Here was my dilemma, and quite a dilemma it was. I was a 64-year-old black man, in sometimes questionable health, which was bad enough. My funds, which are typical for a black writer of serious topics in modern day America, tended to go up and down like some kind of terrifying amusement park ride, and were totally unpredictable.
And, although I had many readers and admirers in both New York and San Francisco, in Los Angeles I was ignored, down-trodden, and living in a one room hotel on the very edge of the infamous downtown Los Angeles where unsung losers ended up.
There were no friendly writer’s conferences or workshops to be taught in Los Angeles that I knew of, where I could earn a few bucks, like the ones I had just attended in Brooklyn as a feature speaker. Back there, I proudly walked through crowded rooms of fellow writers, being lionized, and patted on the back for my good work over the past few years because I had boldly stepped up to the plate as a late bloomer in my mid-fifties, and swung away.
In Los Angeles, Hollywood rules. There was a firm artistic hierarchal structure in place in Los Angeles, or so it seemed to me. Directors came first, and then film actors, then studio musicians; then finally, those unfortunate, near orphans, screenwriters, who sometimes don’t even get invited to openings of the films they wrote.
Novelists, dancers, visual artists, stage actors, and playwrights are the real orphans, lonely, unsung, left-out.
During this time, I must confess, I often found myself joining a long list of far better writers than I, like the great James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and William C. Faulkner, where this fabled city of dreams had also induced in them serious moments of self-doubt.
As Kerouac wrote about Los Angeles in On The Road: “There is no comradeship on those streets.”
But at the time, I felt that I had to be here. The hot, dry climate agreed with my sometimes arthritic body. The brilliant sunshine had softly washed over me, and droved the pain away, and soon I could walk, take my girls to lunch. dance by myself, climb stairs, and do all the things I used to take for granted.
In many ways, my body had now trapped me here because it had presented me with the stark choice of the pain and comradeship of the chilly, damp Bay Area, the creative professionalism and freezing cold winds of New York City; or, the painless world of social and intellectual isolation that is Los Angeles.
And I had made my decision, or I should say, bouts of chronic pain had made the decision for me. I knew I could smile and nod at the Spanish directed at me in Los Angeles, and pretend that I knew what the person was talking about. But there was no way I could smile and nod at the months of non-stopped pain I had experience in New York and San Francisco.
But pain free or not, this city could still be a drag.
In fact, I found myself commiserating over the phone with one of my daughter’s friends, a young lady I had known since she was just a little kid-- about my unfortunate plight. She was born and raised in Los Angeles.
“Look,” she said to me gently, but firmly, “You have done a lot in your life. At this point you should be looking back, enjoying yourself, and taking it easy. It’s not so bad out here. You can always take your girls to lunch.
“And, you need to find yourself a nice little old lady.”
“But,” I said in defense of myself, “as much as I love little old ladies, and I love little old ladies just like the next guy, but little old ladies, at least the ones I meet in this town, are sitting alone in big houses on top off lonely hills, pining away for some old retired gent to come along and offer then an even bigger house, on an even more lonely hill. I’m broke. They don’t want me. It’s in their genes. If I had a big house I would welcome them with open arms, a nice person such as me, whether they had money or not. It’s the difference between men and women. Don’t you see, dear?”
I laughed a soft, friendly laugh, pleased as I could be with my cleverness, and loving being able to diss all those little old ladies who had recently rejected me.
The young lady, however, continued talking as if she had not heard a thing I said.
“Also,” she went on, “you should—how can I say this—you have a tendency to annoy people because you are so out spoken. You shouldn’t offer your opinions so much and people would like you better. Just keep your ideas to yourself. You have to learn now how to walk a little more humble in the world.”
What was I to say to that! Hadn’t I just come back from my grand triumph in New York City? Didn’t I just complete a major magazine article? Wasn’t I now a member in good standing in the world of letters? Me, a novelist, essayist, book reviewer, former college professor, former magazine editor, a literary lion, the man who sat eight years in the editor’s chair once occupied by the great W.E.B. Du Bois at the Crisis Magazine —being told to be quiet, act humble and walk softly in the world just when I was getting warmed up!
Was she serious?
I wasn’t an “Iron Mike,” an athlete where age erodes the skills, and by the time you are in your thirties, they are all most gone.
One of the best football players who ever played the game, Superman himself, the mighty Jim Brown, once speculated in his book, Out of Bounds, about who get the most sex, basketball players or football players?
“One thing for sure,” he told his ghost writer, in a voice I clearly hear dripping with dismissive contempt, with those provocative words laughing loudly, boldly, confidently at people like me, ”it’s damn sure not intellectuals.”
Don’t people like me-- where our brains are our skills, not our ability to run over people on a football field, people who can write their own books, and even read them--just get better as we age, our revenge against those strong-bodies, dim-bulb Jim Browns of the world, that so looked down on us when we were younger.
Also, doesn’t age bring wisdom? And shouldn’t wisdom be shared?
Our telephone conversation ended on a pleasant note, however, mainly because I adored the young woman and was damn glad she called. I could still see her beautiful, laughing brown face as a bright-eyed, nine year old, big teeth child, sitting at my dinner table with my two daughters; a third daughter, more at home with us than she was at her real home.
I also took what she said in the spirit in which it was given. She meant well, and thought she was giving me sound advice. I knew that she had heard over the years, along with my long suffering daughters, the slings and arrows directed at me because of what I said, or what I published, or what I wrote.
But I pondered her remarks, as people like me are wont to do.
One word, one sentence, one off-the-cuff remark, can trigger in us paragraphs upon paragraphs of replies. I can sometimes see the highly charged electrons in my brain suddenly jumping to full life, suddenly taking a life of their own.
She was right about one thing: over the years I have annoyed the holy hell out of many kinds of persons because of my opinions. I have the capacity to piss off blacks, whites, Jews, women, and also everyone we consider part of the American family. I reviewer of my first collection of essays, The Rejected American, called me “an equal opportunity critic,” a label I wear proudly.
I have been called to my face, a racist, a fascist, a sexist, a guilt-tripper, sick, someone who wants to be a white man, and someone who the good Lord would one day get.
Just recently, an old friend all at once stopped her car, pointed her finger at me and angrily ordered me out after I had expressed the opinion that I didn’t think that a city where 70 per cent of the people were Mexican could be called all that diverse.
“Racist!” she yelled at me for good measure, as she quickly pulled off, leaving me standing alone, with my bag in hand, on the sidewalk.
This resentment of my opinions is often expressed to me with the same deep anger my friend displayed, but just as often it is expressed in a small, quiet voice of resignation, hurt and disappointment that I could go so wrong.
Why did I have to be different? Just who did I think I was, anyway?
But nevertheless, I have forged ahead, and have opinions about politics, men, women, blacks, whites, my children, race, mass media, food, friendships, Jews, Muslins, Pat Roberson, the Mid-east, Social Security, books, movies, The Bomb, music, James Brown, cars, lamp chops, pig feet, collared greens, multi-universes, the nature of heaven and hell, what it means to be an American, Liberals, black holes, elephants, and, of course, the theory of everything. And, obviously, ect, ect, ect.
I was thinking about all of this as I was riding the “Rapid” line down Wilshire Blvd to my “office” at Boarders at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.
Speaking of opinions, if there was ever a place for a well placed critical opinion, this was it. This big red bus, like the more plain-spoken buses all around Los Angeles, was almost always crowded, with old people, an abundance of the mental ill, Hispanic mothers with small children, and elderly people with canes, falling all over each other, and buses showing up once every half an hour, although the signs said that they ran every ten minutes
To be a successful bus rider in Los Angeles is a serious exercise in creative passivity. The best way to survive is to not to be boiling with a red hot rage that the buses are late, and overcrowded, but be grateful that they showed up at all.
The ridership is almost all Hispanic, with normally one or two blacks, and only rarely, a white face. Two things have always struck me about riding public transportation in Los Angeles. The first was that I rarely, if ever, saw anyone reading anything.
This was brought home to me just a few months ago.
“What are you reading?” The voice was soft, young, friendly and curious.
I looked up from my book into the face of a young white man. He was sitting next to me as we rode the Red Line subway headed from The Valley to downtown Los Angeles.
I showed him the front cover of American Slavery, by Peter Kolchin, a book I was including in my essay on American slavery for Black Issue Book Review magazine.
He looked my book over and nodded his head as if he was impressed. I noticed that he was carrying a copy of the Los Angeles Times.
“Why did you ask me that question?” I asked him, now curious myself.
“You are the first person I’ve seen since I been here reading a book. People don’t read much in this town, do they?”
A quick look around the train car spoke to his observation. We were the only people carrying reading material.
I didn’t bother to question the young man about how long had he been in town, or where he was staying, or where he came from, or why he was here. I just nodded my head in agreement and went back to my reading.
Maybe this lack of reading is why the air in Los Angeles is not filled with chatter about war and peace. Subjects like America at War, Iraq, the Middle East, and genocide in The Sudan, where television images brings to full life, and sharp relief, the long, centuries old, simmering conflict between black Africans and Islamic Arabs from the north.
In this world in Los Angeles, neo-cons don’t exist, and 9/11, and terror alerts, all seems like a part of another world.
Even among the educated people I know, the big news of the day is largely ignored. An actor friend once told me that this was good, and that’s why he loved being in LA. “You don’t have to listen to all that clutter. It doesn’t fill you up like it can do in New York. It makes it easier for me to fill myself up with someone else. You understand what I mean?”
But what is it about the blazing southern sun all over the earth, and the life-giving, caressing warmth which comes with it, that dulls so many minds, even as it sharpens to a razor’s edge, and feverish pitch, the greedy, and the exploitive-- which produces for these handful of people, a paradise on earth like no other?
The second thing that has stuck me is how calm and patient the Hispanic riders are, no matter how late or crowded the bus. Blacks grumble loudly, the few whites often exploded with a bitter anger, complaining in loud, angry voices that they are being treated like “Mexicans.”
Some whites even try and take their frustrations out on the Hispanic, yelling at them to “go back to where you came from.” As if to blame them for every failure they had suffered in Los Angeles.
After witnessing one such attack by an angry middle-aged white woman on a group of Hispanics, the black bus driver said to me after she had finally left the bus at Grand, and things quiet down once again. “Man, that woman sure was pissed off. I see that at least twice a day.”
His observations triggered a horrific incident I had recently witnessed.
“Pissed off!” I answered, the memory still fresh in my mind, “You should have seen what I saw last week when I saw this crazy white guy actually throw a large waste basket at the bus driver. A small Hispanic woman was getting off the bus with her four young children. The basket just nicked one of the kids.
“The bus driver, a young brother, got out of the bus and he and the white guy put up their dukes and started circling each other.
“The bus driver then threw the best right hand I have seen since Hollyfield, and knocked the white boy dead on his ass.
“Meanwhile, the Mexican woman is screening bloody murder, and her four kids are all crying loudly. A black woman was yelling in a high-pitched voice: “Pervert! Pervert!” at the white man now lying helplessly on the ground, with his arms outstretched
“I spotted a police car driving by, and waved it down. They carried the white guy off to jail. What a trip!”
“Why do you think they are so angry all the time?” he answered, nodding his head in recognition of my story, and keeping his eyes on the crowded, bus-laded downtown street.
“Lifestyle questions” I answered. “They came here looking for Brad Pitt, and all they found were Mexicans!”
The Hispanics handled crazy passengers, black and white, and bad service, with a serene passivity; and for my mental health, I have learned to do the same.
On this day, the bus was especially crowded. The black man who sat down heavily next to me was clearly annoyed.
“Man, this is bullshit,” he said. “Waiting a fuckin’ hour for a Goddamn bus! Man, ain’t got time for this shit.”
“Well,” I said, snapping out of my reverie. “If this was Boston, or New York, or San Francisco, the mayor would not just be thrown in jail, he would be thrown under the jail for such a bad public transportation system. Willie Brown almost lost the last election in San Francisco because the N Judan didn’t run on time. All those dot comers were ready to vote his black ass out of office, but the brother came through, and got the line running on time.
“On the other hand, down here in sunny Los Angeles, Mayor Hahn knows, and the incompetents who run the system, knows, that there is no political price to pay. The people who ride these buses don’t vote. Most of them are not even citizens. They have no opinions, because a vote is an opinion.”
Oops. There I go again, shooting of at the mouth.
The dark skinned man first looked curiously at me, and then nodded his head in agreement. “I guess they didn’t have an opinion in Mexico either,” he said. “They’re humble people. But they’re nice,” he added quickly. “I like Mexicans. They ain’t loud and run their mouths all the time like some people; you know what I mean?”
I didn’t ask him who those “some people” were, but I had a fairly good idea just who he had in mind. He was right about one thing, however: the bus ride was almost always peaceful, and not loud at all. The quiet, modulate Spanish, I heard, which sometimes switched in mid-sentence to English and then seamlessly back to Spanish, became just background noise, non-involving, and I could stay inside myself.
In fact, whenever I ride public transportation in Los Angeles and look around and see an absence of whites and blacks, I relax, because I then expect little drama.
But I had said enough. I didn’t need anymore clutter. I tried to avoid more conversation with my riding companion, and turned to face the window. I just wanted to renew my thinking.
There was also little I could do, or say, that could make things better on the buses of Los Angeles.
So what was so wrong with having opinions? Why did that make so many people not want to speak to me, marry me, give me a job, or be my friend?
By the time we reached the beach, the crowded bus had thinned out, and I had come to some conclusions.
THE PIMP FROM COMPTON: Lessons on race, good looks and stereotypes about intellectuals.
Despite my young friend’s suggestion that I was not on the lookout for available little old ladies, just the contrary was true.
The computer had opened up an exciting wide world of dating possibilities for people in my age group. So lately, I find myself sitting across from more little old ladies than I knew ever existed in the world, especially after I became one of Yahoo Personals Real People for 2004.
This one woman I met at an outdoors coffee shop down at Third Street in Santa Monica. It was one of those great Southern California days, filled with warm sunshine. That pleasant, funny little half smile that weather like this seems to cause, was on the faces of many of the people passing by.
Judy was in her middle fifties and was friendly looking. She had emailed me on my yahoo dating service because she said she was looking for “an intellectual.”
We were having what I thought to be a lively conversation when she suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence and stood up.
“I have to go,” she said, “This will never work out.”
I was surprised; first, by my being rejected by someone I really wasn’t that interested in, but also by her sudden change of mood.
“Sit down. Sit down,” I said laughing, and motioning with my hands. “We don’t have to get married, or even see each other again. Let’s just finished our coffee.”
She sat just as quickly sat back down and picked up her half-finished drink, not looking directly at me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You seem like a real nice guy, but you are just too mental for me. You seem to have an opinion about everything.”
“I see. I see. Believe me, I understand. But let me ask you a question, what kind of men are you looking for?”
At that, she face turned thoughtful and became very sincere looking.
“I like a man with strong opinions. Someone who knows what he thinks. An intellectual. You know the kind. Glasses, a little beard, Jewish. You know, a real intellectual. Someone with opinions about life,” she said in wistful, dreamy voice.
Being brown-skinned, beardless, non-Jewish, perhaps I should be tap dancing with the street performers on the Promenade? It was clear that there was no way that I could be a “real” intellectual, despite three magazine editorships, having taught at five major universities and having written five books.
This has happened to me so many times that I wasn’t surprised by the woman’s comments. Of course everyone knew that real intellectuals wore glasses, had little beards and were Jewish!
It reminded me of an incident that happened to me when I was the editor/publisher of Neworld Magazine, the multi-cultural magazine of the arts. A reader of mine lived in New Orleans and loved the magazine and we exchanged long letters from time to time. He was everything an editor wanted from a reader.
One day he arrived on a trip to Los Angeles and popped into my office at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center. I was surprised that he was a young, light-skinned black man who looked to be in his early thirties. For some reason, he did not look quite like what I thought he would.
I greeted him warmly.
After we had chatted for a while, he was ready to leave. I walked him the door of my office in the large, well kept library.
“You know,” he said, pausing at the door, “This may sound strange, my saying this, but you don’t look like what I had pictured you.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“I'm a magazine buff. I read everything, from The New Yorker to Harpers. That’s when I read about your magazine, I think in Harpers, I immediately subscribed, although I live in New Orleans. Any issue I have so far received has never disappointed me. Neworld is so intelligent, and so well done. It’s probably is one of the best in the country. Plus Neworld is such a radical idea, an American magazine. You write such a thoughtful column and really impressive letters.”
I was beaming with what I thought was well earned pride until he said: “But I fully expected to meet some stooped over, little old white man in a worn jacket, glasses on the edge of his nose, with a little pipe, or something. Maybe it was because your last name is Beauford? I just knew you had to be white. But- but--I mean, look at you!”
Yes, look at me. I was 37, trim, no glasses, no pipe. I was dressed for the disco era of the late 70s: tight bell bottoms, tight shirt unbutton down to my navel, big hair, a full black mustache, sideburns, and I often wore a large straw hat, cocked rakishly to the side.
I was a handsome, sexual, shirt-chasing, manly man.
A friend once said that I looked more like a pimp from Compton than the editor/publisher of a serious, high-toned, multi-cultural, interdisciplinary arts magazine.
I, nevertheless, revel in my good looks, and flaunted myself before my small public. I knew I certainly didn’t look like no effete, dusty old white man in a frayed tweed jacket, creaking around tentatively in a moldy library, occasionally muttering out loud to himself.
We both enjoyed a loud, hardy laugh at his description of what he thought I was supposed to look like. I didn’t tell him that somehow he also didn’t look quite like what I thought he would either.
Perhaps we were both guilty of stereotyping?
This wasn’t the first time I had encountered a disconnect between me and the wonderful product I put out every other month. I saw the same look of confusion when I handed someone a copy of the magazine. I would watch as they looked down at the well-designed, artful package, and back up to me, back down at Neworld, and back to me.
I could see them trying to make a mental connection between the two. Somehow something didn’t quite make any sense. Something just didn’t quite compute.
Andrew W. Thronhill, one of the few very, very, very bright people I have met in my life, and who also didn’t act the way people thought a black man should act, noticed this strange effect I had on people, especially white males during this period.
“You know, Fred,” he once said to me, “I know seven white boys who go out and get dead drunk every time you put out an issue of Neworld.”
But in the end, perhaps I am overstating things a bit; an older man’s overblown remembrance of things past. Maybe it wasn’t the fact that I was handsome and looked more like a sleek dancer, and didn’t look Jewish, that shocked, dismayed, confused and caused deep emotional distress among so many people.
If not, then what could it have been?
IT’S THE MESSAGE, STUPID!
Americans pride themselves on the notion that this country has always been a democracy, founded on the key principle of freedom of speech. However, the truth is somewhat different. This has never been a true democracy until the Father of American Democracy, Martin Luther King, brought it into being during the famous democracy movement of the 50s and 60s.
As for the idea of freedom of speech, the best example I can give to illustrate what I believe has been the real truth for most of our existence, was the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston.
There were plenty of speeches all right, but were they free? Speaker after speaker, from Governors, to Senators, to Civil Rights Leaders, to Generals, were instructed to “stay on message” (as always, it was a loud, unruly black man, Al Sharpton, who got off message and actually had something to say).
In this case, the reason given for staying on message was because that would give the Democrats a chance to beat President George W. Bush. Over the centuries, however, there have always been good reasons for American to stay on message.
The major messages we have been asked to go along with has not been democracy, or any of the freedoms that are suppose to go alone with it-- but that it is ok to make as much money as is humanly possible, by any means possible, including lying, killing, cheating, raping the earth and using slave or near slave labor. Greed is good.
The more filthy rich one became, the more Godly and admired one was, no matter how one got there. Those few malcontents that disagreed with this message were considered un-American, mainly because the other message was that the door was wide open to all who worked hard enough, to get as rich as anyone else.
There is a long tradition in this country of whites, blacks and native people being lynched, jailed, deported and slandered for going off this message. The great Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for President five times, and who had the nerve to believe that workers should be paid a living wage, was charged with sedition in 1918 after denouncing Woodrow Wilson’s infamous 1917 Espionage Act.
He conducted his last presidential campaign from prison, winning 915,000 votes, before being released by presidential order in 1921.
The other major message was that this rich land was a place for European settlers to exploit and enjoy, white man’s country; and all others had to subordinate their will to this basic idea. There is a long list of black men who got off this important message and received a bullet in the brain, or found themselves hanging from the end of a rope for their efforts, include many known and unknown like Dr. King, Malcolm X and Merger Evers.
In addition to being physically threatened, the favorite weapon the more well-off of the European settlers used to keep everyone on message has been to deny access to mediums of mass communications to those who might offer an alternative version of American truths.
Occasionally, black voices would find a way to the larger public and offer up that alternative version, which often stand in stark contrast to everything Americans are taught and deeply believe in.
In American literature there is a great scene in black novelist John O. Killens World War Two novel, And Then We Heard The Thunder.
The black soldiers, who are only allowed to load and unload ships and other dirty work, are busy at work on a hot Pacific island when they come under attack from Japanese warplanes. In what seems to be a strange act, one soldier gets up from his foxhole and started cheering the Japanese planes on.
“Fly you mighty race, fly!”
In my reading of this classic novel, this scene said clearly that this was an alternative narrative that said this war wasn’t between good and evil, Democrat and Fascist, but between evil and evil, Fascist and Fascist.
Frederick Douglass famous 4th of July speech in 1852 also offers a stark alternative narrative when he asked: “What to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
Wow! Talk about someone getting off the message. That certainly wasn’t Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful!”
Even today, this alternative narrative can break through at unexpected moments. I was watching Lena Horne’s daughter Gail being interviewed recently on The Charlie Rose Show about a book she wrote on sports.
“Well,” she was saying, “as you know, Woodrow Wilson was one of the most racist Presidents we ever had. So…”
“Wait a minute,” Rose replied, stopping her in mid sentence, his voice full of surprise. “Woodrow Wilson, a racist?”
This great statesman, this visionary, this former president of Princeton University, this man who led America into the European tribal conflict they called World War One, to “make the world safe for Democracy,” --was also the guy who segregated Washington and screened A Birth of a Nation in the White House and called it “History written in lighting.”
Yes, Charlie, in the end, this great man was nothing but yet another narrow-minded, crude settler sent over from England to bedevil humanity.
I can also see why Charlie Rose has so few black guests. You never know when one will go off message and embarrass everyone.
That was one of the reasons why my magazine, Neworld, was so threatening to so many people: It brought to full life my favorite alternative message: America does not yet exist, but is in a state of becoming.
I felt that one of the reasons why we cared so little about each other, and permitted such gross inequality, and worshipped billionaires, was because we were still basically un-bonded strangers in a strange land, where race and the lust for money and material things, were the only bonding agents that worked.
There were precious few Americans, only wealth seeking settlers.
Because of this, few organic American institutions had developed in this country that had the interest of Americans in mind. No one could point to an American magazine. Certainly The New Yorker was not American. Or an American television network. Certainly CBS was not American. Or an American film industry. Certainly Universal, MGM and the rest were not American.
The European settlers that controlled these organizations had built these institutions to make as much money as possible, while looking out for their racial, or tribal interest, not the interest of Americans. The African-Americans had done the same thing, to a lesser extent.
Boy, talk about a tirade, and getting off message! I can’t expect to be rewarded for having opinions like that! No wonder people were always telling me to shut the hell up, or made fun of me, and were ready to slap me in the face, or why so many white boys went out and got dead drunk whenever my magazine came out spouting such bile.
FINALLY, JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, ANYWAY?
I now firmly believe-- leaving out my once youthful physical good looks, and my alternative politics, and after many long bus rides to my “office” by the beach, and much deep thought-- I now know with reasonable certainty, that part of the reason why I annoy so many folks is precisely because of the question, just who do you think you are, anyway?
I am neither well-born, nor exceptionally talented (a high I.Q. notwithstanding), I have never held public office, I have never had a hit record, or broke any sports records, I had never made millions, or been world-wide acclaimed for coming up with a cure for war or some other deadly disease. I don’t belong to any well known organizations, or have been a part of a popular movement.
If this was an old fashion Russian novel I would be “once a mid-level functionary with intellectual pretensions, which often made him a maverick, which accounted for his inability to make much money in his lifetime, or rise highly in polite society; which is why his lovely Lucy ignored his constant advances, and ran off with Count Vonsky.
“And now, even as a pensioner, he is still filled with a certain bombast.”
Yet, this desire to reach out beyond the lonely grave, to live forever in the minds of fellow humans, is a powerful instinct, and for some, an irresistible idea. The rich and powerful build monuments to themselves, even as they are aware that it is Jack London Square in Oakland, named after a writer, not the richest man in Oakland at the turn of the 20th Century, whoever he was.
Is there little difference in Donald Trump naming large building after himself and what the ancient Pharaohs were doing when they built the great pyramids, with the exception that Trump’s building will not have a long shelf life?
With all their great wealth and power, and with good reason, people like the Pharaohs and the Donald Trumps still look on with envy at creative artists and the Jack Londons and Samuel Pepys of the world because they also build monuments to themselves, only they did it with carefully crafted words.
I read in a book review in the Los Angeles Times where friends of Pepys, the English speaking world’s greatest diarist, suggested that the reason why he spent so much time detailing on paper his very existence, was because he was appalled by the notion that when he died, that would be all, and soon it would have been as if he never existed.
This fear, which obviously must still haunt us centuries after Pepys first put words to paper, is best expressed in the movie About Schmidt. In well delivered lines at the end of the film, Jack Nickelson as Schmidt, a man who always did the right thing in a profoundly ordinary world, sums up his fate: “In a few years I will be dead and I will exist only in the minds of those who knew me. And then in 20 or so years all those who knew me will be dead, and it will be as if I never lived.”
So it is easy to understand the envy, and even the hatred directed at those who try to defy this fate. And my novels and personal essays are just that: defiant attempts to send part of my inner self into the future. Who knows if one of the thousands of book I have floating around somewhere out there in the world, will end up in a classroom some three hundred years from now, if the human race gets lucky?
But this is also where the question that of all the billions of people who had come and gone, would ask if they could: what gives you the right to think that you, Fred Beauford, should live on in the minds of humans?
Just who do you think you are, anyway?
Good question. Perhaps, like Pepys, I am appalled that I could die and not have left a record of what I felt and thought about during my brief stay on earth, even if did get lucky enough to peacefully float around in heaven all day for however long that would be.
As a happy coincidence, I received a copy of The Best of the Best American Poetry just as I was about to begin teaching poetry in my class “College Writing.” The class was an introductory class, and for all my students their first attempt at college.
Not exactly delinquents, these students had dropped out of high school for one reason or another—they were bored, did drugs, had criminal records, etc.—and chose a military-style academy in which to earn their GED before taking my class.
In other words, they were not, as a whole, what I’d consider “poetry readers.” Yet surprisingly, they were excited to begin the poetry unit (maybe they were bored with hearing yet another version of how to write a personal narrative).
And so I began with a film about Sylvia Plath, but the somber, somewhat morbid film did not seem to catch their attention. I was enthralled when I was a teenager with Sylvia Plath. They were not. And so I tried other poets to my liking—Lucille Clifton, Joy Harjo, and Philip Levine. They seemed to respond to these poets better. When I finally got around to using the The Best of the Best, I introduced the students to Sherman Alexie with his poem “Terminal Nostalgia”:
The music of my youth was much better
Than the music of yours. So was the weather.
Before Columbus came, eagle feathers
Detached themselves for us. So did the weather.
During the war, the country fought together
Against all evil. So did the weather.
The cattle were happy to be leather
And made shoes that fit. So did the weather…
The poem continues like this with the refrain “so did the weather” juxtaposed against money, medicine, and the iconoclastic eagle, which reappears throughout the poem. The poem is a ghazal, a seventh-century Arabic form, and Alexie writes this about it, “I thought I’d write a ghazal that combined American pop culture nostalgia with Native American nostalgia. The result is, I believe, funny and sad at the same time, although, when I’ve performed it live, it seems that people are afraid to laugh.”
This is one of the things I love about the “best American” series, how the writers are encouraged to write about the poems (or stories) they’ve created. Some authors are reluctant to do this (they want the work to speak for itself), but many are willing to discuss the genesis of a poem, whether it be witnessing an argument between a lifeguard and his girlfriend (this was the catalyst for the poem “How It Will End” by Denise Duhamel in the selection) or listening to a poem about male desire in a workshop (the poem “Desire” by Stephen Dobyns). Sometimes—and I really hate admitting this—I read all the Contributors’ Notes and Comments before I even read a word of actual poetry.
My students weren’t as impressed with the Alexie poem as I expected them to be.
The refrain “So did the weather” was confusing to them and I don’t think they got the irony of the piece or the thin edge that tottered between seeing nostalgia as a harmless part of our culture and being a collaborator in oppression.
In any case, we moved on to Kevin Young’s “Lime Light Blues” which is an easier poem to enter with its short lines and jazz-like quality. Here’s a section of this poem:
I’m in an anger
When I walk
over the water
of parking lots
car doors lock—
When I wander
Or enter the elevator
their handbags close.
cops follow me in stores….
This poem was definitely one the students could relate to on an almost visceral level (many had been in trouble with the law and had been falsely accused of one thing or another), and they loved the rhythm of the poem.
I think the idea that the celebration of self can be tempered by the perceptions others have of us, but never obliterated, resonated with them.
And so, this is what my students thought of some of the poems, but what did I think? The poems included in The Best of the Best were selected by the poet Robert Pinsky from over two thousand poems in the series the Best American Poetry from the last 25 years (a book comes out annually for those unfamiliar with the series, so this year, for example, The Best American Poetry, 2012 was published). Choosing the best of the year is a difficult task, to be sure, and many guest editors rue the task; the idea of picking the best of the last twenty-five years must certainly have been daunting.
I immediately looked to see if certain poets were included—Donald Hall (check), Mark Strand (check), Jane Kenyon (check). Robert Wrigley (check), Sharon Olds (check), Philip Levine (check), but what about other poets, such as Lucille Clifton and Robert Bly, who have graced the poetry stage with their art through decades of work? Because of these omissions, I approached the book with a certain amount of orneriness.
I read the book slowly, and it took several months for me to read most of the poems. I began some poems, but abandoned them after not feelings the necessary pull. Other poems I didn’t finish, but were happy they were included anyway, such as “Pornography” by Lloyd Schwartz:
On his knees, his back to us: the pale honeydue melons of his
Bare buttocks, the shapely muscular hemispheres—
The voluptuous center.
His knees push into the worn plush of a velvet cushion
On the floral Oriental beside her cot.
Schwartz writes that his poem is “under fire not only from the conservative right but also from the politically correct left.” I’m glad that a poem can trace its heritage from the suggestive photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and I’m also glad poetry can raise such an emotional reaction. All art should push boundaries. I remember discovering Bukowski when I was in my twenties. I did wonder at the time if I were reading pornography, and felt almost a sick sensation as I devoured his quirky love notes which resonated with beauty in spite of (or because of?) their explicitness.
In The Best of the Best, we encounter Bukowski again in “Three Oranges,” and it was fun for me to recollect why I had felt such a mixture of awe and discomfort when I read his work.
This is not to say, that the poems included in this collection are all of the “edgy” sort. In The Best of the Best many schools of poetry are represented—narrative, formal, and language poetry. So, language poet Lyn Hejinian, is represented with her piece “The Polar Circle,” along with Michael Palmer, whose poem “I Do Not” begins with the lines, “I do not know English.”
Many of the poems in the book blur the distinction between narrative and language poetry; in other words, there is some semblance of a story, but the story gets fragmented and can enter a strange, otherworldly realm. One poem that does this effectively is “Hell” by Sarah Manguso, one of the youngest poets in the book, born in 1974. The fragmented style gets heightened by the abrupt transitions between stanzas:
There is music in Hell. Wind of desolation! It
blows past the egg-eyed statues. The canopic
jars are full of secrets. The wind blows through me. I open my mouth
The purposeful flatness of the lines works against the underlying angst of the author. The idea of what she is describing as hell seems almost preposterous—hell as it relates to the ennui of life? But the ending turn makes the poem for me:
And that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun.
It reminds me of everything I failed at,
And I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of you.
This “you” has not appeared in the poem until the end, and then it made me go back and read from the beginning with this ending in mind. Is hell our failures, our unborn children? And if so, why does this author hold on to hell by nurturing (watering) it?
While this poem remains opaque, some of my favorite poems in The Best of the Best are more straightforward ruminations (many on love and relationships). Stephen Dobyns’ poem “Desire” opens with a woman in Dobyns’ class writing that she was “sick of men wanting her body…”
Although this poem may start out apologetic, it ends on a note of exhilaration, saying that desire is (if at times inconvenient) surely necessary:
“…What is desire but the wish for some
relief from the self, the prisoner let out
into a small square of sunlight with a single
red flower and a bird crossing the sky, to lean back
against the bricks with the legs outstretched,
to feel the sun warming the brow, before returning
to one’s mortal cage, steel doors slamming
in the cell block, steel bolts sliding shut?
Similarly, Stanley Kunitz, whose career spanned many decades, and who was 91 when he wrote “Touch Me” (included in this collection) writes:
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire…
The question always comes up—what is the importance of poetry? Is poetry even relevant in our day and age? Are the MFA programs churning out mediocre poets who create mediocre poetry by the boatloads? Joseph Epstein writes in the Wall Street Journal, “…the poetry game is over, kaput, fini, fime, gentlemen, time. This even though reams and reams of the stuff gets published, prizes awarded, poets laureate appointed to the resounding boredom of all but those who either teach or write poetry (usually one and the same people).”
I’m so tired of this argument. Yes, it is disappointing that most of the poets in The Best of the Best are connected to a university, and few can make a living outside of the support of academia, but this doesn’t mean that good, vivid, exciting poems aren’t being written. My students, who couldn’t care less about awards or university affiliations, were still moved by the words of the poems themselves. (That’s what Epstein fails to look at—the work itself. Rather he relies on the assumption of what kind of poetry is being written. He assumes it’s about minor events such as “a tree of unusual shape.” Actually, most poems attempt to encompass the “big issues of life” I’ve found.)
So, in spite of the fact that poetry might not be popular, it can still be enjoyed and worked at. Even mastered. The poems in The Best of the Best demonstrate this mastery.