The Dan Schneider Interview 5: James A. Emanuel (first posted 9/28/07)

Photograph Copyright © by Godelieve Simons

An Introduction   Key Links   The Interview   Bonus Essay


An Introduction to ‘The Man’


  This is the first time I am writing a brief Introduction to one of my interviews. This is because, of the first five interviewees: novelist Charles Johnson, philosopher Daniel Dennett, novelist/journalist Pete Hamill, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, and poet James Emanuel, Emanuel is clearly the least currently known. Partly this is due to his being a poet, that most demanding art that has more current practitioners than readers. But, he has also been oddly neglected- a situation I have started the ball rolling to change.

  While all of the first five interviewees have earned their fame via influential and/or excellent works, the fact is that this fifth DSI will likely be the most historically important one. This is not because this interview is leagues above the others, in terms of quality- although it is surely on par with the best of the rest, but because the four other writers have had so many interviews published in print and online, while this is the first and only in depth interview with this great writer. This adds to its truly historic literary significance, and will prove invaluable for scholars, historians, and researchers of the man’s art in the future.

  Simply put, imagine a near 16,000 word interview (nearly 12,000 of which are Emanuel’s musings) with Homer, Tu Fu, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, or Hart Crane, and yours being the only outlet for the world to read it in full. And on top of that, owning the original typed copy of this invaluable document! And given Emanuel’s age (he was born in 1921), the chances of his replicating this feat for anyone else are slim.

  While I have never met the man in person, I did have a rare chance to do an audio interview with the man and some of his ‘posse’ from Paris, France, back in February of 2003, for my now defunct Internet radio show Omniversica. While the link for that show is usually not working, sometimes it does; but I still have an audio CD of the show, which is also part of the Emanuel papers at the Library of Congress. It is a small part of my seemingly lifelong quest and battle with the forces of ignorance, selfishness, and plain old stupidity, yet one I do not relent in, for if I do, who will take up my mantle of trying to get good and great writers (myself and my wife included) into print, and keeping great writers like Emanuel from falling out of the public consciousness? After all, one would be hard pressed to name ten other poets of the last century who were the equal or superior to ‘The Man,’ and certainly it is impossible to name ten other poets from his homeland that fit that bill. Perhaps half, but that’s it.

  Aside from this print and the earlier audio interview, I have maintained (along with my wife Jessica) an intermittent contact with Emanuel via missive. His wit and wisdom are in abundant quality in the interview, and I wonder what gems his Collected Letters will one day generate? If they are anything like that contained in this interview, it will make for great reading, and a dozen or more new pages for Bartlett’s Great Quotations. Don’t believe me? Sample these mere ten quotes from this interview:


  I cannot imagine my past life without poetry, since that would require a massive negative effort; but, given the absence of poetry, some kind of creative literature would have replaced it.


  If a poem came to me fully made, I would have to change it as the words took shape on paper, assuming paper to be its final imprinted surface, because the final creator, thinking as his hand (or machine part) approached the paper, might conceive of an improved word or punctuation mark. Such is the prerogative, the necessity of the creator at work: to bring the product at hand to a state of perfection.


  A real writer is lucky to find enough time to write, and he will not complain when The Muse is out to lunch. Even without a spade, he will dig in.


  Certain Black people (the list is probably growing), wheeler-dealers at heart or wheel horses in the political fields, deserve infamy (or some lesser but firmly negative censure) for their cooperation in deliberately damaging the careers or interests of other Black individuals whose racial or personal principles (professional or otherwise) have been considered inappropriate by a member or members of a self-appointed Blacker-Than-Thou group. I regard them, in theory, as framers of the Black Blacklist, destined, if not stopped, to rival McCarthyism in exposing its ill will and malice. Any Black intellectuals found in this group of bushwhackers are not where they are supposed to be.


  If talent is a curse, I say, curse back at it and keep on going in the direction that calls you most urgently.


  Concerning the literary critic, biography in hand, he has learned his homework backwards: to know a poet’s life is not to know his poetry; to know a poet’s poetry is to know his life—to the extent that such knowledge is possible. A great tiny poem, like a grand cathedral, stands alone, kept upright by worldwide air.


  The cycle of sneering, acceptance, and canonization is typical of small-spirited observers doing the only work that suits their nature, the work that always leaves open that higher road taken by only a few. Those few are the makers and pronouncers of literary history, without whom mankind would bequeath only mortality and silence to future readers.


  For years, in first approaching the very small children of friends, children not old enough to talk, sometimes I have asked them questions that they could not answer, questions about politics or philosophy; then I have looked at them earnestly, unsmiling, as if their expected reply were important to me. No baby-talk, no coo-cooing. Without variation, their responses have been “adult”: serious, almost struggling to help me in my problem. That means something about discourse.


  If an otherworldly alien should ask me, without seeing me, to describe myself, I would, for practical reasons, first tell him I was brown-skinned (hoping that he spoke English), then tell him my height, weight, and the color and appearance of my hair and clothing. Then he would know as much as the average American would know in similar circumstances. The American, however, would think that he had learned more—because of the skin-color.


  Nowadays I see little in political men that appeals me. Black or not, they are not my kind.


  Ok, now that your lust has been whetted, read the whole thing and enjoy.


Key Links to James Emanuel online:


The Not So Strange Emanuel Case: Dan Schneider’s seminal essay that introduced Emanuel to the cyber-lovers of poetry.


Dan Schneider essay on Whole Grain: The Collected Poems Of James A. Emanuel.


Dan Schneider’s essay on masculine poetry, featuring an in depth analysis of James Emanuel’s For The 4th Grade Prospect School: How I Became A Poet.


Some Emanuel poems from Cosmoetica’s Neglected Poets pages.


Jessica Schneider blogpost on James Emanuel.


Audio interview with James Emanuel from the Omniversica radio show (usually the link is unfortunately defunct, although it occasionally still works).


NPR feature on James Emanuel, with commentary from Dan Schneider.


Russian fansite.


Whinza Ndoro on James Emanuel.


Josh Rouan on James Emanuel.


Neil Hester on James Emanuel.


Bonus: The full text of The Many Emanuels, by Dan Schneider, reprinted from the private edition of 7 Profiles Of James Emanuel.


The Interview


DS: This month, we are speaking with poet James A. Emanuel. In my mind, you are one of the greatest published poets of the 20th Century- and likely the most neglected, critically, and perhaps the only one still alive that I have confidence will still be read a century or more from now. Yet, you are not well known in the country of your birth, having spent the last several decades living abroad in France. I came upon your book of collected poems, Whole Grain: Collected Poems: 1958-1989, about a decade ago, and immediately knew that the work was great and would last. Yet, as often happens, the accolades due to a great artist are often not forthcoming in his lifetime. Over the years I also purchased a few other of your books, including volumes of poetry and your autobiography, The Force And The Reckoning.

  A few years ago I wrote what was likely the first online piece of criticism about your work, and since then there have been a few other blossoms of information about you. My acquaintance with you, since then, has been via postal mail and through your French translator, Jean Migrenne. But, before we get started on questioning you about your work and life, let me allow you the opportunity to introduce yourself to future readers. Please give us a synopsis of who you are, what you’ve done in your life, what your goals were (and if you feel you’ve achieved them), and also your place in the poetic firmament.


JAE: To those who know little about me, I am James A. Emanuel, poet, author of Dark Symphony, a man who lives in Paris and who used to be a professor of literature. They probably know I am African American. What have I done in my life? For a synopsis, I cannot surpass the “Autobiographical Page” (page 117) in the art book 7 Profiles of James Emanuel (Brussels: Grav’I Sim, 2006). I quote from that page here:

My ever-eastward-moving life, from the cowboy-and-Indian country of my youth in Nebraska to the heady glamour of Paris, can only be glimpsed here. Racism, new to my daily thoughts at eighteen, darkened my self-image as top student in high school, for frowning white-collar refusals marred my job-by-job struggles (once as a junkyard worker) from flat prairies to Washington D.C. There my climb to normal living (with racism) was ended by war-zone assignments as an infantry sergeant. Back in the capital, I decided, frankly, to stop chasing girls and sit down to study. Sixteen years later, in New York in 1962, after constant mixtures of studies and jobs, I had a Ph.D. from Columbia (following an M.A. from Northwestern and a B.A. from Howard), as well as a wife and an eight-year old son in an I.G.C. school (for “intellectually gifted children”).

One can see some of the fruits of my next 44 years as items and numbers in the Primary Sources in my 7-page “Partial Bibliography” (composed in 2005): 13 poetry books, 10 works in others’ books, 17 works in journals, 7 interviews of me on radio and in journals and 1 on Internet (by transatlantic phone), 46 poems integrally in engravings by Godelieve Simons on exhibit, 131 poetry readings since 1991, 4 videotaped readings, and 26 lectures and courses on African American literature, 1968-1994. The 17 items in the Secondary Sources of this unpublished bibliography reveal more of “what I have done in my life,” including the publication of my two pioneer books, Langston Hughes (1967)—the first full book-length study of this great writer by an American—and Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, done with Theodore Gross (1968). I received a rare award for Dark Symphony: a kiss from one of two university teachers who told me separately that the book had been their “bible.” As for my The Force and the Reckoning (2001), one first-rate scholar (Michael Fabre, the French expert on African American literature) believes that there is no other book similar to it. Its sections present autobiography, poems, poem drafts, 76 photos, travel notes (on India, China, Thailand, Turkey, and less exotic countries), and bibliography.

My goal always was to become one of the best while remaining true to myself. I came close enough in the first case. I made it in the second.


DS: To the lay reader, an artist who is great summons up images of a young Mozart, or some prodigy, for whom all the world is a plaything. Were you extremely gifted as a young child? Did you have a way with words? Even though it takes some years to ‘find’ poetry, in retrospect both Jessica and I always had a way with words. If not writing, did you have other talents, artistically or not?


JAE: As a child I was stubborn, intelligent, athletic, and sensitive to physical beauty. I liked words that, as time went by, imaged or otherwise expressed beauty, courage, tough goodness, loyalty, strength appropriately used, and other virtues. As for intelligence, I have viewed it, like Chaucer, as “slyding”: although it has enabled the evolution of an amazingly efficient and technologically comfortable world, it has—when used selfishly—helped brutalize the earth and make the most generous of human virtues seem either unnatural or naïve. My own experience with intelligence has deepened my ambivalence: even though I received straight A’s in all my courses in school from the eighth grade in Alliance, Nebraska through the end of my studies for my M.A. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois—Columbia University in New York City required no grades for Ph.D. – level courses—all that diversified tasking of my brain never soothed or modified my constant impression that I knew little about most things. Other talents? I penciled many silhouettes of Indians and cowboys, framing some; and nobody of approximately my age could excel me in a footrace.


DS: Were you aware of your own creativity as a child, or was that something you came to learn as your interests developed more? Did you have any other creative outlets besides poetry and writing?


JAE: “Creative outlets” were rare to us children of the Great Depression of the 1930’s; but I made a viola out of a cigar box (and played it); turned junkyard rubble into a scooter, hockey stick, and Mexican-gang-friendly wooden pistol; and cut a wishfully discreet movable “door” in our own plywood front room wall where I could crawl through to space unrented by our landlord, a tiny room where I could be alone at night with my kerosene lamp and school homework. Here I worked prodigiously on a problem given to me by my geometry teacher, a Miss Hartley: to trisect a triangle. Sorrowfully and impatiently, after doing impossible things with her teachings, I learned the extent of her confidence in me: she told me that no one had yet managed to do the job by using geometrical principles.

As for poetry and writing during my childhood, I have a few solid memories. The Omaha Bee newspaper paid me $5 at age 11 for an article (“Going Up!” I called it) on new construction in Alliance. In was, earlier, entranced by 2 lines of poetry that read: “I saw you [the wind] toss the kites on high/ and blow the birds across the sky.” I had seen exactly that. At 12, I wrote a letter to a firm in another state, asking for technical data on equipment needed for a diary farm I wanted to start up; and I asked for butterfat-yield data on Holstein versus other breeds of cows. I received a letter from a salesman saying he was coming to Alliance to talk with me. On the date involved, after spending all day in the library, I came home to hear my mother say, “James, did you write a letter…?” The salesman, I learned, had been astounded to hear her say, “But he’s only a boy. He’s just twelve.”


DS: You are a native of the state of Nebraska. One generally does not think of a black family or community in such a part of the country, especially in the 1920s, when you were born. Did your family emigrate there from another part of the nation? Do you know your genealogy? Were your ancestors Exodusters, such as many of the ex-slave communities that cropped up in the nearby state of Kansas? Did anyone else in your clan have any talent with words, or any of the other arts?


JAE: I remember my mother once saying, “Oh, Pap Singleton. He didn’t amount to much.” So she must have been with the Exodusters. Oddly, a whole phrase comes back to me, probably imperfectly: Beryl S. Decker, Negro Digest, May 1965, The Lost Pioneers. Strange. That essay says that my maternal grandfather, Wade Mance, was minister to such pioneers in the Badlands section of northwest Nebraska, where my father’s land was nicknamed Emanuel’s Desert. In Alliance I knew families with Exoduster names: Speese, Shore, Meehan, et al. Another branch of my family moved from Luxemborg to Rochester, N.Y.

Closer to home, my oldest sister, Julia, studied singing classical music; my second oldest sister, Janet, could play Chopin on our piano with no training that I remember; my sister just above me, Gladys, was co-editor and finally sole editor of Growing up Black in Denver; my younger sister, Christine, was a very good dancer; my younger brother, Alvin, studied painting  (could paint beautiful sunsets); and my older brother, Raymond, without any special training, became labor supervisor of a major construction company. Julia, who (like her mother) did not often praise people, once told Christine, “Whenever you walk through a school door in Denver, remember that it was probably Raymond who built it.”


DS: What are your views on writing and reading? Today, many young writers simply want to write without any reading of the classics. What are your views on such sorts of writers?


JAE: I have read every book in the Alliance Public Library—except those for girls, which I would not touch, being macho as a boy. A writer-to-be must read, must get the feel of words. I can still see and hear the three Alliance and Denver teachers who read fiction and fables to us as part of their lessons; and my mother gathered her seven children around her, on the floor and on chairs, as she read masterfully from the Bible. As Bulwer-Lytton said, “With words we rule men.” Just so, we rule ourselves, which is more difficult and more important. Some 17th century British writer said correctly, “Reading maketh a full man and writing maketh an exact man.” It is good to be both.


DS: Several other writers of quality have come from Nebraska, yet, like you, they have not fully gotten their due. I speak of the poets Weldon Kees and John G. Neihardt- who was most famed for the book Black Elk Speaks, as well as the naturalist and essayist Loren Eiseley. Are you aware of their work? Why do you think your state has had such quality writers not get their due?


JAE: I taught one or two essays by Eiseley while on duty at The City College of New York because I admired their content and style of expression; and I know Neihardt by reputation only. I will find out something about Kees, simply as a result of your question.

            Nebraska resembles other states—and nations in general—in entrusting human reputations to putative authorities, literary critics in this case. A very competent New York City colleague of mine, in writing to me, gave this honest opinion of a well-known critic: “She would not know a good poem if she saw one.” In order to be seen, a good poem must be published; and in order to be known for its excellence, it must be studied and recommended by persons capable of understanding its merits and willing to do so. Racial prejudice and racial pride have long tainted the spirits of most Americans. I never thought that my Nebraskan heritage would either help or hinder me as a poet; but I have firmly believed, since 1989, that my particular African American mentality has inclined some African American critics to ignore my works, despite my status as a pioneer, an ancestor.

            I turn from this complex matter remembering that one African American librarian said, “Ralph Ellison is not a Black writer.”


DS: In your youth, did you have adults or teachers who recognized that you were brighter than most other kids (as great artists are) and encourage you? Or did they not notice anything at all? Were you one of those Albert Einstein types, whose real prowess did not emerge until years later? Were you aware of your own intelligence/ability and if so, did you feel any kind of separation from the other kids your age? This could be even just a heightened sense of awareness that you only recognized you had once you were older.


JAE: During my earliest years in school in Alliance, teachers encouraged me in various ways (children recognize subtle signals coming from everywhere). I was, indeed, aware of my ability, and this awareness did not carry with it any feeling of separation from other children of my age. (When I recall that there were almost no African American children in Alliance schools, I renew my belief that racial antagonism is manufactured by adults for selfish reasons, entraining untold miseries. This lack of any sense of separation from others made it natural for me to function for many years, much later on, as a university teacher in the U.S.A. and in Europe with almost no students of my race until the last few years of my working career in New York, when the “Open Enrollment” policy allowed more minority students in the classrooms.) If you have extra prowess, your duty is to do extra work, so that mankind as a whole will be elevated. “There is no excellence without labor,” taught my mother; and Thomas Carlyle before her had written, “Work while it is called day, for the night cometh, wherein no man may work.”


DS: As a poet, you’ve succeeded in both free verse and form. Which did you come to first? Which do you feel you’ve succeeded the most at? Did you simply lack an urge to write prose- fictive or otherwise? Did you ever long to write the Great American Novel? After all, your early adulthood was the age of the novelist as superstar in American Letters- from Norman Mailer to Saul Bellow to Richard Wright to Carson McCullers.


JAE: Prosaic forms, like simple couplets and quatrains, first attracted me, perhaps because they give pleasure to our flesh-and-bone selves while luring our minds into new regions where minds talk to themselves. Free verse, singing its own name, should bring challenge into a writer’s workroom, the challenge to shape his own body’s rhythms into line-lengths, to meld his own voice and tones into the ambiance of the poem, harnessing and disciplining all its parts into a product of a single imagination. In a special sense, I do not fail in writing a poem: I always do the best I can with it. “The best I can” is always my destination, so I never check my bags at Halfway Hotel, even if they contain only drafts of a poem. Once I consider a poem finished, I never read it again, except to time it or to present it to an audience.

            As for fiction, it preceded poetry in attracting me as a writer. In 1939, when I was an “enrollee” in the CCC Camp at Wellington, Kansas, I published a “short short” in the camp’s newspaper, a piece of fiction in the style of Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett. Moving the next year to Des Moines, Iowa, I expanded my Kansas efforts by writing thousands of words of fiction: detective stories and murder mysteries (an icicle was once the murder weapon), usually with Mike Hammer-like “gumshoes.” I destroyed all those works as not good enough—while earning $5.82 per week as an elevator operator. The summer after my freshman year at Howard University (1947, in a small room in New York with no windows), I finished a novel called Vengeance Is Mine and a volume of poetry called Dreamspots. Pearl Buck had already read the first two chapters of the novel when she passed though Howard where she told students interested in writing, “If the rest of the novel is as good as the first two chapters, it’s a good novel.” (I had already left Howard for Chicago.) Later I sent the novel to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, who returned it in an envelope that I refused to open and read its negative reply. The letter said, in effect, I learned years later, “We do not feel that we can publish this novel, but be sure to send us your next one.” As for the 95 or more pages of poems in Dreamspots, no one has ever seen them.


DS: What poets first captured your imagination? Was it the Romantics? Has writing poetry helped you understand more of the cosmos? Or just what others sense, but with more clarity? Will you name some of the early writers you read in your youth, specifically those that piqued your interest enough to say, “I can do that,” and made you want to pursue writing?


JAE: The poets who first captured my imagination, since that happened when I was but a child, were probably not very good poets, but were sensitively literate with uncomplicated imaginations—like Robert Louis Stevenson. I simply read poetry for pleasure in the Alliance Public Library, just as I read western and sports novels, year after year while attending junior high and high school. I did not come to grips intellectually with poetry until my second year in college, when I took a course in 17th century English literature. Then John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and a few others made me realize what a poem could be. I favored even more the Romantics when I studied them later at Northwestern University: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and “little fly” Blake became names and works not to be forgotten.

            The most fascinating poets (as I must call them) were those who wrote such magical lines as those in The Twenty-Third Psalm, floating to us seven children as she read calmly.

            What has my writing poetry helped me understand? It verifies my belief that unity, oneness is the only principle that will sustain life (Black people in the 1960s and 1970s called it “togetherness” in their buoyant application of the word to their heightened appreciation).

            Words and ideas seemingly privileged do not flow easily from a poet’s pen. First they must pass through customs.


DS: How do you think the desire to write poetry has affected your ability to communicate with others in everyday life? Do you find that it has made you more pointed and direct in dealing with others?


JAE: Assuming, for the moment, that the desire to write poetry has been accompanied by my writing it, I believe that this writing has injected a certain amount of poetical style into my daily speech. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for that verbal customs barrier mentioned elsewhere is always in service, except in cases in which the speaker or writer is a babbler or a pathologically handicapped person. Since the brain works faster than the tongue, normally, an entertaining rhyme or a felicitous phrase can be a recurring part (without repetition) of a poet’s conversation. Since poets are accustomed to judging the nuances in many words that they reject while composing a poem, they have a richer vocabulary than most people in those tight little situations that none of us can avoid.

            Surely people in command of a vocabulary both carefully subtle and vigorous, even streetwise—not rare for poets—are equipped to fend for themselves in handling motions of the lower jaw.

            In general, I have had no problems in communicating with people, since my various jobs and job locations have placed me face-to-face with an uncommon variety of human beings: farmers, part-time laborers, junkyard workers, secretarial staff members, typists, army generals, university students and professors (in different countries), metropolitan newspaper staff members, and others—including wartime soldiers.


DS: Without the effects that poetry has brought to your life, where do you think your life would have ended up? Most people views such things in a zero sum sort of way. Do you feel that a love of poetry has made you happier, as a person, or do you think that artists- as the cliché goes, are more sensitive, thus more prone to pessimism, if not depression?


JAE: I cannot imagine my past life without poetry, since that would require a massive negative effort; but, given the absence of poetry, some kind of creative literature would have replaced it. My bibliography shows that. The fact of what I have accomplished against demoralizing odds, coupled with the fact that I loathe giving up after starting to achieve something important to me indicates that I was meant to be a writer.

            “Happy” and its related forms are words that I never use, since they seem to refer to nonexistent states. I have never thought of myself as a happy person, but I certainly do not consider myself sad or depressed. A walk around a city block will reveal more than one person who more surely belongs in that category.

            Artistic people are probably more likely to give in to pessimism; but their act of giving in is grist for their mill: they will turn their slow surrender into a work of art, an additional character in a play under consideration, or a poem. They might seem a little quirky now and then, but they tend to be resilient; they bounce back and land on their feet. Dammed up feelings, as all psychologists (and pseudo-psychologists) tell us, cause much trouble. Even inapt poetry and slipshod art lessen the damage caused by such tensions.


DS: In her youth, Jessica was never encouraged, but in looking back she could see glimpses of artistic tendencies, even if it involved her non-conformist personality. This isn’t to imply that alone makes one creative, of course, but she thinks she had it in her nature. Did you sense such things, and did you have artistic comrades in your youth? Often, one reads of great artists who are parts of cliques of other quality artists? Were you ever in such a group, or are you a loner? How do you think that set of circumstances affected your development as an artist?


JAE: Perhaps youthful tendencies will remain somewhat mysterious. If so, we should be thankful, for the high and mighty are constantly alert to the possibility of turning every advance in knowledge into an opportunity to benefit themselves in some heartless and selfish manner. When, as a boy, I saw my sisters making mud pies, I scowled at the neat but inevitably dirty creations as girlish foolery; but I admired the dark, shiny surfaces of the “pies” and thought of similar-sized pancakes aglow with maple syrup.

            With my friend A.D. Meehan (Exoduster-related), I used burlap bags to fashion cowboy-style “chaps”—for protection of the legs against mesquite, etc. found in the Badlands—and turned wooden laths into stick-horses with crayon-made faces. With my friend Neil Winegar, I fashioned—or helped him fashion—airplanes that would fly for several seconds. As for groups, my poem A Poet Does Not Choose To Run reveals my portrait, or part of it, of a poet at work in 1966:

                                    He sits in silence,

                                    His pledge to rearrange

                                    The clues of some wild track,

                                    Trail it lonely out,

                                    And lone come back.


DS: Even if you were not part of an artistic school, did you have regular fiends and contacts with whom to commiserate over the arts? Who were some of the artists you knew that you admired, and why?


JAE: Perhaps some fault of my memory makes me say that I do not remember having any artistic friends in Alliance, the hometown that I left when I was seventeen. Already I liked—as Shelley had called it—“tranquil solitude.” In the CCC Camp in Wellington, Kansas, where I then went, my solitariness diminished rapidly, because I was chosen to run the company store and to have charge of the recreation hall. Having charge of the mail also, I knew everyone. I learned how to shoot pool, dance, wear “high drape” trousers, and “trip” the “rec hall” music machine to play free songs for girls whom I favored when Wichita visitors came to the camp. As for artistic progress, I wrote some short fiction, getting some commentary from Bill Frye, a hepcat with whom I was friendly: he wondered why I “killed off” a sympathetic character in a story published in the camp’s mimeographed newspaper of a sort.

            Strangely perhaps, I personally knew no artists or writers before coming to France and Belgium. The Belgian engraver Godelieve Simons, excellent in her work, has been an intimate friend since 1990. Michael Fabre, the foremost French critic of African American literature, and his wife Geneviève have been my constant friends since 1969. I met my friend the late Ted Joans in Lagos, Nigeria, at FESTAC ’77 and we later shared some poetry readings. Another African American writer, novelist Jake Lamar, after his arrival in Paris in 1993, shared some readings with me and Ted Joans. The three of us, as well as others, like the late photographer and poet Hart Leroy Bibbs, often met at what we called “Ted’s café,” Le Rouquet. Ted, Jake, and Bibbs were all interesting: Ted, who seemed to have been everywhere and known everybody, the surrealist-beat Black poet; Bibbs, whose camera knew the phantoms secreted by colors; and Jake, the Harvard-trained young novelist whose star was rising fast.


DS: In The Force And The Reckoning, there is a photo of your large family, mostly sisters. Were you close to your siblings growing up, or did a part of you feel a disconnection from them because of your creativity? Or were any of them artistically inclined as well, perhaps any who you could converse with on an artistic level? If so, did any of them pursue careers in the arts?


JAE: Although I liked my brothers and sisters, I was not particularly close to any of them. The two who were younger than I was seemed like small children to me, and my two oldest sisters seemed distant actually because of their age. My brother Raymond was closest: he was not a girl; he could hunt rabbits and ducks with me; he by brute necessity, gathered coal fallen from cars in the rail-road yards, sharing with me this regular task in winters (a task which I resentfully called stealing, even though it was a risk, a sacrifice, “to keep my sisters warm,” as I later thought of it).

            As for their artistic leanings, I have described them elsewhere, now simply hinted at: the classical-music orientation and talents of Julia and Janet; the dancing of Christine; the paintings of Alvin; the architectural skills of Raymond; and the literary bent of Gladys. Christine, incidentally, followed me to Washington, D.C., where, although at first she was afraid to board a streetcar alone, she learned—partly because I made myself constantly available to her, she now claims—to make her own way in Big Town.

            My three older sisters, Julia, Janet, and Gladys, sang so beautifully as a trio that they were invited to sing on the radio in Denver; but my mother decided not to let them go. I believe they could have become as famous as The Andrews Sisters.


DS: Did religion play a part in your youth? If so, what denomination were you? Are you religious now, or are you an agnostic or atheist? Some artists claim art is their religion. Where on the spectrum do you fall? If you are not religious, do you believe in The Muse, or some other force that compels art from you? If you are religious, to what extent does that inform your art? And is your art then somehow a separate entity from your everyday living. Are you, as example, an artist when you shop for groceries, or when you watch television? These may seem silly questions, but many artists and philosophers have expended much energy over these conundra.


JAE: My mother’s father, Wade Mance, having been a minister to Exoduster-related pioneers in Nebraska, she was a follower of the Methodist tradition before becoming a Christian Scientist. At the age of twenty-one, in Washington D.C. during World War II, I lost forever my confidence in organized religion. During an air raid drill, a friend and I attempted to take shelter in the nearest public building, which was the duty of every citizen. It was a church. When the minister opened the door and saw that we were Black, he slammed the door in our faces. My friend was James Wesley, then a Howard University student, later Chief of Cardiology in Harlem Hospital in New York.

            Religion comes close to my thoughts now only in one way: I believe that I personally am not supposed to do wrong to any person, according to my understanding of what wrong is. What other people think about this attitude of mine is irrelevant.

            Since my lack in ordinary religion comes directly from my experience, that gap is not a gap at all; it is a positive force that helps organize my thoughts and actions. In my creative process, it gives moral cohesiveness to ideas obvious or nascent in the poem and sometimes adds a rather rough honesty to the tone.

            It seems unwise to slam a door in a man’s face: there is always another word to say.


DS: You were raised in Nebraska, but did you grow up in a rural environment? How do you think that has affected your outlook on life and art? Oftentimes, artists who grow up in a particular place develop tendencies and outlooks influenced by their surroundings- be it the Outback of Australia, the urbanity of New York, London, or some other metropolis, or life in the mountains, or near the sea. The most famous example might be recently deceased Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s notoriously dour take on life, influenced by the climate and seasonal extremes of Scandinavia.


JAE: Growing up in the Badlands gave me stained boots to stand on when I needed them while living and working in larger towns in Iowa and Illinois as a teenager and later in Washington, Chicago, and New York. I remember the names of Nebraska farmers and ranchers for whom I raked manure and rode horseback (Batt, Harris, Krejci, and Worley); but I forget the names of co-workers at the Chicago Defender (except for that of Charles P. Browning, who used newcomer-me to run errands and go out to buy cigars for him—even though he also had me decide, and mark in the texts of speeches, places where the publisher who owned the newspaper should pause when delivering the speeches). Memories of my different rural environments help me believe in the durability of mankind.

            Thomas Mann once said, or wrote, that writers and artists have a mark on their brows. If so, it probably comes from particular images that linger there, becoming a set which psychologists call a “mental set,” a readiness to perceive a certain way, a particular anticipation. A farmer might smell rain in dust before it comes; a city dude might sense that a plainclothesman is a cop. To me, laughter tends to be a city image (not always happy), but a sugar beet is a rural thing, like a tumbleweed.

            When a person asks me where I am from, I do not know how to reply. When an American asks me “When were you home last?” I reply, “A couple of hours ago.”


DS: You spent some time in the military. What years did you serve? How did your time in service go? How has that helped shape your art? You also worked for General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. Few people today know of him, but he was one of the key figures in American military history, especially during the 1930s and 1940s, and for Black Americans. What insights can you give into his life and your working relationship with him?


JAE: From 1944 to 1946, I was a soldier in he Philippine Islands and New Guinea. I was an infantry sergeant when the war ended. I was supposed to become an officer; but, although I received the highest grade in an exam meant to pinpoint candidates for Officer Training School (Captain Richard F. Kane, from New York, told me this at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, saying “You’ll make a fine officer”), I was put on the USS General A.E. Anderson for a 36-day submarine-dodging trip to Manila. My poem Dark Soldier, written on the ship, was placed on the bulletin board by an officer.

            Before joining the Army, I was, at the age of twenty, the “confidential secretary” of General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. in the War Department in Washington. The first African American general in the U.S.A, then a member of President Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, he was the subject of my brief essay in 7 Profiles of James Emanuel, edited by Godelieve Simons in 2006.  He told his daughter Eleanor, I learned, that I “was the best secretary [he] ever had.” I remember telling him, at his desk in the office adjoining mine, that I had decided to join the Army; whereupon he offered to get me a privileged military job. I paused, then said, “I’ll take my chances with the men in the field.” He smiled and said, “The way you express yourself makes me feel very good about you.” He was a model of integrity, the first gentleman that I ever knew.


DS: You later spent some time in Academia, before decamping for life in Europe. When and why did you finally emigrate, and is there an active society of artists that you have interacted with in your years abroad? Are you better known in Europe than America? If so, what is there about the French culture that has been so welcoming to Black American artists?


JAE: I left the U.S.A, in 1984. The general reason was that the racial climate there was intolerable to me personally, regardless of what other African Americans might have thought or written. The immediate reason for my departure was the most abysmal tragedy of my life, and I never speak of it. It is summarized adequately in a review of my book The Force and the Reckoning in American Book Review (Jan.-Feb. 2002), in the opening paragraph of which Victoria A. Chevalier mentions my “self-imposed exile prompted by a tragedy of unspeakable proportions, the police-assisted suicide of his son James Emanuel, Jr., in January 1983.”

            The fact that I tend to be a loner is indicated by my not having sought out a society of poets or artists here in Paris. I did associate, some years ago, with a group interested in art and music (called A.M.E., I think, led by a charming lady, Linda de Nazelle), but it no longer exists.

            As for my reputation, I suppose that I am better known in Europe then in the U.S.A., especially if one considers the many cities in which I have given lectures on African American literature and read my poetry and held discussions with students (as a real pioneer) in different regions of Africa, in Australia, in Iceland, all over Europe, and in places that I do not often think of now. Black American critics tend to ignore my 60-odd years of poetry production and other services—although a few American friends have complimented me in writing—but summer-study groups coming to Paris are young people who find me a “discovery” and appreciate my efforts. A group from Syracuse University in New York has just given me, after a poetry reading on my birthday, 14 June, a 45cm x 60cm mounted picture frame bearing their signatures as a border around a Happy Birthday poem (a haiku) that they and I had composed after the reading at Café Flore. The last line reads, “Thanks for all you do” (five syllables, correct for a haiku).

            Concerning Black American artists in France, the sadly ironic difference between their treatment in France and “at home” is that in France they can walk down the street believing that they are looked upon as being just like other people. When that perception seems to be different, they do not expect it to be a disadvantage.


DS: You place great emphasis on craft in your work, and this is something that is lacking in contemporary published poetry. Are you a perfectionist? In later years you’ve turned to the haiku form. Have you simply run out of things to say in free verse or sonnets?


JAE: I am a perfectionist only in those situations which perfection is both possible and desirable in my opinion. Much published poetry is mediocre because the poets concerned cannot improve upon it or will not try to do so. Commercial publishers accelerate this downgrade. Some editors assist the decline because they either do not like poetry (like some teachers) or share the cash-and-carry mentality of those in front of the office assembly line.

            Just as discipline is most needed when freedom is first won, my turn to free verse at the end of the 1960s entailed a conscious struggle to fuse widening subjects with what might be called “veteran” form. Like the boxer who knows when to shift from dancing jabs to a strong right hook, the veteran in free verse knows when an anapest or two cannot do the job of a well-chosen monosyllable.

            What I want to say in poetry (what I want to present or picture, rather) has little to do with form, for I could use a sonnet to present the Harlem street jive, dig? Some time ago, the following line in iambic pentameter could have opened a sonnet: “Had only ink to drink for many brights.” As for the haiku form, its subjects are unlimited. I turned to it because of its unusual challenge to say much in little, to waste no word, to find and express the possibilities of beauty in all of creation.


DS: I’ve met two basic types of writers, regardless of prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, etc. There are sculptors, who crank out reams of words, then pare back, the way Auguste Rodin once mentioned that his sculptures were always there, and he just removed whatever material needed to reveal them. Then there are builders, who slowly build up their tales or poems in every revision. Do you slowly accrete ideas, words, images? Or does a poem almost come to you fully made? Or do you pare back?


JAE: If a poem came to me fully made, I would have to change it as the words took shape on paper, assuming paper to be its final imprinted surface, because the final creator, thinking as his hand (or machine part) approached the paper, might conceive of an improved word or punctuation mark. Such is the prerogative, the necessity of the creator at work: to bring the product at hand to a state of perfection.

            Olympic champions who have nothing to do with poetry understand why it took me seven years of thinking to write the sixteen lines in Emmett Till, so terrible were the true images that inspired its creation; they might guess why the last eight lines of “The Treehouse” would not come until two years passed. My mother, during her final years as a licensed Christian Science practitioner, used to say, “God’s man is perfect.” Even then on my way to ambivalence toward established religion, I thought that “God’s man”—whatever she meant by that—did not exist. I now add the consequent idea: perfection (if God’s man is an authentic example of it) does not exist; and poetry need not be judged by what does not exist. Moving in this deep water, I return to the moment of creation, when the poet’s whole life and being—the truth and beauty in it—has this instant to impress itself judgmentally on what is passing as its best particular expression.


DS: Do you believe in The Muse? Divine Inspiration? I find that many artists use the idea of a Muse or Divine Inspiration as a crutch for times when their productivity is fallow. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. Any opinions?


JAE: Having just looked up the word being in the dictionary, I must say that I do believe in The Muse—not as a daughter of Mnemosyne, but as a writer’s selective inbreathing from his total environment, a reserve of images and ideas that he imbibes whenever he finds time to write. The words fallow and unseeded do not mean dead, just as the brain of a sleeping man is not totally inactive.

            Poetry and fiction are always around us, waiting to be seized upon, jostled and cradled into new beings. The extra thought not energized, the extra step not willed drops the halfway writer into the category of the fond parents in an old cartoon bearing the words, “We first knew he was a genius when we saw him reading without moving his lips.” A real writer is lucky to find enough time to write, and he will not complain when The Muse is out to lunch. Even without a spade, he will dig in.


DS: Why do you think so many artists believe that politics take precedence over artistic quality? One need only be familiar with the work of a John Dryden, and his courtly intrigues, to see how irrelevant much of his poetry is today, while contemporaries like John Donne or John Milton wrote poems that still can reach a modern audience. Your poems, while they have social significance (such as the one on Emmett Till), are not what most would call ‘political’. I.e.- whatever political impact they have does not overwhelm the craft. Therefore your poetry does not date as poorly as that of many other ‘political poets.’ That’s not to say that if a political poem is well crafted that it can’t work, but if there is only politics and poor art, then the poem will no longer be ‘timeless’ which is a quality all great poetry has. One can read the best poems of Walt Whitman and they are as fresh as the day they were written yet one can also read a poorly crafted poem on the Vietnam War that will seem dated. It’s all in the approach that makes something work. Do you agree?


JAE: I agree that politically approved poems are not necessarily praiseworthy as poems, just as an excellent subject cannot guarantee a good poem. There is no formula that, scrupulously followed, will produce first-rate poetry. As a high-school athlete in Alliance, Nebraska, I wanted to excel in more than just the high jump and the broad jump, in which events I was the school’s hope during track meets with rival schools. I practiced, zealously following the instructions of our coach, chemistry teacher Mr. Binfield. I planted my right elbow precisely against my right hip, tested the heft of the seven-pound steel ball as I rocked it back and forth against my hipbone, pointed my straightened left arm at the horizon, finished with the partial turns and hops and thrusting right arm that lanced the ball upward and forward through the air. Mr. Binfield, after a practice session or two, smiled and said, “James, your style is perfect, but you haven’t got the poop.” He meant that my body was not big enough, heavy enough, for the shot-put event.

            Every poem has, one might say, both body and spirit, the body being its lines of words, the spirit being the “feeling-thought” produced by what is done with them. The name that I give to this spirit implies the creative aim as I see it: no thought without feeling, no feeling without thought. This balance, in a person as in a poem, is harmonious and pleasing.


DS: And do you think your desire to put art before politics has resulted, (at least in the short term) in your current critical neglect? Has your refusal to be a ‘political whore’ aided to your cold shouldering by the American poetry establishment? And what effect has your de facto self-segregation via living in France had upon your work’s reception? And, do you have any regrets over some of your career moves? Have you ever ranked your own poems against each other, or graded them on a 1 to 100 scale, or mediocre to good to great? If so, which poems do you consider your Top 5?


JAE: If I had valued politics over art—as I could have done in my first and only immersion in politics, in the spring of 1966 in Mt. Vernon, New York—I have good reason to believe that I would have risen high in the political arena. I discovered in that campaign of what I grew to call the “civil rights wars,” that both ordinary African American and middle-class white people would be in my camp to resolve the issue of education. More important to me personally, I wound up with the notion that if I had political power I would be ruthless in dealing with small-minded, selfish people. Not wanting to encourage that latent strain in my character, I have refused other requests—my Mt. Vernon involvement was solicited—to take a hand (or knife) in the cutthroat game.

            My low opinion of political behavior might be a factor in the neglect of my work by American critics in general; but I doubt that my apolitical stance has been sufficiently under observation as to motivate the narrow-mindedness that would attend avoidance of my lifelong writings by my countrymen whose claim to attention lies in their capable thoroughness, their impartial judgment. “Knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful,” wrote Samuel Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century, thinking of men of a stripe morally inferior, however, to those in question here. Late twentieth century American critics would merit Dr. Johnson’s general condemnation only if they pointedly ignored my many poems, not to mention my pioneering scholarship and lecturing abroad to awaken Europe, as well as parts of Australia and Africa, and Iceland to the excellences of African American literature.

            My residence in France cannot excuse American critics for whatever neglect of my long and varied services is attributable to them. Working on my trailblazing anthology in 1968, Dark Symphony, I tracked Black writers to Italy, Hawaii, and elsewhere. Poet John Frazier, reviewing Jazz from the Haiku King, simply finds it “unclear why critics have muted [my] brilliance when one considers [my] strong academic poetic ties, and the sheer power of [my] work.” He finds me “curiously overlooked” in the U.S.A. It is not up to me to praise my own poems, but I have considered the following among my best so far: Emmett Till, Deadly James (For All The Victims Of Police Brutality), To Kill A Morning Spider, The Treehouse, and The Middle Passage Blues.


DS: Now, let’s turn to some of the poems I consider your better and more well known poems. The first is:


For The 4th Grade, Prospect School: How I Became A Poet

My kite broke loose,
took all my string
and backed into the sun.
I followed far as I could go
and high as I could run.


My special top went spinning
down the gutter, down the drain.
I heard it gurgling sideways,
saw it grinning in the rain,
my string wrapped around it
while I reached for it in vain.


My dog got thin and went away.
He took his leash- the wrapping string--
that we pretended-- was a rope--
and went as far as he could hope
to find the sickbed where I lay.


And now, when I remember strings
and how they bind together things,
and how they stretch (like reach and run),
and hold (like hope) and give (like sun),
I tie together things I know
and wind up with a poem to show.


  This poem was written in response to questions that schoolchildren asked you. How many other of your works have been in response to other people’s queries or solicitations? This poem has a very child-like quality to it- especially its rhythm and diction, yet it packs an emotional wallop. Which comes first, generally, in your poems- the intent of what you want to say, or perhaps just a line or image that the rest of the poem coalesces about? In this poem, there is also a link to a poem by John Berryman, called The Ball Poem, about a boy who loses his ball down a sewer. Were you aware of that poem? Was this written before Berryman’s poem?


JAE: Although it is not practicable for me to run through my four hundred titles to find poems startled up by questions and suggestions from others, I have sufficiently examined the 215 poems in my book Whole Grain (1991) to say that seven of them resulted from the requests or statements of individuals and that the seven songs in that book were composed by me in 1987 after a guitar-playing young woman visited me, played and sang some of her songs, then said, “You do write songs, don’t you?” Automatically I replied “Sure”; and as a result I wrote the seven songs in a row, making up the music for them—and trying to remember it, since I cannot record musical notation.

            I try not to say anything to readers, for I do not want them to be aware of my presence unless the first-person voice must be naturally associated with me, the author. A usage of the first-person I occurs ideally in my poem A Cabinet Of Few Affections, in which 21-line little work the man shaving disappears in the second line and does not return: “The mirror slipped, And I was gone.”

            Another poem, John Berryman’s The Ball Poem, connects thematically with my child-inspired story, a fact that I did not know until I read it a few years ago in an Internet piece by Dan Schneider; and when my poem based on the Prospect School boy’s question, “How did you become a poet?” appeared soon in The New York Times (16 June 1968), my only connection with Berryman was that I had reviewed his Berryman’s Sonnets (1967) in Books Abroad.


DS: Another great poem of yours is this:


To Kill A Morning Spider


Like a thick black pencil-mark
whipped suddenly across the pinewood floor,
his blot at the bed corner
leaped to my tightening shoe,
swelled into an eight-legged coil,
oozing fur, it seemed,
angering to be recognized
as spider. 


He quivered once, in a paroxysm
seized his stomach, gripped something there.
A tiny thing hopped from him, whirling-
just as my foot, clutching at itself,
smashed his eight legs.
The wheeling little thing, in pausing,
killed itself:
my shoe, an engine on its own,
crushed what was there. 


Such is surprise, is destiny:
a spider in disguise,
an insect fleeing,
and we watchers from our sleep awaking
to close their being.


  To those familiar with poetry, this poem has much in common with Robert Frost’s Design. This poem takes a prosaic moment, and adds a cosmic depth to things. Was that always your intent, or did that aspect of the poem crop up in revision? This makes me want to know your thoughts on the Beatnik dictum of ‘First thought, best thought.’ Do you agree with that? This poem is also not really about a spider, as the spider is merely the entry point into the dialectic on death and what lies beyond. This is something most published writers can or will not do. They are content only with description. That strikes me as lazy. What other purpose is there for art, if not to look at things with more depth?


JAE: This poem, which can be profitably compared with the longer The Death Of Such A One, in Whole Grain (about a bee), was meant to attract close discussion, reasonable observations. The poem’s title shows that it concerns the emblematic nature of the killing, that readers should expect examples, and that (almost following rules learned in freshman composition class) the poem should end with some indication that what has been promised has been delivered.

            The events pictured in the opening two stanzas actually happened to me in the country house (named Le Barry) in southwest France belonging to the Plassard family, my oldest friends abroad. These events occurred precisely as they appear in the poem; but I had to feel and to know everything (with nuances) that had happened. I used the word pencil in the opening line to suggest the mind at work, then whipped to express quick fear, then blot to signal the shift from real to imageless perception caused by emotional upset. (In 1968, I had published my essay Fever And Feeling: Notes On The Imagery In Native Son, in which novel Richard Wright had often had Bigger Thomas “blot out” objects, situations, and people that his mind could no longer harbor.)

            Since it is not necessary that I comment fully on this poem, I add only a word about its subject, death and destiny, as its final stanza indicates reticently. The killed beings are a blot and a tiny thing: but they die violently, one smashed and one crushed, their beings “closed” by agents lacking determination: a relatively undecided foot and a seemingly undisciplined shoe. The malignant force, the unprincipled killer just awakened from sleep seems to be destiny. Robert Frost, at the age of sixty-two, evidently agreed (“What but design of darkness to appall?”).

            As for the idea “First thought, best thought,” I do not agree with that as a rule to follow, for a first thought can obviously be inferior to what the writer can produce. Of course, in a possible situation that allows only one quick thought, it is devoutly to be hoped that first and best coexist. Admittedly, this daredevil idea was in line with Beatnik style; but it is likely that few poets, a half-century later, follow such a difficult faith.


DS: Here is another poem that’s masterful:


Daniel Is Six (1986)


When Daniel is six

all people should know it:

the trees show it,

the winds blow it;

nothing will be quite the same:

even Daniel’s very name

will stretch and seem to make a sound

every time he writes it down

or squeezes it into the air

or combs it through his changing hair.


He was five

and will be seven.

There is nothing under heaven

more of miracle than that

except that Daniel one day sat

upon his bed and combed his hair

and dreamed of what was changing there.


  This poem is not merely a poem about growing up, but a poem about recognition. The recognition is not only of the titular character’s self, but of that about him. Yet, you couch this deep moment, again, within a very child-like circumstance and diction. It reminds me of the famous Countee Cullen poem Incident, in which a racial epithet is magnified greatly, not only because it is directed at a child, but because of that child’s reaction. Can you gain more of a wallop by using children as characters to express ideas that adults are loath to express?


JAE: There is a possible procedure that I do not consciously use: to bring into consideration an idea normally adult but not easily or commonly expressed by adults, then search for a child’s voice and child’s situation to develop that idea. I can think now of only one poem of mine with a history approximating this formula, A Small Discovery (written in 1967 and often anthologized). Its ten lines contain only the voice of a little boy questioning his father (“Where do giants go to cry?”) and dropping his new secret (“Giants cry./ I know they do./ Do they wait/ Till nighttime too?”). Beautifully accompanied by a full-page illustration in color in the well-known magazine Highlights For Children, this realistic little poem is faithful to the fact that small children can ask profound questions and can be unexpectedly devious in devising word traps for their parents.


DS: Finally, let’s talk about one of your great sonnets.


Sonnet For A Writer


Far rather would I search my chaff for grain
And cease at last with hunger in my soul,
Than suck the polished wheat another brain
Refurbished till it shone, by art's control.
To stray across my own mind's half-hewn stone
And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast
A fragment of our common self, my own,
Excels the mimicry of sages past.
Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,
Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,
And feel suffusion with more glorious light,
Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.
Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame’s recline.


Jessica actually loves this poem so much that she uses its final couplet as her end tag for her emails. Let me stick, for a moment, with that couplet, and ask if its statement and creation reflects your own beliefs, or was it mere fortuity, and rhyme that gave it birth? In an essay on your poetry, I wrote the following:

Again, note how Emanuel plays off a familiar trope (especially given the subject matter)- the “living line”- i.e.- art as divine, spiritual, etc.- & contrasts it in such a unique way. Many poets could have written the penultimate line- in fact one could probably find 100s of examples of similar phrasing & sentiment (thus why they are clichés) in any online search- yet only a great poet could have hammered the home run that ends this poem. The end couplet both “tells” & “shows” what greatness is- something recliners like a Donald Hall, James Tate, Nikki Giovanni, nor Maya Angelou could not even imagine. Look how he twists familiarities as “chaff for grain”, “hunger in my soul”, “the dark”, “painful, lonely flight”, “earthbound”, “glorious light”, & “living line”. Ask yourself this: were someone to tell you that 7 such clichés would inhabit a sonnet- that’s 1 cliché per every 2 lines- & the sonnet would still be good, much less great, would you snicker? This then is what greatness is & can do- subvert clichés by using them in differing patterns, & not being afraid to use them to do so in the first place! See how he accomplishes it? Words & phrases as “search my chaff”, “(suck the polished [wheat) another brain refurbished]”, “mind’s half-hewn stone”, “common self….excels the mimicry”, & “sunk in fame’s recline” thus become the fancy clothes that rehabilitate the shabby bum’s appearance! His play with, & insertion of, these words which are vibrant with ideas which cast at & under familiarities to re-energize them. All this from a love of words, & the familiar is recast; the cliches thus made not cliches because they are forced to act as inversive & subversive agents of each other & the other elements in the poem. Please, now, imagine the 4 aforementioned doggerelists trying to nakedly & clumsily jam those 7 clichés into 14 lines. See? The defense rests on Emanuel’s formal excellence.’

  Did you intend on using clichés, just to prove you could subvert them? If so, was this poem one of those works of art that was a challenge to yourself, just to see if you could accomplish something?


JAE: I wrote that sonnet while I was studying for my Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, at the M.A. junction, before moving on to Columbia in New York City. I was using my strength almost at its limits, working on two different jobs while attending classes. (CORRECTION: the two-job slavery was in New York while I was attending Columbia, but I was just as roped-and-tied while at Northwestern, newly married, pinching pennies between the expiration of my G.I. Bill funds and the beginning of my John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship.) As for the couplet closing my sonnet, I meant it absolutely when I composed it in 1953 at Northwestern, a student in the seminar of Prof. Zera S. Fink. After I showed him the sonnet, he announced to the seminar members—rather confidently, as I recall—“Mr. Emanuel is a poet” and read the text of his discovery, the students smiling and looking at me. The couplet expressed my impatience due to the necessity to burrow into the poetry of long-gone writers when so much of my own writing lay waiting.

“Sonnet for a Writer” (which earned special praise, a Citation for Merit in 1958 from Flame Magazine, following a poll of poetry editors) was my first-published “real” poem, preceded by poems written before I became acquainted with demonstrably great poetry. I wrote it with strict sincerity, treating a matter of immediate importance to me. I had not reached the level, in my own opinion, at which I might naturally experiment technically with poetry.

            Just as, in “real life,” I had no time (or money) for fripperies, I had no inclination to fiddle with anything vital to my life (my mindset, some might call it). I had already proved myself as a student, as an athlete, and as a wartime soldier, so I had no challenges beckoning me except harder work and unexpected encounters with racism. In this heads-up, sleeves-rolled stance, I probably wrote simply what I felt, unmonitored by restrictions.

            I am content now to believe that the clichés present were especially native to the Good Earth from whence they came. Any artistic merit that accompanies them is welcome freight.

            The special place in my memory occupied by Sonnet For A Writer shares its environment with other memories than the sound of Professor Fink pleasurably reading it to my classmates. I remember reading, in the letter from the university rejecting my application for financial aid, the sentence supporting that rejection: “We have applications from many qualified candidates.” I remember thinking, “Yes, but you probably have none equal to my straight-A grades from the 8th grade throughout my 4 years in Howard University.” Professors, unlike many administrators, have a special respect for hard work and intelligence: I received just what I earned from them at Northwestern, straight-A grades. Professor Frederic Faverty, my departmental chairman, upon being told by me that I would have to move to Columbia for my doctorial work, expressed his regret, saying, among a few other things, “I think you would have done well with us.”


DS: Earlier this year, I interviewed novelist Charles Johnson, who, like you, is an African-American. We spoke of his claims of black self-segregation, in terms of white America needing a black spokesman for various issues, and there being a tacit understanding amongst black intellectuals that certain people would be ok’d as spokesmen and others not. Do you view this as Uncle Tomism, and is this sort of gameplaying, in Academia- both black and white, part of the reason you abandoned it, and America?


JAE: The existence of an African American possessing enough wisdom, honesty, and courage to speak authoritatively for African Americans is hardly possible. The fact that no non-Black person has claimed an ability to speak for non-Black people in the U.S.A. should teach those concerned with the phenomenon that they are treading philosophically trembling ground. Such justifiable uncertainty, however, is the open territory longed for by political-minded no-goods waiting to match and trade immoralities.

            Normally decent non-Black Americans once had a psychological need to believe that their Black countrymen were fundamentally inferior to them, different from them, for, not believing that, they would surely know themselves to be irreligious, heartless, and tyrannical in their encounters with that faulty mass beneath them. My City College of New York experience as a counselor to students in difficulty taught me the grave problems they faced when they began to express liberal notions impossible in their parents’ eyes.

            The nub of the search for African American spokesmen is that true spokesmen are not wanted, not needed in the embodiment pictured by authorities. No nation, after over two centuries of experience in the matter, needs to be told what its citizens want. When the hypocrisy is announced, however, machinery begins to roll—including Black machinery, fueled by the money-making principle “Don’t tell it like it is. Tell it like it’s wanted”—wanted by the representatives of power, pursestrings, and perfidy.

            Certain Black people (the list is probably growing), wheeler-dealers at heart or wheel horses in the political fields, deserve infamy (or some lesser but firmly negative censure) for their cooperation in deliberately damaging the careers or interests of other Black individuals whose racial or personal principles (professional or otherwise) have been considered inappropriate by a member or members of a self-appointed Blacker-Than-Thou group. I regard them, in theory, as framers of the Black Blacklist, destined, if not stopped, to rival McCarthyism in exposing its ill will and malice. Any Black intellectuals found in this group of bushwhackers are not where they are supposed to be.


DS: A reason for why published writers today are so bad is due to people’s laziness and shallow reading comprehension- both on the part of writers and readers. Any great writing will require one to go over what he or she has just read, sometimes several times. Your poems require one to reread them, and, upon doing so, each time you can find new meanings and glimpses into things. Lazy readers don’t want to do this and they want everything handed to them right away. They don’t want to think, and then seem resentful of the great writing that tries to make them think. Much of the writing that is being put out today is ‘not meant for adults.’ Likewise, you mentioned, a few years ago, in the interview for the Omniversica radio show, how you thought critics had not ‘grown up’ enough. Do you agree that this is part of the problem? And if critics are immature, surely readers are even more so. That being the case, do you see an end to the cycle? And are you comfortable with your poetic canon, and its place in poetic history?


JAE: Immature critics are, indeed, thorns in the sides of a writer; but they exist because shapers of society do not care what literary critics are becoming as long as they do not interfere with activated plans and policies. The exclusion of particular journalist from White House press conferences is a shape-up-or ship-out warning to professionals formerly honored for their independence somewhat apart from their training. At present, training for young people seems to emphasize familiarity with computers as much as study of the liberal arts. To know how to cybernate in industry far excels knowing that there was once a man named Plato; and the middle member of the trio once honored in song, reading-writing-and arithmetic, appears to have fallen out of favor. Although youngsters still read and can still multiply 12 x 12 and 6 x 7 without discernable effort, many cannot write a brief essay—recent experience tells me—without making unbelievable errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and whatever is involved when “bear” and “bare” are confused.

            If immaturity were the problem, the solution would be either easy or impossible: ignore critics under forty and over eighty, on the one hand, or, following corporate practice, form a committee of psychologists and other specialists—one of them a literary critic—whose task would be to determine how to recognize the maturity involved and what to do to benefit from it or to make sure of its minimum disadvantage if it is below what is desired. This information, although possibly usable in some textbook, would hardly be helpful to an individual writer, who, at any rate, cannot select his critic.

            An ultimately ideal relevant situation once came my way. In 1977, I reviewed a book of poems by my fellow-Nebraskan Lance Jeffers, O Africa, Where I Baked My Bread. Although almost all of my comments were favorable, I indicated that his emotions sometimes overran his central idea. Lance wrote me a letter later on, saying that he had been somewhat disappointed, at first, by my review, but that afterwards he understood that I meant just what I said. He added, “And I dig that, Jim, I really do.”

            As for American literary critics in general, in their relationship to me as a writer, they have seemed rather unaware of my works and activities. They could have slipped into this condition, however, by simply heeding the warnings of proudly vocal young Black Writers in the mid-1960s: “You [white people] don’t know anything about Black literature! Stay away from it! Leave it to us!” Thus relieved of extra hard work—and the dodges made necessary by possible hypocrisy—the busy ones probably turned to their favorite projects.

            African American critics among them, however, have had special obligations to me as the “elder,” the “ancestor,” the pioneer in the discipline of Black Studies (I was the first university professor in the State of New York to argue for and teach a course in Black poetry, in 1966). I know of only one Black critic that has praised me, in print, as a pioneer, Arnold Rampersad, known best for his research on Langston Hughes. He told Toni Y. Joseph, for her book One Voice, “There were no courses in African-American literature when Emanuel started out” and said, concerning our books on Hughes, “My book had mistakes. His didn’t.” Perhaps the recently deceased Marvin Holdt wrote the only essay that emphasizes the close analysis of a number of my poems to reach in broad conclusions, James A. Emanuel: Black Man Abroad, in Black American Literature Forum (Fall 1979).

            My comments about American critics are modified, in my mind, by the fact that, having lived in France for twenty-odd years without access to the indexes, guides, and other aids to research once common to me—or having stopped considering their use—I no longer keep track of who has published what in the U.S.A.


DS: The aforementioned Weldon Kees was most well known for his poetry, but he also wrote fiction, was a painter, jazz musician, photographer, and before his death tried to become a filmmaker. His prose is mediocre and he succeeded only in poetry. What do you think about artists who do so many different types of arts but are only good at one and mediocre in others? Is it a waste? What if Mozart had tried to balance novel writing against his symphonies? Does one need to know oneself enough, and be aware of what one is not good in?


JAE: I think that multi-talented people have special difficulties. I remember watching Oscar Hammerstein II on television long ago, smoking his cigaret grudgingly, frowning at the piano he was playing, saying something about “he curse of talent.” Such people might resent some of their talents as obligations to work hard at something that does not attract them. They feel unkindly treated, put upon, harassed without cause. They are badgered by comments intended as praise. As the French say, they do not feel good in their skins.

            If such a person is a writer, he must budget his time in favor of his best or most gratifying creativity. The luckiest in this group are the self-directed ones, those disciplined enough to follow their strongest inclinations, their tightest reasoning. If talent is a curse, I say, curse back at it and keep on going in the direction that calls you most urgently.


DS: What do you think about the cliché of the suffering artist (Hemingway, Plath, Rimbaud, Capote). And what of mediocre artists who are more concerned with striking an image, or impressing others with their persona or cult of personality? How much do you think these artistic clichés play into the public’s view of artists? What about those who are unable to critique a work without the biography at hand? Jessica recently did a post on Monsters & Critics, on this topic, in regards to John Donne, about how many critics read too much into Donne’s personal life when they try to pick apart his poems. Should not the work stand alone, aside from any personal neuroses an artist might have had?


JAE: The public’s view of artists depends, I think, on not only what the individual citizen reads and what he sees for himself—in museums, at exhibits, at operas and concerts, on television and in movies to a degree—but also on what he sifts from the ideas and opinions voiced by his friends and acquaintances. Some people buy a new car of a certain category just because their neighbor has just done so.

            Artists must try to be strong, for they are tested more vitally, more unknowingly than other people; they must toughen themselves against misunderstanding and mistrust. The poet starving and writing in the attic has been replaced, perhaps, by the poet and writer offering a series of roles to a circle of admiring—or secretly doubtful—acquaintances. Providers of entertainment, via films preceded by endless commercials, as well as TV advertisements longer than newscasts, have become the merchants of cash-and-carry knowledge.

            Concerning the literary critic, biography in hand, he has learned his homework backwards: to know a poet’s life is not to know his poetry; to know a poet’s poetry is to know his life—to the extent that such knowledge is possible. A great tiny poem, like a grand cathedral, stands alone, kept upright by worldwide air.


DS: Are there any other arts that have influenced your poetry? Like foreign films or paintings? To me, poetry is the highest of the arts because it does the most with the least. There is no speed of light visual impact, there is no thread of a musical beat nor narrative that can have things draped over it. Therefore, when a poem moves one as much as a song or painting, it has done far more with far less. After all, writing is wholly abstract- just black squiggles on a white medium. Do you agree?


JAE: Music has surely influenced my poetry: not the knowledge of music, but the natural fact and existence of it, like the music of an individually perfect stride of an athlete, the harmonious movements of wings and feet (somehow sky and earth) as a bird lands on whatever surface is waiting. To do much with little—as admirable poems do—approaches perfection in the use of energy. Scientists, especially physicists, can explain what that perfection promises (and threatens) for human life on earth, although poems and bombs do not seem to be related in any way.

            Foreign art, foreign films, on the other hand, seem compatible with domestic productions. I found it natural, in my poem Accident, From A Wajda Movie, to compare the brutal death of a factory boss in Poland (where I was then living) with the lives of “Black slaves branded, flogged, / whipmarched through a maze overseers, / to keep the kingcraft white.” A few years later, in 1982, I kept a promise made to poets in Yugoslavia by writing my poem Antonić Gomić, about a small child bayoneted during the country’s inheritance warfare. Several of my poems reflect my experiences with foreign life rather than foreign art: poems about London, Vienna, Warsaw, and cities and tows in France. Since players of the French outdoor game pétanque (comparable to American horseshoes) would call it an art, I include, from my haiku series “For France,” this cameo: “Toothless, bending low, / his sixty years of practice / spun the ball. He smiled.”


DS: On an Omniversica show interview with poet Fred Glaysher, he stated he believed that in order for change to occur in the arts a new master has to step forth and ‘bury’ the dinosaurs and phonies. He also stated that that’s the only way it’s ever been done. This sounds very much like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I.e.- that new great artists are sneered at, then accepted, then canonized, just as scientific ideas are. Would you agree with this?


JAE: Perhaps I almost never agree wholly with anything that is a matter of opinion. I react automatically against the word master, and I would spare a superb dinosaur the discomfort of being linked with phonies. Of course, the burial of a dinosaur would be an occasion for a certain kind of respect, competition for vantage points, sighs of awe, and possibly note-taking. As in the process of belling the cat, a necessary question arises: who will step forth to bring the dinosaur into that condition which suggests burial? This is not a simple, smooth-running procedure; involved are the next-of-kin and close companions, who are to be consulted in such matters. They might point out that they see nothing wrong with the relative or associate in question and might, indeed, begin to question the motives of the apparent bereaved, the master. As for phonies, to get back to the matter of the arts in need of change for the better, they are well acquainted with the coattails of the master. They are the observers, not conveyers, of change. Lyrics of an old folk tune have caught them in action, with a “hand full of ‘gimmee’ and a mouth full of ‘much obliged.’”

            I do not easily imagine a visitor sneering at a work of art in a museum, perhaps because I assume that such visitors are willing to learn; but I do remember a budding critic of art, a college sophomore like me, who seemed to enjoy choosing adjectives, quite cleverly, with histrionic gestures to sharpen them, in commenting on a work of art by a novice, a student. I was unfavorably impressed; and I suppose that, dating from those faraway days, I have been prejudiced against “smart-ass critics,” as I have called that variety of opinion makers.

            The cycle of sneering, acceptance, and canonization is typical of small-spirited observers doing the only work that suits their nature, the work that always leaves open that higher road taken by only a few. Those few are the makers and pronouncers of literary history, without whom mankind would bequeath only mortality and silence to future readers.


DS: What are some observations you have in regards to younger generations today, as opposed to when you were young? Do you believe, for example, that there is less intellectual discourse today than there once was due to the ‘short attention span’ of the culture, or is the lack of discourse pretty much the same now as it was then only for different reasons? Or is this more of the ‘Chicken Little’ phenomenon of every successive generation towards its successors?


JAE: When I look beyond the gum-chewing and widely exposed middles of girls at the present millennium, as well as the above-the-knee-high back-pockets of jeans-wearing boys, I see attitudes and competences different from those evident during the Great Depression of my youth. Of course, sexual liberties now current but considered no-no’s in 1940 do not explain the habits of time. The fact that, at the age of sixteen, I read regularly (in the Alliance Public Library) The Easy Chair column in Harper’s Magazine does not mean automatically that youngsters today would avoid or not find interesting this literary column that I myself did not know, until I was later in a Howard University class taught by Margaret Butcher, was recognizable by students of American literature. Young people are inevitably the traces of the past and the harbingers of the future. Placing one foot before the other, they represent the uncertainties of life. If they could be different from what they are, we would regret it.

            Yet, they disturb us, finding out (those that care about words) that they must look up, in the dictionary, the word discourse, to discover whether it is something spoken or written. Having done that, they might reflect that intellectual discourse—if the subject has been brought to mind—has a low priority in their daily lives. This perhaps middlebrow tolerance of the word intellectual, neither requiring nor excluding the implementation of cerebral rigor on a daily basis, is the middle ground on which the young, from childhood onward, stand rather formidably when defending their entrenched, somewhat angular pragmatism.

            Intellectual discourse, at any rate, takes place most naturally among people who believe in its relevance to their hopes and principles, people who respect one another’s contributions to that discourse. I am not sure that families today hold discussions in which general ideas, found in the evening newscasts or not, are explored sanely and fairly. I have a practice that I have followed for years, worthy, perhaps, of imitation or experimentation in the area of discourse. For years, in first approaching the very small children of friends, children not old enough to talk, sometimes I have asked them questions that they could not answer, questions about politics or philosophy; then I have looked at them earnestly, unsmiling, as if their expected reply were important to me. No baby-talk, no coo-cooing. Without variation, their responses have been “adult”: serious, almost struggling to help me in my problem. That means something about discourse.


DS: Jessica recently did a post on Monsters & Critics  in regards to classic books that are going to undergo ‘literary liposuction’ where they cut, say, 40% of Moby-Dick; specifically those parts that they feel are excessive padding. I made a joke about trimming The Grapes Of Wrath into three lines. How do you feel in regards to ‘literary trimming’? Is it just another example of readers’ laziness? Or are there some works that could truly benefit? But then who is to decide this? The editors who already make bad publishing selections as it is?


JAE: Laws concerning copyright now make it clear that a man is sole owner of his intellectual creations unless he signs documents that transfer his rights to another person or agent. When those creations enter the public domain, I suppose that there is no end to possibilities of change; but other laws must limit them. I do not think that Melville would like to think of someone wrongly stirring the blubber in his expendable pages of Moby- Dick. To such interlopers, I would urge the ghost of Melville to say, “Get your hands off my blubber and write your own novel.


DS: And what of this belief that ‘all people are creative?’ I don’t believe this. If everyone is creative, then we might as well expand this to everyone is athletic too, and clearly that’s not true. Why do you think there it this need to believe that ‘everyone is_____?’ (be it creative/special/ writers/artists this that or whatever). Some try to get away with the claim by saying that everyone is creative in everyday functions but those functions don’t necessarily result in ‘art’. The same could be said for walking to the mailbox as something ‘athletic’ but not necessarily a marathon. While I agree that not all creativity results in art, just as being called ‘athletic’ requires a certain degree of physical skill (not just waking to the mailbox) I think to be considered ‘creative’ requires a certain degree of vision, not just turning the screw counter-clockwise instead of clockwise with the screwdriver. Thoughts on this?


JAE: My dictionary lets people be creative without using their ability to create, and in this sense all humans are creative by nature. It might be relevant to speculate that if all mice with the ability to bell a cat had actually developed and used their ability, we would have now a larger population of bothersome mice.

            Using an ability, however, requires work, a necessity that is unwelcome to many people; and when work and creativity are joined as concepts in the minds of such persons, the link must be both obvious and subtle, adjustable as need might suggest. Therefore, presto, all of us creative people have been working on it (whatever it is) all along.

            The complexity of creativity is not apparent. The products of inventors are probably whole, entire creations before they acquire objective visibility. When artists and writers are truly creative, they know it.


DS: There is the old debate between poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, wherein Hughes insisted he was and could only be a Black Artist, while Cullen countered that he was an Artist first and foremost, and his skin color was just happenstance. I often think of this when I think of poets such as you or Robert Hayden. To me, you are great poets. Your ethnicity does not detract nor add to that claim. Where on that spectrum of thought do you fall? Why is there this need to box in artists by their race, sexuality, religion, ethnicity? If an alien from another world were to land behind your residence, and ask you how to describe yourself, what is the first term you would use? I would say writer or artist, but many people would use their sex, religion, or ethnicity first, or even their species.


JAE: About ten years ago, I talked on the phone, from Paris, with a European poet whom I had seen only briefly. He looked, I then was recalling, like many a Harlemite I had passed on 125th Street. At one point he said, “But I’m German” (his name was Wolfgang, Wolfgang Karrer maybe, talking about a forthcoming poetry conference in Germany). The wake-up effect of his statement resembled quick reorientations that I have experienced now and then, somewhat like thoughts brought up by the question of priority in one’s consciousness: race or special interest.

            First, as the calendar would have it, I was identified in part—as the U.S.A. would have it—by race (for political reason). Along the continuum of time, at a point unknown, I became an artist, a poet. However, the question is not what it seems to be; it asks which condition has more importance in my opinion. I could reply, facetiously, that without being born I could become nothing of value; therefore my being alive is the more urgent reality.

            To me personally, although being a poet is more important than being African American at this point in my life, there was a time, when I was more vulnerable to the viciousness and cowardliness of racism, when being a Black artist, was more important. It should be curious, at least interesting, to note that Blackness had its greatest value to me when attempts to victimize and tyrannize Black people were widespread. I should add that I am aware that in racist environments these answers will be misinterpreted.

            The box-mentality and generalizations at work here are normal to unthinking people. If an otherworldly alien should ask me, without seeing me, to describe myself, I would, for practical reasons, first tell him I was brown-skinned (hoping that he spoke English), then tell him my height, weight, and the color and appearance of my hair and clothing. Then he would know as much as the average American would know in similar circumstances. The American, however, would think that he had learned more—because of the skin-color.


DS: What are your political leanings? Are you a French citizen? If so, who did you support in that nation’s recent election and why? If not, do you still mail in a vote for the U.S. elections? Whether or not you are voting, which candidate do you feel strongly about, if any, for the American Presidency next year? If I’m not mistaken, that person will be the 16th U.S. President since your birth. Given that span of time, have you gotten more or less cynical about politics, and life in general?


JAE: My strongest political leaning is that I lean away from politics, as I have said or implied before. I am not a French citizen; in fact, I do not think that I would like to be a citizen of any particular country.

            Franklin D. Roosevelt was president of the U.S. A. when I was a young man. I used to like to hear him make speeches. I remember his tones, his emphases led by his head when he spoke of “the day that will live in infamy,” 7 December 1941, when I knew little of Pearl Harbor. I have not been attracted seriously by any candidate since then, although I did prefer the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, in 1956, I think; and I did not mind the hole in his shoe visible during a television show. Ten years later, the popular African American actor Ossie Davis gave a speech in support of my entry into politics, telling the audience that I should be running for the office of governor rather than for a seat on the Board of Education. My essential lesson learned in that campaign, besides the fact that I could get people to vote for me, was noted in my poem written in 1966, “For the Negro Children of Mount Vernon (On the Occasion of My School Board Candidacy)”. Later, when the local Black leaders asked me to run for the office of mayor, I refused, reminding them that we would have won if they had not deserted me deceitfully. In still later years, a Black man won that office, whereupon word came to me that I have paved the way.

            Nowadays I see little in political men that appeals me. Black or not, they are not my kind.


DS: Are there any other things in the arts or your life that you seek to accomplish? If not, what do you think of younger artists, such as Dan and Jessica, who will seek to keep your work in the public arena after you are gone? Do you feel that there is some sort of duty for artists to try and promote the works of other great artists? If not, does a great artist, or work of art, simply have to fend for themselves?


JAE: I would still like to publish a book of my best poems, and, as I have been thinking lately, a book of my best essays, perhaps half of the thirty or so that are in print. Of course, I will continue to write poems whenever I find the time; there is no way I can stop that.

            It is encouraging to know that younger writers, like you and Jessica, will continue the battle to bring excellent poetry and other art to the attention of the art-conscious public. That service must be done, for without it people everywhere will recognize themselves only as select creatures perfecting one another at toolmaking. Your efforts on my behalf, Dan, I acknowledged in my poem For Dan Schneider, Critic, which you can publish if you wish. I am sure that you too, Jessica, have been a busy hand-and-head in these efforts, and I am thankful for that. A kind of cosmic seesaw, I think, is part of the moral order theoretically at work in the universe, with superior performance and adequate praise balancing the two ends that touch cultural activity. Only the requisite labor at both of those ends, just and timely, can produce the stability natural to significant achievement.

            One more thing I would like to see and hear, a kind of “jazz-and-poetry show” using some of the works in my book Jazz From The Haiku King and others not yet published. The show would be international (most of the haiku in this book appear in six languages: English, German, Italian, Spanish, French, and Russian—the Russian versions appearing only in transliteration, but the translator, Andrey Masevich, probably still has his original Slavic versions). Originally I envisioned a program involving six saxophones, six readers of the jazz-and-blues haiku, and Godelieve Simons as the Belgian artist who created the jazz-related engravings to be exhibited (as they already have been, in various countries).

            I have viewed this international show as a symbolic event, as evidence that cultural cooperation—especially in the form of entertainment—has possibilities not yet fully explored. Depending on funds available (philanthropic, perhaps), the number of musicians and other participants could be increased. We will see.

            I almost forgot an important part of this year’s news: on 15 May 2007, at the convocation for graduate students at the Ph.D. level at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in New York City, I was presented (in absentia, of course) with the 2007 Dean’s Award for Distinguished Achievement.

            The framed citation that accompanies the award, twenty-six lines of information about me, says, at the opening of the third paragraph, “You are regarded by many literary critics as one of the greatest poets of our time.”

            Wonders will never cease. There is hope yet.


DS: Let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like. I think that this interview will have a historical value that will only increase with time. Thank you for yours.


JAE: This interview has been addressed to my whole body, as well as to my Self, inquiring, like a complete medical and psychological examination, into the state of my being. It has used up an entire month of daily, almost daylong excursion at this declining typewriter.

            However, to quote one of Langston Hughes’s favorite, repeated announcements, “I am still here!” That proves something, and I will try to “live into it,” as a laid back Chicago friend used to say, accenting the underscored syllables.

            You are welcome, Dan and Jessica. Keep on.


*The text of this interview is copyrighted. Questions are © Dan and Jessica Schneider; answers are © James A. Emanuel.




The Many Emanuels

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/14/06


  I first met my friend James A. Emanuel about a decade ago, in a used bookstore. As my hands moved over him I was in awe of his beauty. No, we were not in the process of falling in love, and I’ve never met the physical being of the manifestation in human terms that is James A. Emanuel. I only know a scant bit of biographical information about the man, culled from his memoir The Force And The Reckoning. While it’s true that I did interview him via telephone, from France, a few years ago for my now defunct Internet radio show Omniversica, the James A. Emanuel I met in 1996 was and is the James A. Emanuel that all of the readers of his know and will know in the coming years, decades, and centuries. The James A. Emanuel I met was the very text of his greatest poems, printed in a book titled Whole Grain, Collected Poems: 1958-1989, published by Lotus Press, which also published his aforementioned memoir.

  ‘Come, come,’ I can already hear the derision, ‘none of this poetic license nonsense. If you’ve never really met the ‘man’, shaken his hand, had a face to face conversation with someone, how can you truly know him?’ A good point, I admit, but only for as deep as it goes, which is not much. Yes, I do not know the flesh and blood James A. Emanuel’s favorite color, his view on American Korean War General Matthew Ridgway, whether he prefers strawberries to cranberries, nor if he feels Abstract Expressionism was a pallid arts movement….but, need I? In real terms, when someone comes up to you and gushes, ‘Oh, I just love Shakespeare!’, are they talking about some necrophilic urge to copulate with the centuries old remains of the Bard from Avon? I would hope not. What they are essentially talking about is being moved by the great words that the playwright and poet wrote, for, in the end, the plain fact is that every artist ultimately becomes their art. Picasso is not the misogynistic homunculus of his days of breath, but the passion, excellence, and diversity of his art. Melville is not the angry, depressed civil servant whose work was scorned till his death and beyond, but the flair of Captain Ahab’s eyes, and the existential dilemma of Bartleby the scrivener. Plath is not the mentally ill suicide with the sadistic husband, but the dazzling wordsmith whose work inspires more young women to poetry worldwide than almost any other poet ever has.

  Thus, it is no mere use of poetic license that leads me to say that although I’ve never met, nor likely ever will meet- unfortunately due to personal and financial circumstances, the flesh and blood incarnation of James A. Emanuel, I am already an intimate with the poet Emanuel who wrote such poems that are destined to take their place in the American and world pantheon as The Broken Bowl, To Kill A Morning Spider, For The 4th Grade, Prospect School: How I Became A Poet, I Touched The Hand Of A Soldier Dead, and a few dozen others too numerous to name here, as well as my seriously shortshrifting their excellence with a simple recitation of their titles. And when they do get their critical due, that James A. Emanuel will take a seat next to other longtime friends of mine, like John Donne, Octavio Paz, Tu Fu, Walt Whitman, Judith Wright, Osip Mandelstam, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Robert Hayden.

  As I write this piece, early in 2006 A.D., I am forty years old, and along with my wife, Jessica Schneider, we are likewise struggling to get our own excellent works published in an American publishing climate that actively scorns excellence in writing, in favor of cronyism, and the lowest common denominator elements of such deliterate movements in Political Correctness, Post-Modernism, or plain old junky genres. There are times when Jessica despairs over the prospects of our getting anything published, much less having ‘impact’, which is truly what all artists desire. Her angst sometimes bemoans the fact that my friend, James A. Emanuel, over twice my age, and nearly three times hers, has still not gotten his proper recognition. But, I am an optimist. I have long held out that my greatest artistic desire would be in knowing that some day, in ten thousand years, ten thousand galaxies away, some creature, human or otherwise, would, perhaps in boredom, pull up the ancient literature of a certain galaxy, and a certain planet, and stumble across a poem or story written by me, read it, and think to itself, ‘Ah, that wily old human- HE KNEW!’ In that instant, all the time and distance between us would evaporate, and I would immediately become an intimate friend of that sentient being, every bit as much as James A. Emanuel, the poet extraordinaire, is an intimate friend of mine. Poetry, as an art form, is mostly about the concision and choice of words to communicate, but as that communicative exchange it is mostly about the intimate observations of an individual at a certain time and place- what interests them, what annoys them, etc. And what is closer to the core of a human being? To read a poem, and- yes, even a story or an essay, especially by a great poet and writer, is to fundamentally be where they were, however briefly, and commune in a vital way with that being. This is not weepy nor wishy-washy New Age nonsense, but, dare I say, perhaps the only essential truth about art, an idea (truth in art) which is too often bastardized for religious, political, or philosophic reasons. Yet, stasis is not the rule in the arts, and never has been. There will come a time, again, I know in the not too distant future, although it may seem hazy now, when true excellence is once again sought out and rewarded in the arts, and if the poet Emanuel has still not gotten his due, by then, then I, when I have the name and recognition, will do my utmost to make sure that the poetry of James A. Emanuel, which is the essence of the bodily figure I’ve never met, finally gets his due, along with some other of my friends, like the poet John G. Neihardt and science writer Loren Eiseley (who were, coincidentally, fellow statesmen of the Nebraskan Emanuel).

  History is a great comfort in knowing that excellence eventually gets recognized. Poets Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins entered publication, and eventually the Pantheon, only decades after their deaths, and writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and poet Walt Whitman similarly only became giants of literature decades after their initial publication and critical dismissal.  There are many other examples, in writing and other arts fields, of this phenomenon. The point is that often it is the best and most prescient artists that take time to have effect on any significant portion of the population. Art is that way- it works very slowly and over very long periods of times. Yet, excellence inexorably succeeds, as if a virus. It is a myth to believe that art affects any more than an individual in the smallest way- as if that fact alone were not a wondrous thing. Picasso’s Guernica did not end war, the many classic dystopian novels published over the centuries have not prevented the recent incursions into privacy that are riddling American society now, and the truth is, there is no way they ever could. But, the James A. Emanuel who has been my friend for a decade now, will eventually get his due. I simply cannot conceive of how it could not happen. The currents of human historicity would have to pivot on a dime to spitefully deny him alone. It will not happen, never! Once all the dross of currently published doggerel fades away, in decades hence, critics will look back and wonder of the great poets of the 20th Century, and actively seek out those that were overlooked, for they will know that history shows it has happened and it is their duty to do so. And my friend, the poet Emanuel, will be amongst those writers that these yet to be born critics will slap their foreheads over, bemoaning the ignorance, myopia, and idiocy of their predecessors, even as they blithely ignore their very own aborning James A. Emanuels and Gerard Manley Hopkinses, and the eternal process of the great artist far outdistancing the sedentary critical crowd again plays out its tiring game.

  But, I hope that I am wrong. I hope that James A. Emanuel, at least, starts to get that critical recognition before there is only my friend of him left. Perhaps this slim volume will be a start. I would love to write the Introduction to a Collected Works (poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction), or an updated American edition of Whole Grain, re-released by a major American publisher, replete with all the attention such a formidable poetic and literary corpus deserves.

  Yet, I sense that, somewhere deep inside himself the James A. Emanuel I know, and the one that breathes, and the many other James A. Emanuels that exist in the minds of his many other readers, knows fundamentally the verity of my claims for his work and his long, prosperous, and many ‘afterlives’, for in a poem written forty years ago, this year, A Poet Does Not Choose To Run, my friend writes:


A Poet is not yours.

Locked out, locked in,

He opens doors

But cannot stay

To speak for long

Or sit at bay


Unless—and this is strange—

He sits in silence,

His pledge to rearrange

The clues of some wild track,

Trail it lonely out,

And lone come back.


  Every artist lives in their work, and comes to the individual percipient of their work alone. It is in this most intimate of intercourses that art is at its greatest, and artists like my friend, one of the many James A. Emanuels there are, likewise touches greatness. To think, all this friendship cost me was $4.95 plus sales tax- what a bargain!


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