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Poet talks history, politics and the Black Arts Movement

Doug Holder | 8/3/2011, 2:18 p.m.

Who published many of the writers of the Black Arts Movement?

The Broadside Press. It was a small press that was based in Chicago. It was started by a man named Dudley Randall. They were publishing young black writers who were very militant and defined themselves as being “black” rather than “Negro.” There was a very strong political stance to them.

Didn’t you have a strong political slant to your work?

If I did it was politics that grew out of the 1930s. That was a mixture of left-leaning, the communist and the socialist.

This was in contrast to the militancy of the ’60s?

Yes. Because a lot of that was directed at whites generally. It was confrontational or abrasive. You were now BLACK and different from previous generations. You had no patience with your forefathers, your parents, those who were living as NEGROES. It was a very angry and self-destructive ideology. People like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden were viewed as not being pro-black.

Your poetry seems to be stripped down rather than weighted with ornate flourishes.

For me it is a choice of language. How do you describe something? How do you create a poem? How do you communicate? I would say that it is the influence of the hard world or the naturalistic writer, where you use the language that’s employed in common speech. At the same time you recognize the lyric possibilities in this language.

I have had my days when I had tons of words on the page. I realized though that it was necessary to use fewer words.

You told me that a poet should reveal something about himself in a poem?

I’m back and forth about that. There are poems where you can’t find the poet. There are novels where you can’t find the writer. I just feel very strongly that it is important to present yourself as honestly as you possibly can. Hold yourself up as a mirror people can see their selves [in] and vice a versa.

Poetry does provide an opportunity for people to hide themselves behind the language. They use the poem as a form of escape. And that’s OK as a form of entertainment.

You have talked about the photographer Walker Evans, who used to hide a camera under his coat, and snapped pictures of people that truly captured the moment, on the New York subway for instance. Should a poet be Walker Evans-like?

For me perhaps. But maybe not for others. I like the idea of interacting with people ­— different kinds of people.

So you must have been an admirer of the late Studs Terkel?

Very much so. He transcended the genre.

Your breakthrough poetry collection was “Generations,” published in 1971. How was it a breakthrough?

It might have been a breakthrough because the number of black writers being published at that time were few. The Beacon Press of Boston published it. As a black writer there may have been anger in the book. It was not an anger directed at White America. It attempted to describe living in an America that is black and white, and all the other things that go with it. The book is arranged like most of my books are: from past to present. It begins with a slave funeral and it ends with a sense of Apocalypse. The history comes from things I heard from home, and things I picked up from the neighborhoods, not to mention popular culture.