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Cleis Abeni
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Blessings to you, David! Will complete last words tonight. Thank you so much for your much needed affirmation. --Cleis
What kind of form are the blues? When I say form, I do not only mean traditional verse forms like the sonnet. Everything that is intelligently conceived has form even if that structure is a nonce form (or a one-of-a-kind design). Moreover, even things that are ill-conceived have form (albeit, problematic arrangements). What I say here is different than some poets who only use the word form to signify a finite number of traditional, usually European-descended arrangements like the rhyme royal or the sestina. The blues are and will always be a radical American art form because despite its deep penetration and proliferation within the art and culture of the United States and the world, it has always been marginalized. There is a certain violence to the way that the blues is cross-culturally perceived, a disenfranchisement that I understand intimately. The blues are an anti-normative form, a queer endeavor that challenges our attempts to institutionalize it all the time. Thinking about the blues helped me to understand the world in forms. Understanding the world in forms means that I am always ascertaining the structures through which things are made. This understanding may be more radical for me than for others. When I was a child, I was habitually told that I was not normal. Growing up suspect meant that I became suspicious of normalcy itself. I began to associate the word normal with natural, unquestioned, deterministic states. What others understood to be normal, I understood to be just another made thing, or just another construction given hierarchical power, dominance, or control over me for a myriad of often mysterious reasons. From these origins came a critical notion: even if I do not know the maker or have a name for the form, I know that it is made or being made. My first foray into truly critical thought (the kind that bespeaks true liberal arts of deeply free thinking) came when I understood that what seems normal is, in fact, just another construction. Normalcy reassurances us as much as it controls us. We need reassurance at the same time that we need to question patterns of control. Understanding the world in forms means that I am always investigating the fault lines between what controls us and what we can control, or between how we make our worlds and how the world seems to make us. Things that others take for granted are subjected to enormous scrutiny. Most people simply accept their assigned name, their assigned race, their assigned gender, and all sorts of other seemingly natural states. But even as a child, I never simply accepted these states. I critiqued them relentlessly. I wanted to understand the power within these constructions. Invariably, that power is confederated into forms, or into always shifting arrangements. I tried to describe, analyze, and interpret these forms. I created my own forms. Let me explain why my perspective is radical even though it may seem that talking about form is the most traditional thing that... Continue reading
Posted Oct 16, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
It’s one thing to suggest the opposite of what you mean—classic verbal irony. But, what if two different statements suggesting the opposite of their meaning follow each other in tandem. Then, what if these statements were followed by others whose subtle meanings were deliberately scrambled. And, further still, what if the entire scenario—the overall meaning itself—runs counter to what the statements suggest. Well, this complex experience represents one of the most powerful formal characteristics of the blues. I call this, “ironic juxtaposition” and it is one of three formal attributes that I discuss today. Ironic Juxtaposition The prototypical irony of the blues is that dejection is not only dejection, but something else: it could be rage, vindictiveness, or hope. The blues dramatize this root irony within their subtly clashing statements. Let’s examine a 1951 song called “The Thrill Is Gone” by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell made famous by the iconic blues musician, B. B. King, as an example of ironic juxtaposition. Photo by Roland Godefroy, 1989, public domain King’s work has been fresh on my mind because he died this summer. Hawkins was himself an incredible black blues musician and his original version of the song is as much a revelation as King’s rendition. And don't get me started on Aretha Franklin's 1970 version! Take in mind that many versions of the lyrics and score of this song exist because each blues person adapts it for her or his own purposes. But the essential ironic juxtapositions remain. After the first repeating statements, you’d think that the “The Thrill Is Gone” is a simplistic lament that only shares sadness. Yet, as the statements progress, we gradually learn that the song is a rebuke of a malevolent lover who wronged the singer and, even more than a rebuke, the song threatens the beloved, suggesting that rather than the singer only being dejected and lonely for losing the beloved, the beloved will instead be sorry for the loss. These subtle ironies keep commingling and soon, by the time we get to the song’s final lines, which often convey something to the effect of “I’m free from your spell,” we realize that the lament is, in fact, an acknowledgement that the thrill is very much alive: the wonder comes in the singer being rid of the beloved and living to testify about it. Thus, the song itself is an anthem masquerading as a lament—a terrific form of situational irony. Midway through Franklin's version, the chorus is sung by backup singers who splice into the song the great civil rights anthem rooted in the spirituals, "Free, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last!" Franklins' interpolation becomes the pinnacle of ironic juxtaposition for me among all the adaptations of this song. Fractious Allusion Even in the late 1980s, I was telling folks in my life that the music and poetry of the blues and jazz constitute Modernism just as much as the poems of extremely well-documented virulently racist poets who we are... Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Ever heard the stereotype that blacks in the United States talk too loudly at movie theaters? Needless to say, blacks aren’t the only folks to shout out phrases at the cinema like, “Don’t go in there, fool!” as one wonderful man hollered during a moment in an easily forgettable scary movie that I watched around Halloween last year. Yet, these provocative participatory moments encode a terrific hallmark that I would like to highlight and, while these moments may annoy some people—yes, the very same people who become surreptitiously alarmed by even the sight of a group of blacks in public or who become fearful by just the sight of a lone black man around them when walking in the city—these moments indicate a remarkable formal hallmark of the blues. Provocative participation is the first of six elements of blues form that I discuss today and tomorrow. Take in mind that, as with most artistry rooted in the centuries-old folkways of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the African Diaspora, there is no separation between sound, language, and movement in the blues. These spheres interpenetrate even while the blues manifest differently on the page, on the stage, in song, in oratory, and in dance. For definitional context, visit the Internet’s many encyclopedic entries to learn about the basic history of the blues’ origins in the rural American South and its adaption of spirituals, field hollering, work songs, and ballads by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Often when devotees explain hallmarks of artistic forms rooted in the African Diaspora, respondents say comments like these: “But European music uses antiphony all the time!” or “But all music matters not just the blues!” Mind you: deflection is a kind of bias. Indeed, many artistic forms engage the hallmarks discussed here. This fact does not obscure the particular ways that the blues configure these formal characteristics or the specific manner in which the blues matters within the cultures through which it proliferates. And one final caveat: discussing general hallmarks should in no way suggest that the blues are not diverse. On the contrary, these general characteristics are always varied and contested throughout centuries of development. But, that I and others can point to these formal traits indicates the cultural strength and distinctiveness of the blues. Provocative Participation Like the man who shouted out in the movie theater last year, the blues contain a variety of provocative participation that is more than static call-and-response. My students within the jazz dance and music class at the semi-rural university (mentioned in yesterday's entry) often heard the refrains within the blues as inert, meaningless restatements. Inviting them to see beyond this assumption and understand repeated phrases from a different cross-cultural perspective was often challenging. Repeated phrases in the blues provoke a both tense (strained) and intense (excited) relationship with the previously established theme. This provocation can be insinuation, rebuke, or alarm—as if the repetition elevates the concern implicit in the preceding statement. Polite, high bourgeoisie cultures sometimes demand quiet... Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Today, I share key overarching ideological truths about the blues. To begin, let me journey back to a time many years ago when I taught jazz dance and music (as well as writing) for a year at a large semi-rural Midwestern public university. On the first day of the class at the start of the year I asked my students to bring pictures to class for the next session of what they thought the blues represented. Most of my students were white, middle class young men and women. The largest group of students of color were Asian-descended and Latina (six, if memory serves). Two blacks were in the class. Demographically, the students represented what many Americans think of when they invoke “the mainstream.” Almost all of the students' pictures depicted an older black man placidly strumming a guitar like the image below (this photograph by Jean-Luc Ourlin from 2005 depicts the great blues musician John Lee Hooker and it is in the public domain): And about a fourth of the students' images depicted a white parody group called the Blues Brothers, which was created by the comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as part of a musical sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1976 (this publicity still of the comedians appears here under fair use guidelines): I asked the students to articulate the thinking behind their selections, and I encouraged them to word-associate (to write down individual words or short phrases) if they could not quite put their thoughts into complete sentences. I stressed that no one’s thoughts were wrong because all of their images are part of our perceptions of the blues. Rather than discounting their representations, my goal was to affirm them, study them, and expand on them with deeper and more trenchant reflection. I still have my notes from my lesson plans. Most of the students wrote words like “sad,” or phrases like “down in the dumps.” Some wrote “cool” or “funny” and a few wrote “SNL,” referring to the late night TV show where the Blues Brothers group was created. One person wrote “old black guys singing about being sad” and another wrote “black slaves singing when they feel sad.” During our discussion, the students elaborated on their articulations and soon they acknowledged that, overwhelmingly, their assumptions about the blues were that it was a tradition represented by either old black men who sing slow, mournful, downbeat songs about their sadness while playing the guitar or cool, hip, middle aged white men with dark sunglasses and black suits who sing funny, upbeat songs that parody the sadness of the old black men. At one point in our discussions, two students debated the ways that each scenario suggested a kind of melancholic yet entertaining passivity, a willful sense of dejection (whether actual or ironized) and an inert experience of the easily-dismissed downtrodden. One of the students likened the downtrodden people that came to his mind when he thought of the blues to the homeless panhandlers that he... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Like most poets, I understand the world in forms. In this multipart essay, I hone in on the form that most typifies my understanding of the world. That form is the blues. A brilliant, complex, multifaceted network of musical and poetic structures, the blues are black Americans' gift to the country that enslaved us or our ancestors and that often continues to deny many of us economic, racial, and gender justice. Given the form's often under-recognized proliferation within many country's contemporary music and rhetoric, the blues are one of black Americans' greatest and most intelligent gifts to the world. At the same time that the blues chronicle everyday struggles, they also describe resilience, ingenuity, and a remarkable capacity to slyly bend circumstances for the better, critique problems, and structure elements with winsome intricacy. I remember when I first heard the blues. For a brief time when she was a teenager, my mother moonlighted as a chorus girl and a wardrobe attendant on “Black Broadway,” as the singer Pearl Bailey called it, a section of Washington, D.C. around U Street where Duke Ellington was raised and where the Howard Theatre and the Lincoln Theatre still sit. I did not learn about this part of my mother’s hidden history until the months before she died when she explained many things to me, including why she pushed some of her children into the entertainment business (she was trying to capture her lost dreams). From her involvement in entertainment, my mother knew scores of performers, producers, managers, agents, poets, and musicians. One of these was a black Native American jazz musician and smalltime D.C. impresario named Cherokee Honi. Ms. Honi’s Logan Circle house was filled from floor to ceiling with memorabilia and knick knacks from black music history: records, costumes, programs, and instruments. When my mother went to visit, Ms. Honi always had music on her old record player. The first time I accompanied my mother to a visit to Ms. Honi’s house was around the bicentennial year in the 1970s. As soon as I entered I heard a song that Ms. Honi was playing on the record player. I marveled at its almost hieroglyphic, bawdy jauntiness. When I inquired what the music was, Ms. Honi replied, “Oh, honey, that’s the blues!” Turns out that the song was a 1933 blues lyric by the incredible black husband-and-wife blues team of Wesley Wilson (aka Kid Wilson, Sox Wilson or Socks Wilson) and Coot Grant made popular by the equally brilliant black blues singer Bessie Smith called "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)." Click here to listen to the original November 24, 1933 recording of the song. This blues lyric exemplifies the formal hallmarks that I will reflect on later in this essay. Before we examine the lyric itself, let's discuss the writers, composers, and the entertainer who made the song popular. Coot Grant and Kid Wilson. Much has been written about Bessie Smith, a sensational musician, so bear with me while I focus... Continue reading
Posted Oct 12, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 11, 2015