In Seattle, Washington, Al Filreis convened Kate Colby, Tyrone Wiilliams, Mónica de la Torre, and Aldon Nielsen to talk about a late poem of Wallace Stevens, “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain.” The group collaborates on an enumeration of possibilities for understanding the poet’s current ruminative state as a retrospective view of his previous poems and old ideas about poetry. Past perfect and conditional language — had needed, would be right, would discover, could lie — make us doubt that there is or ever was such a thing as a “there” in “There it was.” There what was? The words? The new words of this poem? The old words on previous poems about the uphill climb of poetic career? The new poem about such old poems re-presents the word-for-word mountain and never really means, it seems, to stand in for the thing itself. This isn’t mere exhaustion. It’s a final development of theory.
On one level at least, Inciting Poetics would seem to be in dialogue with Donald Allen’s 1960 iconoclastic anthology of poetry and poetics, The New American Poetry. With the majority of this volume’s contributors having come of age in the 1960s and 1970s and now in their sixties and seventies, the essays collected here tell a particular narrative, one that seems acutely linked to the political upheavals and cultural shifts of those formative decades.
When I first learned that the University of New Mexico Press was publishing Inciting Poetics, a collection of essays edited by Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams, I was excited for a number of reasons.
Tyrone Williams, William J. (Billy Joe) Harris, Aldon Nielsen, and Erica Hunt joined Al Filreis — host, producer, and moderator — for a live presentation of a special episode of PoemTalk before an audience gathered in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House back in November 2019. They discussed many of Erica Hunt’s concerns, across her poetry and her work as public intellectual and activist, by way of a single poem called “Should You Find Me.” It is the final poem, and — the group comes to agree — the coda to the book Time Slips Right Before Your Eyes, published by Belladonna* in 2006.
Al Young, Tyrone Williams, and William J. Harris joined Al Filreis in the Wexler Studio to discuss Young and his work. The conversation covered the relationship between Young’s poetry and the Black Arts Movement, the role of music and jazz in his writing, and other figures with whom he was acquainted, such as poets Ishmael Reed and Bob Kaufman. Young spoke of his time at Stanford, where he met Harris; of having resided in various parts of the country; and of the role of writing about lived experiences beyond writing about writing. Young also gave readings of some of his poems: “A Dance for Militant Dilettantes,” “Yes, the Secret Mind Whispers” (which was written in honor of Kaufman), and “January.”
The most provocative mark in this anthology may be the virgule or forward slash that separates the last quarter of the title — Radical Writing — from the opening three quarters of the title — Letters to the Future: Black Women. I’ve analyzed elsewhere the function of the colon, a staple in academic article and book titles, so I won’t discuss that here.
In his rightfully famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. recounts his confusion, refusal, and eventual acceptance of the label “extremist” from his critics. King notes that there are two tendencies of extremity: extremism for moral good and extremism for moral evil. And as he puts it in “Call to Conscience,” insofar as America is an extremist nation for moral evil per its actions in Vietnam, he and other antiwar protesters are morally compelled to be extremists for good.
Tyrone Williams, Aldon Nielsen, and William J. Harris joined Al Filreis to talk before a live audience about Amiri Baraka’s poem “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” The printed poem has been published in several versions; one version can be read below. It is best known as a cut on The Roots’ Phrenology album (2002). Baraka came to the lower Manhattan studio where The Roots were recording some of the album’s tracks; there Baraka performed the poem as the band backed him. The result can be heard here.
William J. Harris, Tyrone Williams, and Aldon Nielsen join Al Filreis to talk about a poem by Lorenzo Thomas. The poem is “An Arc Still Open,” written as a commemoration of the muralist John Biggers, who had died in January 2001. The poem was published soon after as part of a John Biggers memorial feature in a magazine produced at University of Houston-Downtown, where since 1997 there had hung a huge (10' x 27') Biggers mural Salt Marsh. Our text of the poem comes from the UHD publication, New Horizons, and our recording, now found on PennSound’s Lorenzo Thomas page, was made in San Diego in 2001.
Tyrone Williams talks to me about growing up working-class in Detroit; bookishness and the role of education and his early teachers; assimilation versus resistance and formal innovation in American poetry in relation to his dissertation on “Open and Closed Forms In 20th Century American Poetics”; his practice of “eshuneutics” (after Yoruba spirit Eshu); the use of appropriation in his poetry and the necessity of research and reading beyond one’s immediate knowledge context; and the politics and history of English for African Americans.
Tyrone Williams talks to me about growing up working-class in Detroit; bookishness and the role of education and his early teachers; assimilation versus resistance and formal innovation in American poetry in relation to his dissertation on “Open and Closed Forms In 20th Century American Poetics”; his practice of “eshuneutics” (after Yoruba spirit Eshu); the use of appropriation in his poetry and the necessity of research and reading beyond one’s immediate knowledge context; and the politics and history of English for African-Americans.