Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Poem With Several Histories: Dudley Randall’s “Booker T. And W.E.B.”

This poem is pedagogically useful in Freshman Composition (and foundational skills) courses for several reasons. 1) It serves as an introduction into Post-World War II American Poetry, especially African-American Poetry. 2) It is useful for Critical Thinking, as it is structured around the rhetorical mode of Comparison and Contrast, by showing two sides of an argument without blatantly taking sides. 3) The dialogue/debate presented in Dudley Randall’s 1965 poem has historical importance, and may serve to educate people into some central issues in the “war of words” between two powerful spokesmen that occurred a century ago. Yet the debate was not just about two men, but about contrasting philosophies they represented: As essayist James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1933, “One not familiar with this phase in Negro life in the 12 or 14-year period following 1903…cannot imagine the bitterness or antagonism between the two wings.”[1]

It may not be necessary to know any more about the debate aside from what is mentioned in the poem itself in order to appreciate what Randall is doing, but such knowledge can deepen the reader’s understanding of the poem. The poem also invites the reader to ask: After reading this poem, do you identify and agree with one of the characters, both, or neither? Is the debate still relevant today, or would it need to be updated? Does Randall summarize and represent these two positions fairly? Does Randall purposely leave the poem ambiguous?

One of the first things one may notice when reading this poem, especially if one reads it aloud, is that this poem uses rhyme and rhythm. Its rhythmic rhyming couplets may remind you of children’s books like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs And Ham. When this poem was first published in 1965, many contemporary poets were abandoning traditional rhyme and rhythm schemes for “free verse” (or “blank verse”). To many of these poets, poems that relied on end-stopped rhymes were considered anachronistic, especially if they emphasize a sing-song quality as Randall’s poem does (as Ezra Pound put it, almost half a century before, a poem’s ‘music’ should not sound like a metronome).

50 years later, such rhymes are still considered taboo amongst much sophisticated academic poetry. To many, this 20th century free-verse distinguished American writing from the traditional European formal rhyming poetry, and was considered a sign of American modern “freedom.” Yet, Randall’s use of these rhythmic rhymes make the poem more immediately accessible, and also much more easy to memorize, to a more general audience, like many of the popular songs of the time (as well as of today).
While some poets do not call song lyrics “poetry,” in many ways song lyrics are much more like what was called poetry in America, and elsewhere, before Ezra Pound, and others made their poetic innovations which made poetry become less popular. Yet Randall’s use of rhyme differs from the traditional European rhyming verse of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century by tapping into a more populist, less specialized, African-American (trans-literary) tradition in which abandoning rhyme was never a sign, or badge, of “modernism” as much as it was among the white-European literary tradition (which can also make the poem more accessible to a younger readership than a college student, even if it runs the risk of reducing these very serious, and powerful adult thinkers and activists, into cartoon characters).

For all of its sing-song accessibility and seeming simplicity, this poem becomes more and more complex upon repeated readings. The poem’s masterful use of form, coupled with its poetic ambiguity and suggestiveness, come alive on the page as well as on the stage. Furthermore, its rhyme schemes and the length of each stanza help contribute to the meaning of the poem, driving home its main point of contrast between the two historical speakers: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

1st stanza   ABBCCDD
2nd Stanza ABBDDCCEE
3rd Stanza AFFGGHH
4th Stanza  AIIJJKKLL (LL could be CC)
Coda/Envoi: AA

Randall’s use of the rhyming names (or initials of their non-last names) is a musical hook, which frames the poem. They become rhyming stage directions in this dramatic-dialogue, signaling the stanza breaks. The stanza structure is also worth noting. This poem alternates between 2 stanzas of 7 lines (spoken by Booker T.) and 2 stanzas of 9 lines (spoken by W.E.B). W.E.B. Du Bois always gets 2 more lines, and there is clearly a thematic reason why Randall does this (even as his decision to do this can be interpreted more than one way).

Booker T. always speaks first, and W.E.B addresses his assertions point-by-point (even using the exact same end-rhymes in the first two stanzas). Why does Randall do that? Historically, Booker T. Washington came first, and was older than W.E.B Du Bois. But this device also seems to give W.E.B. the last word. The fact that W.E.B. gets the last word in this dialectic argument may suggest that the author Dudley Randall himself finds W.E.B’s position more attractive, more empowering, and stronger than Booker T’s. But the poem resists such an easy conclusion. Randall does an admirable job of stepping out of the way and presenting the argument without intrusive commentary that can prevent the reader from being empowered enough to make up his or her own mind. We must look more closely at the language and rhetoric the two historic characters in this poem use in order to understand exactly what the debate is about.

Contrasting the statements made in the first two stanzas, we may see that Booker T. believes that manual labor (whether hoeing, or cooking) is more valuable than intellectual labor (studying chemistry or Greek). W.E.B represents the antithesis to Booker T’s thesis, arguing that “the right to cultivate the brain” is at the very least as important as rejoicing in manual labor (“skill of hand”). On closer look, the contrast in these two stanzas (and the positions these two men take) is not simply what they argue, but how they argue. Randall underscores the difference in their manner of speaking, first, by contrasting Booker T’s use of the passive voice (“It seems to me”) with W.E.B’s use of the active voice (“I don’t agree”). Regardless of whether the historical Booker T. actually spoke in the passive voice much more than W.E.B. did, the fact that Randall portrays the contrast this way, again, suggests that Randall considers W.E.B. to be a more attractive role model. This would make sense, given the fact that Randall himself was a writer and devout reader and thus more likely to identify with W.E.B. Du Bois, especially during this time in which African Americans were more encouraged to work in manual labor than be college educated (though that was starting to change).

Yet, however passive Booker T seems, he is also presented as a scold, chastising W.E.B. for “showing a mighty lot of cheek,” and “sticking [his] nose” inside a book. He certainly is addressing W.E.B. in an aggressive condescending tone, as the historical Booker T. did. By contrast, W.E.B’s language is more elevated and more respectful of Booker T. W.E.B is not saying that everyone has to agree with him that cultivation of the brain is better than cultivation of the land; he’s acknowledging that both skills (manual and intellectual) can be useful, and important.

The second half of the poem changes the subject to the question of “Civil Rights.” Here Booker T. tells his fellow blacks, “Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,/
But work, and save, and buy a house.” W.E.B counters, “Unless you help to make the laws/ They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.” These few lines get at the heart of division between these two factions within the African American community that these men represented. Washington wrote in the early 1900s in response to calls for civil-rights legislation, “The best course to pursue in regard to a civil rights bill in the South is to let it alone: let it alone and it will settle itself. Good school teachers and plenty of money to pay them will be more potent in settling the race question than any civil rights bill and investigative committees.”[2]

While many African Americans sided with Booker T’s position, and it did allow a large sector of the African American community to make economic gains within the segregated society of the early 20th century, by the time of the mid century Civil Rights movement, a young generation of blacks had painfully experienced over-and-over again exactly what W.E.B predicts in these poems, and came to reject what he calls Booker T’s “little plan” of economic self-sufficiency. Dudley Randall may seem to be siding with Du Bois in this poem. He certainly gives him more lines, more articulate and graceful speech, and one sees in miniature the same kind of verbal skewering in this poem that W.E.B. had made of Booker T’s position in his The Souls of Black Folks, yet the coda of the poem ends with a tone of ambivalence that suggests a different reading

Dudley Randall does purposely avoid commentary that says he agrees with one over the other. Even though W.E.B. is getting the last word, from one perspective this could show that he is just a more effective verbal warrior; a better talker and writer. The repetition of their catch phrases (“It seems to me” and “I don’t agree”) suggests an argument at a stalemate, with neither man (or movement) able to convince the other of his point, and in this sense, the poem becomes more a lament for their argument never reaching a working relationship, and a very subtle plea for unity between these two positions and legacies.

When Dudley Randall published this poem in 1965, the Civil Rights movement was at its height. Many had fought for, and died, in the fight against segregation, to enforce laws already on the books and put pressure on Congress and the President to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Yet, during this time, the mass media made much of the divide between Martin Luther King in the south and Malcolm X in the northern cities.

Because of this, some students have been tempted to see Dudley Randall’s distinction here as a comment on the Martin/Malcolm debate within the black community. One student wrote that, in this poem, that Booker T. is more like Martin Luther King, while W.E.B. is like Malcolm X. Yet, the analogy doesn’t ultimately work, since Martin Luther King at the time was fighting, amongst other things, for the right to vote (which Booker T. disagrees with). If anything, Malcolm X was much more skeptical that gaining voting rights would change anything for the better. He was fighting less for Civil Rights than Human Rights, for economic self-determination, and in this sense shares more with Booker . Furthermore, as both Malcolm and Martin’s thinking matured, their positions came closer together, before they were assassinated.

In fact, by 1964, a year before Malcolm died, he spoke of how black people must come together in unity and overcome the tendency “we have to always be at each others’ throats” (The Ballot or The Bullet), whether this is between the SCLC and the NOI in his day, or the Booker T/W.E.B. debate 50 years earlier. Malcolm was assassinated in early February 1965 before such accommodation between the two factions could be made.

Shortly after Malcolm’s death, however, Congressmen Adam Clayton Powell Jr. introduced a seventeen-point program on March 28, 1965, “My Black Position Paper for America’s 20 Million Negroes.” This fused the ideas of Washington and Du Bois (or Malcolm and Martin) by demanding that the civil-rights movement “shift its emphasis to the-two-pronged thrust of the Black Revolution: economic self-sufficiency and political power” (emphasis added). He felt the legislation of Johnson, particularly the 1964 Civil Rights Act, meant nothing in the North without the economic contingent of ‘black power’ to support it. Martin Luther King soon came to express that both were needed to create unity beyond the stalemate presented in the poem.

Such unity is probably needed even more today. In 1965, when Dudley Randall wrote this poem, the choice of intellectual labor over manual labor—whether industrial or agricultural—was seen as a form of progress as it was in when W.E.B. wrote. Higher education/white collar jobs were less available to blacks but were becoming more available, even as there was still the option of choosing a job in manual labor. It’s doubtful he could have foreseen then the dismantling of these blue-collar manual labor jobs (the good union jobs) that has occurred in the subsequent 50 years. Once again, history changes the meaning of the debate in the first two stanzas.

Today, the debate in the first two stanzas of this poem is simply not as relevant in the absence of these manual jobs, which has also served to lesson the value of the college degree. Booker T. Washington may have been arrogant, as this poem and many others have argued, but his argument for economic self-determination, is not to be dismissed as the ravings of an “Uncle Tom” (or less of “a man”) as it was to many during the Civil Rights movement. The poem is valuable as a historic document, but also because it allows the reader to revisit this historical debate in light of the segregation and economic disenfranchisement that continues today.

Booker T. and W.E.B. (Dudley Randall)

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land.
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?”

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.
“If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook.
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain.”

“It seems to me, said Booker T.,
“That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house.”

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.,
“For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail?
Unless you help to make the laws
They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope’s as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you’ve got
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I’ll be a man.”

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.

“I don’t agree,”
Said W.E.B.

[1] . George. 5

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"It was the charm of my voice that kept me caged."

Rumi: “The Indian Parrot”

There was a merchant setting out for India.
He asked each male and female servant
what they wanted to be brought as a gift.
Each told him a different exotic object:
A piece of silk, a brass figurine,
a pearl necklace.

Then he asked his beautiful caged parrot,
the one with such a lovely voice,
and she said,
"When you see the Indian parrots,
describe my cage. Say that I need guidance
here in my separation from them. Ask how
our friendship can continue with me so confined
and them flying about freely in the meadow mist.

Tell them that I remember well our mornings
moving together from tree to tree.
Tell them to drink one cup of ecstatic wine
in honor of me here in the dregs of my life.

Tell them that the sound of their quarrelling
high in the trees would be sweeter
to hear than any music."

This parrot is the spirit-bird in all of us,
that part that wants to return to freedom,
and is the freedom. What she wants
from India is herself!

So this parrot gave her message to the merchant,
and when he reached India, he saw a field
full of parrots. He stopped
and called out what she had told him.

One of the nearest parrots shivered
and stiffened and fell down dead.
The merchant said, "This one is surely kin
to my parrot. I shouldn't have spoken."

He finished his trading and returned home
with the presents for his workers.
When he got to the parrot, she demanded her gift.
"What happened when you told my story to the Indian parrots?"

"I'm afraid to say."
"Master, you must!"

"When I spoke your complaint to the field
of chattering parrots, it broke
one of their hearts.

She must have been a close companion,
or a relative, for when she heard about you
she grew quiet and trembled, and died."

As the caged parrot heard this, she herself
quivered and sank to the cage floor.

This merchant was a good man.
He grieved deeply for his parrot, murmuring
distracted phrases, self-contradictory -
cold, then loving - clear, then
murky with symbolism.

A drowning man reaches for anything!
The Friend loves this flailing about
better than any lying still.

The One who lives inside existence
stays constantly in motion,
and whatever you do, that king
watches through the window.

When the merchant threw the "dead" parrot
out of the cage, it spread its wings
and glided to a nearby tree!

The merchant suddenly understood the mystery.
"Sweet singer, what was in the message
that taught you this trick?"

"She told me that it was the charm
of my voice that kept me caged.
Give it up, and be released!"
The parrot told the merchant one or two more
spiritual truths. Then a tender goodbye.
"God protect you," said the merchant
"as you go on your new way.
I hope to follow you!"

 This poem could be contrasted with Paul Lawrence Dunbar's "Sympathy" (the poem with the line "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" in it which Maya Angelou used). "It was the charm of my voice that kept me caged." The birds sing in code....the poem sucks the unsuspecting reader in by presenting the merchant as a "good man" (a reasonable man, etc)....but indeed it's about slavery and global oppression.....does it suggest a useful strategy to deal with those issues in today's international neo-colonial corporatocracy? 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poems & Song Sketches; a cassette from the WE Magazine 1980s Archives

...kinda sorta liner notes...  (scroll down to the file Funkhouser calls "80s basement tapes"

fwiw, i wouldn't have ripped these, & asked you about them, if I didn't think they
were totally wonderful documentation of what you do (have been doing for a long time), & if I didn't think these should be out there! I don't think my great appreciation for them is nostalgic, either. You rock it (rocket), man!
        Christopher Funkhouser, 2014

Among the many hats that Christopher Funkhouser has worn during the late 1980s/early 1990s—that may get obscured given his later accomplishments—was the hat of scene and coalition builder; as an archivest/editor/publisher/event organizer he used his talents, skill, to help coalesce a national network of young writers and culture workers, while giving to those less privileged than him. I understood why some compared him to the work Donald Allen was doing 30 years earlier. When we first met, we bonded on a shared need to bring some “fresh air” into the literary world; a belief that we could help create a space for a wider definition of poetry that had become systematically narrowed especially during the Reagan years.

Against the backdrop of cultural signs like the “revised” 1988 Edition of Norton Anthology Of Modern Poetry (which had become much more conservative since the 1971 Anthology which included many writers from the Black Art Aesthetic for instance alongside of Yeats et al), CF and many of those he included in the category WE (including me) valued a more populist, and didactic poetry, one less exclusively beholden to the written page, but, through multi-media and dance, could help bring about a much- needed cultural revolution. We bonded initially on heroic elders like Amiri Baraka and some of the Beats, and believed in “unity in diversity” even amidst those intense aesthetic disagreements to which young writers are prone. We also shared what I considered a healthy contempt for the Poets (with a capital P) who took them selves or their Poems (whether on page or stage) too seriously and humorlessly.

CF had gone to Naropa, which I envied; for Naropa, at the time, gave some institutional sanction to many of these ethical and aesthetic goals for poetry in contrast to most M(F)A programs. It also actively encouraged its students to start their own magazines and presses and build a community (something which more M(F)A programs should require, for their own good!). I would have gone there myself had I been able to afford it. Instead, I chose Temple (as Bill Cosby put it), or Temple chose me, giving me work/study funding to be a teacher of record (not a mere TA) for freshman composition courses. While Temple was not the cultural hotbed that Naropa seemed to be from a 2,000-mile distance, and didn’t harbor the revolutionary possibilities that seemed so glamorous to this restless first-generation working-class college student (even though Temple’s advertisement claimed Black-Arts pioneer Sonia Sanchez was on the faculty of the Creative Writing program, she was not teaching classes when I was there, but rather doing cultural work through the provost’s office), it did have the advantage of being in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia had many other literary and artistic scenes that I could find common ground with, most significantly for me the scene that I became aware of through Lamont Steptoe’s amazing work with the Painted Bride Art Center. As a friend, Steptoe also became an important teacher; he not only immersed me in Philly’s strong black culture (introducing me to the great artist/poet Jerome Robinson---years later tragically gunned down while trying to keep the peace at the Wheels Of Soul clubhouse---and many others), but also arranged for performances for many writers and musicians who were prominent figures in the national Black Arts Movement (Baraka, Troupe, Baldwin, etc). He also supported my own fledgling work, and nourished my tentative firsts embracing the angry young man energy which academia was trying to channel (“Remember, Chris, Wallace Stevens didn’t publish his first book until he was 44;” I did love, and learn from Stevens and others of that ilk, but not as a be-all-and-end-all).

Steptoe gave me my first featured (and rather high-paying) reading and also introduced me to many other young writers, black, Latina, Asian, and white (some of whom have since become very well known—such as Linh Dinh, current Philly poet laureate Frank Sherlock, CA Conrad, Major Jackson among others). This, coupled with the experiences and non-accredited education I was receiving in the West Philly Punk Scene (helping to co-found Killtime Warehouse in 1988), and through radio station WKDU, was at least as valuable as the degree, and the exposure to a range of academic poetry, I was receiving at Temple. Philadelphia at this time, even with its huge cultural chip on its shoulder viz-a-viz NYC for instance, was a veritable cauldron of activity that certainly rivaled Naropa.

In this sense, I received a degree from Philly, and just like any academic institution the various factions were segregated, and often territorial. Yet I, too, strove, to put a wider coalition together, and embrace the eclectic, electric, environment and encourage a more capacious dialogue. By 1989, I myself was co-editing a magazine and coordinating various reading series to this end (in addition to performing and publishing my juvenilia in a range of magazines). Although some glossy nationals, like Mike McGonigle’s legendary punk zine Chemical Imbalance and The New York Quarterly had published my work, it was largely through Chris Funkhouser that I began to be published alongside of other younger writers nationally. A “new breed,” indeed, was starting to come together in the late 1980s.

When CF expanded his little, underground, magazine WE into the audio format (first cassette, and then CD), this combination was still very rarely attempted; it became a radical gesture almost regardless of content, because it cast a wider net, and brought many repressed things back into the possibilities of literary art beyond the standard protocols of the poetry reading and the MFA-ification of “the profession.” His extension of Baraka and The Beats' populism (rather than say Bukowski’s populism) defiantly refused the segregation of genres, and the people they imply—and could help restore poetry to a deeper sense that could save it from what had become its “self.” I wanted to be part of it….and am honored to have been (and to see him revisiting this era 25 years later).

25 years later, CF sent me an MP3 of a cassette which I must have sent him in the summer of 1989, after he had made an announcement that he was expanding his magazine WE to become a more multi-media format: not simply a printed journal, but a cassette! Back before the internet era, the cassette was still a cutting edge format, and this was indeed an exciting thing for me---since I was at the time primarily known for my live performances that combined the “straight poetry reading,” with digressive stand-up comedy, and sometimes even spirited dialogue with “hecklers.” I encouraged audiences to “heckle,” like my “spoken word” literary hero, Amiri Baraka. As performer, among the poets, Baraka alone could humble me; I knew I had a long way to go, but I admit I was somewhat cocky about my ability to work and provoke a crowd during this time.

Listening back to the MP3s of this cassette 25 years later, my first response however, was horror, embarrassment---a feeling that my cockiness was just a young man’s hubris or, as one of the early poems included herein puts it, “This guy was naïve.” Yikes! Of course, an older person shouldn’t judge one’s younger work (as is often pointed out among devotees of poetry; both Wordsworth and Whitman lost something in their repeated revisions of The Prelude and Song Of Myself from the perspective of age). And, perhaps one of the reasons I find something missing in these recordings is because that most of them lack the audience interaction that inspired and co-created my live performances; these recordings seem to be mostly me reading a collection of what at the time was some of my “greatest hits” alone in a room: barren approximations.

On this cassette, there is a mixture of the public poems written for the stage (that ‘may not hold up over repeated readings’ on the page), and other poems that were written more for the page (and the more staid page it generally implies). In addition to these poems, there are also recordings of unfinished “song sketches” played on a Casio. I was not performing these at the time in public, nor had any immediate ambition to do so; certainly music to me was much more communal, collaborative, and, at its best, holistic than poetry.

I had higher standards to live up to; and certainly had no interest or aspirations in publically becoming a “Daniel Johnston” figure. Yet I included these low-fi sloppy song sketches on this submission to CF’s WE compilation, in part because I needed to break up the monotony of the poetry reading. I guess a wanted to throw CF “the kitchen sink” as it were, on the chance that he might have some use for the music. After all, CF was a fan of Allen Ginsberg who was at the time devoting more time at his readings to performing solo with a harmonium accompaniment. And even though I personally found little aesthetic pleasure or inspiration in Ginsberg’s musical skills and abilities, I deeply respected that he was at least trying to bring music back into this genre of poetry that it had been artificially separated from by the Euro-centric American poetry tradition; whether with The Clash or others; he was a popularizer and had distinguished himself sufficiently in poetry; his songs were functional; as if part of the point was to be purposely bad, or even, ugly: I guess that’s in the ear of the beholder: some critics say “punk music” was purposely ugly; I don’t agree; I felt it as beautiful, but in a poetry context, AG was like musical flarf! (proto-flarf?)


This is the context of these compiled recordings; they were not intended to be anything like an album, but a submission. I knew I didn’t have money for a proper recording approximating the sounds I heard ‘in my head’ or the dance floor, but I was honored if any listener found them an open door to further collaboration (as CF did, when we worked on some songs together with his band when I visited him in Santa Cruz in 1991). As an album, it may just be more of a historical document, or an experimental innovation of form. Do these poems and song sketches feel like a young writer going through trial and error, trying to develop a personal system reflecting the various social scenes and aesthetics? Do they at least challenge the ethical standard that a writer needs “to find his voice”—that standard whose highest value is for one to “possess” some recognizably consistent style. (See Ron Padgett’s great old send up of that ‘literary standard’), and encourage someone else’s (probably much younger) need to honor the whole art in their work; to help create personal and cultural balance in this unbalanced culture)?

In my more celebrated (or relatively more “mature”) page-based collections of poetry between 1990 and 2005, many have found a “Stroffolino voice,” that recognizably consistent style. In the 80s, however, I didn’t; I felt a more immediate, urgent, imperative. Perhaps I was simply crying “Don’t Let Our Youth To Go Waste!” while hoping a wider, more powerful cultural coalition could be built (even in the late 1980s Philly punk scene; there were many older black R&B folks who came around, for instance; and it took me years later—after reading about punk scenes in other cities during this same time, to realize how the multi-racial, multi-generational, and multi-media art scene made Philly’s punk scene much more interesting than, say, Gilman in Berkeley)—even if our music-centered scene never made it out of Philly. Our failure—we weren’t connected to a viable record label, just as the local scene of which Steptoe was a major purveyor did not have access to a viable house literary magazine---was probably primarily economic (we couldn’t afford it), but it was also organizational. The organizers who put together performance venues had little interest in anything beyond the fleeting ecstatic hedonistic transience. Thus, young ambitious artists in it for the long haul like the brilliant filmmaker Cheryl Dunye had to leave the Philly punk scene, to find means to make their art that has relevance to a larger sector of the populace.

In my own case, once it became clear this scene wasn’t sustainable after my mother’s death, I returned to Academia, as a desperate necessity. WE Magazine had come close to providing an alternative to academia, but by 1993 both CF and I found ourselves in the same Ph.D. program. I can’t speak for him, but for me this tape brings me back to the dashed hopes many of us shared in the late 1980s, even as mass culture was making less room for the kind of art that we both wish to champion in our various ways. Hopes for a better America! In 1989, it felt like we were at least making baby-steps in the ruins, in trying to make the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ; a book CF was found of), a more permanent structure that could make academia superfluous!

Disclaimer (#3?). I make no claims that these little recordings come anywhere close to achieving such lofty ambitions. “The Artist is cursed with his artifact,” as Amiri Baraka puts it upon realization of a similar horror, in his brilliant early essay/statement on poetics, “Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall.” And these little recordings, however embarrassing to the perfectionist in me, reflect the hunting that took place, off the page, off the tape even…on the streets, the community art centers, bars, galleries, record stores and radio stations we still had access to at the time, even if we couldn’t afford a proper studio or grooving rhythm section.

Aesthetically, the division of labor that I was developing between the increasingly segregated genres of music and poetry is in evidence on this “sound file” (i.e. cassette). These genres were once PANGEA, the ur-continent, but had been separated, and there was a burning human need among many people I knew to bring them in closer contact despite the genre gerrymanders and gentrifiers. Some started with music, others with poetry, but we were trying to find each other (and then find some union organizers or community-venture capitalists). I was always too repressed to be the freestyle rapper; and was amazed as a white guy that so many could do this, as if it was a natural (but also disciplined and exemplary)—but I did get to back up an MC and a DJ on trumpet at Killtime once (and I wish I had that on tape).

In the case of so-called me, poetry had become my Calling Card (or as I was fond of saying at the time, at poetry readings even, “the most sophisticated form of a personal ad”). By contrast, the music was private: there’s a song sketch here called, “Hey, Don’t See Me This Way,” which yes, if viewed as finished commodity today, can be seen as a very “Daniel Johnston”—esque piece, even though I may not have even have known who he was at the time, aside from one song maybe. 24 years later, some critics started calling me the next Daniel Johnston—and some of these recordings may set the record straight; I was doing a similar “Casiotone for the painfully alone” thing at the same time, only I didn’t consider my work finished. The cassette is a glimpse into a “hidden world,” and helped balance me from the pressures of commodified poetry. I didn’t know what I was doing with music, but I knew I didn’t know it. I did it in the spirit of aspiration off stage, in the wings, looking for collaborators….

Music was closer to the hunting; poetry was closer to the head on the wall, and Baraka was NOT saying, get rid of the artifact, or the head; it has its use, but its main use is the fact that it encourages more hunting (or as CF’s UVA classmate David Berman would ask years later, “how is the asking built into the hunting?”). The poems on this cassette were “finished” or at least “abandoned”—objects, written for specific occasions and audiences. I was less concerned with their status of great art, but asked “were they functional? Did they further a conversation, whether on the page or on the stage, whether using a pubic idiom like the “catalogue poem” (which had become largely taboo, as both the ‘avant-garde’ and ‘mainstream’ had come to react to the mid-century populist thrust and opening) or working within the confines of an interior landscape of the so-called lyric self? I had a poem in 1987, which I think WE published—“I said bye bye to the lyric “I”/ the moment she got in my fly/ but not it comes back as a force/ I probably need to pass this course”): And many of these “interior” poems on this cassette do critique the “bourgeois self” (it’s not myself I’m hating; it’s the self as a false construct slipped into our drink).

I tried all of these on for size, and even sighs (like the kind of sigh a bad pun can elicit in a reading; I embraced and encouraged that). I sacrificed some “refinement” for a broader scope (jack of more genres than most master/mistress of sub-genre dared to try, to their detriment and the detriment of our culture, in my humble opinion). This wasn’t just a phase of “apprenticeship.” Making even a flawed form public unblocks a certain energy so you can do better next time; this isn’t just “growing up in public,” but what it is to be fully alive as an artist. Even today, I may learn something from this “youthful hubris” in both forms.

The “Song sketches” are not revised; these are recordings of the first time I played them; absolutely spontaneous attempts to structure sound into a semblance of song. I turned on the tape recorder to capture them for future reference, to be revised…eventually. I believed in that dictum that poetry is a spontaneous outburst of powerful emotions….but recollected in tranquility; I believed that about music too. But “free verse” poetry was more permissive formally; more like jazz at its best.

And, of course, I was also playing piano solo improvisatons during the time that didn’t worry about becoming “songs.” Yet, I felt music most profoundly as a so-called “consumer,” especially dancing (and at the time often in a mosh-pit but also funk). I dreamed—and still dream—of creating a body of broad(pod)casted work someday that includes “jazz” (or noise rock like The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift”) alongside of a reading of a word-based literary text as even a higher art form than the “song,” but none of those were included on this cassette I made for WE. But at least the solo song catharsis was a little closer to the body; they remind me “you have to come alive in the body before you come alive in the mind.”

My poetry was much more “revised” (if not censored).  For instance, in 1989 I wrote the poem that allowed me to crack the great established literary magazine New American Writing, by appealing to a New York School playful insouciance: “We meet like shoelaces/ knotted by a need that likes to act nonchalant….” This poem opened up many doors among the national literary scene for my published work in the subsequent decade, in part because its aesthetic rejected the “first thought, best thought” notion of poetry. I was always ambivalent about that debate. My first thought—as earlier drafts of it reveal—was clearly a need that doesn’t act nonchalant. That need can be edited out---or sublimated in poetry, as long as it is not entirely absent, can be seen between the lines, such sublimation can become sublime in the highest sense possible using nothing but words.

But in these “song sketches” that need is felt firsthand without the self-editor rearing its head---for better and worse. With all these “songs,” the music came first. A nice melody; I could hear a band doing it; it fits the voice----but what are the words coming out of the voice? Are they sounds? Or do they have meaning? Maybe a line or two has meaning, I told myself. But not a meaning I would be proud of, not a meaning I would put in a poem (unless buried or framed with quotes, etc); they tell me terrible things about my “internal monologue;” they are cruel, needy, anti-social, all that crap. First feeling, worst feeling. DUMMY LYRICS.  That’s what I called them. And I wanted to be nonchalant about it! Yes, hence the poetry (or the hope that someday I’d find a band that would allow such sentiments to come off better because at least people are meeting each other while dancing to it, and don’t really care about the words until later---and by then, I will have had time to revise them to make them more socially useful! Or even find a lyricist to work with!).

The sound of the words just came pouring out. If I sang the word “Don’t” too much, I could interpret it psychologically, but maybe it was just a habitual muscle tick engraved in the soul (of the sound).---a respite from analysis. I made many cassettes during these years, and barely bothered to play them back.

I learned that it is extremely rare that great lyrics that I could stand behind and great music could come together at once. It’s probably ridiculous to even hold that as an aesthetic standard (that the song will emerge unfinished from the head of Athena or whatever), but the songs were too hot to handle; a mucking up of the ground. One thing I knew; it was better to start a song this way than coming in backwards with lyrics and then trying to come up with a melody----that felt imposed, like trickle down economics—like too many damn crusty white guy singer songwriters!

I also learned that, for me at least, when it came to music, the words didn’t matter as much as the tune, and the other non-verbal aspects, including voice. These recordings at least show hints of what my voice could be at its best. And, I remember—believe it or not---a lot of people liked the groggy warmth of my voice when I busked in Rittenhouse square with the Casio; I felt that reverberation---especially when it didn’t take long to lure a beautiful passerby’s hand toward the region of my thigh). But ultimately I had no “singer/songwriter” ambitions; I was already “solo” enough as a poet. Wuz holding out hope I’d find some BERRY GORDY to assign a role—like “Hey, you write catchy melodies, and THIS other guy writes great lyrics. Work together, in the studio, I’ll pay you enough to live on and create. You don’t even have to sing.” And, I found something a little closer to this a decade later working with Steve Malkmus and David Berman (but that’s another story)…

Yet, even with the limits of the Casio and crappy cassette recorder, the strictly non-verbal hooks of these (secret) song sketches brought balance against the dangerous tyranny of words. Listening back 25 years later, I do find it at least worth a listen (if not many listens—and have no burning need to perform the songs, or even the poems for that matter---but that’s partially the purpose of recording…so you don’t have to perform it! Ask David Berman (who was recording those songs that Drag City released in 2012 around the same time I made these recordings). They’re certainly no worse than other things I let others put out under my so-called name over the years; and they can even make me smile and laugh--though they goad me to believe, as I believed then, I---and in fact WE—can do so much better, and to keep living in these difficult times to do that; MAYBE EVEN RIGHT NOW! Thank you Chris Funkhouser….

1. “Morning After” 2:57
2. Cassio Dabble#1 2:28
3. Naïve 2:25
4. I get what you see (ah capella) 0:40
5. Why Do You Let Him? 1:57
6. To A Late Night DJ 2:25
7. Hey! Don’t See Me This Way 1:14
8. But Can You Convince The Converted? 1:22
9. Latent Bartender 2:09
10. It’s All Right 2:09 19:40

11. Overlapping Triangles 0:42
12. Dwelt On Division 1:19
13. The Poetry Of Capitalism 1:49
14. Now You’re A Mess 2:00
15. Cutting Class 0:19
16. Self Portrait As Shelley 2:40
17. Combination Wedding 1:59
18. In America The Poor Are Fat 0:47
19 Hymn Book Improv. Ditty 2:30
20. A Reduction, However Romantic, Is Still A Reduction 0:50
21. Centigrade 0:23
22. I Can’t Stop Thinking About You 1:20
23. To The Poor Who Call Themselves Rich 1:27

Chris Stroffolino, 2014