woc: a miscellany
May 24, 2023
Frank O’Hara wore his pants tight, tight enough that according to some accounts everyone wanted to go to bed with him. This has been an elusive goal of mine as well, thwarted by a wardrobe of pleated dockers. In my case, I am actually referring to pants, but O’Hara’s reference, in his brilliant manifesto on poetry called “Personism,” is about “measure and other technical apparatus.” He is advising that it is only common sense to include formal devices in the writing of a poem.
Of course, this makes sense because poetry, though it is the co-joined sister of brother prose, is different, perhaps even elevated above prose by the intense way it organizes the common elements shared by both. Prose, though it can ofttimes read like poetry, is allowed to be—prosy—as long as isn’t “dull,” or “unimaginative” as Merriam-Webster defines the term. That is to say, it is composed of sentences—simple, complex, compound and logical. More is expected of poetry. If then, prose is wearing baggy pants, poetry wears skinny jeans.
Readers familiar with poetry in English before the mid-19th century, will know that poems were expected to adhere to established metrical schemes. Though these schemes, for example, the sonnet, varied (variations added interest and interest delight) the reading public expected these structural patterns as a sign of the mastery of the poet. Then comes our grizzled, gray-bearded all-American great grandfather Walt Whitman to shake things up. But not as much as you might think. Whereas Whitman’s tact on poetry in English steered away from the accentual-syllabic measures, he none-the-less employed a musical scheme in his verse. Drawing on the organization of Italian opera and American political speeches, his prosody emphasized rhetorical cadence and achieved its musicality principally through various kinds of repetition, catalogs, and parallelisms. To best hear Whitman’s music, you will need to shut the door to your study, stand on a chair in the middle of the room and in your loudest and most theatrical voice read his poems. I suggest starting with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” section 11. The old man’s musicality comes in waves of breath, waves of utterances that crash against the walls of your room and break into rivulets of smaller utterances. It contains multitudes.
Others, too, deserted the strict musicality of accentual-syllabics for the beat of a different drummer. The early twentieth century brought rich poetic innovation, pulling away from the traditional forms and developing new metrics such as those found in Langston Hughes’s jazz and blues poems, Marianne Moore’s and O’Hara’s conversational rhythms, Margaret Walker’s spiritual and folk rhythms, and later the incantations of Ai. Of course, too, we hear music in contemporary “performance poetry.” I dare say—yes, I dare—that musicians such as Gil Scott Heron, Barry White, and even Bobby Womack draw on poetic phrasing as much as musical phrasing, in the recitative parts of their songs. Keep in mind, that music and poetry have been long married and aren’t likely ever to be divorced! From the days of the lyre and the chant of ancient ritual to hip-hop, there has been little difference in purpose between the musician and the poet, given differences in modes of expression and presentation. Just as you shake your booty to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, you can shake it to T.S. Eliot, albeit with greater sobriety.
Ezra Pound, the self-proclaimed father of modern poetry, makes the point in one of his manifestos, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” published in Poetry magazine in 1913: “Behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music.” In 1918, he would follow up by making this advice one of his three principles: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” He is advising that the poet composes with cadence rhythm, not accentual syllabics—but also, he is inviting personal innovation and expression by breaking the restrictions of any metronomic prosody. Later on in “A Few Don’ts,” he also declares, “It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music…”.
Now for a little tea. To avoid a trial for treason, Pound was declared legally insane in 1945 and was committed to Saint Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital until 1958. Not being a fan of either his The Cantos or his Fascism, I don’t have a lot of sympathy, but he wasn’t wrong about poetry and music. Poems may rely on any number of elements—by emphasizing imagery, for instance. But poets must underlie their poems with music—that is, a rhythmic or sonic organization. If the poem doesn’t sing, it at least must hum. Not to do so means that all things else fall flat—no matter how inventive.
Even poems which utilize prose or conversational utterance must exploit the natural cadences, accents and pauses of these rhythms, as well as the various sonics—true rhyme, alliteration, assonance—plosives, liquids—repetitions of all kinds. For a primer on the music of poetry, read Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry, then read his poems.
Marianne Moore’s conversational poem, “Poetry” begins, “I, too, dislike it,” a simple and plain declaration, but as the poem develops it becomes a musical treatise:
the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base—
ball fan, the statistician
Momma Marianne was wearing her tri-cornered hat and her cape on this one, but she could also pull on the leggings and show her rump. Read “The Fish” if you want to watch her boogie-woogie.
This essay originally appeared at the Georgia Writers Association website.
December 28, 2018
Summer and Fall of Love
It was 1967. My father and I were sitting on the screen porch watching the CBS evening news on a flickering black and white television. Uncle Walty, as I would later hear the somber voiced news caster nicknamed, was reporting that thousands of mostly white, mostly middle class young people were gathering in the streets of San Francisco for what they billed as “The Summer of Love.” The Siren’s song, “If you’re going to San Francisco/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” had been playing on the radio for weeks. A mournful but magnetic tune, it was full of longing and hope, declaring, “Summertime will be a love-in there.”
My father, in his late thirties, a hardworking and even-keeled man with four children, seemed unaffected by the report. It was no more to him than a list of stock market numbers accented by up and down arrows. Like some of the young men on the television, he was bare chested, enjoying the meandering breezes of the warm day. But there were bigger issues on his mind than the Disneyland of clown clothes and flowers or the young man on the screen, whipping his hair out of his eyes, explaining into the camera that he was in rebellion against “an uptight society, man”.
My heart thumped. I wanted to go to San Francisco! I wanted to be a part of the new revolution! Peace and Love. “Harmony and understanding/ Sympathy and trust abounding.” I looked back and forth between my father and the television. Though still not quite articulated in my pubescent mind, a great part of the appeal of San Francisco was the ideal of sexual freedom—lithe bodies danced on the screen or sprawled in the grass in playful poses!
The Haight-Ashbury, however, could have been on the moon for all it had to do with me. I was 12, living in the rural South and caged by Jim Crow. The quixotic Summer of Love soon passed from my imagination, replaced by more agonizing events. The death count for American soldiers in the Vietnam war was approaching 11,000 for that year; Newark, where my father’s sister lived, burned in a riot that killed 26 and injured over 500; and my father decided he would pry open the Jim Crow cage a little by enrolling my sister and me in the all-white elementary school. Likely, we sat on that same screened-in porch, and likely, the TV flickered with the evening news when he announced this momentous change in my schooling. I recall only his words, seemingly coming to me out of darkness. Without excitement, without encouragement, without any of the enthusiasm of a Summer of Love hippie shunting off the uptight society, he offered, “Sticks and stones might break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”
Words, of course, do hurt as much as they heal and in my life they have done both. In the fall of 1967, they were more likely to hurt. No black person of my generation grew up without being called a racial epithet. It was simply part of the world we negotiated. Yet, as one of just a few black children in the school, often the only black boy in any group, these words came with kicks and slaps. Getting on the school bus, I made sure my sister, a fourth grader, sat near the front in a seat saved for her by another black girl. I went to the back of the bus where I hunkered, nearly fetal, pretending to read while being pelted with pebbles and pencils, along with the words. The first thing I did on arrival at school was to go to the boy’s room and wash spit out of my hair. Back in the classroom, I took my seat in front of—I’ll call him Kenny—the brother of the ringleader of the on-the-bus thugs.
For the most part, the teachers were professional and superficially indifferent, only once or twice slipping on the surface of their newly breached world: One, teaching about the religious reformer Martin Luther, clarified—“not this fool, King, who is running around now.” Another used a very common term for a Brazil nut.
But there was also a hippie spirit among the faculty, the science teacher, whose Italian-American name so strangled our tongues he insisted we call him “Mr. G.” Mr. G, a New Yorker, was a newly minted college graduate and full of the strange ways of people from outside the region. He wore a bush of a mustache, and hair cut just to the top of his ears as to be in compliance with schoolboard decorum. Sometimes, in a fringed leather vest—a cowboy’s vest, we called it—he sat on top of his desk with guitar on his lap and taught us songs rather than chemistry. “Where have all the flowers gone?” “Puff the magic dragon,” and “If you’re going to San Francisco.” Black and white together, we joined in—even Kenny—feeling that we weren’t so distant from the revolution, after all. On the bus home, I saw a hesitation, a moment of uncertainty, before Kenny hurled his spitballs and clever, but hurtful insults. At home, I sat silently with my father while Uncle Walty talked about the war dead and the burning cities.
August 29, 2018
Anthony Grooms tackles redemption in “The Vain Conversation”
By Shelia M. Poole, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In his latest novel, “The Vain Conversation,” Georgia author Anthony Grooms focuses on the question of redemption.
How does America redeem itself from racial crimes?
What does a fully redeemed United States look like?
“Does it look like it does today?” asked Grooms, a professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University. “I don’t think so. I don’t think we’ve actually dealt with the question of racial violence. It’s been swept under the rug.”
In a divided nation, perhaps the timing of the release of his latest book couldn’t be better, although Grooms didn’t plan it that way. It’s likely to resonate with readers who even remotely follow what is happening across the United States.
“If I had my way, it would have been published 10 years ago,” he said.
He thinks the nation is haunted by the racial injustices that happened decades ago and continue today when a young woman is run down and killed while protesting at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., and when nine black members of a Bible study group are murdered by a lone white gunman bent on starting a race war.
Grooms, author of “Bombingham” and “Trouble No More,” has written a gripping and disturbing book that is loosely based on the brutal killings of two African-American couples — Roger and Dorothy Malcom, and George and Mae Murray Dorsey — in 1946 at Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County. An investigation found that members of the mob likely included the Ku Klux Klan.
Author Anthony Grooms has written about a racial killing and how it impacts everyone. CONTRIBUTED BY J.D. SCOTT (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
He tells the story of a young white boy named Lonnie Henson, who witnesses the horrific murder of two black couples in rural Georgia at the end of World War II. The book draws readers into the lives of Bertrand Johnson, one of the victims who had befriended Lonnie’s father during the war; Noland Jacks, an alleged member of the mob; and Vernon Venable, the wealthy white businessman.
Burdened by feelings of guilt, Lonnie travels the world to find peace and meaning from a night years ago that left a mark on his soul.
“We seem to think that redemption always has a happy ending,” he said. “Not necessarily.”
Grooms points to the popular book and film “The Help.”
In the end, the main character, played by actress Emma Stone, leaves her hometown for a journalism job in New York.
“People think things are righted,” he said. However, the black women who are left behind “are still living with the profound damage that was done by the oppression.”
Can that damage ever be repaired?
In the preface, he quotes H.L. Mencken: “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.”
“Redemption is not an easy process,” Grooms said. “It means that people have to first reckon with the atrocities of the past.”
Racial violence is a tradition of sin that is still being passed along, Grooms believes.
He’s optimistic, though, that this nation can move forward.
“The changes I’ve witnessed are really quite remarkable,” Grooms said. “You have to keep pressing.”
In a quiet way, perhaps, people are reaching across the great divides in this nation. Conversations are happening.
That doesn’t mean people have to walk away with the same point of view, but perhaps they will reach a place of tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. “We don’t have to kill each other over differences.”
“The legacy of race crimes in our society does, in some way, affect everybody,” he said.
Interviewed by Chuck Huru
For over three decades, Anthony Grooms has written gripping American stories. Born and raised in the South, he has a sharp understanding of the lives and histories of Black Americans in the belly of America’s most egregious events. His work often explores weighty topics and challenges readers to face hard truths and ask important questions about the past, present, and future.
In 1995, he released Trouble No More, a collection of short fiction and made his full-length fiction debut with Bomingham in 2001. His work is published is a variety of literary journals and anthologies including Callaloo, African American Review, and Crab Orchard Review.
In March 2018, Grooms returned to deliver The Vain Conversation, another offering that tells a powerful American story. We are pleased to share our interview with him below.
"The most fruitful conversations are likely to be difficult.
They must occur across the lines of differences."
Your new novel, The Vain Conversation was released in March 2018.Bombingham, your last novel, was released 2001. Did you make a conscious effort to take this amount of time in between books?
The length of time between publications was co-incidental and certainly unplanned. In fact, I began The Vain Conversation five years beforeBombingham. Though I didn’t work consistently on it, it has taken 27 years from conception to publication. In that time, I have published two other books and written two novels which are now in circulation. I have also written and published many poems and collected them into a manuscript about travels in Africa. The long time it has taken for the publication of The Vain Conversation reflects both my struggle to find a form for the novel and the timidity of the publishing industry to embrace the subject of American race violence from my particular point-of-view.
The Vain Conversation deals with an American tragedy—a lynching of two black couples in 1946 Georgia. It is inspired by real events that took place that same year in the state. Why did you choose to explore these historical events with this novel?
When is history really historical? The past makes the world we live in now, and the legacy of Jim Crow is strong with us. Yet some of our popular novels and movies on issues arising from Jim Crow—so-called race redemption narratives--suggest the ease with which we have reckoned with the violence and deprivation of this recent past. They settle for happy, often self-satisfying, endings and ignore the obvious. Jim Crow oppression was pervasively injurious to black people, and in a different way, to white people, too, and yet there has been no deep and honest reckoning with that nasty bit of American history. There has been no truth and reconciliation, no sincere attempt at repairing the damage of, or ameliorating the resurgence of race and caste oppression. The Vain Conversation follows Lonnie Henson, a white witness to the lynchings as he attempts seeks a way to redemption and ultimately salvation. Answering for race crimes and oppression is still one of the great moral challenges of the American people.
"Answering for race crimes and oppression is still one of the great moral challenges of the American people."
"I’ve come to realize that historical writing and science fiction writing are not all that different in terms of world building."
What is the meaning of the novel’s title, The Vain Conversation?
The phrase is taken from the First Epistle of Peter and refers to a tradition of sin that is passed from generation to generation. I think it appropriately describes the United States on the issue of race violence and oppression. Further, the phrase can be punned with. A vain conversation could be a prideful one, or it could be a conversation in vain—both ways to describe our public debate about race and other differences, especially in popular media. I think that in private corners, constructive conversations are occurring and I hope that my novel might promote thoughtful conversation.
As you mentioned, a young white child witnesses the horrific lynching of the black couples. You tell the story from the perspectives of three people involved: a victim, a perpetrator, and the child/witness. Why did you decide to tell the story from these three perspectives?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to tell the story broadly—that it was one that demanded various points-of-view. In early drafts, I had several other points-of-view, as well, but over years of revision those fell away until these three, which view the lynching from distinct vantage points, remained.
What do you want readers to take away from the new novel?
It sounds strange to say about a novel about a lynching, but first and foremost, I want readers to be entertained. That is to say, I want them to become fully immersed in the world of the characters, to be removed from the present to the time of the novel. Then I want them to feel deeply for all of my characters, victims and perpetrators alike. Only in this way can they find a broad empathy with the human condition. Finally, I would like them to be provoked to think about our history and how it manifests today.
Much of your work centers on race in the American South, particularly during the mid-20th century and era of the Civil Rights Movement. What about that period speaks to you? What lesson(s) from that period do you think America has either learned from or ignored?
In short, my experiences as a rural black Southerner growing up in the mid-twentieth century has centered me on this subject. The Civil Rights Movement and the war in Viet Nam were the great moral and social challenges of my coming-of-age. As tumultuous as it was, the decade of the 60s was an exciting time and it is the milieu in which I am stewed. The great lesson of the period is that social change for the better is possible. What we might ignore, though, is that change comes about as the result of thousands, even millions, of individual choices. The moral direction of a country isn’t determined by government, it is determined by the individual acting in concert with many others.
What is your opinion of contemporary issues involving race and identity in America? How can we advance conversations about these issues?
Obviously the government of the day is regressive and it reflects the attitudes of millions of people who feel fearful of demographic change, or who have limited sympathy for others or are dogmatic about their values. But I am optimistic that the majority are or can be engaged in finding understanding on race and other issues. First and foremost, the most fruitful conversations are likely to be difficult. They must occur across the lines of differences. And they must be conversation in which listening and contemplation are more important than speaking. They must not be debates, but rather a willful pursuit of understanding. The goal isn’t to persuade, but to sympathize and to build tolerance. The conversation might begin with stories—stories growing out of childhood and personal experiences.
You’re from the South (Louisa, Virginia) and currently live in Atlanta. In what ways has the South shaped your perspective or worldview, specifically of your craft?
Not only did I grow up in the South, I grew up in the rural South during the Civil Rights Movement era and the Viet Nam War, and I have a large extended family with some members who lived in northern cities. From the rural setting, I developed a strong love of nature—of stars and forests, wildlife and geology. But I also learned to appreciate the pace and sophistication of cities from my city relatives. The support of my family and our black neighbors was important when, beginning in 1967, I ventured across the color line as a school integrator in what was called “The Freedom of Choice” program. Here I began to see whites as individuals, not as a monolithic and uniformly powerful group. The era, with its lively arts and rhetoric and its incremental social progress, gave me an optimistic view. All of this makes its way into my stories, which I think of as character driven, socially aware, and ultimately optimistic.
Are there any particular stories or subjects that you’d like to write about in the future? If so, what are they and why?
I tend to be attracted to historical subjects—my novel which is circulating now is about a Black Viet Nam War deserter to Sweden and how he adjusts. This story is based on a little remembered aspect of recent American history. But, I also love science. I’ve come to realize that historical writing and science fiction writing are not all that different in terms of world building. So I am slowly turning my focus to science fiction writing. I blame it all those stars I saw growing up in the country.
Ice Poems, your only collection of poetry, was released in 1988. How does writing poetry compare to writing fiction?
I see understanding poetry as a fundamental skill for writers of any genre. Compression, nuance, sound are all important to me as both a poet and a prose writer. Poems are shorter, for the most part, but not necessarily easier than prose writing. As a poet, I turn more strongly toward the image and to lyrical expression than I do in prose. In prose, I emphasize characterization and narrative. One of the challenges of writing prose, especially a novel, is that it becomes all consuming—taking years at a time—years in which I have little time to imagine poems.
Who are some of your favorite writers of the moment? What’s on your reading list?
I hold Ernest Gaines as one of the finest of American writers. I also owe a lot to Richard Bausch and Susan Shreve, my mentors. I enjoy a host of writers in different genres, and from different times and places. Right now, I am enjoying Gray Stewart’s Haylow, a satire of Southern manners, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, a love story about an unfairly incarcerated man. Recently, I liked Ravi Howard's Driving the King about Nat King Cole’s driver during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and John Holman’s Triangle Ray, a character study set in North Carolina. I’m beginning Pam Durban’s The Tree of Forgetfulness about a lynching in South Carolina and continuing Ruth C. Yow’s Students of the Dream, a study of the re-segregation of a public school. My favorite poets of the moment are Frank X. Walker and Terrence Hayes.
Do you feel that you have a purpose as a writer? If so, what is it?
That’s an existential problem. Of course, I have a purpose as a writer or I wouldn’t write. But does the practice drive the purpose or does the purpose drive the practice? I don’t know. Perhaps the former. I think I know what the purpose is—but can I be sure? To entertain through beautiful storytelling and to provoke deep thought about humanity. But isn’t this what all writers say?
An Optimist, After All:
Q & A with Anthony Grooms
Interviewed by Andrew Plattner
With the publication of his novel BOMBINGHAM, Virginia-born Anthony Grooms offered a distinct and humane perspective on the controversial topic of race relations in America. Grooms’ novel takes place in the early 1960s in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that would be forever marked by the violence that threatened the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Prior to BOMBINGHAM, Grooms had published collections of poetry and short stories; his story collection TROUBLE NO MORE, won the Lillian Smith Award, a literary prize that would also be bestowed upon BOMBINGHAM. BOMBINGHAM was also a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and has been adopted by many colleges and common book programs.
Grooms’ recently completed manuscript, THE VAIN CONVERSATION, is a 20th century journey of one man attempting to find his own identity in a world that prefers categorization through race, not individuality. The themes here are perhaps familiar ones to Grooms’ readers, though the study here is not necessarily about the American character, it is more about human nature itself. THE VAIN CONVERSATION is due for publication in fall 2017.
Grooms, currently a professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University, north of Atlanta, recently traveled to lecture at Hassan II University in Casablanca. Previously he has taught in Ghana and Sweden.
Q: Tony, as you worked on THE VAIN CONVERSATION did it bring to mind any works you have read or admired? Did your influences surprise you in any way?
The novels of Raymond Andrews figure in somehow, since the setting in northeast Georgia is his fictional territory. Ray and I sometimes talked about Jim Crow as we rode back and forth between Atlanta and Athens, driving through Monroe, the town where the 1946 lynching that is the impetus for my novel took place. He lived in Athens and I taught there, and he often visited me in Atlanta. I also recall John Oliver Killens, whose novel Young Blood is set in Macon, and whom I had the pleasure of knowing in the years just before he died. Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying has also been influential.
But the main literary inspiration has been the written and oral histories about the Jim Crow era, especially Donald L. Grant’s The Way It Was in the South. It was from Grant that I first learned of the story of Roland Hayes’ beating, which is referenced in my novel. Hayes was an internationally famous singer when he was beaten in Rome, Georgia for protesting the treatment of his wife in a department store.
Q. Can I get you to expand on this? Can you discuss Young Blood and A Lesson Before Dying in greater detail as far as being influential (voice, themes, etc.)
At my core, I suppose I am an old-fashioned social realist. I am also old-fashioned in that I am attracted to a straight forward narrative with a strong story-telling voice. I appreciate linguistic and structural experimentation, but I think novels which in some way are exposes of social wrong are best delivered in a straight forward, though not necessarily chronological, way that best exploits the emotional power of the stories. When I think about the novels that are most meaningful to me, they are, like these, fairly traditional—and much can be wrought from the traditional form. In another way, the situations that the characters face in these novels are ones that I can understand and even identify with. Bigger Thomas of Wright’s Native Son is a bit too marginal for me—even Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man is hard to identify with. But the characters of Young Blood and A Lesson are the kind of Southern people I know well and their situations are familiar to me. These novels appeal less to the intellect and more to the heart, reminding me that Jim Crow was not an abstraction and it oppressed real people.
Q: Most writers, it seems, are fueled in part by the unknown; this is to say, of course, we find out things by writing. What did you find out when writing THE VAIN CONVERSATION?” Are you angry about anything? Did your protagonist offer dimensions that you had not anticipated? What about other characters in the book?
I suppose a clever psychologist could expose my anger, but I do not think of myself as an angry person. Once, standing on the seawall of a so-called slave castle in West Africa, a German friend asked if I were angry about slavery. Yes, I said, as we all should be—however, I had no personal emotional connection to slavery, only an historical and abstract one. Even when my father pointed out to me the slave cabins near our home in Virginia, where possibly an enslaved ancestor had lived, I did not feel emotionally connected. But, if you ask about Jim Crow, then I have an array of strong emotions, including anger. This is because I know the stories of my parents, grandparents and great grandparents. They are the people who nurtured me and it does anger me to think how they were mistreated. But I am also saddened by their experiences—and gladdened by their perseverance and determination. Reading Huston Diehl’s Dream Not of Other Worlds, an account of segregated schools in the county I grew up in, upset me a good deal because she put names to the people who worked day and night to deprive my parents and me of an education.
One of the things that writing THE VAIN CONVERDSATION gave me was a stronger sense of how recent Jim Crow is, and how strong its legacy is within all of us, not just we who were born in the South. Oppressive systems have a way of trapping everyone, psychologically as well as socially. They frame the way people view and live in the world and it requires extraordinary fortitude and risk to move beyond those boundaries. My white characters, in this sense, are victims of Jim Crow, too, but of course, not in the same way that the black characters are.
Q. A follow-up. Referencing your response from the above question—are you suggesting that time plays a critical element in what can anger the human mind and soul? Or, does it have to do with the aging of the individual himself? Do we become numbed by the wickedness of mankind?
I can speak only for myself. For me, time does play a role, but secondary to personal or shared experiences. I feel most strongly about the Jim Crow era because I have a shared experience with great grandparents and grandparents who grew up in the worst of it. Their stories, many told to me directly, have shaped my point of view. Further, I am old enough to have first-hand experience of Jim Crow and to have witnessed the events of the Civil Rights Movement. Having had these direct experiences does not mean I am disconnected to historical experiences like American slavery—the legacy of which is still evident—or with experiences in other parts of the world. Like most people, I am sympathetic to the suffering of other people, and the callousness, the greed, the hubris—as you say, the wickedness—of people to other people never ceases to score deeply on me. But, I can’t respond to every breech of civility to the same degree. It’s impossible. I can only comprehend a limited amount of what is perpetual human grief. On the other hand, I seek balance and remind myself that there is also joy in the vale of tears. There are people who prevail over wickedness. There are those who challenge wickedness and those who sacrifice for the good of the whole. In spite of my reputation, I am an optimist, after all. I believe that most people want to be good, but understanding what good is, and negotiating our differing views of good is challenging and risky. It can be done though, and there is hope in trying. If anything comes out of my stories, I hope it is just that—that, though it is challenging, we can create more and better common good.
Q. Can you discuss your favorite literary characters?
Oh gosh, there are many. I like Goodman Brown for his naiveté and I love it when the Devil in that story welcomes him to the “communion of his kind.” I often welcome my students that way. I like the unhappy Paul in Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” and Whitman’s persona in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and Tarzan and even HAL in 2001. If I had to name just one, perhaps it would be Huckleberry Finn. He engages me on a number of levels. He is the naïve country boy, the adventurer, the social shape-shifter, the poor kid who sees his friend Buck murdered. But, I don’t believe what the critics say about him. I think he has no epiphany about race—that’s the point of the novel—he connects with Jim (who is also a likeable character) but he has no understanding of race beyond that connection.
Q: Are you comfortable writing white characters? Is there a difference to your approach when writing a white character?
At a convention of Georgia writers held in 1985, I witnessed John O. Killens and James Dickey arguing about whether white people could honestly portray black characters. Mr. Killens argued that whites had never observed blacks closely enough to write about us realistically, whereas, as a matter of survival, blacks had well observed whites. In his day, Mr. Killens might have been right, but I believe that we must try, nonetheless, to travel imaginatively, if not actually, in each other’s shoes. To do so requires, as it does for writing any character, an honest, imaginative engagement based on respect for the character’s perspective and historical context.
Black Americans of my generation have long engaged with white characters since there was little else, whether in childhood literature, television or the classics. In our imaginations we have a full array of types and characterizations associated with white people. This offers some advantage to me as a writer portraying white characters. But the fundamental skill of character development comes from careful and sympathetic observation and the application of the imagination in a way that tries to shape a unique human being. Because I don’t make assumptions about my characters and because I try to see them as unique people in the great struggle of life, I do feel as comfortable writing white characters as I do writing black characters—which is to say, I am a little uncomfortable writing any of my characters!
I remember in particular the struggle I had writing the character of the guard in BOMBINGHAM. He is a white man who is guarding the cattle pens where the Birmingham child demonstrators are locked up. I didn’t want him to fall into the pot-bellied stereotype of the Southern policeman, even though physically he looked the part. I kept thinking about what his home life was like—whether or not he was happy? What was his relationship with his wife and children? What was his standing in his community?—these questions, as I brought him into conflict with a black man who had come to take his daughter home. At one point the character surprised me by declaring he didn’t care if blacks ate in whites-only restaurants. And surely he didn’t, for he was beset with more pressing personal problems. Yet, of course, he was also trapped by the social system and was unable to act on his, albeit, inarticulate, conviction.
Likewise in THE VAIN CONVERSATION, I am trying to complicate the portrayals of my characters. I don’t want them to sink into stereotypes, and yet they are also shaped by what I know to be true about history.
And, of course, we must get beyond the black / white dynamic and become more inclusive, recognizing that there are many communities that have a right to portrayals in our national literature. That’s why I admire stories like Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala for its complex view of race relations in the South.
Q: What has changed for you over the years as far as your own writerly interests are concerned? In what way have your career turns been a surprise to you?
My interests are pretty much the same as they have been since the beginning, though how I view my career has evolved. I have always had broad interests. Though I have established a career as a writer of the black American civil rights experience, I am also interested in science fiction, and international settings for example. I have one more civil rights novel to write, then I want to move into another area, perhaps one for which there is less resistance in the market place.
Even when I was in graduate school, in the 1980s, it was common to hear that good writing always found a publisher. I recall this discussion in regard to Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces which having been rejected by main presses, was published to great acclaim by LSU Press. Over the years, I have soured on this view. Even at the small press level, the economics of publishing means that much writing that is important and artful is overlooked. So, I have adjusted my view of my career. It is important to nurture readers in whatever ways possible—because having a voice is paramount—but it might mean finding alternatives to the usual publishing outlets.
Q. The science fiction remark is a surprise. Can I ask you to elaborate on this? Are there certain sci-fi writers of particular interest to you?
I haven’t really kept up with science fiction literature since I was a teenager. For me, popular science fiction was a gateway into literary reading. As a teen I admired André Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, Huxley, Orwell and the like. I still do. The ideas of science fiction still strongly attract me. My very first attempt at a novel at age fourteen was a science fiction, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic. I didn’t get very far with it, and the script burned with my family’s home when I was in college. But I still have the story in mind, and maybe, one day, I’ll write it.
Q: Do you still like to write? Or is it now out of an obligation, a promise you made to yourself a long time ago?
There are few things in life that give me more pleasure than writing. Over the decades, I’ve learned to prioritize family and friends, for they are more important than literary success, and it is always a struggle to balance the priority and the pleasure. Interestingly, I do not ever remember making writing an obligation—it is simply something I’ve always done. Even in graduate school, I was thinking, “I’ll give this a try, if it works out fine, if not I’ll do something else.”
Q: What did your family think when you told them you wanted to be a writer?
From my earliest years, my parents encouraged my education—perhaps, in part, because they felt deprived of theirs. Writing was a part of the overall picture, so I was encouraged to read and write. After college, however, my father, though he never articulated it, would have preferred a more standard profession. He was quite happy when I started teaching because it fit better his idea of having a job. Mom, on the other hand was a dreamer—she even wanted me to stay in Los Angeles, when I lived there briefly, and to become a movie star. She went about to the guests at my sister’s wedding, showing them copies of my book Trouble No More and telling them, “This is my copy. You’ll have to buy your own.” One brother used my book to pick up a woman. It’s probably the only time, “My brother wrote this book,” was ever used as pick-up line.
Q: How much does economic background influence one’s desire to be a writer of literature? When you work with a classroom full of creative writing students, do you invariably find a room full of diverse backgrounds? Or, do you see more or less a group of restless middle class students looking for attention or a pat on the back?
It is no surprise that economic background is a strong determinant of whether a person goes to college, much more, probably, as to whether he goes to a writing program. But there are many writers who were born poor but were encouraged by other circumstances. I, for example, was a Southern, rural black kid who grew up in de facto segregation. The outlook for a writing career was bleak, except that my parents and teachers encouraged me and the civil rights movement provided an opportunity.
At Kennesaw State, the undergraduate program is comprised mostly of white middle-class, suburban students, whom I would describe as searching or exploring. It is fun to work with them, to broaden their horizons about forms and literary history. Our graduate program tends to be more diverse in that the students are older and have more life experiences, some having raised families, others having traveled or served in the military. Few minorities are in these classes, though over the years I have seen more black women joining the program, but in 15 years, we have not graduated a black man who was a creative writer. In my classes, everyone gets a pat on the back for accepting the challenge of the writer’s discipline—but some also get a rap on the knuckles, when I think they are squandering their talents. Flannery O’Connor, the goddess of Georgia writers, famously quipped that writing programs ought to discourage writers, but this was never my view. Imagine what would have happened if she had been discouraged. I am grateful to my mentors at George Mason—Dick Bausch, Susan Shreve and Steve Godwin, among others—for their encouragement.
Q: In an article published in The New York Times in 2007, novelist Martha Southgate, quoting Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Atria Books, said: “Literary African-American writers have difficulty getting publicity. The retailers then don’t order great quantities of the books. Readers don’t know what books are available and therefore don’t ask for them. It’s a vicious cycle.” Has this been your experience, if so, why do you think it is so?
I do feel a resistance to my work in some quarters and I think there are several factors to consider about black representation in our national literature. For sure, is difficult for any writer, especially a literary writer to get published in a publishing climate driven by corporate interests. But we black writers also have to consider that overwhelmingly American readers are white and, speaking generally, readers want most to connect with and understand their own or similar experiences. Unfortunately for me, the least likely American reader is a black Southern man, my own demographic.
Then, too, we must consider the demographic of those who manage the publishing institutions, which is nearly all white and middle class. Though their tastes and interests vary, these gate-keepers of the national literature tend to promote literature that is filtered through their sometimes limited sensibilities--which are Northeastern and Manhattan- focused. Blacks aren’t the only ones who complain. White Southerners have long complained that New York-based editors do not connect with them except through clichés.
The greater of the concerns is that the national literature is filtered through the perspective of one region. I do not fault the Northeastern intelligentsia, such as it is, for this situation, but rather the other regions, which have not invested in building literary institutions that can vie for national influence. This is especially true of the South, which in spite of The Georgia Review and Oxford American, is a region with a lack-luster readership. It is the most populous region and has produced many of the most celebrated writers. It is also a region with enormous political clout. Yet it has no publishing houses, excepting Algonquin Books, and no review publications of national influence.
Q: A follow-up. Is the remark from Adero listed above a comment on the overall literary interests of black Americans? In other words, do you think black Americans simply do not identify strongly with our current black American writers?
Like other readers, black readers are not a homogenous group. Most readers in any group are popular readers, and I think that blacks who read popular literature identify strongly with black popular works, though they aren’t necessary limited to only works by black writers. I take for example my sister-in-law who reads widely in popular genres and enjoys the works of black writers as much as any other. Some popular writers, E. Lynn Harris for example, have such a strong following among blacks that they have little need for crossover to white readers. Black literary readers also read widely and many are strongly supportive of black authors. If you ever visit Spelman College, an historically black college, you might encounter students wearing purple who are fans of Alice Walker. However, what Adero notes is that black literary writers do not get promoted by the publishing establishment because of its expectation of a poor readership for their works. Since blacks are about 12% of the American population, and not all of us are literary readers, we depend more strongly on crossover. But then, my intention always has been to write for a broad literary audience, and many white readers have responded very well to my work, which has largely been promoted by word of mouth.
Q: Speaking of Oxford American Review, its publisher Warwick Sabin, in a recent article, took to task a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird written by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. Gladwell writes that Atticus Finch, the novel’s hero, is an accomodationist not a reformer on the issue of African American equality and Sabine responds, “What we can easily infer is that Gladwell believes that the best Southerners aren’t really any good at all.” Do you have an opinion about the hero status of Atticus Finch?
I am glad that this cross regional discussion about race and literature is taking place. I wish that we could see more of it in the pages of our literary magazines, especially those based in the South. In this argument, I land somewhere in the middle. I think that Sabin’s tone is defensive as he makes the comments about Finch into an indictment of all Southerners, by which he means all white Southerners. It is important to accept that criticism of the region is not the same a condemnation of it. It is important to see subtleties and gradations. Without seeing those, we can not negotiate the gray areas between the black and the white. On the other hand, Gladwell’s assertion that, “If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict and that his “quiet walk” out of the courtroom is a sign of accommodation lacks historical perspective. At the distance of nearly 80 years, it is easy to imagine outrage, but in fact, much civil rights activism was quiet, even stealthy. I do take to heart Gladwell’s point that there is a difference between actual reform and what he calls Folsomism, a populist position on race that was ultimately in line with the accommodation of Washingtonianism.
But Gladwell goes on to say, much to Sabin’s chagrin, that what he calls the “Jim Crow liberals” exchange one kind of prejudice for another, that is, they exchange prejudice against “good” blacks—the blacks they accept—for prejudice against “bad” whites, those whose morals they disapprove. I am not convinced that this is always the case, as I know of times when some very good blacks were humiliated in spite of the slack morals of the whites who injured them. What Gladwell describes is a literary pattern that is a part of the so called “white redemption race narrative.” In this narrative there have to be good whites and bad whites on the issue of black civil rights. Often the bad whites are poor whites, though not always. Perhaps the most extreme use of the pattern is in John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, which, in its most troublesome interpretation, suggests that the outcome of the civil rights movement was to give “good” black men the privilege of lynching “bad” white men. This pattern is prevalent in many novels, films and memoirs about the South, both by white authors as well as by black authors. In some small way, I hope that my writing offers a counter to this pattern by complicating it. I do not wish to undermine the contributions of the many white Southern activists, some who were active during Finch’s time, but the truth is if there had been a predominance of good whites on issue of black constitutional equality, there never would have been a Jim Crow.
Q: Is the South still producing a roster of elite, world-class writers? Or, has the South become more of a part of a whole? How do writing programs factor into your assessment here?
I think writing programs have given encouragement and training to many artists who might otherwise have been discouraged from pursuing writing careers, and this is true in the South as well as in other regions. All regions, I think, have their distinctive voices, and Southern stories—historic or contemporary—have not yet been fully explored. The regional literatures are no more in a melting pot than regional cuisines. There is no more a New England style of barbecue as there is a Southern clam chowder. These various regional experiences come together to weave a national literature that a multi-colored tapestry of the national experience. Only in this way is there an American literature, one made of many American literatures. The South is home to many first class writers, established and up and coming. Whether or not they reach a “world-class” status depends as much on promotion as it does talent, and the route to world-class status, unfortunately for us, runs through extra-regional literary institutions.
Q: As far as writing programs are concerned in general, do you think we are more or less heading in the right direction?
I am beginning to think that the MFA degree is a bum rap, not so much because of how we teach, but how it is treated by academic administrations. We don’t offer an MFA at KSU, but I caution my students that if their goal is university teaching, the MFA, in spite of lip service, will be looked upon as a second class degree. This is ironic, since the standards for hiring a MFA in places like KSU are higher than those for critical PhDs. For example, it has been the policy at KSU to require a published book of any candidate for a creative writing job—not just significant publications or presentations—but a book. We don’t hold our critics to the same standard. When I questioned this, an administrator told me we did it because we could—the market allowed it. Thus I encourage my students to get a PhD with Creative Writing concentration. It is a more flexible degree and may allow them to teach while they build a publishing record.
Q: Can I get you to speak about the current state of the literary quarterly? What happens if everything goes to the Internet? Which quarterlies are you interested in on a consistent basis?
I used to know a lot about this when I was involved in arts administration at the national level. Nowadays, I am less aware of the overall state of small press publishing. I doubt if every thing will go to the internet, but rather that on-line publishing will offer another dimension to the overall picture. I can’t imagine that there won’t be at least a few paper books and journals since part of the reading experience is the art of the physical book. I follow just a few magazines these days, namely The Chattahoochee Review, The Crab Orchard Review, and The African American Review. These journals are very open to new voices—though, I hasten to say, I enjoy reading widely.
Q: Speaking of new, what are considering now for future projects?
I’m working on what I call my Swedish novel. It is about black American expatriates in Stockholm in the 1970s and explores questions about racial and national identity. Also, I continue to work on poems, primarily contributing to my manuscript about travels in Africa. Mainly, these poems focus on West Africa, but now having been to North Africa, I might find use of Casablanca as a setting. I am also fiddling around with some short stories, though novel writing takes most of my time. You know they say that art is long and life is short—and life is also unpredictable—but I imagine the writing aspect of my life as being dedicated to socially aware writing, in many genres, set both near and far. God willing.
--Atlanta, GA, August 2010.
Andrew Plattner is the author of Winter Money, winner of the 1997 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and The Kentucky Derby Vault: A History of the Run for the Roses. His fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, New Letters, Epoch, Sewanee Review and other journals. Another collection of stories, A Marriage of Convience, was published by BkMk Press, and a novel, Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey, by Dzanc. He teaches writing and literature at Kennesaw State University and lives in Atlanta with his wife, Diana.