Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Aldon Lynn Nielsen
Bureau of Reclamation

Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone was from the outset a recovery and repositioning operation. Students of African American poetry were able to read that much from the title alone. In 1994, Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton had published their indispensable anthology, Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans sine 1945; just as our title supplied the riposte to the aphorism in that earlier title, our anthology was meant to tell the rest of that post-WWII story. It was a narrative that had gone absent without leave. If you look back to the flood of anthologies of black poetry that came with the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement, they tended to be eclectic, representing, as we’d say today, the full range of black poetic arts. There had been a falling off of anthology publication in the field in the wake of the Black Arts, followed by a resurgence with the rise of curricular multiculturalism in the academy. But a funny thing happened on the way to diversity; aesthetic diversity seemed to have disappeared along with the outer limits of radical politics in the poetry. While nobody would have thought to publish an anthology without a dash of Baraka, it was increasingly the case that Baraka’s aesthetically radical context was suppressed. And in the rush toward spoken word, even the outliers of performative poetics were subordinated to a heavily emotive plain song.

So the project that Lauri Ramey and I began had its rhetorical aspect. We made an anthology clearly meant to challenge the prevailing accounts of recent African American poetry’s history. Still, when the University of Alabama Press released the collection in 2006, we encountered nothing like the storm that lit up the social media upon the publication of more recent, more mainstream anthologies edited by Rita Dove and Charles Rowell. Our collection met with largely favorable reviews (though some were puzzling, like the one that wondered why we hadn’t included any of our own poetry in the volume), and there are to this day course adoptions here and there. I can’t help suspecting that the lack of controversy around Every Goodbye is largely attributable to the same phenomena that made our work necessary in the first place, a general lack of attention to African American verse that requires close attention, by poets who are not simply telling their audiences where to look.

That also may be why much of the work of preparing the anthology was far less fraught than what I know other editors have gone through. You have only to think about the permissions budget Yale University Press made available to the editor of The Anthology of Rap in comparison to the funding we had, $0, to see what we were up against. But as it turned out, the poets were the most generous people involved in the entire process. The vast majority of poets we approached asked only the traditional contributors’ copy of the book in return for publication rights. The small number of poets who did require fees charged ridiculously low rates, far less than even the “modest honoraria” (as it is always so amusingly put) paid to most of us who go to speak or read at college campuses. Most recognized that this was an entirely non-profit effort, meant to return their work to a context that had been pretty much buried for more than two decades. There were frustrations along the way. One poet whose work I felt essential chose that very moment to decide he no longer wanted to appear in anthologies. (And to his credit, he has stuck to that vow ever since.)

No, the real frustration was to spend months trying to track a poet down, only to find that artist was no longer among the living. Some had changed their names in the years since they’d first published poetry; a few had moved from poetry to other art forms, and other places. But many were dying even as we were writing to them. I remember speaking to Lorenzo Thomas, a major presence in the book, while I was trying to locate some of his fellow Umbra poets. Lorenzo told me that Tom Dent was the one Umbra alum who had really kept up with everybody else, but then Tom passed. Avant garde film maker and Village theater operator Aldo Tambolini phoned from out of the blue to confirm that Norman H. Pritchard had passed away. I still have been unable to trace the final years of the wondrous Oliver Pitcher, who was still active as a writer and teacher in Atlanta in the early 1970s, but then seems to have vanished.

Still, for each of those tragic losses, there were semi-miraculous reappearances. Former Umbra poet Leroy McLucas, who traveled as photographer with Ed Dorn on the journey that produced the book the The Shoshoneans, called from Texas, where he continues to work in photography. Jazz great Andrew Cyrille found one of the poets I’d told him I was looking for, who then called from New York to let me know that she was still there, but now went by Hanna Loftin rather than Elouise. Melvin Tolson, Jr., called up in response to a letter I’d sent to a very old address and authorized our inclusion of twenty pages of never previously published work by Melvin B. Tolson that I had uncovered in the Library of Congress. After our book was published, David Henderson ran into Umra poet Lloyd Addison and gave him my phone number, and after our conversations, Addison mailed me the entire run of his journal Beau Cocoa, about which I am still writing essays. From the outset, I had wanted to include a fine poem responding to a jazz concert written by Helen Quigless, a poem I had first seen I one of those Black Arts era anthologies, but I couldn’t seem to find anybody who knew anything about this poet. Then one day I was reading the lengthy acknowledgments to David Levering Lewis’s monumental biography of W.E.B. DuBois when, among hundreds of names, I saw “Helen Quigless.” I emailed Lewis and learned that he and Quigless were friends of very long standing. In response to my permission letter, I got a note from Quigless’s daughter, explaining that the poet had lost most of her vision, but was excited about the prospect of her poem being included in this collection. I received a phone call from that same daughter after the book appeared letting me know that Ms. Quigless had passed. It was only natural that I ask the daughter to tell me a bit more about her mother. Helen Quigless, it turned out, had been a university librarian for many years. “Where had she worked,” I asked. “Federal City College,” was the answer, the scene of my own undergraduate education. I asked the daughter to describe her mother, and suddenly realized Helen had been the woman who checked all those books of poetry out to me in the basement of that long ago building at 2nd and E streets, North West, in the nation’s capital. The daughter went on to tell me that she had just been preparing a box of materials to send to the University of the District of Columbia, FCC’s successor institution. The box included several tape recordings of a history professor that Quigless had known. “Who was it,” I asked, nervous with anticipation. “Some man from the Caribbean,” she ventured. “Not . . . C.L.R. James?” “Yes, that’s the name.” James, an amazing radical historian and philosopher from Trinidad, my own history professor and subject of one of my books.

In a way, Lauri and I had been documenting the most exciting revolution in poetics of my earlier life, so it should not surprise me that the story we were mapping out so often overlaid my own peregrinations. Still . . . 

Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone should be a far more controversial book than it has been to date, only because it stands as an open challenge to poetic business as usual. It should not be possible for scholars to discuss the epoch of the “New American Poetry” without referencing these poets, and yet many continue to do so. Only today I saw a Facebook post from someone asking for suggestions of texts that might be useful in discussing modernisms. The suggestions posted in the comments section were distressingly monocultural. It should not be possible for critics and readers to have the kind of controversy that greeted the recent publication by Norton of the anthology Angles of Ascent, with its strangely off sorting of poets into an inside and outside of the black arts, without constant rereading of the poets in Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone. (For that matter, even the presence in the Norton of a poet such as Lorenzo Thomas should have rendered that sorting unsustainable in the first place.)

I’d like to think of the collection Lauri Ramey and I edited as not only a project of preservation, but as a sort of aesthetic land mine waiting to go off. To hurry things along a bit, we are putting the finishing touches on a second collection outlining the evolution of black “experimental” poetries in the years since the late 1970s, the years in which, according to Trey Ellis, a New Black Aesthetic emerged; years in which, according to Kenneth Warren (the literary scholar, not the poet) African American literature ceased being African American literature. As always, the proof is in the poetics. Baraka long ago wrote of “How You Sound.” Our new anthology, What I Say, again from the University of Alabama Press, will chart a galaxy of responses to that central question.