The technological poetics of Thomas Weatherly
Thomas Weatherly’s literary productivity during the last stage of his life is an important chapter of work. His last years of truly phenomenal creative output also reveal the limitations that still prevail in the ways literary value is often measured and respected, especially in scholarship on African American writers. While some perceive that Weatherly’s poetic production diminished in his final years, he was in fact enormously prolific — and as inventive and pathbreaking as ever — as becomes clear if we expand our perceptions of what comprises literary and aesthetic evaluation. Weatherly’s evolutions, as well as his continuities, provide an opportunity to reject narrow critical standards that have historically haunted African American poets.
My focus is on the myriad digital personae and avenues that Weatherly used to address his audiences, in addition to his mediated personal communications in the form of emails and telephone conversations. In the late work that I consider to be an essential part of Weatherly’s opus, Weatherly embraced technology with a fervor that matched his commitment to reading, literary forms, and dialogue with others, whether they be long-dead poets through print or current friends and associates digitally or in person.
Weatherly’s blogs and postings were far from chats to be indulged by a quirky elder. Every message, whether private or public communication, was brilliant and scintillating — always stimulating. Weatherly produced nothing but verbal works of art and intellect and found multiple métiers to do so. That he was able to embrace technologized and multimodal communication with such ease and quality demonstrates his gifts as a wordsmith, his sophisticated gauge of diverse audiences, and his role as an unquenchable imbiber of and commentator on contemporary culture.
Weatherly was a brilliant writer; of that there can be no doubt. No posting or email was superficial in content, stylistically flawed, or sloppy in thinking. For a poet whose publications might be misinterpreted as gnostic, difficult, or formulaic, Weatherly has consistently been extremely disclosive, inviting, and didactic in his writing. He has revealed with clarity and generosity how his invented forms operate and why he created them, which is a time-honored tradition. We find countless monocultural examples in the lyric poetry tradition, such as Dante signifying on the Petrarchan sonnet, and cross-cultural examples of African American poets such as Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, and Lenard D. Moore signifying on haiku. We encounter not only unpublished, uncollected, and revised versions of Weatherly’s poems and poetic thought through digital media, but we also discover perhaps his most cogent series of literary commentaries and statements on poetics since his preface to natural process (1970).
Poetic form and mechanisms of delivery are ever changing, and the mark of a great poet is to comment on, modify, progress, and/or originate lasting new forms and modes. May the future hold many more glories and double glories! We similarly find song lyrics routinely included in poetry anthologies, while visual and performance poetries in recent decades have experienced an unprecedented renaissance. In scholarly terms, the digital humanities — defined variously — has become somewhat standardized in its contents, methods, and ideologies of research and dissemination of ideas and information. Weatherly’s use of internet communication was au courant and genius.
“Dear kin, kith, and friends” was a frequent salutation of Weatherly’s prolific and eagerly awaited online postings in his final decade. Anyone and everyone were welcome to situate themselves in one of those categories, from his neighbors in New York and Alabama to all who were privileged to encounter this special and unique individual. As inviting as his posts were, he didn’t want to waste or impose his words on an unreceptive receiver. Several times, he repeated this message: “I say again, if you don’t want these Weatherly Reports just delete them” (June 24, 2014). Weatherly’s customarily direct invitations to join the conversation were only for those who wanted to read them. He had a lot to say, and as we now sadly know, time was running out to say what he needed and wanted to communicate. As many friends and critics have commented, he was endlessly curious about the world in its current state and intense about accessing accurate knowledge. Weatherly was fundamentally a didact — a pedagogue raised by pedagogues, in the best sense of that term — the child of teachers who was always eager to instruct for the betterment of the world and its inhabitants.
My strongest impression of Weatherly’s final decade of literary output is an urgent desire to communicate, clarify, correct, and connect. He wanted to be in touch and serve as a wise and elder guide only to those who were receptive to his messages. As if he knew time were running out, Weatherly did not want to waste the truth and beauty of his efforts on disinterested audiences. Conversely, he loved those who were receptive to paying mutual attention. He was a consummate artist; his every email contained verbal gems. The internet opus of his last years has literary value far beyond the customary categories of “ephemera” or “and et cetera.” This is not a case of extracanonical materials with only anecdotal or contingent worth as exegesis, supplement, or commentary. The digital materials must be regarded and treated as an integral part of his canon, not surplus or marginal. It is easy to critically argue that Weatherly himself did not take this writing casually: its quality and quantity reflect his visionary awareness that media and technology had changed literature. In his final earthly transformation, Weatherly became a digital poet, internet activist, and multimodal literary artist.
His postings should be regarded as one large but diversified body. His many and changing blogs and sites often contained links to his other sites and postings, displaying the full range of his intermedia talents. As one of countless examples, the Weatherly Report of July 12, 2013, contains an animation, a drawing, a poem, an aphorism that he often quoted from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a musing on Alabama, and a link to a posting with the same date in Daily Kos titled “I aint eloquent, though pissed sometimes.” The Daily Kos posting, mainly about politics, ends with a humorous “poll” about his Saint Satin Stain persona.
Weatherly’s digital personae often overlapped and were inter-referencing. We experience in his blogs, group postings, and emails a combination of blending and a spectrum of interests, characteristics, and audiences that eventually coalesced in the wholeness of their author’s identity. While the venues are diverse, more access is gained into Weatherly’s literary identity and legacy if we view these venues as a totality. His digital communications contained frequent examples of sophisticated literary commentary, previously unpublished poems, and recordings of poems that may be permanently and tragically lost. SaintSatinStain and LeftinAlabama, which increasingly fused in focus, served as his primary vehicles of political commentary and also offered nuggets of insight into his poetics. We find an instance of a spectacularly witty mashup of identities in LeftinAlabama where “saint satin stain of Left In Alabama interviews ‘Junior’ Weatherly of Scottsboro, Alabama” (May 10, 2010). Such moments confirm Weatherly’s ultimate belief in the futility of trying to compartmentalize interests and facets of identity.
Another example of this verbal and conceptual buffet is found in Weatherly’s Eclectic Git blog, subtitled “Food for brain and belly,” whose first posting appeared on May 29, 2005. There are limitless riches for research, enjoyment, and education in this blog, which ranges from contemporaneous perspectives on national and local politics to a wealth of poems, and commentary on everything from food to literary theory. In describing this site, Weatherly wrote: “I have used this space for politics, for poetry, and for whatever I felt at the moment. Food, shelter, clothing are necessary to work, politic, read, or write poems, play, love, live.” The author of this eclectic git entry is listed as “saint satin stain” (November 13, 2011). In this site, we find such gems as a satiric commentary on gun control worthy of Jonathan Swift (January 29, 2013), a dialogic poetic parody of “Lysistrata” titled “Coochie recipe, Aristophanes & Willie Dixon” (March 25, 2012), and explanations and examples of the glory and double glory, presented in the third person by “Thomas Weatherly.” The loops of identities and interwoven topics of concern are macrocosmic yet integrated as the work of a single embracing consciousness if we seek the correlations. If Whitman could encompass throngs, so could and did Weatherly.
Embedded in Weatherly’s correspondence and blog postings, we find rare materials that have been incorporated in this Jacket2 special feature. Added to the bibliography on the main page from Weatherly’s internet postings are uncollected poems that appeared in three literary magazines (Minetta Review, Gandhabba, and Poetry New York) and two poems in a poetry anthology (Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone, ed. Nielsen and Ramey). In the section titled “Uncollected Later Poems (1984–2006),” we find reproduced three magazine publications, seven previously unpublished poems, and variants of published poems with handwritten commentary sent to me by the postal service, and in “Uncollected Later Poems (2009–2014),” eight additional poems from email correspondence. Additionally, excerpts from my correspondence with Weatherly have been included in a section called “Emails to Lauri Scheyer (Ramey), 2005–2014,” which includes three unpublished “birthdate poems.”
One Weatherly Report included an important addendum of recorded poems, and another consisted solely (and equally importantly) of his favorite pancake recipe. Weatherly’s deadpan wit was a charmingly omnipresent feature, but you had to be on your toes to catch the quick sequencing of syntax and nuance. On July 12, 2013, he posted this series of observations:
I love Alabama but not all its inhabitants. I love all the rattlesnakes, deer, copperheads, rabbits, et cetera, but only some of the homo saps. Living with Alabama, loving it, like having a favorite uncle who is a homicidal maniac.
You believe sometimes it’s best for the universe if he died. Yet you’d miss him. I say him because most of the mischief committed in Alabama is by males.
In a not-quite-Weatherly Report (a group posting dated November 13, 2013, whose subject was only “WEATHERLY”), he implicitly acknowledged the flow among his sites, like an actor playing multiple roles in plays all written by himself. In this group email, he provided recordings of poems, and revealed his awareness that his audiences knew the totality of the “real” him. Such self-reflexive observations revealed that all of his communications emanated from one central source, and should be regarded as such: “But you should check leftinalabama.com (I am saint satin stain there; though you know me would know that. I OWN all anagrams).” As his anagrammatic method was a key element of his creative process, this direction to consult another site also constituted a statement of his poetics.
Weatherly’s blog reflections on politics and society, the personal and the universal, are astute, self-aware, well-informed, and informative. He was aware and accepting of the contradictions of many of his stances and conclusions, such as rejecting abortion as well as the government’s right to control a woman’s body. (In 2008, as a Democrat, he voted his first-ever straight ticket: all Republican candidates.) His postings are often classics of style, easily imaginable in an anthology of the literary or personal essay. He embraced all instruments of technology as mechanisms to express his creative and energized engagement with life (note the lengthy detailed pieces of advice and information on his Weatherly Reports about cyber security), which included an earlier vehicle of connection: the telephone. Weatherly and I commenced a series of long phone conversations starting in 1997 when I was on the faculty at Hampton University and living in Virginia. In our first conversation, he asked how long I would be home, because he would ride his bicycle from Alabama to visit. The extraordinary seemed entirely plausible coming from Weatherly.
Connecting Weatherly’s digital work to his print poetry and writings also invites us to interrogate the slippery categories of “conventional” and “avant-garde” practice. Perhaps we may even jettison these binaries as not being especially useful in their current forms. If conventional means structured, following patterns, and utilizing traditional models, Weatherly must be viewed as a conventional figure. He generously revealed and credited other practitioners and applied his own formal patterns in ways that harken back to kennings, punning, and numerous rhetorical figures of the classical tradition. Following the modernist presumption of “difficulty,” “avant-garde” is often construed to mean formless, unstructured, opaque, fragmentary, and politically oppositional by using style to represent resistance to mainstream values and communicative modes. Returning to its etymology and military metaphor in this post-Poggioli/post-Bürger/post-Jameson post-post era, we can regress avant-gardism to mean before the main corps, the advance scouts. That, too, was Weatherly.
I received my last two individual emails from him eleven days before he made his transition (a final Weatherly Report was sent on July 8, which I will comment on). These two emails arrived on the same day, Independence Day 2014. The first was this message:
Subject: Just finished adding addresses to mobile
Your ringtone Nadine.
Here we have another poignant example of Weatherly’s fascination with technology combining with his creative ingenuity by assigning imaginative ringtones to his friends in hopes of many more conversations in the future. It’s a classic song, but now I will always have to ponder why he chose “Nadine” for my ringtone. The subject heading of the second email was “ASR Recording.” The full message was an extraordinary recording of his poem “you aint safe from dying until you-re [sic] dead.flac 1.5 MB” (available at Weatherly’s PennSound page). The text of this poem had been shared privately with his blog “family,” but I am unaware of any other recordings. No further proof is needed that Weatherly was creating and communicating actively until the last days of his life, or that digital contact was a primary mode of artistic production and dissemination for him. On July 8, 2014, one week before his passing, he posted his final Weatherly Report, whose sole contents were his poem “antisemantic” (dated 010614) written for Walter Dean Myers, who had died on July 1, 2014 (this poem appears in this feature). Weatherly was writing new poetry in the final half-year of his life.
In parallel with his appellation of all those who read and loved Weatherly and his work as “Dear kin, kith, and friends” is his own self-description from LeftinAlabama: “neighbor hood ideologue batting left now” (March 13, 2011) and “I’m brother, pa, grandpa, kin, kith, jew, poet, cyclist, progressive, eclectic, ideologue at http://LeftinAlabama.com and it’s 160 characters or fewer. eight mo’” (March 13, 2011). We would gladly have received those “eight mo’.” The literary productivity of the last stage of Thomas Weatherly’s life is an essential chapter in his own work and the limitations we sometimes have in how we envision “literature.”
Weatherly’s digital outlets
Left in Alabama (posts by SaintSatinStain, including a rich store of Weatherly’s postings as well as a beautiful obituary by Larisa Thomason, aka countrycat)