Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Penn State Students Interview poet Rudolph Lewis




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Mockingbirds at Jerusalem: A Poetic Memoir
By Rudolph Lewis

This distorted place could and will never be one of permanence for a smart black boy. He will always seek to fulfill his self in other spaces. Jerusalem generates exiles. Beginning mid-1960s, I sought housing with indoor toilets and tap water, and joy in America’s urban centers, and in a neo-colonial Congo, in New Orleans with poets, artists, musicians, educators, and priests. I worked as porter, teacher, journalist and librarian, studied modern art, listened to jazzmen, and passed out words against war and injustice during the American war against the Viet Cong.

When my exiled world became too cold and depressing to bear, I returned home to my grandmother’s voice—her stories and songs. Most of these poems were first written in 2006 and have been in revision for seven years. They begin with a poem to my grandfather, William “Tinka” Lewis, who raised me as his son and died in 1970. There are many poems that call up my grandmother, Ella Lewis, whom I called “Mama” and from whom I learned our family history. In poor health she was suffering loss of weight and dementia. Her daughter Annie made her comfortable in that home that Tinka built in the late 1950s. 

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Penn State Student 1

Altoona:      What inspired you to become a poet?

R. Lewis: Inspiration does not come all at once. It comes in stages or waves like the sea to the shore.  My writing poetry would have been less likely if I had not completed my undergraduate English major at University of Maryland, College Park. And that would not have been so if not for Max Wilson, former chair of Philosophy Department, Howard University. He led me to and encouraged my studies in Western fiction and philosophy. Institution and man challenged what I thought I knew about myself or life as is. I became convinced of the possibility there were many more choices than I imagined.

My mother’s mother raised me in the Western Tidewater—a village named Jerusalem. For a boy four romping around in green/grass-purple pine-leafy oak world life was mostly idyllic. One gives the devil his due in this world and the next, as I became more familiar with the world beyond Jerusalem. At home I felt quite safe. We had had our monsters roar at night from drink and despair. But I was born a bit before the Civil Rights became the topic of struggle. There were no definite sign that Jim Crow wouldn’t boast its clannish face another 50 years from then. In 1954, Mr. Civil Rights, Thurgood Marshall convinced the Supreme Court to free Negroes us from Jim Crow laws began in the previous century. Before I could get out of high school in 1965, a great deal of Freedom work had been done. There was still much to do. When I left home both schools elementary and high were ones of state segregation.

Much blood had been spilt in Freedom Rides, Sit-ins, and Voter Rights Drives in the Deep South. I was spared those cruelties and brutalities. From my little Virginia hamlet I had no idea what was going on in the world. If there was knowledge of current Negro civil rights issues at the high school among the Negro teachers, it was done in a whisper intentionally that high school children in Sussex did not know what was going on. This conspiracy of silence kept the young blind and without direction. The contradictions are spurs for thought. Educationally, I realized how more fortunate I than my mother and grandmother. I was the first in the family to finish high school. I was thought to be smart, a lover of books. But I also played hoops and a bit of boxing.

 A year out of the country I was a year at Morgan State, living with my mom in Edmondson Village in Baltimore. Then came Fall 1967 at Morgan State College. Stokeley Carmichael spoke. It was like the horn of Gabriel waking the dead. I became aware of the stakes of Vietnam. It was my first protest. I ripped up my Selective Service card and declared an unwavering resistance to the draft. February 1968 I sealed my fate and dropped out of school. My status changed from 2-A to 1-A. There were so many speeches and poems. These were the BAM people, the cultural expression of the Black Power movement. There were poems by Sonia Sachez and Richard Wright. Amiri Baraka, Marvin X, and Nikki Giovanni. These were exhilarating times—the sayings of Mao and Papa Doc. That was my social/political life. That was not my personal life. Writing, and writing about the personal can change lives. Much more than a shrink.

In short, a bit of formal education, a wonderful mentor, reading and writing about many poems Shakespearean, Having role models like the poets Lee Meitzen Grue and Yusef Komunyakaa in 1985 really set me to write blues infused lyrics. I began to develop a voice. My style matured as I continued to write as I made use of my grand-mom’s stories to hold onto my home and childhood, me grandson of a sharecropper.

Altoona:      What is your process of writing? Do you have a certain routine?

R. Lewis: Some times I just begin to type the first thing that comes to mind or that I have been wrestling with it. I copy notes. Add bits an pieces here and there. I keep on tussling until I see a line of thought. Then I try to more color, more humor, more wonder. One holds one’s breath and then look deeper. It all depends what you want. Our ancestors are not dead: the folks hold onto them. I hold onto the stories my grandmother told me. It’s a goldmine. But I’m rather gentle about the tough times.

Altoona:      Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

R. Lewis: I’m not sure what you mean by “writer’s block.” Of course, I’ve heard people speak of it. I know when I’m not on fire, when I have problems organizing my content, or unable to put the notes together right so they sound right. It means I’m not able to think matters through always easily. So one endures and reckless at once. Or I begin fresh, start all over again. I have lots to say. I don’t think I have time enough to say it.

Altoona:     Do you have a favorite place you like to write? 

R. Lewis: It is rare I write with a pencil or pen. I usually write at a desktop screen. When I was at Jerusalem, from one bedroom window I could see the church cemetery, through the other side the white church steeple. Stretching out, I’d walk out on the screen porch, sit a moment, walk out to the road, then on into the cemetery and look up at the stars and moon. Come back and sit on the porch again in the dark mist or the clear full moon night. Then go back in my bedroom with my desktop screen.  The night, the birds, the tree frogs, the deer, walking on pine straw—all were subject to my pen..

But that is not where I am. And although I’m out in the countryside, clearly, I’m not lined up with the moon and stars. So I’m rather erratic now. I’ve another manuscript “Devils in the Dust,.” Waiting on me. I’ve been sitting on it for several years going over and over the poems, ever, hopefully with fresh eyes and ears.

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I Am New Orleans and Other Poems
by Marcus Bruce Christian

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Penn State Student 2

PSU Question: When did you start writing poetry?

R. Lewis: I was about 20 years old when I read the BAM poets in Black World (1968), a Johnson Publication that responded to the new Black Consciousness Movement. My first effort at poetry writing was while an undergraduate at University MD College Park, ca. 1978. It was an absolute failure, mostly rhymes. And I was already 30 years old, studying literary criticism. My real efforts began in 1985 with a New Orleans writing club led by Lee Meitzen Grue, a local poet and editor. While teaching writing at UNO I made fast friends with Yusef Komunyakaa. I learned about his writings before I met him. I did not understand his poetry but I found it, moving and unique. I was forty by the time I got used to the pen. Yusef helped me to develop and appreciate the qualities of Marcus B. Christian, the Dean of New Orleans Letters. I spent a lot of time with Christian and Komunyakaa. In 1999 I co-edited and published a volume of selected Marcus Christian poems under the title “I Am New Orleans & Other Poems by Marcus Bruce Christian.”

So it was in New Orleans I began to write poetry. The city is cultural rich—so many stories and so many cultural traditions. Yusef made me aware of techniques: marking off a poem—the line breaks, deleting and rearranging words and phrases, how to end a poem or a stanza, taking risks, choosing  the right words and titles, ranking qualities of poems, and more. An interview I did with him before his Pulitzer has found its way into a published book of YK interviews. I really got to know him and his poetry.

I felt I had crossed over into another world, like a beatnik in the 1950s. Poetry has the attraction of religion—its ardor and agony. In some instances I turned my grandmother stories into other tales and other poems. There were Baptist sermons, spirituals, and other tales of Nathaniel Turner. All of that was caught up in some incomplete way what I experienced returning home while my grandmother approached 100 years old.

PSU Question:  Who or what inspired you to begin writing?

R. Lewis: In 1987, I returned home to Jerusalem, where I grew up on a small farm. It’s not so extraordinary to be inspired by a place. Jerusalem was built to be remembered. Three generations. My grandmother and her grandmother were storytellers—singer. They could raise a song during August Revival. I came back from New Orleans where I had found a poetry journal (lasted three issues). My first poems published in a local journal. Ihere was so much literary activity.  I sponsored a poetry test. I dove into the archive of Marcus Bruce Christian of New Orleans. Why not Jerusalem? So I began to write about that world and the people of my childhood. But I had spent most of my life in the city. That was a contrast at core of my writing—the earnest and honest country life up against the well-lit avenues of urban life.

I was curious. And I had belief in self. The many I’ve been and those to come. There were other influences. I found ChickenBones: A Journal in 2001. By 2005, it was jumping, the digital center was the Flooding of New Orleans. I was publishing all kinds of writings, not least the poets, like Kalau ya Salaam, Patricia Wesley, Sam Greenlee and many others. I shared my poems on line—some good, some not so good. I collected them, rewrote them, reposted them, and revised them again. There was encouragement. But friends were always kind. I struggled to create my own style that satisfied me.

PSU Question: Have you struggled throughout your writing career with things such as critics or rude comments?

R. Lewis: To be a critic is to be a bit rude. Nuances. Subtleties. Thus the Rhetorical and poetry of today. I like a bit of noise like the BAM poets, like Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka. I was told I was making Baraka sounds not my on. Those kinds of criticisms are dark and deep, and I have only a slight glimpse what it means. My ancestors and Jerusalem live because I hold onto them. Memory may be more beautiful than any art. They helped me to develop a passion true of my own. The subtleties and nuances came with years of reflective revisions.

PSU Question: Do you have advice for someone considering a career in writing poetry?

R. Lewis: Be practical. Get a job! Become a banker, a foreign correspondent. Become a Buddhist. Choose poetry as you choose a fine stallion. There’s no easy way out of this dilemma. Go on write a poem—create drama, beauty!

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When the Wanderers Come Home (African Poetry Book)

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Described by African scholar and literary critic Chielozona Eze as “one of the most prolific African poets of the twenty-first century,” Patricia Jabbeh Wesley composed When the Wanderers Come Home during a four-month visit to her homeland of Liberia in 2013. She gives powerful voice to the pain and inner turmoil of a homeland still reconciling itself in the aftermath of multiple wars and destruction.

Wesley, a native Liberian, calls on deeply rooted African motifs and proverbs, utilizing the poetics of both the West and Africa to convey her grief. Autobiographical in nature, the poems highlight the hardships of a diaspora African and the devastation of a country and continent struggling to recover.

When the Wanderers Come Home is a woman’s story about being an exile, a survivor, an outsider in her own country and is her cry for the Africa that is being lost in wars across the continent, creating more wanderers and world citizens.


Penn State Student 3

Samantha: How did you know that you wanted to pursue a degree in English?

Rudy: Becoming an English major resulted from a series of acts intentional and unintentional. As a math major, I dropped out of Morgan State College the winter of 1968 to join “the revolution” as a member of SNCC (pronounced “snick”). After leaving Morgan, I learned a lot about racial history and politics by reading recommended books and getting to know persons much more acquainted with Baltimore— the who’s who in black city politics. For a while I was a community organizer. Then I worked later as a union organizer (volunteer and paid) for Local 1199 in Baltimore, handling grievances of health care workers, mostly black women, averaging $1.65 an hour without benefits or job security.. In 1969, Local 1199 organized 5,000 of these workers in less than six months. I was involved mostly in administrating the won contracts.

During this union period I met my first wife: the Local had hired her as an executive secretary. Our marriage (1972-1976) permeated with guilt and shame, ended disastrously. I became spiritually unmoored. For about six months, to refocus my mind, I became active in Nichiren Shoshu, chanting “nam yoho ringe kho.” But with a questioning mind, my solace was temporary. In life, one climbs one hill only to spill into another valley of unease or disappointment.

I found a mentor, a Haitian philosopher named Max Wilson, who I knew from Morgan State. It was he who set me back on an academic path, in a Morgan State program called University without Walls. It was a one-on-one study in which the chosen professor and student make a curriculum with readings and other activities, including visits to museums, musical programs, also arts activities like ballet. To develop my inner self, he encouraged me to keep a diary, as a means to gain some relief to some of my marital problems, and then a journal, as a means to reflect on my readings. The whole was a shadow of a classical liberal arts education.

I read major fiction writers of America, the UK, Spain, France, and Spain—especially those novels that dealt with the complications of sexuality, e.g., D.H. Lawrence, Proust, and Henry Miller. After reading the country’s literature I studied its major philosophers, in particular its existentialist philosophers like Unamumo and Ortega y Gasset. My two-year study passed quickly as I worked full-time as a pot washer and porter at Maryland General Hospital. Believing I had developed greater discipline, Wilson made a way for me to register at University of Maryland at College Park, previously a segregated state university. He thought it would be more of an intellectual challenge than Morgan. The plan was that I would major in comparative literature. At College Park that major was still in development, so I majored in English. I remained there for five years (1976-1981), finally receiving my master’s degree in English.

Samantha: What gave you the idea to write poems about family history? 

Rudy: Ultimately, it was the influence of my grandmother’s family and family origin stories I was told when I was a kid. It became a rich source that partially developed my sense of identity. Although I had written some poems in this direction in the late 1980s, I was further encouraged by the poetry books of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley and other poets. But my family writings are a way to provide a kind of immortality to traditions that my grandmother began so long ago and a source for generations that come after me. As they say, the dead live when we hold onto them.

Samantha: What was your first reaction when you realized that the world was reacting to your poems on your website? 

Rudy: Web technology was key in developing a reading audience, as well as my skills as a journalist and a poet. That would not have come to be if I had not learned to construct web sites while in library school at UMCP (1993-1997). I became frustrated with print publishers. For I had collected piles and piles of documents and other writings that I believe would never get an audience, and that even if published in print, that audience would be small and select with a short reading life. So the development of ChickenBones as a unique web-site was an answer to a literary problem. Publishing my poems was an extra benefit. I was elated that my web friends were kind and thought well of my poetic efforts. It encouraged me to take both my prose and poetry more seriously. Most of these online poems have been rewritten more times than I can recall.

Samantha: Who was your main influence when it came to writing poetry throughout the years? 

Rudy: I encouraged poets and other writers to submit their work to ChickenBones: A Journal. I received a wide-range of poems, some so-so, some quite excellent. Some of these poets had books of poetry that impressed me greatly. I’ve already spoken of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. But there was also Louis Reyes Rivera (1945-2012), both a poet and a teacher of poetry; and then there was Kalamu ya Salaam. Rivera encouraged me to try my hand composing the free verse or non-rhymed sonnet. That advice encouraged discipline as well as innovation in choice of words as well as brevity.

Samantha: What made you to think to write the poem “Home Is Where Relief Is.”

Rudy: In the larger sense, “Mockingbirds at Jerusalem” partially had its source in the poems of Etheridge Knight, a poet I met while I was working on my master’s. Knight’s poem “The Idea of Ancestry” is a great American poem, as well as his other prison literature. His poetry helped gain him a path out of prison. But more particularly, the poem expresses a sentiment with respect to my birth mother.

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Related Material


ChickenBones: A Journal   http://www.nathanielturner.com/ 

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