Monday, April 30, 2012

Poem: Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed (National Black Writers Conference)
We come to the end of Poetry Month. Since I began the month with a poem by a poet I know and have had the great luck to study with, I shall choose a final poem about poetry by another poet, of an earlier generation, whom I also had the good fortune to study with. This writer's poem "i am a cowboy in the boat of ra" was my favorite in childhood and for many years after, even though it took me years to fully understand what he was talking about. In fact, I would have chosen that poem, but it doesn't foreground thinking about poets or poetry as a medium in the way that the poems I've selected all month do, so I must pass it by, this time.  This poet first introduced me to the work of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (in person, no less); Adrienne Kennedy; and Jessica Hagedorn.  He also invited me to participate in the only reading I gave as a college student (which, it turns out, several of the Dark Room Writers Collective founders attended, though we didn't know each other then), and has over the years been an advocate. I know he is a controversial figure for many, but he was an excellent teacher, and, when I think of his work in prose fiction, in poetry, in playwrighting, in nonfictional and critical essays, and in lyric writing for musical accompaniment (whether it be jazz, hiphop, or other musical genres) I can only say that he remains one of the more original American and African American authors of his and subsequent eras.

He also has been a diehard champion of underrepresented perspectives in American literature, whether championing the work of Native American, Latino and Latina, Asian American, Arab American and mixed race writers, or founding Konch, which provided a venue for those writers, or editing over a dozen anthologies, such as From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2001 (2003), featuring writers of all backgarounds, or establishing with others the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN/Oakland, which has given out the American Book Awards to writers whom the mainstream literary world often ignored.  His most frequent mode is satire, which often works very well, but sometimes not; but it has provided him with a means for engaging in one of the longest sustained critiques of of American exceptionalism, imperialism and structural racism of any American writer living. While producing this large and impressive body of work, he taught for 35 years at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere (which is where I encountered him). In 1998, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, perhaps considering not just his many literary works but his literary advocacy and community building efforts, honored him with their "Genius" Award.

Who am I talking about? I am talking about Ishmael Reed (1938-). And I will end this month with one of his best known--and, according to Gale Research, one of the most widely taught--poems in the curriculum. You may know which one I mean: "Beware: Do Not Read this Poem."  It is a masterful post-modern poem about poetry's seductive power, the satire undercutting the figurative and literal horror Reed invokes when he talks about the film's and the poem's voracious, anthropophagic appetite, but then cites the US Census figures on missing persons, a stat whose bureaucratic and ominous significance shifts through its connection to poetry.  Reed is saying, I think, through and amidst his satire, that poetry does have power, even if it might be rendered hyperbolic and linked to the obvious artifice of a "horror film" scenario and character.  It makes you laugh and think. Look at yourself, the poem says: not just the poem, but the poet and the readers themselves, have quite a bit of power. The power to devour each other, but of a voraciousness that might not be so bad. If you let it, if it lets you.


tonite, thriller was 
abt an ol woman , so vain she 
surrounded herself w/ 
          many mirrors

it got so bad that finally she 
locked herself indoors & her 
whole life became the 

one day the villagers broke 
into her house , but she was too 
swift for them . she disappeared 
          into a mirror 
each tenant who bought the house 
after that , lost a loved one to 
          the ol woman in the mirror : 
          first a little girl 
          then a young woman 
          then the young woman/s husband

the hunger of this poem is legendary 
it has taken in many victims 
back off from this poem 
it has drawn in yr feet 
back off from this poem 
it has drawn in yr legs

back off from this poem 
it is a greedy mirror 
you are into the poem . from 
         the waist down 
nobody can hear you can they ? 
this poem has had you up to here 
this poem aint got no manners 
you cant call out frm this poem 
relax now & go w/ this poem

move & roll on to this poem 
do not resist this poem 
this poem has yr eyes 
this poem has his head 
this poem has his arms 
this poem has his fingers 
this poem has his fingertips

this poem is the reader & the 
reader this poem

statistic : the us bureau of missing persons re- 
         ports that in 1968 over 100,000 people 
          disappeared leaving no solid clues 
          nor trace     only 
a space     in the lives of their friends 

Copyright © Ishmael Reed, "Beware: Do Not Read This Poem," from New and Collected Poems, 1966-2006, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006.

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