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A.L. Nielsen: California Poets Part 7, Seven Poems


A.L. Nielsen


July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

A.L. Nielsen

Seven Poems



Long-listed

At long last

 

No more to be sold short

As an afterword

 

No more to be sold on

An afterworld

 

If we could only resonate together

This could be the last time

 

Sunshine on my shudder

Start me up Buttercup

 

This could be the last time

May be the last time

 

I don’t know




The Night We Opened for the Buckinghams and I Didn’t Hear the Buckinghams


The shortest distance between

Two high school auditoriums

Was a song and a Silvertone

 

And a Pontiac

 

Sound check straining

Against their image spreading

Cream across kind

Of a Drag the singer

Nowhere to be seen

You Don’t Care

 

Hey Baby They’re Playing Our Song




Am I Having Fun Yet


Are we still speaking

Am I living in a building

Am I living in a box

Am I receiving signals from off-shore craft

Am I asking too many questions

Am I on target

Am I on the right track

Am I getting through to you

Am I that I am

Am I composed primarily of water

Am I a property of language

Am I a fit subject for your consideration

Am I living in the bottle

Am I all washed up

Am I as clear as a bell

Am I getting on in years

Am I too much for you




My First Quake


Towels swaying

Mild folds

Fumbling earth

 

Temblors tire eyes

My weary want for fear

There’s no around

 

To get




A clue to the moon drifts

An occluded window shivers

What shires in heat

Clouds over

As planes rock the design

 

How would you explain this

A woman in Wisconsin is washing dishes

Thousands of people are certain

They’ve had a brush with something

They don’t understand

 

Blackness builds up from the corners

My suit has pockets of dense fog




Non sequitur

Where

None intended




Lunchtime At The Grapheteria


He looked anxiously over

His shoulder at the pronoun

Unambiguously gaining on him

 

He looked back at it

Much as Descartes returned to his title

In need of emendation

 

And stacks of style and

Reiterative recalling

 

He stood corrected

He was unavoidably detained




Interview


July 14th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

A.L. Nielsen, Poet, Professor, Editor, Critic

interviewed by David Garyan



DG: Pedagogy has informed your career to a great extent, and you’ve taught in various institutions across the US; in addition to these efforts, you’ve also had the privilege of teaching in China. How do didactic methodologies differ and how would you summarize the state of poetry across two continents?


ALN: Like a fair number of my colleagues, I didn’t start out to be a professor. Along the way I worked as a lumberjack, a ladies shoes salesman, a law enforcement officer, a community organizer, a systems analyst  . . . not completing my doctorate and starting full-time work professing till my mid-thirties. But in the time since, I’ve taught at a truly various set of institutions, including an HBCU, a large state comprehensive university (which in university speak means it goes up through the MA), a small liberal arts university, a gargantuan state R1 (Research 1) institution, and, as you note, Central China Normal University. There have been local differences. I found my students at a Jesuit institution on average a tad more earnest about their educational career than, again on average, freshmen at big state schools. At Howard University my students didn’t have to be told the realities of race and education in America, a subject to which all too many White students seem oblivious, though generally good-hearted. I’ve always attempted the Socratic method of pedagogy, maybe because that was the environment in which I had learned best as a student, but my own students were not always as willing to engage in critical conversation as I might like. All that said, I have had many brilliant and exciting students, many of whom have gone on to great careers. This has been particularly true of my doctoral students. I wish the grad seminars I took as a student had been filled with these people. (Though several of my fellow grad students have gone on to careers contributing to the intellectual and cultural life of our nation.)


The situation of pedagogy has been quite different in different settings. The social position of professors in China is far more respected than in the USA. I’m under no illusions about our past (see the 1921 film THE BLOT), but the observable fact is that there has been a tremendous change in attitudes towards education during my lifetime. I’m of the “Sputnik generation.” During the Cold War, public education was seen as a major defense issue. (The student loans back then were mostly offered under the National Defense Education Act.) While there had always been a strong strand of anti-intellectualism in American culture (see Richard Hofstadter’s classic on the subject), the rise of neo-conservatism signaled an all-out attack on public education at all levels, accompanied by increasing privatization of education, and this has only worsened with the coming of the Trump age. I’m also under no illusions about the degree of freedom available to educators in China, though nobody has ever made any suggestions to me about what I should or should not teach. But as to poetry, curiously enough (or not) the rise of the creative writing programs has been accompanied by a stunning de-emphasis on the study of poetry in the academy. In four decades of teaching, I have never held a position that was advertised as being in poetry, despite the fact that I teach so much of it.


There are many, many poet/scholars on the scene today, but few of them were hired specifically to teach poetry. The last time I looked at job postings there had only been two jobs offered in the United States designated as critical studies of poetry. Didactic methods? Because I had never been a TA during my graduate studies, I’d never had any formal training in pedagogy—it was all seat-of-the-pants learning for me. At every university where I have taught there have been fabulous teachers, whose pedagogical successes I have envied. But the American academy is also possessed by a class system nearly as rigid as the British one we eschewed. There is a vast gulf between the Ivies and, say, the community colleges. Considering the fact that we are all doing the same absolutely indispensable work, the disparities in compensation and respect are inexcusable in my view.


DG: In your book Black Chant Languages of African-American Postmodernism (1997) you wrote that “African-American poetics both birthed and fractured modernist and postmodernist practices.” It seems that the tide is once again turning towards the issue of identity, particularly the identity of the writer and how it informs the work some editors are choosing to publish. I’m thinking of presses which champion the work of LGBT or BIPOC writers, for example (and I want to stress for very good reasons). Do you see current poetic trends as having in some ways refuted “the death of the author” by once again embracing authorial intent, authorial presence—by reading their work with their backgrounds at the forefront, instead of evaluating manuscripts blind?


ALN: At the outset of my career in scholarship, critics that shared my philosophical bent were often accused of denying that there was any such thing as identity, while we were simultaneously accused of being possessed by identity politics. In Black Chant and elsewhere I advanced an argument rooted in historical fact to the effect that the emergence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent evolution of an African diaspora were the conditions of possibility for the rise of the industrial revolution and the appearance of modernity. I went on to argue for the existence of a sort of fold in cultural history whereby African diasporic arts were early instances of what came to be recognized as a post-modern. Those arguments would take too much time to rehearse here, but they are at the root of your questions. African diasporic identities came into being, as did “White” identities, because of these processes; they had not existed previously. (Clearly, earlier English people did not see themselves as being of the same race as the Irish, for example.)


Tides come in and tides go out; you can drown in them. “The death of the author” was a critique of an “author function,” not a denial of the existence of people who write. When the New Critics objected to intentional fallacies and biographical fallacies, they were not disavowing any interest in authors per se. Rather, they were refusing to let biography be the limit horizon of interpretation. Barthes’ “Death of the Author” is making the same argument in a post-structuralist context. When people refer to Foucault’s reference to Beckett, his citation of the line “what does it matter who is speaking,” they too often forget the rest of that quotation: “What does it matter who is speaking, someone said, what does it matter who is speaking?” (emphasis added) So, no, the “death of the author” is not dead, and certainly hasn’t been refuted. The preferences of editors have nothing to do with that larger question. I can’t really speak to what is informing the choices of editors, other than remarking on my own editorial practices. I am the co-editor with Laurie Scheyer for example, of two anthologies of poetry by Black poets. Those anthologies continue the work of Black Chant and Integral Music, an effort to reassert and analyze a lineage of “experimental,” “postmodern,” poetics that had become somewhat obscured in the 80s and 90s. Even at the peak of the Black Arts Movement, which some would consider a high-water mark of identitarian aesthetics, most Black poetry anthologies included a strong representation of such poetry, no surprise given the central role of Amiri Baraka in both the preceding New American Poetry moment and the Black Arts Movements. But, in what I saw as a sort of counter-reformation, those more avant gardeish poets had been nearly disappeared. So, yes, we built two anthologies around the work of Black poets, but the poetry itself, witness the work of N.J. Loftis and others, shook the very structures of racial identities.


Now, it had not escaped my attention that previous anthologies composed entirely of White poets had not been spoken of in terms of identity politics. The late Helen Vendler, reviewing a popular anthology edited by Rita Dove, accused Dove of having followed an “ethnic agenda” instead of selecting aesthetically superior works. But Vendler herself had published a book purportedly representative of “Modern American Poets,” that addressed not even one non-White poet. I guess what I’m saying is that editorial identity politics is often very much in the eye of the beholder.

 

DG: A large focus of your research constitutes what you’ve described as “the vexed relationship between race and modernity” and much of your work has dealt with the role of language as a signifier for empowerment, exclusion, and othering. Scholarship has always had an ambivalent connection with people like Thomas Jefferson, who didn’t think Phyllis Wheatley was worthy of the label “poet,” and writers like Pound—a raging anti-Semite. Would you say, at this juncture, that post-modernism, in its attempt to pin down the factors which construct ideology, has failed to resolve the problem of race?


ALN: I would be surprised to learn that anybody had thought postmodernism might somehow resolve the problems of race. Justice Roberts tells me that time has already resolved those problems. One aim of Critical Race Theory, perhaps now banned in a school near you, was to historicize and analyze the workings of race in American legal structures and beyond. Much of my own early scholarship was devoted to tracing and critiquing the manifold ways in which racial discourses were woven into the fabric of modern American poetry and contemporary criticism. Works such as George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness provided concrete evidence of the continued powers of race in the everyday lives of Americans. David Theo Goldberg, in books such as Anatomy of Racism, brought together the broad range of thinkers who had addressed the subject over the ages. That book’s dedication reads: “for future generations: for a future without racism(s).” The evidence of our own very recent past bears home the sad lesson that such a future is still very far from our grasp. Postmodern theorists could do the heavy lifting of deconstructing the philosophical structures of racial identities, but, and I’m sure most readers have noticed the following: The work of philosophers and theorists has very little immediate effect within the larger society, and now, in states like Florida and Texas, even teaching that work might well cost you your livelihood.


Race and racisms are extraordinarily complex ideologies, no surprise given their centuries-long evolution. Pound was an antisemite and a racist; at the same time, he spoke up for anthropologists that brought us knowledge of ancient African civilizations—he was a poet who invoked the Black American evangelist Elder Lightfoot Michaux in the Cantos and sent Langston Hughes a contribution for the Scottsboro Boys defense. Anybody who has read the novels of Henry Miller knows what vile racial stereotypes he trafficked in, but those very same readers might be surprised to learn of Miller’s dedication to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. To refer again to my early work in these fields, I was often advised, when discussing the evident racism of one modernist poet or another, that “it’s more complicated.” Of course it is. Were it not, we might have advanced farther in our combat with it by now. But there has always—perhaps “always already”— been a talk-back circuit. Wheatley, who you mention in the question, had lodged a before-the-fact response to Jefferson right there in her poetry. In verses addressed to the students in Cambridge, she pauses to remind them that Terence was an African. Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia may have desired to close off the canon to Black people, but, Wheatley would have us know, Black people were already there. Philosophy and poetry cannot resolve the problems of race, but they may give us the equipment and the resolve to work towards that end in our communities. Still, the forces trying to drive us backward are themselves well-equipped and well-funded. Each of us needs to join the battle where we are.


DG: Apart from your efforts as a professor and editor, music also plays a large role in your life. I’d like to ask about this aspect specifically in relation to poetry: Do you see the poetic line as inherently musical or does meaning supersede any consideration?


ALN: Aside from my wife, nothing has played a stronger role in my life than music and poetry. But I don’t really recognize the divide represented by that “or” in the question. There has always been a musicality to language. This is perhaps most immediately obvious in tonal languages, but even in English, the intonation and rhythm patterns of the most ordinary speech catch the ear, particularly when we move about among English speech communities. When I hear Irish people speaking I’m powerfully struck by the different tonalities of their speech patterns, as, indeed, they may find my own speech to strike a different chord. While I never bought into Frost’s theories, he asserted that there was a certain “sentence sound” that imparted meaning apart from the semantic content of the statement. Any practicing linguist will include these qualities among the array of metalinguistic features of language. (Gestures and facial expression would come into this as well, but let’s stick to the language for the moment.) Poets are people who are especially attuned to these rhythms and inflections, and who organize them into patterns in their verse. Any and every poetic line, then, is inherently musical, but how the poet organizes these elements is what is of interest.


There is a music of meaning also. As we read anything at all, we are constantly making meaning(s) in our interactions with the text. Musicality plays a role in that meaning making, as you can judge from the fact that speaking words quietly and slowly takes on a different social meaning from the same words shouted out. Phenomenological criticism, the sort of reader response study found in critics like Iser, looks at the shifting horizons of interpretation as we move through a poem. In my reading, that mental activity is a sort of music on a par with the actual musicality of the lines. I gave up on the form/content argument in my youth, never having encountered a formless anything or a truly content-free anything. (I’m old enough to recall the celebrations of “the return of content” in the art world decades ago. I was never sure where it was returning from.)


DG: Let’s talk about current politics. It seems we’re living in unprecedented times, and yet what is unprecedented always comes from somewhere. Short of discussing the definition of that word, would you prefer to see more or less poetry written about what’s happening?


ALN: What seems unprecedented in our time has a very long prelude. Part of our immediate problem comes from what I consider bad decisions on the part of our “founding fathers” as they made the compromises that left us, for example, with the electoral college. But keeping to the more immediate history—what we’re faced with now has its roots in the “Massive Resistance” to Brown v Board of Education (a decision any number of right wingers today continue to contest). With the “Goldwater revolution” of 1964, we began to see the parties polarizing around issues of race. Goldwater suffered a huge defeat, but that was the beginning of the  movement of Southern Dixiecrats to the Republican Party. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” successfully formalized that movement, and by the time of Reagan it had reached an apotheosis. Since that time, the old system, whereby each party had its conservative and moderate wings, was done for. With the advent of Trumpist MAGA politics, we inhabit a world when open racism is encouraged by one political party, and the progress of recent decades in a number of areas is rapidly being unwound.


Now, poetry, art, can be “about” anything. Du Bois urged us to recognize that all art is propaganda. (Chairman Mao reminds us that not all propaganda is art.) John Barth left us a delightful essay “about aboutness.” Frederick Barthelme gave us an essay playfully subtitled “minimalist spills bean.” But there is no work so abstract as to be entirely free of reference. And all art is received within political contexts. Poetry in one sense or another is always about what’s happening.


In the wake of the 2016 election, a massive anthology was published, to which I contributed a poem, titled Resist Much, Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance. I made that book the text for the graduate seminar I was teaching in China that year. The students were amazed that such a book could be published in America. I explained that in our nation we don’t ban poets; we ignore them. Clearly I spoke too soon, given the spread of book bans in the years since. The anthology had no more direct effect in our nation’s politics than does your average inaugural poem, but seeing such an outpouring of response from the world of poetry was a heartening experience, as heartening as being in the crowds on the Washington Mall on the Fourth of July. The poems in the book range from the most literal to the most abstract, but each marks a mode of resistance, and that is not something to underestimate.


By the way, in the wake of that volume, I went hunting for pro-Trump poems. There have always been politically conservative poets in the United States, but the paucity of positive responses to Trump among them hints at something else in our contemporary discourse—this is not conservatism. As you might imagine, the results of my searching were less than impressive. There was some Scottish American’s epic celebration of Trump, but little else.


DG: In 1963 your father started a tradition of going to Washington D.C. every year to capture images of the National Christmas Tree. Can you talk about how this started, the occasion of the first and last photo he took there, along with some other interesting aspects of those journeys?


ALN: My family moved to what area folks now term “the DMV” when I was thirteen years old. It seems there’s a photography gene somewhere in our lineage. One of my recent books has a cover illustration based on a photo I took that year on my little Brownie Starflash camera. We all fell in love with the multitude of opportunities the nation’s capital offered to us. My father’s office was just blocks from the ellipse. That very first year he began the tradition of taking us all to the National Christmas Tree (which is always accompanied by representations of other religious traditions, especially Hannukah), and making a photograph of the tree. In those days, each year’s tree came from a different state, and then there were rows of smaller trees from each of the other states. It was always great fun, no matter how cold. There were usually musical performances of one kind or another going on. (One of the great things about D.C. for me in my youth was the sheer quantity of free musical performances in the city.) My father kept up the tradition through all the years, even after all his children had grown up and moved away. There’s another photo taken on his last trip to the ellipse, in the company of his sons and grandson. Late in his life, the Washington Post got wind of all this (probably by way of the National Park Service, which had started including my father’s Christmas Tree photos on their web sites) and did a nice write up about the tradition. My youngest brother, Brian, a quite good photographer, has carried the tradition on. Because my father and I have the same given name (nearly always mispronounced by strangers) I often hear from people who run across his photos online and think I made them. It’s a sweet mistake that I always appreciate.


DG: Throughout your long career, you’ve had the privilege of winning several awards. Did these significantly alter the way you went on to write and do you think your work would have followed the same trajectory had you not won?


ALN: The awards I’ve received are not really the sort that transform your career or alter your way of thinking about your work. The one that has always meant the most to me was the first Larry Neal Award for Poetry. I treasure that one because I knew Larry Neal late in his life, and because it was awarded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The Neal Awards still exist, and a few years ago I was given the opportunity to attend the ceremony and present the poetry award to that year’s recipient. I received the SAMLA Studies Prize for the manuscript of my first monograph, Reading Race, which, upon publication, went on to receive the Kayden Prize for best book in the humanities. I foolishly thought such recognition would improve my chances on the academic job market, but it proved even such a distinction as that would never lift this graduate of the University of the District of Columbia to the heady heights occupied by my Ivy League fellow travelers. Another mostly unknown award that meant a great deal to me was the Josephine Miles Award. I had always been in awe of Miles, and the award was given by PEN/Oakland. As I said, none of these awards would get you into the newspapers, or into Harvard; certainly not into the Academy of American Poets. I have been truly gratified by such honors, but they had utterly no effect on what I wrote or on the shape of my career. They came to me out of the blue, and then went back into the blue.


DG: Your affinity for Amiri Baraka is well-known, but Lorenzo Thomas was the one who published, “ just a year before his passing,” a poem which closed on the following question: "But which way is redemption?" Has the nature of that inquiry changed over the years for you, or has it remained firmly one or the other—either a genuine question or a rhetorical one?


ALN: That line is from Lorenzo’s poem, titled “Downtown Boom,” that I quoted on my old blog. That poem begins:

 

There are no gospel singers

Anymore

 

On the corners

They held down for Jesus

 

Though Lorenzo’s poem reminds me of the mood in one of my own earliest pieces, “The Swann Street Silvertones.” I had begun seeing Lorenzo’s work in places like Hoo Doo Review back then, and had much admired both his poetry and his essays. We were introduced to one another by Charles Bernstein in the mid-1980s and quickly became fast friends. As time went on, we often found ourselves paired on panels at one conference or another. I remember the first AWP conference I ever attended, in Baltimore. Lorenzo and I were a two-person panel on the works of Sterling Brown, scheduled for eight in the morning. I went down to the meeting room wondering if anybody would be there, and there was Lucille Clifton (by then also a friend) waiting for the session to commence. She had long ago been a student of Sterling’s at Howard University, where I would decades later begin my professorial career.


Lorenzo was the youngest member of the Society of Umbra, a group increasingly recognized as the vital bridge between mid-century Black poetry and the Black Arts Movement. He knew Ted Greenwald when they were both teens, and they co-edited a little journal titled Ear that was clearly forwarding the New York School aesthetic, and pointing towards what came to be known as Language writing. (Lorenzo was the only Black writer to appear in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E zine published by Bernstein and Andrews.)


But which way is redemption? Going back to our question of present-day politics in America, we, in my view, seem farther from it than at any other time in my life. We inhabit an era when the worst come to power, and refuse to acknowledge that there is anything to be redeemed for; will sue you if you teach the history of our manifest wrongs. I was raised in the Baptist church, where we were taught that redemption is always possible, but also taught that one must acknowledge the need for redemption. What was it Yeats said about how the worst are full of passionate intensity?


I take heart in the fact that the majority of Americans do not support the worst, to the extent that the worst are forced to rewrite laws to prevent the popular will from prevailing. I take heart in the sheer creativity I see every waking day. The fact that so many persist in poetry, go on creating such beauty and intelligence in language, with no real hope, or even expectation, that doing so will bring them material reward, that keeps me from ultimate despair. Lorenzo’s poem looks out at a transformed cityscape, and it asks directions. Poetry itself cannot save us, or really give us that direction, but the human spirit that brings poetry into being is a sign of the redemptive powers that lie within us.


DG: You’ve had the privilege of writing in different settings. To what extent has place influenced the subject of your work?


ALN: There’s that exchange in Paterson between Williams and Marcia Nardi where Nardi expresses her frustration about her position as a working-class woman poet. It’s not the writing itself that is a problem; it’s really the getting oneself into a circumstance where writing can take place. My academic jobs have given me a rare opportunity to spend time with brilliant people in many places. I had not travelled outside the United States at all till I was forty. But in the decades since, I’ve been able to spend time in places like Spain, Ghana, France . . . and for eight years I taught every summer in Wuhan, China. I’ve always been able to write poetry wherever I’ve been. The scholarship, though, has relied on access to materials. I’ve collected a lot of those materials myself, but couldn’t carry them off to China with me. Upon retiring from Penn State and coming home to my wife in California, I had to give up (give away) nearly all of the materials I had accumulated. But the pandemic helped me learn that I could still get work done. I was just starting on a book about Amiri Baraka and music when the lockdown cut me off from my entire collection. But I was able to sit at my computer and find nearly all the music I was writing about, and my friends spread around the world were always willing to dig out a book and look up a quotation for me. So the writing itself always proceeds. As to the subject, yes. I published a sequence written in Ghana, and another growing out of my visits to China. My location always finds its way into the work, though nowhere like it did in Olson’s. From the time I first came to California from D.C., the vastly different terrain of the Pacific Coast has made itself known in any number of my poems. Still, all those other geographies are still inside me, and they guide the work.


DG: What are you reading or working on these days?


I’m reading James Schuyler’s uncollected poems, Noura Erakat’s Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, and Rae Armantrout’s Go Figure. I just finished John Jacobs’ The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Story of Slavery. He was the brother of Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Next I’m going to reread Ernesto Sabato’s Sobre Heroes y Tumbas, which I had first read back in my student days.


In the past, I’ve been leery of describing projects of my own. Probably because there was always the possibility that perhaps nothing would come of my grandiose plans. I’m at an age now, however, where I don’t worry about whether or not what I’m writing will ever find a publisher. I’m in the midst of a poetry book manuscript, tentatively titled Giant Music. There is a poem bearing that title in the manuscript, but the title is a bit of a joke as most of the poems are quite short. (The short poems in LAdige are part of that ms.) I am also working on multiple co-editing projects, including another volume of work by Lorenzo Thomas, a collection of essays by the late Tyrone Williams, and there is talk of a selected Tolson writings project. I’m starting out on a hybrid project looking closely at the poetry Amiri Baraka was publishing just before he stopped being LeRoi Jones. It will be rooted in scholarship, but consist of highly subjective readings of the poems. I’ve also committed to writing essays on Bob Dylan, A.B. Spellman and others. (I really should make a list of those due dates.)


THANKS!



Author Bio:


A.L. Nielsen was the first recipient of the Larry Neal Award for poetry. His volumes of verse include Heat Strings, Evacuation Routes, VEXT, Mixage, Stepping Razor, A Brand New Beggar, Mantic Semantic, Tray, You Didn't Hear This From Me, Back Pages and Spider Cone. He has taught at Howard University, San Jose State, UCLA, Loyola Marymount, Penn State and The Central China Normal University. His critical works include Reading Race, Writing between the Lines, Black Chant, C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction, Integral Music and The Inside Songs of Amiri Baraka. Other awards include the SAMLA Studies Award, two Gertrude Stein Awards, the Kayden Prize and the Josephine Miles Award. Nielsen is also editor and co-editor of Every Goodbye Ain't Gone, What I Say, Don't Deny My Name (by Lorenzo Thomas), and The Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas.





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