I hope some of you enjoyed this Black History Month look at the premier 1926 issue of Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. This landmark of the Harlem Renaissance announced a new generation of young Black writers, many just out their teens — artists who not only filled its pages, but organized and edited the publication. Today I’m going to tie up some loose ends and tuck in the laces on the Fire!! story and give you a few links in case you want to do your own exploring.
The quiz says I’m Gwendolyn Bennett. My wife’s results: Richard Bruce (Nugent). Richard Bruce too for longtime keyboard playing and alternate voice contributor to this Project Dave Moore. Dave’s artist partner joined me in the Gwendolyn Bennett result.
So, we looked at the first issue of Fire!! this month. What about the next issue, other issues? There wasn’t one. The magazine, founded by young artists, was not well funded, and selling and distributing didn’t go well. The gatekeepers were at least privately aghast at some of the content, so their advice and word of mouth was to disparage and discourage this effort. I’ve already mentioned when presenting two of the four poets I selected for musical performance that publication in Fire!! did not guarantee lasting readership or note for these young people. So, Fire!! folded, and in a lead-eared note of irony, the mostly unsold print run was destroyed in a storeroom fire. John Keats epitaph says his name was writ in water. Fire!! and some of its writer’s names were writ in fire, and it all died down.
I often suspect many folks who find these blog posts are looking for homework help or teaching resources. To what I (an old person) can understand, being a teacher or a student covers wider territories than in my days, but there are still skirmishes at the borders and difficult areas under the control of different warlords. Fire!! magazine sought to cross those borders then — and if one is to study it and its contributors in any depth, it still does. Not only did Fire!! bring forward new young writers — many committed to Modernist art and radical politics — it purposefully sought to express elements of life that the older generation of gatekeepers wanted to suppress or keep only within the tribe. One of those things was sexuality. So teachers and students, here we have a group of young creators in 1926 writing on race, injustice, and sexual expression that isn’t in committed relationships or straight. On what authority did these audacious writers take to break through those barriers? Not only were the instigators and contributors of Fire!! young, gifted and Black, they also were often somewhere on the spectrum we could label today as queer.*
A drawing by Richard Bruce Nugent from Fire!!
So, to teach or discuss Fire!! and its creators beyond a surface is to go to places where teaching and learning is still constrained. I’d say to learners (a class that includes nearly all teachers) you may choose to go there even if traveling alone. Literature, music, the arts are the forged identity papers that let you cross borders. Though the writers of Fire!! are all dead, they won’t mind speaking with you.
In the spirit of gratitude to Afro-Americans and their vital contribution to American culture let me repost my Buzzfeed Fire!! contributor-like Gwendolyn Bennett’s summary in poetic “Song.” Graphical player below, or a backup player will open in a new tab link here.
Returning to the poems published in the 1926 issue of Fire!! magazine which proclaimed it was “Devoted to Younger Negro Artists,” we get this simple seeming, yet mysterious poem by one of Fire’s most famous contributors and organizers: the then 25-year-old Langston Hughes.
“Railroad Avenue” looks like a simple free-verse street-scene vignette. Here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to follow along. Yet the more I looked to understand it, the deeper the mystery of it became.
Here are a few things that seem quite clear: it’s evening. There’s a street, likely named by the poem’s title. A few things are seen or heard: lights in two businesses, a boxcar, a record player, a player piano, a boy and a girl, laughter. Largely unremarkable things, so there’s some specific character given to them.
The record player is a Victrola, a short-lived brand from the early 20th century — for example, the ones with the big conical horn as in the original RCA Victor logo. The businesses are a pool hall and a restaurant serving fish. The boy is at leisure, comfortable. The girl has a dark face that is powdered.* In what may be internal monologue the poem’s narrator gives us the winning number in the day’s policy game.**
So, are we clearly visualizing the place being described? At first I thought I could. I figured without evidence that this was a crowded urban nightlife street, the two other people only examples of many, the sounds and things part of what could have been a larger catalog. Is that reading possible? Two things mentioned that are likely heard not seen: the player piano (reasonably loud) and the Victrola, which would not be. Victrolas were not electric record players. The records turned via clockwork, the sound was produced acoustically from the grooves in the records. So, it’s not blaring out a window over robust street sounds. If the statement on the winning daily number 942 is audible rather than the interior thoughts of our narrator, it too would likely be at a conversational level (given no indication that the speaker/thinker won).
And then there’s that boxcar. Mentioned twice, Hughes really wants us to see that there’s this boxcar there, yet says nothing about it other than also saying twice that it’s forgotten. What’s that mean? A boxcar is a freight train car. This is not an urban light rail or passenger train line being invoked. Who forgets a boxcar? Is it just one piece of rolling stock left off somewhere as a spare or scrap? While the poem doesn’t say this, I began seeing it as part of a train on a grade-level street crossing, with the boxcar’s location blocking the road, a location so that it has to be mentioned, can’t be ignored. Did Hughes see this clearly in his mind and forgot to make it plain in his poem, or am I imagining things?
This vision invoked in me of a small town to small city location where the freight train line runs on grade-level, not on bridges over the roads or in tunnels under them, let me begin to see this as a much sleepier street. This isn’t the busy streetlight and neon Harlem of Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance. The dusk is “dark,” the street quiet enough to hear things distinctly as the evening begins. As the poem reaches a crescendo portion, it’s laughter we hear. It’s “sudden,” indicating that it startles the relative quiet and is not muffled by it. Hughes metaphorically amplifies that laughter with repetition — stating that this laughter with its transport from the ordinary and unenergetic street is able to shake the shop lights and move billiard balls.
This is a poem published by a 25-year-old, but I get a sense this may well be a memory of an even more youthful time with daylight ending, with sounds and a scattered glow from remembered lit windows. Dusk is a marking time for many young people, between the era when it says “time to go home” spanning to the age of “time to first go out and explore your nighttime world of romance and adult recreation.” I wondered, would the poem have more context if I knew where the poem’s titular Railroad Avenue is? America has lots of Railroad Avenues and streets, so the name alone tells us little, other than this isn’t a boxcar dropped off miles from a rail line.
A Google Streetview showing the intersection of a main Joplin MO street now renamed for Langston Hughes with Railroad Ave. Google’s camera vehicles didn’t drive & record down the gravel path that is Railroad Avenue right beside the train tracks.
I spent half a day trying to figure out where such a street might be in the places the young Hughes was known to have lived. I’ll summarize the candidates as briefly as I can. He was born in Joplin Missouri, and there’s a very good Railroad Avenue there, with everything you might want for this less-populated scene — though the Afro-American population at the time Hughes’ family lived there was low. But Hughes and his parents left Joplin when Hughes was around 1-2 years old, and there’s nothing I could find saying anyone went back. And was Joplin even big enough and ethnic enough for a numbers game? Hughes spent his grade-school years in Lawrence Kansas being raised by his grandmother. Yes, there were some Black neighborhoods,*** but no likely Railroad Avenue. He spent time at Howard University in Washington D. C. There’s a Railroad Avenue in that city, but it’s far from Howard, and seems to be (and likely was) a non-descript industrial area. Afro-American Howard students might spend evenings on U street circa 1920, but like Harlem in that era, it’d be lit and busy, and no likely boxcars there. Hughes attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and once more I thought I might have a chance. Not as urban circa 1920 — but then no Railroad Avenue, not even a railroad line for more than 15 miles that I could find. And even if he’s a famous figure from the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ Harlem is as unlikely for a sleepy dark dusk with a grade-level railroad line as Washington D. C.
Is Railroad Avenue just something Hughes made up? Is it someone else’s story, something he absorbed from a friend, or his mother or grandmother? Did he go back and visit his birthplace Joplin before 1926 and observe a relaxed scene somewhere on that gravel-surface Railroad Avenue? I’ll probably never know.
But what’s up with that boxcar? Why is it so important, and so specifically forgotten? As a short, Modernist free verse poem, we can think: “So much depends/upon/the boxcar/serenaded by a/Victrola/beside a purple/powdered girl.” One theory: the boxcar is a plausible hobo-ride escape out of the town, but our narrator either doesn’t want to leave, or doesn’t know if the train-car is soon going his way. Within a year Hughes published another poem “Homesick Blues” written more in Southern Black dialect about someone looking to hobo back south.**** Another theory? If, as I imagined without direct evidence, the train has stopped and the boxcar is blocking the road, it’s a symbol of systematic blockage of the people in the scene. Whoever owns/controls the boxcar doesn’t even need to care about this (it’s “forgotten”) — and meanwhile the laughter of the folks in the scene mitigates their lives as they deal with this unfair, indifferent, hindrance.
I’ll conclude by admitting I composed the music and performed Langston Hughes’ “Railroad Avenue” without knowing exactly what the poem was about. I did have my supposed internal vision while doing so: it’s a small non-urban place, like some in Hughes’ youth. A boy or young man is watching the grownups, thinking without even thinking much, about where he might go, what he might do as he grows up. He knows somehow this, and he, will go away — but this evening he’s there. That personal, practical, vision of mine is, as Hughes has it, “Neither truth nor lie.”
*This line is the only one that specifically calls out the racial caste situation in the poem. Powders to lighten the skin tone of darker skinned Afro-Americans were a common cosmetic in Hughes’ time.
**Number or Policy lottery games were present in cities by the time of this poem. The illegal gambling game was usually a daily low-cost bet, winners determined by some coincidental trio of numbers that could be found published daily in newspapers. While associated with Afro-Americans, it was played by other ethnicities too. I don’t know much about its plausible presence in smaller cities and towns before 1926, though Wikipedia says such games go back to Civil War times.
***During the mid-19th century violence of the “Bloody Kansas” struggle to decide if Kansas would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state the pro-slavery forces sacked and destroyed Lawrence more than once. John Brown became a leader of guerilla anti-slavery forces in Kansas, and Hughes’ grandmother, who largely raised him, had a first husband who was killed with Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
****Example that Hughes was comfortable writing either as a collective noun or in the voices of personas.
Here’s another lyric of Waring Cuney’s used on Josh White’s 1941 record Southern Exposure. Before I get on with presenting the song, let me briefly review who White and Cuney are.
Josh White was a Black American singer and guitarist who usually performed in the Afro-American Blues style. The Blues was a popular musical genre among Black Americans during the first half or so of the 20th century. During that century, some of the musical ideas and a great deal of the outlook and performance style of Blues were gradually absorbed into general American musical culture. As another Blues lyricist, Willie Dixon put it: “The Blues had a baby, and they called it Rock’n’Roll.” And so, when I was a young man, there were numerous young acts seeking to call attention to the centrality of Blues music to Rock music. However, most of these then young musical artists, like the majority of their audiences, were white. Unluckily, Josh White’s relationship to the Blues and it’s audiences was essentially premature — he was a man before his time.
Though White was a fine guitarist, singer, and performer who could have scuffled on the segregated Black performance circuit, for a complex set of reasons he became associated with the American political left and its largely white “Folk Music” performers. There’s a fascinating story on how that came to be that I can’t fit into a short blog post, but the shortest summary I can make of this is that equal rights for Afro-Americans was taken up as a left-wing cause, even more specifically as an American Communist cause, after the Lincoln-Grant Republican party became estranged from energetic advocacy for those rights. In the 1930s-50s era White performed for mixed, largely white audiences associated with the Left, while his contemporary Black Blues artists performed to overwhelmingly Black audiences. Want to know more? Here’s a link to an excellent blog post by Elijah Wald that explains how this premature Blues cross-over complicated White’s career. TL:DNR? Because he crossed-over before the Sixties, he was somehow considered inauthentic.
A later re-issue of the White-Cuney Southern Exposure record
Waring Cuney, as this month’s readers of this blog know, was associated with other young artists of the “Harlem Renaissance” even though his name became lesser-known than his colleagues. Always musically interested, he lent his poetic skills to White’s 1941 Southern Exposure album. Today’s selection, where I perform one of his lyrics from that with my own music, deals with a specific area of equal-rights advocacy for Afro-Americans: military service. In 1941, the American military was segregated, and like America in general in this era, the dictum “separate but equal” was largely an absurd charade, easily tied to pervasive white supremacy and ideas of Black inferiority. Ugly stuff — but in the era just before America entered into WWII, also stupid and counterproductive.
I’m going to oversimplify and compress again, but during the Civil War and in WWI segregated American Black soldier companies had proven their abilities as fighting units, but in the between-the-wars era the US Military had reduced itself to something reflective of the plantation South or the servant-class North. Roles for Afro-American military personnel were limited. Cuney’s “Uncle Sam Says” is a prophetic smart missile aimed at that situation. How so?
It’s a four-verse song, but let’s get on to how Cuney is able to foresee or encourage three things that became current events in the months around when White recorded his singing version of Cuney’s words.
Verse one: Black folks can’t fly combat airplanes. That takes a skilled knight of the air in the mind of the prejudiced. In the same 1941, an Air Corps unit was formed that became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Yes, it was a segregated all-Black unit, but by 1943 they started proving their mettle.
Verse two: this one is almost eerie. American involvement in WWII combat began with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Aboard the battleship West Virginia there was a messman’s mate named Doris Miller who just before the enemy warplanes arrived was serving breakfast — as Cuney’s lyric says “Keep your apron son.” Miller was a big guy, fullback on his Texas high school team. He was deputized to help carry wounded out of fire and to aid stations on the ship while it was under attack, which he did, including being called on to carry the dying commander of the battleship to treatment. In the midst of this someone directed him to an unmanned machine gun. Miller had no machine gun training — remember, subservient roles in this Jim Crow military — but he’d hunted squirrels, and taking charge of the gun it’s said that he downed between 2 and 6 of the attacking aircraft.
Verse three: while the US hadn’t entered WWII when Cuney wrote his lyrics or when White sang them, the lyric’s prophetic claim that “when the trouble starts, we’ll all be in that same big fight” isn’t as specific as the opening two verses’ charges. Still, it’s a good point. Also note: when blindered folks maintain that the struggle for Afro-American civic equality is all about “privileges,” that it has also historically been a struggle for access to civic responsibilities too.
The last verse issues the call to action and wraps up this effective “message song.” I performed it —that’s a regular part of my encounters with the words this project explores — but if you’d like to hear Josh White’s original version here’s the link to his. The player gadget for my version is below, and if you don’t see that, here’s a link to my version. I have one more example yet from the young Black poets who published Fire!! planned if situations allow me this month, so follow this blog or check back for that.
Last time here, as we examined the young “Harlem Renaissance” writers who created the 1926 issue of Fire!!, we met one of its lesser-known contributors, Waring Cuney. Today I present an example of something that Cuney did later in his career. But let’s start by going backwards. Cuney was contributing to Fire!! around the time he had won a poetry contest prize as a 19-year-old, but he was originally intending to become a musician. His Wikipedia entry says he changed his mind because he thought he had a poor singing voice.
Already you can see why I, with my inconstant voice and a project that uses the subtitle “The Place Where Music and Words Meet,” might take a liking to him. His family’s music and civil-rights connection may be deep and as strange as America could offer. While I can’t confirm this as I write today, he appears to have been the grandson or other descendant of Norris Wright Cuney (Waring’s father was named Norris Wright Cuney II) who was an important figure in Reconstruction era Texas politics and therefore also related to Norris’ daughter Maude Cuney Hare. Even a glance at the Wikipedia summaries for Norris Wright Cuney and Maude Cuney Hare might tell you how rich and fascinating American Black History can be.*
So, what strangeness made Cuney consider poetry? Here’s the story I found: one day Cuney was riding on a bus reading a newspaper when he saw in it a picture of another young black man his age who had just published a book of poetry. He looked up, and there was that same guy, riding on the same bus, Langston Hughes. The two became friends.
If Hughes’ poetry was early in concerning itself with Black musical expression, Cuney was alongside him with that same inclination. Later on, Hughes would occasionally read his poetry with jazz accompaniment. Cuney went Hughes one better, collaborating with Josh White on a remarkable dawn-of-WWII record of Blues songs about racial injustice called, like the lyric I perform today, “Southern Exposure.”
The 1941 record where Cuney’s lyric was first performed
This song lyric is nothing fancy, but it’s a compressed portrait of the forces that led large numbers of southern Afro-Americans to move North. What moved them? In short: industrial or domestic/pink color work seemed preferable to the feudal system of southern agriculture enforced with outright de jure racial segregation and restrictions. I could step back a bit and say that like Joseph Campbell’s highly compressed portrait of Irish rural poverty and emigration, “Southern Exposure’s” small cabinet of modest imagery is in the service of describing big things.
I didn’t use Josh White’s music or arrangement for my musical performance of Cuney’s “Southern Exposure,” preferring to rig up my own. I’m singing with acoustic guitar, the adopted Blues instrument White used, but about halfway in the rustic guitar is joined by a cello, a concert-hall instrument. You can hear my rendering of “Southern Exposure” with a graphic player if you see that, or with this backup highlighted link that will open a new tab with a music player.
*When I read the current controversies being utilized for political leverage regarding American Black History, may I introduce one point that I think gets missed as folks try to maximize white fears about this subject. Yes, horrible things occurred — and they weren’t accidents or fate, they were inflicted with intention. But strange and brave things occurred too. I’d argue that studying evils inflicted with intention is a vital subject for humanity — but also that the second, however bittersweet at times, is marvelous and intensely interesting.
I said I’d return to our encounter with the 1926 Harlem Renaissance issue of Fire!! magazine — and here we are with another poem that was printed there. If you’ll remember from earlier this Black History Month, Fire!! was largely organized, written, and edited by young people under the age of 25, and as such it wanted to represent a generational change from the curators of anthologies like James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry or Alain Locke’s The New Negro of 1925. There’s more emphasis on free verse in the poetry section for example, and throughout the issue there’s less attention to propriety. Though only a year separates Fire!! from The New Negro,long-time readers here may recall that Locke’s book included an essay on Black music casting a suspicious eye on what the essayist cast as frivolous Jazz music — and Blues, as a vocal music depicting a lot of disreputable situations, wasn’t considered an art at all.
The cohort of Fire!! didn’t share that outlook. If anything, they wanted to make sure they touched on unconventional thoughts and affinities. And here’s something we now think we know about the young writers in Fire!! — a substantial portion were gay or bisexual. Afro-Americans in the 1920s were coming out as full-fledged contributors to all the public arts — would that other status, fully-illegal and disrespected, muddy the waters of “racial uplift?”
Today’s piece uses a poem by a lesser-known contributor in this issue of Fire!!, Waring Cuney. Like Helene Johnson, who you may have been introduced to earlier this February, Cuney deserves to be better-known. While not directly part of the Harlem scene, Cuney was friends with Langston Hughes, one of the chief instigators of Fire!!, and like Hughes he was a young man who was comfortable with the language and outlook of the Blues.
I can’t seem to find a picture of the young William Waring Cuney, but here he is later in life modeling modern vinyl hipsterism.
Today’s set of words, Cuney’s poem “The Death Bed” doesn’t use Blues forms directly, but I’ve already been working with some other Cuney poems that do for possible performance, so I decided that I could include some of that today. “The Death Bed” is a poem about a dying man who doesn’t seem very interested in his family’s consolations of religion. While getting religion as death approaches is a common trope, our dying man quickly tells his relatives there’s no need for prayer. The relatives leave for another room, and instead of the purposeful theology of public prayer, our protagonist listens to the enigmatic wind. For one moment he tries to join the windsong with his own song, but finds he can find no words. If windsong is nature (likely) or the paraclete (possible), our dying man cannot form his response.
The poem ends with the dying man concerned with what the relatives in the other room are praying. Are they seeking to intercede for the non-believer? Or might they think he needs to be cleansed of some evil — maybe they are even praying to be protected from the sins this sinner personifies?
Cuney’s poem as it appeared in Fire!!
In my performance I sought to open-up intimations of another possibility via music. The Godhead or the universe may not require intercession or last-minute prayers. I made a rare choice to use a conventional musical sample* for this performance. The slide guitar you hear in the main body of “The Death Bed” is taken from a 1927 recording “Jesus Make Up my Dying Bed” by gospel/blues guitarist and singer Blind Willie Johnson. While many guitarists think Johnson’s sound and distinctive slide-vibrato is unmatchable, one could suppose I could have tried to approximate it. However, I was taken with the romantic notion of combining this 1926 poem with a slice of music recorded around the same time. I then included a short coda with a sung variation of this song.** The rest of the music was made with percussion and the sound of bowed cymbals. You can play this performance of Waring Cuney’s “The Death Bed” with a graphical player below. No player to see? This highlighted link is a backup method to play it.
*Portions of modern popular and art music intentionally use collaged and looped sections of existing recordings. I tend to avoid that for whatever reason, generally choosing to play or electronically “score” my instruments.
**The performers in that short coda are Fred and Annie McDowell. Fred McDowell is another master of the bottleneck slide guitar.
It’s one of those things that is hard to do well but is none-the-less important to do anyway. Why is it hard? Why is its realization often imperfect? What might one do or aim for when attempting to read one’s own poetry for the public? Well, before I write down some responses to those challenges, let me say that these are not the opinions of an expert or the summary judgements of some important critic, but only observations of someone who attends readings and occasionally reads my own verse aloud before a live audience.
Why is it hard? Perhaps I’d rather say it this way: there’s no good reason it should be easy. The writing of poetry, emphasis on the second word in that sentence, is not a public act. For many of us it takes extraordinary private concentration to create our poetry — and too, we often put in it things we would otherwise never share face-to-face. As a result, a great deal of poetry, particularly our present age’s poetry, derives its power from whispers to ourselves in the dark. Why should the same person who does that writing be any good at reading it aloud?
I attend at least one poetry reading every month and I’ve seen over a hundred poets read. Let me be honest about myself: I’m not a very good listener. I have a racing mind, and any spark that a reader’s words set off, has a tendency to cause my mind to follow it off into my own bonfires. And if the reader’s own tinder is damp, I as a poet myself will spend internal time noting how poorly the campfire chances are progressing. How much better (or worse?) is the average poetry reading audience member in listening? I can’t say, but I fear I’m a bit worse than the average audience member, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice some ways poets reading may fail more than others.
I’ll summarize one class of failure with a general statement of an issue: not convincing me that the words the reader is sharing are important to be shared. Yes, yes, I know this is hard. Most poets don’t have the audience or objective awards and rewards to be reinforced that their stuff is any good. And those that do (or those that inflate what small elements of that they’ve received) can forget that there may be audience members who still need to be convinced. If you make that case in your manner of presentation and in any introductory speaking you do before and between poems, you’ve improved the chance of the audience paying attention.
Oddly, general posture and “stage presence” doesn’t seem to have as much effect as I might guess it would. Readers who make extensive eye contact vs. those whose heads are downcast to the page on the podium — is the former better than the latter? Probably, but I’ve seen success and failure with both. I’ve seen a few poetry readers with more extensive motion moving around the stage or reading area. This has been rare, and I’ve seen it work (for me as audience member). If I’m not otherwise compelled, it might seem off-putting or artificial. Literary poetry readings do not seem the same as general public speaking or stage performance in expectations or needs in this regard.
Taking steps to earn the audience’s attention can pay off.
Pacing, setting audience expectations, and “set-list structure” does seem important. Don’t read too fast or too slow. Help the audience understand what you’re going to do (even mundane things like “I’m going to read six poems today” or “This is the last poem I’m going to read tonight”). Musicians most often work out the order of pieces they will present with some thought. It may help the performer (and therefore the audience) if you start with a “greatest pop hit” that you know how to consistently perform without making any extraordinary demands on either audience or reader. Place your most emotionally or intellectually demanding piece at the end, or next-to-last.*
Because we have to get over two obstacles when reading our own poetry, I’ve suggested to poets that they consider splitting their task into two parts. First, practice by reading other poets’ work aloud, even with no audience. Pick poets whose work is meaningful or influential to your own writing style, and figure out how to make them sound their best and most compelling in your voice.** Then, move on to your own poetry, and read it in the same voice and manner, as if it was as important and “certified” as your poetic models. The self-doubt, the “who am I to…?” factor can possibly be tricked with this path. However, what should you do if, when you get to the second task, you choke at how it sounds? It’s possible that your models, your influences, may need to be expanded. I myself started loving romantic era 19th century poetry for example, but later wanted to develop a more conversational style in my own writing. I could try reading Keats or Blake as if they were talking to me, or I could try reading aloud some Frank O’Hara instead.
How do you know how you sound when reading other poets or your own work. You need to record yourself. Your basic smartphone or laptop will do well enough. In the Parlando Project I make efforts to make my recorded voice sound better on recordings, but that’s not important in this effort. Will you feel self-conscious listening to your own voice? Almost certainly. Get over that it won’t sound right — it will sound more like what the audience hears. Do you feel your reading voice has a weird or unappealing timbre? That’s likely of less importance, so get over it.
It’s a good idea to practice your “set” before a public reading. Highly experienced readers can skip this step,*** but inexperienced readers should not.
In summary then, most readers of their own poetry are not great readers, even those who’ve widely published or won awards — so congratulations, it’s OK to be an imperfect reader, most of us are! Yet it’s still worthwhile becoming a better public reader.
A week ago I decided to read a love poem at a rare open mic session for a longstanding local reading series. I picked a slightly revised version of a poem I presented here a few years ago “The Phones in Our Hands (are so Magical).” The organizers’ instructions said that we should read only a single poem of our own and keep it under four minutes. I prepared for the reading by informally recording myself reading my poem about three times, to get a quick sense of if I had it down as to its presentation. On the night of the reading, I was able to present it at about 75% of what my third and best practice reading was. Where was the fall off? I read it just a bit too fast (nervousness) and I probably was less than optimum in handling some of the phrasing. I’ll give myself a middle grade in my overall presentation. I did try to set the expectations in introducing the poem, but in the end, the overall effect was less effective than it could have been for two reasons. I didn’t properly setup or convey the tonal shift in the poem, so the surprise when the poem shifts from the mysterious/playful to the experience of the separation of death from one’s partner confounded the audience. The difference between pleasurable surprise and confusion is subtle to describe, yet critical in effect. The other issue was “set-list” related. Most of the readers disregarded the one poem request and read 2-3, and as a Valentine’s Day themed reading, many of the poems were light-hearted and playful. My single poem was a “downer” and a “thinker” poem. I had considered doing two poems (still well within the four minutes) and would have led off with the Valentine’s poem I presented here last time, which is a more informal and joyous poem, even if it addresses the same issues of old love and eventual widowhood. In retrospect, that would have improved my “set” considerably. The bottom line I’ll convey from my most recent public reading: accepting imperfection is an important skill, ever more so if you are trying to do things well, and I enjoyed taking my swing at sharing my poem.
Today’s audio piece is the third take of my practice run-through of “The Phones in our Hands (are so Magical)” with an impromptu two-handed improv over a synth pad, one track a soft grand piano and the other a more plaintive high-in-its-range violin. Apropos to the above discussion of recording your own voice, the poem coincidently mentions how odd our recorded voice seems to most of us. You can hear it with the player below or this alternative highlighted link.
*If next-to-last, your last poem can then be another “greatest pop hit,” a poem of clarity that seeks to leave the audience energized and feeling they’ve comprehended what you’ve presented, rather than drained or perplexed.
**Does this sound like the Parlando Project, where 90% of the time we present performances of other poet’s words? I guess it does, but the main reason that I do the Project is that spending extended time with those words and integrating them with music tricks me into listening to them in a deeper way. It gets me past those issues I have being distracted while listening to another reader. In melding their poem with my breath and music, I’m forced to inhabit it.
***A great many (not all) musicians go through an intense practice regimen while developing their skills on their instrument, but a more relaxed and informal one later. Someone who’s gigging and playing regularly (using their bank of skills deposited from their own-room practice) is often able to maintain or even sharpen those skills without the need for as much solo practice. Similarly, if you are regularly reading, there’s much less need to practice your set.
I’m going to take a short break from our February celebration of 1926’s Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists* to celebrate old people — really old people. The audio piece today is also not as solemn as some of the issues we’ve dealt with in other posts: it’s about love, desire, lust — and those feelings are represented as Shakespeare or many of the Afro-American Blues artists of our last decade to be called “The Twenties” might present it, as “country matters.”
There’s a long poetic lyrical tradition of mixing rural metaphors with desire. We’ve done more than one piece here over the years in the bucolic poetic tradition of lusty shepherds and comely rural maids, but it has occurred to me in my present old age that they are almost always young and single. I, on the other hand, am an old, long-married man. Not to put a damper on the prurience factor, but when I say old, I mean old enough to think about not being around to promise love forever. I’ll repeat what I’ve said here before: that at my age when offered a lifetime guarantee on a product, I’ll ask now if there’s a better deal. Yet, oddly enough, that for me makes the desire to connect with my beloved no less ardent. Carpe Diem is no longer just a trope to be trotted out.
Does today’s rambunctious piece do a good job of communicating that? I’m not sure. I presented an earlier draft of this a decade ago to a writer’s group I was participating in — and they, in the springtime of their mid-60s, thought it was a persona poem about someone wooing a rural widow, while I thought the inescapable ribald joke in the piece was that the singer wanted to, ahem, get down with it, before they died making their wife a widow. That group was often right about such lack of clarity, but I sometimes wonder if they were too young — and now that half that group has died, that they might have a different understanding of this lusty Blues poem. And it occurs to me that’s an additional joke! The audience for poetry may be small, but am I expecting the audience for this one to be made up of dead people?
Here’s my Blues-poem lyric. We’ll be back with other peoples’ words soon.
I don’t know, but I wish all of the readers and listeners here, of whatever age, a happy Valentine’s Day. We may not understand love — after all, we barely understand lust — but let us fumble toward that understanding with chocolates and flowers in a cold February. You can hear me perform this Blues-poem with bottleneck-slide guitar using the graphical player gadget below, or with this alternative highlighted link.
As we continue our 2023 Black History Month encounter with the young Harlem New York based writers in the 1926 issue of Fire!! we reach a much less familiar name: Helene Johnson. Our lead-off poet Countee Cullen was a mere 3 years older than the 20-year-old Johnson when Fire!! was published, but Cullen had already published two books and had two more in the works. Johnson had published mostly though successful writing contest entries. In the upcoming year she’d publish a poem in Vanity Fair. And then? Well, not much.
None-the-less, her poem in Fire!! “A Southern Road” is as strong as any included. I’m going to try to be brief in discussing the poem’s craft — though the poem exhibits those skills — because discussions of meter and imagery against the poem’s subject seem disproportionate to my heart’s response. And let me be clear at the start of this discussion: “A Southern Road” is a lynching poem, and in the last decade called The Twenties most Black American poets assayed a poem on the terroristic acts against Afro-Americans that were then an occurrence as common as mass shootings or questionable police killings are today.* And like those things we experience today, lynchings and other acts of anti-Black violence were both a cause for political organizing and an ongoing hurt that the country seemed incapable of correcting. Let that sink in for cause of sorrow and information: around 100 years ago, in the lifetime of people in our lifetimes, it was considered an insolvable problem that American communities would torture, mutilate, and summarily execute fellow citizens as a public display of their power and the executed’s lack of it. Read that sentence again. Read it once more after that. This level of savagery was thought something that couldn’t be stopped, something inevitable.
Can I appropriately introduce an odd sort of hope into this horrendous history? Yes, the heart and head may be confused on that. Still, people, Black and white Americans, dealing with a nation that collectively thought this just had to continue, eventually made lynchings rare. There’s a long and likely necessary analysis on why this happened that would include how the same hatefulness mutates into new forms, I won’t get to that here. I’ll just say to our current, crucial, Greatest Generation (because, like the last given that name, they’ll have to be great) that pervasive “This can’t be changed. Any solution would be ineffective and worse than the disease” statements about present horrors can be reflexes not reflective of history.
As the poem appeared in Fire!! The Internet has some mistranscriptions likely due to OCR errors.
Did Johnson’s poem make this change come about? No, it’s not even well-known as a poem— not even well-known as an African-American Harlem Renaissance poem — but poetry works in each reader and listener, one-by-one. A little over a decade later Abel Meeropol’s song “Strange Fruit” was powerfully realized by Billie Holiday, but Johnson’s earlier work was similarly skillful in giving us a portrait of evil. Even more than “Strange Fruit,” “A Southern Road” is cast as a cold pastoral. “A Southern Road” opens with a somewhat specific yet mysterious image: a dry yellow tongue. A metaphoric rural clay road? A parched leaf? From the poem’s generalized title we don’t know. I think the following “little tune” image developed over the next few lines is birdsong, and our dry forest pastoral ends unexpectedly with a line “Pregnant with tears.”
Johnson’s next sentence spread over four lines is part of why I think the tune, a melody that is a “streaming line of beauty” is birdsong, as there’s a nest that’s been flung down by some indifferent god/fate, before the Sabbath. We are to worship that god? We are to puzzle at a beautiful song despite loss?
The poem’s final five lines have us reassessing the poem’s portion before them. Several antique words are used here, perhaps a conscious choice to make this horror that was contemporary to her time in a way more timeless and generalized. A tree is described as a “predella,” the platform of an alter. We can next tell that the metaphoric altarpiece in this case depicts a crucifixion of a kind, a lynched person. “Sacrificial dower to raff” is near-Chaucerian in language. “Dower” is the inheritance of a dead person, raff is Middle English for rubbish, akin to the slightly less out-dated term “riff-raff.” The sacrificed body does not seem like much of an inheritance, any more that Christ on the cross seems much like a godhead, but I think Johnson is using raff/riff-raff in this line also to refer to the lynchers and their hate’s inheritance.
The poem ends with the tortured body suspended in the air, which I believe the poem compares to a plausible reader’s opinion on this matter: suspended?
There, I said I would keep my account of how we might encounter and understand this poem’s craft brief. I’ve compared “A Southern Road” above to “Strange Fruit,” and so I took it as my job to give Helene Johnson’s poem some further equivalence, albeit with what I could create for music and with a less masterful singer. I needed to put the music together fairly quickly again, but despite having three guitars and an electric piano over the bass and drums it worked spontaneously, as it needed to. You can hear it with the player you may see below, or with this alternative highlighted link.
*There’s a figure easily found in web searches that more than a thousand lynchings occurred between 1900 and 1914. The later year 1919 (not included in that selection of years) was notorious for white riots and other forms of violence. US population at the time of today’s poem was roughly 1/3 of what it is today if you’d like to adjust figures. It’s plausible that numbers were not easily gathered for other years — after all, in our century there were no figures on the number of people killed in police encounters until recently. And anyway, technical arguments about collection and accuracy of numbers, like metrical scans of this poem’s lines don’t get at the overall effect of this: that people are going to terrorize and kill you and not enough are going to care about it.
It’s February and in America it’s Black History Month.* In the past few years of this Project I’ve picked a publication that has entered into public domain status to examine.** This February I’m going to feature work from a singular 1926 publication, the first issue of what was to be a literary quarterly called Fire!! The cover advertised it would be “Devoted to younger Negro Artists.”
Want to read this issue of Fire!! in part or all? Here’s a link to a high-resolution scan of it.
It’s worth stopping and noticing that “younger” again. It’s easy to fall into a trap when considering a time so long ago to many who will be reading this in 2023 — but its contributors and instigators were in their younger 20s though some had been writing and publishing since they were teenagers. They may seem old to you by strange definition, but they were certainly young to themselves and their contemporaries.
I find that remarkable. While a range of Black American artists were coming to the fore in the last decade called “The Twenties,” I can’t think it was in any way a time friendly to them. Even artistic Modernism, which sought new sources of inspiration and often delighted in mocking old prejudices, was a mixed bag. Racism and ethnic stereotyping remained present in Modernism. Perhaps sociologists could tell us if it was greater or lesser in the world of art than in society at large then, but I’m certain it was no small factor. And yet here were these young writers who at this point thought it was time for them to unleash a record of their experiences.
It’s not so wild a theory to say that they were so audacious because they didn’t know any better. I’m not going to knock that — for this white elderly composer and amateur sorta-scholar to think I have anything to bring to their efforts is not how the smart money would bet either. And you? You’re reading a blog with poetry and a variety of non-commercial music. So clearly, we all don’t know any better.
In the previous year’s Black History Month series here we’ve noted that some forms of new expression that would be featured in Fire!! were not without opposition even from the existing Black Intelligentsia. Jazz and Blues musics were considered problematic. Literary examinations of the sequalae of poverty rather than stories of uplift were controversial. Even if the 1920s were the decade that free verse became more widespread, some of these young poets looked more to Shelley and Keats than Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes.
Here’s Cullen’s sonnet as it appeared handsomely set in Fire!! It’s also the first poem in the poetry section of this issue, a section titled “Flame From the Dark Tower.”
Our lead-off poet is one such example. Countee Cullen was not a Modernist poet. Unlike other metrical/rhyming poets like Frost, and sometimes Yeats or Millay, he’s not even Modernist in outlook. While he’s 23 years old when this was published, he writes as if he was looking back to his last decade to be called the 20s, which would be the 1820s. None the less, “From the Dark Tower” is an impassioned account of the harms of white supremacy — and it is very well written within that style. If the premiere Afro-American poet Phyllis Wheatley was out to prove that she could write 18th century poetry as well as any white poet, Cullen demonstrates that he could do the same for the 19th century. Sure, there’s the matter that he was writing in the 20th century, and we are reading him in the 21st, but that’s likely a lesser sin now when there’s no fresh battle to be joined over free verse, Jazz rhythms, or Blues speech. It’s not unlikely that we read other older poems written in this poem’s style, and Cullen is in 2023 one of those old poets.
And then there’s this — this huge thing. I was trying to quickly get down an acceptable take of my simple acoustic guitar version of my song-setting of Cullen’s poem from Fire!! yesterday. Across my country, at the same time, in a city famed for its American music, so significantly Afro-American music, there was a funeral for yet another Black person killed by our official representatives in a manner that seems clearly to be an affront to civilization. Should we, musicians who’ve inherited that tradition, merely “beguile…with mellow flute?” To sing Cullen’s line, couched in careful rhyme and meter: “We were not made eternally to weep” — can I wish that situation would seem old-fashioned, out of date, a curiosity of the obsolete?
To hear that performance you can use a player gadget that should appear below. No player? This highlighted link is an alternative.
*Not to cast shade on this worthy endeavor, but Black History Month has been in my observation largely an Afro-American History month. There’s nothing inherently wrong with concentrating on that subject. I’ll just acknowledge that in the past century or so there’s been a counter-colonialist reassessment of African continental history — and while it has not risen to the level that this American has been aware of it (beyond some UK and other former English-speaking Commonwealth country reading) there may be worthwhile study and information coming forth on the wider African story.
**Because reusing, adapting, even performing, work not in the public domain is a legal gray area, this project shies away from using more modern work. Luckily as this nearing 7-year-long project has continued, more and more “Harlem Renaissance” work has entered PD status. Specific thanks is due to the Yale University Library for making Fire!! available digitally.