Talking to Lorenzo Thomas (Virtually)
Given the opportunity, The New Journal asked poet and critic Lorenzo Thomas a few questions about poetry, politics, tradition, and the future via e-mail.
The Questions

What is the importance of community to the creative act and its reception, and how does the American Capitalist system shape the creation of or dissolution of community? I'm thinking of Champion magazine and the "network" of people that made it possible.

How do you view the role of race in today's cultural scene? It seems, to a great degree, "views" are given a space to be "voiced," but the fact of the space also becomes a means by which to ignore or dismiss the significance of difference. That is, there is then the means to say, "We've dealt with that - it doesn't matter, or it doesn'[t exist." What about reveling in difference? (Both in others and the uncertainty of the self?)

What is the use of poetry? What is the relation of a discussion of race to poetry?

What do you see as the intersection with writing the poetic work and writing about the poetic work?

What is the legacy of the Black Arts Movement and of the American avant guard of the mid- and late-twentieth century? David Lehman has made much of Koch, Ashberry, etc., but who do you look at of those contemporaries and how do you read the mark you and those fellow poets have made on our present literary predicament?

What are the journals and who are the writers you find to be most exciting right now? What's interesting? Who's doing interesting work?

Who were the authors you first read? What was your initial attraction to their work, and to poetry?

You've written about the pedagogy of creative writing. What is the role of higher education in the literary arts, and what do you see of work coming from points outside the academy? Does the academy matter? If the academy doesn't, what does matter?

Lorenzo Thomas' response:

The American capitalist system shapes our ideas of self and of community. Without getting into the pseudo-French philosophical fashion of flinging around words like desire and applying some arcane definitions to them, it must be clear that the system of our economy (which actually means how and what we eat) has an impact on the range of our imaginations. This does not mean that we cannot imagine what does not yet exist-someone does that every nanosecond of every day. It does mean that it requires some effort to make visible and truthfully name the forces that we are intended to take for granted. That is to say, someone intends that we take those forces for granted. However, the same system provides models for exposing its structure-the most popular of which is "science" or "technology" (i.e., applied or practical science). In our time it is fashionable-and often practical-for those who want to make changes in our society to pretend to be scientists. If they pretend to be seers or philosophers, no one would pay them any mind. That's why Sun Ra called his ensemble the Myth-Science Arkestra.

If poetry has a useful function in this milieu it would be the function that Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested in 1844 at the beginning of the mechanization of the United States. What Emerson told the public on his lecture tours was that the poet (like the folks who invent useful appliances such as DVDs or laser beams that can be used either for surgery or to total up groceries at the supermarket) is in the business of providing new ideas. Or, perhaps, just better ideas. Stating it that way, I think I am including all poets, not just the avant-garde.

As Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) put it in a piece titled "Gatsby's Theory of Aesthetics" (1964):

Poetry aims at difficult meanings. Meanings not already catered to. Poetry aims at reviving, say, a sense of meaning, or meaning's possibility and ubiquitousness" (Black Magic Poetry 41)

An example of success in this direction might be found in the way that the novels of Ishmael Reed or William Burroughs make systems that we never think twice about collapse before our eyes. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, for example, Reed exposes the Christian West when he depicts the protagonist's efforts to succeed as the member of a cult called the Nazarene Apprentices. Eric Mottram explained how Burroughs does similar things in a marvelous little book called The Algebra of Need. As Burroughs puts it, "What Washington? What orders?" What I'm thinking is that the many techniques poets have devised for using metaphor and juxtaposition are attempts to knock the mind out of the rut of commonplace thinking. To kick the rudder and make us grab for the wheel before we sail blindly into the iceberg.

Ok, so that sounds good. But what does it mean? Well, at the very moment that the New York Times stopped printing bad poems on the editorial page every day, young poets in New York commandeered church mimeograph machines to publish little poetry magazines-like Ted Berrigan's C magazine which was sometimes run off late at night by Soren Agenoux at Judson Church. This was around 1961. Could there be any connection, causal or otherwise, between these two events? A very smart literary critic like Cary Nelson could probably prove that there is-because he believes that poetry in our capitalistic society provides a discourse that is not otherwise being offered. In other words, while Frank O'Hara rather correctly demanded that "poetry should be at least as interesting as the movies," you will not find anybody willing to spend $45 million on a poem (not even an epic-though you will easily find some misguided young person trying to write a poem that will win her a big Hollywood contract. And if all it gets is lunch, well, that's OK, too. In fact, that is the poetic tradition from the beginning of time. If your poetry is any good at all you can get supper. I mean that poets have always been able to trade a few clever lines for lunch-though I'm not sure that's what Frank O'Hara had in mind when he wrote a book called Lunch Poems).

I enjoyed David Lehman's The Last Avant Garde because I have always loved the poetry of O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. I still don't know James Schuyler's work as well as I should. But I was also infuriated every few pages by Lehman's generalizations about society. When he focused closely on the poets and their poems he is marvelous. To me, the Black Arts Movement of 1965-1975 actually fits into a larger scheme, say 1960-1985, and it also has a direct connection to the New York School poetry of 1954-1966 because of the close association of O'Hara and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). And, of course, in the late 1950s, Baraka's magazine Yugen was influential in making the Black Mountain poets known. I suppose what I mean is that I understood the New York School to be a subset of the poetics represented by Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945-1960, one of the most important books in American literary history.

Baraka was the only African American writer included in that anthology - which also says something about American literary history. But there was another important anthology published around the same time: Beyond the Blues, edited by Rosey Pool. That book, published in England, included a number of poets who created the theoretical and poetical foundation for what would come to be the Black Arts Movement. Lloyd Addison, Tom Dent, Calvin C. Hernton, Oliver Pitcher, and others appeared in that book. So did Baraka and also A. B. Spellman, I think. And most of the poets I've just named were not academic poets in the sense that people understood that word in the late 1950s, nor were they really Beat poets. But I think that David Lehman might be right in calling Kenneth & Co. the "last avant garde" because the Black Arts Movement, as it emerged in 1964 and 1965 in New York, was a similar avant garde group that managed to become the accepted mode of artistic expression for the masses of African American people - before its themes and attitudes were devoured and distorted by the for-profit exploitation of generously capitalized entertainment and "popular culture" production companies. By contrast, the New York School poetic devised in the 1950s remains pristine and art historical in the context that David Lehman curates for it.

On the other hand, it is also true that my own poems are influenced as much by Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery as by Amiri Baraka and Calvin Hernton. In fact, John and Amiri are the two most influential American poets - in terms of style - of the last quarter of the 20th century. Hundreds of writers have learned from them; and, of course, different people may be attuned to learning different things from them. In my case, I think what I learned from Ashbery reinforced what I learned from Wallace Stevens and both Ashbery and Baraka reinforced what I found interesting about the colloquial language that I found in Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg. And, of course, it is a fact that Hughes learned something from Sandburg, too. I guess that is how poetic influence connects you to tradition. But in this sense I am not suggesting that tradition is a readymade thing.

I read a number of journals regularly, particularly those that focus on criticism. Books like Callaloo and African American Review. For poetry, I'm particularly excited about Combo, Skanky Possum, and some of what appears in Black Renaissance Noire; and I'm looking forward to a new project called nocturnes that is being launched in San Francisco by giovanni singleton.

To go back to one of your questions: As to usefulness, there are many types of poetry. There are prosepoems whose oneiric structure seems like an attempt to record dreams; and there are poems that offer rhetorical argument as precise as the collective work of legislative bodies (and sometimes with a similarly soporific effect). But there is also a great deal of poetry that, to me, seems to resemble the mental work that occupies us when we are in a condition somewhere between sleep and waking. It has a quality of almost obsessive attention to detail. While I can probably discuss many purposes for poetry per se, I really can't say what that other type of mental work may really be about. I don't know. But I do know that in many of my poems, when I appear to be talking to you, I am really talking to myself. And vice versa.


Allen, Donald, ed. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. New York: Grove Press, 1960.

Baraka, Amiri. Black Magic Poetry, 1961-1967. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

Mottram, Eric. William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need. Buffalo: Intrepid Press, 1971.

Pool. Rosey E., ed. Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes. Lympne, Kent: Hand and Flower Press, 1962.

Reed, Ishmael. The Free-Lance Pallbearers. 1967.Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1999.

Born in the Republic of Panama, Lorenzo Thomas grew up in New York City, graduating from Queens College (City University of New York). A widely published poet and critic whose work has appeared in many journals, including African American Review, Arrowsmith, Blues Unlimited (England), Living Blues, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, and Popular Music and Society, he is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown. A regular book reviewer for the Houston Chronicle, Thomas has contributed scholarly articles to the African American Encyclopedia, American Literary Scholarship, Gulliver (Germany), and the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

His books of poetry include Chances Are Few, The Bathers, and Es Gibt Zeugen; he also published Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African American Literature and most recently Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and 20th Century American Poetry. He currently serves as director of the Cultural Enrichment Center at the University of Houston - Downtown.

All contents copyright The New Journal, 2001.