Tuesday, 30 April 2019

New from MATERIALS: Books, Readings, Launches

Available for Pre-Order

Very pleased to announce that Anne Boyer’s Money City Sick as Fuck is available for pre-order. Selected from a sequence of 100 poems written on a long day in the summer of 2013, Money City imagines writing a poem "in a confederacy of exception [...] called 'wages for tenderness and nothing else'". Situated between Pompeii and Olympus, at "Texaco in ruins" or the amusement park, in a bar called Lethe, at &the saddest prom in history, taking "every odd route", these poems passionately survey and survive the streets and jails of the modern-day polis,"sunbathing in Atlantis", oracles IRL.

The peak consequence —
             this port
                        of pleasure —
                                  we will
                                or will not
                                  realize —

Reserve your copy at http://material-s.blogspot.com/

Also: MATERIALS Reading Series. Charlotte Thiessen, Marty Hiatt and Joel Scott will read at SET, 27A Dalston Lane, London E8 3DF, on Monday 27th May. Further details at: https://www.facebook.com/events/2271144293103838/

And: Double book launch for two new books from Bloomsbury's Critical Poetic series, A Black Arts Poetry Machine and Lyric Pedagogy and Marxist-Feminism at May Day Rooms, Fleet Street, London, on Saturday 11th May, 7pm. David Grundy and Sam Solomon will provide a brief overview of the books and will share discoveries for their research. The presentations will be followed by an open discussion. See: https://maydayrooms.org/whats-on/

Monday, 22 April 2019

Brandon Brown - The Four Seasons (Wonder, 2018)

Picked up from Brandon Brown himself in the Bay Area last summer, a month or so before his UK tour and wondrous readings in London and at the Sussex Poetry Festival, The Four Seasons is a book I've been living with for some time now. First things first, it's a lovely-looking edition (perfect bound, large-pocket sized) published by small (but perfectly formed) press Wonder – or, as the web address proclaims, Shit Wonder. And the particular brand of humour in that phrase, a kind of wide-open irony which manages to avoid either fatalistic bathos or recuperated sublime slipping in through the back-door, characterises the tone of the book as a whole. Written back in 2015-2016,  its title provides easy clue to its main thematic preoccupation: the organisation of daily lives into the broader temporal frame of seasons, which are "arbitrary in practice if not in legislation" (12). Not subscribing to the annual division from January to December, the book instead moves, in a manner arbitrary/not-arbitrary, from May Day to May Day: what Brown calls "my idiotic poetry calendar" (38). At one point, he calls seasons myths to live by (133); their balance between recurrence and passing, happiness and mourning giving the book its bittersweet airs.

The Four Seasons is a daybook, journal, diary, or sectional long-form piece of prose that doesn’t at first glance appear to be a ‘poem’ per se. It has the virtues of the more digressive and personal nature of the non-academic essay (and in that sense could be placed in a tradition of say, Romanticism – the period that perhaps most influences Brown, poetically, in terms of his reading). It can also be charmingly silly, rolling along on endearing stoner vibes (sample: "One day I got so stoned I thought I invented the word 'wow' "). But, on top of this, it's shot through with an understatedly meticulous attention to the roll and flow of language off the tongue -- which is ‘poetic’ insofar as it is vernacular and musical, conversational and artificial, citational and specific to the moment, sliding between the speaking and the written voice, a chatty and dialogic monologue, the result of a practice that nonetheless retains a keen sense of overall structure, and above all, timing.

When Brown reads the text out loud -- as he did at the Sussex Poetry Festival and for the Splinter Reading series in Lewisham during the heatwave last summer -- he leaves stand-up comedy pauses, extended beyond expected limits, looks around, starts again as if the lines he'd just read were improvised, that he'd just thought of them. (And after all, that balance between spontaneity and rehearsed routine is the drama of stand-up per se.) That movement mimics but is not equivalent to how it feels to track the work's pacing as you read. There’s this thing Brown does, particular in the first section, of alternating paragraphs, where one theme is held in suspension while another is introduced and then the other one is returned to, overlapping, interweaving, like balls moving through the air in the hands of skilled juggler. Is that too easy a metaphor? What I'm trying to talk about are the spaces / pauses between anecdotes / paragraphs, as observation succeeds observation, the original observation coming back in a few pages later, the thread picked up again. It’s very musical. Not pop song. Sonata form? Or canon? Or fugue? Recapitulation, modulation, development, repeating phrases cycling through a musical improvisation, or the variations on a theme: and weirdly, in terms of structure if not spirit, closer to jazz or sonata form than to the pop songs that drench Brown’s work (most notably the previous book-length Top 40, which cycles through the top 40 songs in the pop charts at one time as social index, record of the work routine and its opposites, what live alongside it).

The overall framing of seasonal order reversed, starts with summer through to spring: in Brown’s calendar, the connection to labour that the seasons encapsulate is central, with worker’s holidays present as respite but also with mendacious overlay, public festivities as at once repositories of social exclusion and nationalistic violence and of the carnivaleseque, the jubilee, the warmth of community.
The seasons for Brown are also ways of reckoning with mortality. The discourse here is not spiritual per se, though Brown uses the traditional framework of the voyage to the land of the dead in the book’s most extended and moving narrative passage, taking up much of the Winter section. Nonetheless, it is to do with those things that are the frequent terrain of spiritual / religious practices: memorialisation, mourning, and the reckoning with death and change: the relation to artistic peers, celebrity idols, and deceased friends, marked in rituals or temporal observances that are at once highly personal and collectively ritualistic. The journey to the land of the dead, which starts off destabilising-jokey, a kind of sideways stoner-slip into alternative mental realms on the way to the supermarket, and ends surprisingly moving, as Brown encounters deceased friends, poets, from Peter Culley to David Bowie. And throughout the book, a meditation on what it means for seasonal division to be the way we parcel up our lives – quoting David Brazil on the etymology of seasons, thinking about time and motion and space, what happens to the body placed in seasons, in the world.

Another recurring tic: "[insert author name] has a line like". There's a recurring joke, or trope, about a line of poetry that Brown might only have half-remembered, but won't go to the book and check-- "[insert author name] has a line like..." This is, of course, not laziness but a deliberate flipping round of our usual approach to citation / allusion, drawing attention to the way lines reverberate in memory and the way we, sometimes, make them something else, is important to the way the book works. This reaches its crescendo in the section where Brown tries to transcribe the entirety of Keat's 'Ode to Autumn' off the top of his head, leaving in the transcription with incorrectly- and partially-remembered lines, the morphed lines and the gaps of less memorable sections creating some strange new hybrid. Textual authority is (temporarily) subordinated to the practice of reading and remembering as intimate, personal, yet with a gesture towards common/communality that is central to the book's ethics.

This is what the seasons are for Brown, what they allow him to do: to index the personal relation to sweat and smell, the sweet leaking of flowers or the harsh bite of winter to index how those individual observations are shaped by and relate to literary figurations, and how these are all interwoven into the social fabric of the every day. In that sense, Autumn is Keats. And now, the seasons are Brandon Brown, forest fires or unexpected snow or early spring, wherever you are, whatever the climate.

Thursday, 28 February 2019


Just a brief announcement that issue No. 5 of SPLINTER magazine is out for the last day of February -- 68 pages of poems from the following poets: Quenton Baker, Elana Chavez, Iris Colomb, D.I., Ian Heames, Lisa Jeschke, Mendoza / MacPherson / Hardy, Montenegro Fisher, Reitha Pattison, Jèssica Pujol Duran, Verity Spott, Catherine Wagner, Emilia Weber. Plus news, reviews and pictures...(The mag includes my review of Quenton Baker's excellent This Glittering Republic.)

Available for £3 (UK), £4 (Europe) or £6 (Rest of World), from: http://splintermag.blogspot.com/

Thursday, 7 February 2019

A Black Arts Poetry Machine

My book, A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets is out today from Bloomsbury today -- with many thanks to series editor Daniel Katz, and to the readers and peer reviewers who helped shape it into being. Here's the blurb:
“A vital hub of poetry readings, performance, publications and radical politics in 1960s New York, the Umbra Workshop was a cornerstone of the African American avant-garde. Bringing together new archival research and detailed close readings of poetry, A Black Arts Poetry Machine is a groundbreaking study of this important but neglected group of poets. David Grundy explores the work of such poets as Amiri Baraka, Lorenzo Thomas and Calvin Hernton and how their innovative poetic forms engaged with radical political responses to state violence and urban insurrection. Through this examination, the book highlights the continuing relevance of the work of the Umbra Workshop today and is essential reading for anyone interested in 20th-century American poetry.”
I guess that needs some background...The Umbra Poets Workshop was formed in the early 1960s in the atmosphere of artistic and political radicalism that saw African-American protestors disrupt the business-as-usual order of the UN building in New York in protest at the murder of Patrice Lumumba. One of the participating groups, the On Guard Committee for Freedom -- a political organisation -- essentially then coalesced into a more artistically-focused group, the Umbra Workshop. The group held regular meetings at Tom Dent's flat, in which they would get together to discuss each other's in-progress work, and were an active presence in the New York poetry scene of the time. Consisting of a fluctuating, but always large, membership, they aimed to form a publication, workshop and reading environment at a time when the poetry scenes around them were almost exclusively white. The group also started a magazine, of which two issues were produced during its most active period, with further issues appearing at periodic intervals later on, after the group had officially disbanded.

Copies of the magazine are rarer than hen's teeth these days -- there was talk of an Umbra reader coming out from CUNY's Lost and Found programme, but I haven't seen or heard any news of that for a while. Let's hope that something happens! But Umbra was always more than just a magazine. Calvin Hernton described the explosive impact Umbra Poets would make at readings within the predominantly white New York poetry scene of the time: sometimes appearing eight-to-ten at a time, they appeared, in his words, like "a dynamic, well-rehearsed black arts poetry machine". So while Baraka has often been essentially credited with 'founding' the Black Arts Movement, establishing the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem after Malcolm X's death in 1965 -- an enterprise in which members of Umbra were involved -- Umbra should be understood as laying the ground -- and, perhaps, offering examples of roads not taken. Umbra are sometimes credited in histories of the period as precursors, but their work is almost never considered in depth. Hence this book! (I'm also played to say that another book, by Jean-Phillipe Marcoux, is in the works -- watch this space...)

Of course, the Black Arts Movement challenged easy divisions between the political and the aesthetic, and politics was also key to Umbra. The book's first chapter discusses the 1961 UN protest and the emergence of Umbra, along the way offering readings of poems that emerged from the protest and its environment by Ishmael Reed, Raymond R. Patterson, Askia Toure, Ray Durem and Lorenzo Thomas. Here's one of them:

I use this chapter to argue that, at this point in time, tradition of African-American internationalism was already in existence -- involving Baraka, to be sure, but alongside many other now-forgotten figures, not least the Umbra poets. Umbra itself was short-lived, but it set in motion a number of hugely important careers -- to list them partially, beginning with perhaps the most famous, that of Ishmael Reed, but also of Lorenzo Thomas -- later on, a Black Arts scholar, and throughout, for my money, one of the most unjustifiably-neglected poets in America of the second-half of the Twentieth Century (though thankfully a collected poems is forthcoming -- this is a bit of a boom-time for Umbra, it seems!); and of Tom Dent, 'New Orleans Griot' (likewise, an invaluable Dent Reader came out last year -- edited by Dent's friend and comrade Kalamu ya Salaam, you can get it here); of David Henderson, maybe best known as the first biographer of Jimi Hendrix, collaborator with Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and others, poet of what he calls the 'third eye/world' of diasporic culture in America; of Calvin C. Hernton, author of the controversial Sex and Racism in America, attendee of R.D. Laing's Kingsley Hall and meetings of the Caribbean Artists Movement, novelist and poet; of N.H. Pritchard, whose experimental concrete poetry has recently been addressed by Fred Moten and in Anthony Reed's Freedom Time; Lloyd Addison, perhaps the most experimental of the Umbra poets, author of prodiguous, often self-published output, allusive, punning and singular; Askia Toure (then Rolland Snellings), today one of the eminent grises of the Black Arts Movement; Rashidah Ismaili, whose Autobiography of the Lower East Side has been getting some recent praise, and who should (as is the case with all these writers) be far better-known; Steve Cannon, still an active figure in New York artistic scenes; did I mention that Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor were also involved?! -- and all that's just the half of it...

Within a single book, I wasn't able to write on every member of the workshop, so, after the ensemble first chapter on the Lumumba Protest, each subsequent chapter focuses on one principal writer. Though Amiri Baraka was never a member of the workshop, he knew a number of the Umbra poets and invited them to perform in the Black Arts Repertory Theatre / School. (Here's Clayton Riley's review of the event for Liberator, alongside some images from the feature on 'five young afro-american poets' in French left magazine Revolution, which sets Baraka alongside Umbra poets Lorenzo Thomas and Joe Johnson, as well as A.B. Spellman and a very young Sonia Sanchez.)

While Baraka's Black Arts work is too often taken in isolation, as if suddenly it emerged in an explosion of provocative militancy, setting it against the backdrop of Umbra helps us -- I hope! -- read it anew. So the book's second chapter turns to Baraka's response to urban insurrection and stereotypes of African-American militancy in the iconic mid-60s poems 'Black Dada Nihilismus', 'Black Art' and 'Black People!'.

Guerilla: Free Newspaper of the Streets, Vol.2, No.1, 1968. Broadside edited by Allen Van Newkirk of the group Black Mask.

The third chapter concentrates on David Henderson's poetry, charting the complexities of New York racial politics at the time -- as he writes, 'Harlem to Lower East Side, space of a nation' -- and in particular the 1964 Harlem Rebellion, from which emerged his poem 'Keep on Pushing'. We then get Calvin C. Hernton's writings on riots, in poetry and in an incendiary essay 'Dynamite Growing Out of their Skulls!', published in Baraka's and Larry Neal's anthology Black Fire; and another Hernton chapter, on his poem 'Medicine Man', read for its complex and tortured address to the American South.

Next up, a chapter on Tom Dent, which touches on his work with The Free Southern Theatre, who courageously toured the South, eventually settling in New Orleans, and thence his own poetry emerging from the city -- notably, the long poem 'Return to English Turn'. Finally, there's a chapter on Lorenzo Thomas's poem 'The Bathers', one of the great poems of the Black Arts Movement, and its (re)writing of the 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. (I also touch here on Ishmael Reed's amazing early prose-poem 'The Ghost in Birmingham' -- subsequently the first item in his collected poems, it appeared in the magazine Liberator in the early 60s and is as good an indication as any of just how the good the writing coming out of Umbra could be.)

Anyhow...There's still so much more to be done on Umbra, and on this moment in African-American writing: let's hope that this is just the tip of the iceberg!