Interview with Herman Beavers on Obsidian Blues

Herman Beavers discusses music’s influence in his life and poetry. See how music informs the structure of his new collection Obsidian Blues, how jazz and blues help him shape the poetic line, and why music is a way to access personal history.

JD: Tell me a little bit about your background.

HB: I grew up in the Cleveland area as the son of Southern migrants (Alabama, South Carolina). We moved out of the city when I was three and so I attended integrated suburban schools for my entire time in elementary and secondary school. But growing up in the 60s and 70s, meant that I grew up in an extremely volatile time: the Kennedy and Malcolm X assassinations, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. It was a lot for a child to absorb. But it was also a moment when the challenges of integration filtered down to affect my family in all sorts of ways. I didn’t experience Jim Crow, but whites could still make it very apparent that you were not welcome certain places. But I was a reader and I loved all sorts of things: science fiction, comic books, biographies, and eventually poetry and novels.

JD: Do your personal experiences contribute to the musical narrative of Obsidian Blues?

HB: Well, I grew up listening to all sorts of music on AM radio, ranging from the Beatles to Motown; James Brown to the Beach Boys; Frank Sinatra to the Supremes; Dionne Warwick to the Rolling Stones. I didn’t discover jazz till I was a teenager in the 70s, but the fusion of jazz and rock was traveling from Miles Davis into the music of Chicago, Sly and the Family Stone, Carlos Santana, and Steely Dan. My teenage years also coincided with the rise of FM radio and the emergence of singer/songwriters like Paul Simon, Harry Chapin, James Taylor, the Gibbs brothers, Stevie Wonder, and Maurice White. Their music made me very aware of how lyrics could tell a story with economy and also communicate a broad array of emotional colors and tints.

JD:  Music seems important to this collection—different poems borrow their titles, or aspects of their titles, from different pieces of music or different types of musical compositions. How do you think those influences and others help to promote the theme of the collection?

HB: You’re right; music is important to what I’m doing on several levels. I’ve always admired classical music’s expansiveness, especially in orchestral music, so I decided that Part I of the book would be organized like an orchestral suite. Even though the poems were written at very different times (for example, “An Old Man Remembers the Guitar” was originally published in the 90s), what unifies them is that each “movement” explores personal traumas and their consequences. It turns out that remembering when the injury occurred is both symptom and cure.

I’ve also been influenced by jazz, not only the music but also its history. It’s taught me a tremendous amount: like how a jazz solo can be thought of as a form of storytelling, but also how a musician’s approach to phrasing is a means of putting an indelible stamp on a song, a way of making it their own, if only during one performance. I’ve been in and out of the blues my whole life—starting with the urban blues of B.B. King and then going back to its roots with Son House, Bessie Smith, Howlin Wolf, and Leadbelly. But gospel music is also important to me; I grew up in a family of gospel performers. My grandfather taught himself how to play piano and organ; he was such a great organist that folks in his church called him “Professor Jacobs.”

JD: Can you speak to the importance of music in your work, and/or in your daily life?

HB: Music has taught me a tremendous amount about how to get at the essence of a feeling and to pay attention to small moments. I’m sure that my approach to the poetic line is heavily influenced by jazz and the blues.

And so vocalists like Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, and Michael Franks taught me about phrasing, about making how to take personal ownership of a subject. Franks is an incredible lyricist. One of his songs features a line that goes, “I hear from my ex- on the back of my checks,” which tells you everything you need to know about the relationship. Reeves has a song called “Bring Me Joy” that fuses Afro-Brazilian percussive rhythms with the field holler to power effect. Elling loves to put lyrics to the music of great jazz composers that often lead him to draw on poets like Pablo Neruda for inspiration.The instrumentalists taught me a lot about how to approach the poetic line as a conduit of little bursts of feeling, where to situate a pause or a line break for the greatest effect. Ultimately, I think jazz musicians have been the greatest beneficiaries of Keats’ notion of negative capability, because, without that adherence to risk and uncertainty, the music would not be so transcendent. The musicians’ commitment to risk has inspired me in very unique ways

I try to walk at least three miles several times a week and the best part is having my music along. I have a playlist of almost 2,000 songs that covers the gamut. I might start off listening to Bonnie Raitt or Ashford and Simpson, but by the time I finish, I may have heard songs by John Coltrane, The Beatles, Al Jarreau, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Walter Hawkins, Simon & Garfunkel, and Prince. I love that random setting because I never know what the next song is going to be. And because the playlist has songs that date back to either childhood or adolescence, music proves to be a great way for me to access my personal history. I often associate specific moments in my life with a particular song that evokes the sensations, smells, even the emotions coloring a memory. I think anyone who’s listened to old school music (however they define it) has that feeling, but it’s an important tool for me as a poet because sometimes the only way back to my first crush or something that made me sad (or happy) as a kid is through the songs I was hearing at the time.

JD: Who are your biggest musical influences?

HB: I count John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” Miles Davis’s “My Funny Valentine,” and Return to Forever’s “Romantic Warrior,” as poetic influences. Vocalists like Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, and Michael Franks are also important influences. Because playing jazz has so much to do with spontaneity, inventing something on the spot, I think that it’s helped me to view those brick walls we all run into as opportunities to gamble and reach for musicality rather than meaning. I think I first heard Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert my first year in college, but it’s something I go back to periodically because it reminds me that our need to elaborate on our emotional state often transcends structure. The entire record is totally improvised and his playing on that record is filled with really lush and emotive phrases that are overlaid with soulful, funky riffs.

JD: I found that this collection seems to draw heavily on blues, Black culture, and the elements of those vernaculars. Can you speak to the interplay of these themes in your collection?

HB: Well, I come from a family of storytellers, which has had a profound impact on my work. I learned pretty early that “telling lies” is sometimes the best way to get at the truth. But I also learned that just because a person hasn’t had a lot of formal education, it doesn’t mean they can’t be extremely eloquent (and often in much fewer words). I think that a challenge for African American poets of my generation has been how to use the vernacular in ways that sound fresh while avoiding clichés and dialect. Though I think that Paul Laurence Dunbar is vastly underrated as a political poet, I also think that his dialect poems put him into a box. So the wonderful thing about the vernacular is that it yields up words like “sometimey,” unusual syntactical shifts like ‘Where y’all are?’ or regionalisms like “I’m fittin (or ‘fixin’) to go to the store.”

So even though I wouldn’t say that the personas in my poems all sound alike, vernacular English (and here, not only African American vernaculars) is important to how I figure out what to say—and what not to say. I try to put a lot of thought into what sorts of small details go into the creation of a persona, which means that I try to figure the specifics of who is speaking so that I can decide what they would put into utterance, but also what they would elect to leave out. For example, in “Dangerous,” the speaker says at one point, “or puttin my hand to a few Germans/before they put they hand to me.” I know the right word in conventional English is “their,” but what the speaker is saying is that he saw Germans as collectively devoted to injuring him, so “they” turns out to be the correct word. At the same time, it communicates that his understanding of war doesn’t square with Clausewitz’s notion of war as politics by other means. For him, it’s about confronting the reality that there’s a person who means to do you harm standing ten feet away from you, but a few lines up in the stanza he communicates that living in the South means that he doesn’t have a host of options available to him and the next stanza, which is only two lines not only completes the sentence, it communicates his awareness of his place in the scheme of things.

JD: Where would you place Obsidian Blues in a larger socio-political discussion of music and race?

HB: It’s been a very long time since I worried about whether people who read my poems understand them on the first read. Which also means that I don’t have much interest in being didactic in my poems because didacticism so often turns on a very black/white understanding of the world and I think I’m much more interested in the grey areas. Which is to say that in this book I’m extremely interested in sin and how the choices that we make often have to do, on one hand, with wrestling down our ambivalence and on the other with indulging the realization that leaping into the abyss is the only way to change your life. So when the woman in “Hamilton Railroad Station,” says, “Get on in here,” she’s communicating that she knows it’s a bad idea to invite a man who’s not her husband into her house, but she also knows that it’s an opportunity to express herself, to be herself for those few minutes they have together. I’m not sure she’s as invested in the idea of a relationship in the way the main persona is, but I think she’ll have fond memories of their time together because it was her choice.

So I like to think that my poems are sometimes politically incorrect in that I’m often so interested in exploring how our shortcomings or our lack of resources can have such a powerful impact on what we see, how we interpret certain human gestures, and whether we can allow ourselves to acknowledge our failures and in the process find a way to grow. The realities of racial inequality and difference complicate those things. But I want to point out that the arc of the book goes from poems that feature people who are not me to the last two poems, which are extremely personal. In that sense, what I can say is that they were poems written after I suffered a tragic loss and I came to be able to write them because music is so important to me and because I’ve lived long enough to know that whatever truths I hold have been filtered through my understanding of race, gender, and class. All that means, I think, is that in spite of how I’m conceiving the audience for my poems at any given moment, I want people to feel enlightened, to feel lifted up in a profound way—irrespective of what racial identity they have.

JD:  In addition to being a poet, you’re also an academic—a professor at UPenn. Who have been your influences in your creative writing and in your scholarly prose?

HB: I think my most consistent poetic influences are Michael S. Harper (who was my mentor), Robert Hayden, Rita Dove, Sterling A. Brown,  Philip Levine, Ai, and Toni Morrison. I know Morrison is not a poet, but her total commitment to lyricism is something I strive for in my work. And all of the other writers have taught me about the technical aspects of making a poem and how those need to balanced against one’s emotional investments, which add up to having something to say.

As far as scholarly prose, I think it comes from a very different place. And so it’s not always about influence (at least in the direct sense) because one is engaged in a scholarly conversation that results from absorbing other people’s ideas and approaches to making an argument. But it I were to pick writers of scholarly prose whose work I deeply admire, it would be my dissertation advisor, Robert B. Stepto, Rudolph Byrd (who was one of my classmates at Yale), bell hooks, and Robert O’Meally. And as I think of it, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (who were classmates at Tuskegee in the 30s) are also very important to me as writers of intellectual prose

JD: Do your academic work and your creative work ever influence each other, or do you keep them mostly separate?

HB: I work very hard to compartmentalize them, in part because scholarly writing and creative writing have such radically disparate aims. In the former, you’re trying to make an argument, to persuade your reader to see the truth of your claims. And since I’m a literary critic, I’m often engaged in close reading that seeks to create access to another writer’s ideas while also contextualizing those ideas in a wider cultural or historical context. In poetry, I’m often interested in figuring out what kind of argument one might make about a situation, then getting on the wrong side of that argument. Not because I want to be contrary, necessarily, but because writing poetry for me is so often about the act of surrendering control, giving myself over to what the poem wants to become, which means that it’s often not a good idea to get in the way of that. And because music and poetry are often so closely aligned in my work, I try to avoid the delusion that what I write is the last word. If jazz has taught me anything, it’s that the task of being articulate, of finding a way to say it with honesty, will be waiting for me when I get up in the morning, no matter what I said the day before.

JD: Do you have any upcoming projects we should look out for?

HB: I have begun working in earnest on a cycle of poems that feature two very minor characters in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. If you’re familiar with the book, you know that Sethe’s two sons, Howard and Buglar both decide to run away from home because the ghost of their dead sister is haunting the house. Right now I’m referring to these poems as the Bluestone Cycle and I’m trying to imagine what became of Howard and Buglar after they ran away from home. What sorts of men did they become? How did starting their lives as slaves affect them? What is important to them as black men living in the late 19th Century? So I don’t try to retell the Beloved story (which I do believe would earn me a visit from Toni Morrison’s lawyer), but instead try to invent lives that certainly take into account what they experienced at 124 Bluestone Road, but doesn’t dwell on it.

Herman Beavers is Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been teaching African American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania since 1989. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Oberlin College, where he studied in the creative writing program with Stuart Friebert, Diane Vreuls, and David Young, while also receiving degrees in sociology and government.

After graduation, he went on to the Graduate Writing Program at Brown University, where he studied fiction with novelists John Hawkes and R.V. Cassill and poetry with Michael S. Harper. From Brown, he moved on to Yale, where he received an M.A. in African American Studies and a Ph.D. in American Studies. In addition to Penn, he has taught at Wesleyan University, Sarah Lawrence College, Trinity College, Princeton, and he has been the Distinguished Visiting Professor of English at the University of Kansas.

His first poems were published in Black American Literature Forum (presently titled The African American Review), Dark Phrases, and The Cincinnati Poetry Review. While still in graduate school, his chapbook, A Neighborhood of Feeling won first prize in the Doris Press Chapbook competition.  He was among the first group of Cave Canem Fellows when the group was established in 1996. Since then, his poems have appeared in Whiskey Island, Cross Connect, Peregrine, The Painted Bride Quarterly, Callaloo, MELUS, The Langston Hughes Colloquy, Versadelphia, Cleaver Magazine, American Arts Quarterly, as well as the anthology, Gathering Ground: A Cave Canem Reader. He has given readings in and around the Philadelphia area, including readings with Yusef Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Alexander, June Jordan, and Major Jackson and been featured on Live at the Kelly Writers House (on Penn’s radio station, WXPN).

His poems have been nominated for The Best American Poetry series, The Best of the Web, and nominated three times for The Pushcart Prize in Poetry. He has been a finalist for the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize, and the Lena Miles Wever Poetry Prize. His sestina, “The Relative of Fear,” appears in the anthology, Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century, edited by Marilyn D . Krysl and Carolyn Beard Whitlow. He has recently completed work on a chapbook of poems, The Vernell Poems and a full length poetry manuscript, Even in Such Light. His chapbook, Obsidian Blues, is now available from Agape Editions as part of its Morning House Chapbook Series. He is now at work on a volume of poems that feature characters from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. He lives in Burlington Township, NJ with his wife, Lisa, and their two children, Michael and Corinne.

Julianna DeMicco is a recent graduate of Binghamton University. She has a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Law, and in English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She was a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.

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