. I am not literally trying to use every word in the English language. I am just trying to find the ones that most artfully recreate, refocus, reframe the world poetically.
MT: Do you remember the moment when you first were like, I’m a poet!
MW: No. I do know that I was trying to write poems before I knew what a poem was. As a kid I used to take the Reader’s Digest and cover the articles, essays, and ads, with blank pieces of paper, and make my own “book.” I drew and wrote fragments on the blank pages. The poems were “haiku-like” only in the sense of how they looked on paper and not in any conscious sense of form or structure. They were short compact lines like ad copy. I don’t think I actually saw a haiku until I was in my late twenties, maybe older. And that one-on-one lesson was accompanied with sake lessons from the great poet and haiku advocate Sam Hamill.
As a kid Sesame Street selected Warr to write poetry for the show. Even then he felt too “radical” to associated with Big Bird. He has since come to love Elmo.
I was experimenting with poetry early on. I remember being picked out of a classroom to write for Sesame Street. They came to our school looking for young poets. Even then I considered myself too “revolutionary” to write for a show with Big Bird. Crazy. We were radical kids representing radical times. I still consider myself a revolutionary, but of course I now love Elmo and the fuzzy story behind that furry creation. Sesame Street recognized my poetic potential at the time. Not me.
Even if you are conscious of writing poems that does not necessarily mean you name yourself a poet. I think my first serious thought of writing poetry beyond fragments came after reading Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” Gwendolyn had that impact on thousands of children. I arrogantly thought to myself “I can do that.” After Mrs. Brooks and I met and became friends, after she became the patron saint of the Guild Complex (the award-winning, Chicago based, cross-cultural literary arts center, now called the Guild Literary Center). After she gave me a “Gwendolyn Brooks Significant Illinois Poets Award,” I used to tell her it was her fault that I became a poet.
Still after decades of writing poetry, it is only recently that I have believed that planting my own poetic seeds on this earth before dying is important – at least to me. Meaning that what I most want to be identified with is being a poet.
I have come to that conclusion in 2012 after working at poetry on some level for more than 40 years. I can be slow. My third book of poems The Armageddon of Funk was published at the end of 2011. That is 21 years after my first book of poems We Are All The Black Boy, which was followed in 1999 by the anthology Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago’s Guild Complex. I co-edited and wrote the introduction for Power Lines. Its publication was timed to coincide with my stepping down as the founding Executive Director of the Guild. Tia Chucha Press published each of these books. Since January this year The Armageddon of Funk has been awarded by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, calling it “a poetic soundtrack to Black life;” it is currently reviewed in the new issue of The Crisis Magazine, which was founded by WEB DuBois; and I was just invited to recite my poetry in honor of one of my mentors Adrienne Rich at her official memorial this December.
In The Crisis Magazine review Howard Rambsy referred to my life as a poet as evidence of a “literary long distance runner.” I would add the caveat that as a marathon runner I may have run a few good times, however, I only ran a marathon once every ten years. Ironically I was a track star in senior high school and my track coach was also my black history teacher. He played a part in opening up for me what was possible in poetry. This circles back to WEB DuBois. When Mr. Banks gave us the assignment to write a report on DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America, I asked if I could write my assignment as a poem. He said yes, and I turned in a poem, I think around 2400 words, called “Memoirs of Malediction.” That was a profound catalyst in my intellectual development. For the first time I was interested in school and my grades were catapulted in a skyward trajectory.
MT: Who were your biggest influences when you began to write, and have they changed?
MW: Before reading DuBois I’d stolen a book in junior high called Three Thousand Years of Black Poetry, in which I was introduced to the works of Mrs. Brooks. In that book I read the poems of Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti (then Don Lee), Nikki Giovanni, Victor Hernandez Cruzand others. (If the person who in turn stole that book from me is reading this please return it. I will swap my high-school version for a shiny edition.) Before I read DuBois I was already listening to The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron on the radio. When my track coach/black history teacher gave me permission to select my own form of writing I had an epiphany: I had another way to communicate. Maybe even a better way.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was an early influence providing a sense of poetic scope and consciousness from the ode poem “A Lemon” to “The Dictator.”
After high school my poetic influences broadened to include Neruda, Vallejo, and Brecht. I moved from San Francisco to Chicago and then to Ethiopia as a foreign correspondent, where I stopped writing poetry while learning journalism. Soon after returning to the US my writing was significantly influenced by Jack Hirschman, Quincy Troupe, and Adrienne Rich. Ultimately it was the Chicago poetry community that began to shape me as a poet. Hearing David Hernandez with his band Street Sounds on returning to Chicago signaled my rebirth as a performing poet.
Mostly Chicago poets had an impact on my life as a practicing poet as opposed to my writing. We were all part of a spoken word movement that has invigorated contemporary poetry. Marc Smith, founder of the Poetry Slam, was a major player. I cannot name the massive circle of poets around the Guild Complex, but among those who influenced my writing and have who extensively published are Sterling Plumpp, Reginald Gibbons, Angela Jackson, Luis Rodriguez, Patricia Smith, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Jean Howard. Bob Holman from New York was another big influence. I have a long list of acknowledgments in The Armageddon of Funk,” for the many poets that reviewed the manuscript. I know a lot of writers. A significant number of the books in my library can never be traded, throw out, or given away, because so many of them are from friends. Still my poetic influences really started long before I knew any of these poets.
My sense of lyricism and language also came from all that early Bible reading. I name the Bible as my earliest literary influence.
Song of Solomon 4. 11-16
11. Your lips drip honey, my bride. Honey and milk are under your tongue. The fragrance of your clothing is like the fragrance of Lebanon. 12. My bride, my sister is a garden that is locked, a garden that is locked, a spring that is sealed. 13. You are paradise that produces pomegranates and the best fruits, henna flowers and nard, 14. nard and saffron, calamus, cinnamon, and all kinds of incense, myrrh, aloes, and all the best spices. 15. You are] a spring for gardens, a well of living water flowing from Lebanon. 16. Awake, north wind! Come, south wind! Blow on my garden! Let its spices flow from it. Let my beloved come to his garden, and let him eat his own precious fruit…(source: The Bible)
Music also had an early impact on my writing. I pride myself on writing in different forms and I think that has a lot to do with the eclectic music I’ve listened to since childhood. As I prepared to attend the Kingdom Hall on Sunday mornings I could be listening to James Brown, Chick Corea, Glen Gould, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, John Coltrane, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix (I was 12 when Purple Haze, was released and boughtBand of Gypsys with Machine Gun, at 15) Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Taj Mahal, Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, Michel LeGrand, Hubert Laws, Wes Montgomery, etc.
Public Enemy was acknowledged as an influence in Warr’s first book “We Are All The Black Boy”
The beats and language of hip hop were reflected in my first book We Are All The Black Boy, in 1991, where I included Public Enemy in the acknowledgments. I identify more with the Chuck D., Tupac, Mos Def, Dilated Peoples, A Tribe Called Quest, Talib Kwelli, Fugees, Common, “strain” of hip-hop, to mention a few influences. I want the beats of Biggie, Dre, even Ice Cube to fuse with at least some degree of social, if not class, consciousness. I know these artists are “old school,” but they represent a pinnacle in the intersection between dope beats and dope consciousness for me. I am sometimes moved by musical moments from the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye, more so by Lupe Fiasco, and a few others, but less impressed with the arc of their political rhetoric. I hunger for more modern day Gil Scotts. Still the beats and much of the wordsmithing or word spitting keeps me listening.
Catch Michael Warr tonight at The RADAR Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library, with Chase Joynt, Mariko Tamaki and Susan Straight. (Event took place in September 2012)