INTERVIEW WITH SAN FRANCISCO POET LAUREATE--devorah major
 

By Paul S. Flores

“It’s not just about how one can manipulate language. It’s not just about how one can play with words. It’s about what you are saying about the cultural realities of this moment. What you are saying about these truths. And truths do wear cultural clothes.”
devorah major

I first heard devorah major read her poetry at the now defunct Nu Upper Room in Oakland during November of 1996. She was opening that night for Amiri Baraka, the famously political and controversial Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Like her fellow poet laureate, devorah major has a strong desire to tell the cultural truth, even if it upsets some people. To hear her read her poetry, either with musical accompaniment or a cappella, is like listening to a Fillmore blues…young women having a night out, old men lamenting the loss of something too fragile to describe, lovers going from break up to make up; while in the background wars are waged by irresponsible men at the cost of many poor people’s lives. Indeed, writing any other way would contradict her character and upbringing.
The Berkeley born, San Francisco-based writer is as much a product as a witness of the cultural transformations of the Bay Area. Her mother Helen is a Jewish American painter. Her father is the African American Caribbean writer Reginald Major, who used to bring Beat poet Bob Kaufman around the house while the family lived in North Beach. As a high school student devorah participated in the student strikes at San Francisco State University, and was among those in the first class to enter the newly established Black Studies Department in 1969. Later she would become one of the first Black poets to receive a California Arts Council writing fellowship. Her first book of poetry, street smarts (1996), introduced her rhythmic, compassionate and powerful lyrics about the African American urban community to a wide poetry-reading public. In her newest book, the novel Brown Glass Windows (2002), she looks at a family in the Fillmore District struggling with transitions forced upon them by the violence of gentrification. In April 2002 she was named the third Poet Laureate of San Francisco. Her new book of poems with more than tongue will be out February 2003 from Creative Arts Books, and where river meets ocean will be available from City Lights in Fall 2003.
Six years after I first heard her read we met at Modern Times bookstore in the Mission District of San Francisco, where I found out that her first novel, An Open Weave (1997), was out of print. We made our way to one of the many cafes on Valencia Street. As animated in conversation as she is when performing, the dynamics of her personality go from a whisper one moment, to laughing out loud the next.

Paul Flores: Can you tell me how being raised in the Bay Area affected your writing, or influenced you to become a writer?

devorah major: I think anybody is affected by wherever you are born. If you were born in Kalamazoo, you write with the experience of somebody born in Kalamazoo. There are a lot of cultures in the Bay Area. I remember in elementary school having a friend who was Korean, and trying to understand the difference between Korean, Japanese and Chinese cultures. That’s not the kind of conversation you’re going to have in Kalamazoo. You know what I mean? When I went to school, there were very few Mexicans, but a whole lot of Spaniards.

PF: Really? So they said, ‘I’m not Mexican, I’m Spanish?’

dm: You got it. (Laughter) And it wasn’t until I got to be an adult that I realized: Wait
a minute! Where did all the Spanish go?

PF: It must have been interesting to realize they were Mexicans all the time.

dm: I remember that epiphany when I realized that I had been talking to certain families with certain kinds of cultural and class issues. Those kinds of awarenesses. Still, I think your whole vocabulary is different being from the Bay Area, because you have all these cultures. It broadens you because it’s all right here. Whereas many other places may be much more pristine. I was in Arizona for the first time this year. And it’s European American and Native American, Mexicano and Chicano, and some Blacks. I mean, there were a few Asians, but that’s pretty much it. It’s very different from here. I mean, right across the street is an Arab restaurant, next to a Vietnamese place. Look at where we are. We’re in a presumably Latino community, but everybody’s here. Everybody’s represented.

PF: So that type of presence, of not only multicultural representation but also the over lapping of different cultural experiences, had a lot to do with your writing?

dm: I think it gives you a more generous worldview.

PF: That would be necessary to be a poet, in a sense. Do you think?

dm: Well, no. There are plenty of right wing poets (Laughter). I’d love to say yes. But I think that certainly to be a poet that resounds with regular people, a broader community, and not simply the elite, a more generous worldview allows you to cross more boundaries and more borders. Because you don’t acknowledge borders the same way as someone who has an aerial view, or perhaps a more elitist, hierarchical view that there is a best culture.

PF: I remember when you read at San Francisco State for a group called Coalition who was trying to raise political awareness in the Creative Writing Department. I think it was right when your book street smarts came out in 1996 or 1997. You read this poem about how some writers manipulate language, deconstructing it through poetry. You were criticizing the project of Language Poetry, which I felt was very radical at the time because Language poetry was such a strong part of the curriculum in the San Francisco State Creative Writing Department. Can you talk a little about that? What was that poem called?

dm: I think you’re talking about “Cultural Assumptions.” There were a couple of reasons why I wrote that poem. I had an experience where I had received a California Arts Council Writing Fellowship. They didn’t have spoken word then, so it was just as a poet. This was in 1989, I believe. I found out through the grapevine that when they put together that panel and decided to give the writing fellowships out, not one poet of color in the state of California received a fellowship. So the two poets of color on the panel raised hell. They said, “this is because the panel is loaded with Language Poets.” And Language Poets did not consider Narrative Poetry to be as pure a form of poetry. They kind of dissed Narrative Poetry. Yet the majority of poets of color write narrative poetry. So the Arts Council said you’re going to have to look at this, because this is problematic. They had to reevaluate the top poets, and I was right at the cut off. And what ended up happening is that Carolyn Lau got one, Duane Big Eagle got one, I got one…maybe five out of 25 fellowships went to poets of color.
After that, the Gerbode Fund did a Writing Fellowship—it’s never happened again. We all applied because it was something like $25,000. It was real sweet money. Eight poets were funded, including one poet of color, Duane Big Eagle. And every other poet was not only white, but they were all Language Poets. Duane was so angry; he invited me, Jorge Argueta and somebody else to the ceremonial reading. Each of the Gerbode fellows was given time to read, and Dwayne brought the multicultural poets, and gave us his time to read our poems. Then he did a rant against the Language Poets cultural assumptions and how all these voices had been marginalized. I mean, when you’re marginalized, you’re at least on the page. But we weren’t even on the book. That experience sat in me. So I found myself thinking about that way of evaluating poetry, that you look at language and act like it’s this objective standard. There is no such thing as objective; it’s always from where you sit. Where you sit influences what you see. So for me it was very important to find a way to say that. It’s not just about how one can manipulate language. It’s not just about how one can play with words. It’s about what you are saying about the cultural realities of this moment. What you are saying about these truths. And truths do wear cultural clothes.

PF: So that was in 1989. And when you were named Poet Laureate earlier this year, it basically affirmed that a poem like that is real, and that your poetry was valuable.

dm: Well, at least for the people that were on the panel, right? Some people say my poetry is raw. Some people who might not have thought my poetry was worthy ten years ago, probably were right. Ten years ago, I was not nearly as good a writer as I am now. I’m hoping ten years from now I can say the same thing again. It’s not like you stop growing. You keep engaging it. I look at some old poems and some of them are loose or floppy, and yet they’re published. Although there’s some fire there that I admire, there’s some sloppy craft I can see now, that I couldn’t see then. So you never know if it’s that people haven’t kept up and they’re judging your old work. Or that they have kept up and they simply think that your work is not deserving. Which is actually fine, we have different standards. There are language poets with plenty of accomplishments who are not talking about anything. Actually, I appreciate some language poetry. The way they can jump from non sequitur to non sequitur and the way they put together words without relying on metaphor, making a word do what it does. I actually appreciate it as an exercise. But it doesn’t speak to my soul. I listen to Jazz, Blues and R& B because it talks to me. It’s the same in poetry. I can appreciate Bach intellectually, but it’s not stirring my insides.

PF: So do you think by giving you the award of Poet Laureate they are affirming your style of poetics as something that is agreeable to the majority of people?

Dm: I think what they are affirming is that there are many paths. Why I found it exciting to be named Poet Laureate was that I am not a writer of the academe. Nor is Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Janice Mirakitani (previous San Francisco Poet Laureates). So that’s kind of neat. Normally, these kinds of awards go to writers of the academia. It’s a certain tract. At this point, you get an MFA or a Ph.D., and you get published by a university press. You build a reputation and you go up the ladder. There are certainly some good writers who have gone that way. But it’s only one path. Mine is also a valid path. The Poet Laureate panel is a committee of some poets, librarians–some of this, some of that. They found in my work poetry that spoke to a lot of communities and a lot of people. So that was affirming that they felt I had a voice that transcended my culture and my gender. I am my culture and I am my gender. But I want to be human, too.

PF: I want to ask you a question that you’ve been touching on. What role does race play in literature? In the whole aspect: in publishing, performance, education, reviews, awards. What role does race play in the universe of literature?

Dm: First, I think you have to separate race from culture. In race, Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas is Black, of African descent. In culture he is European. You need to be clear that there is a difference. Which is to say: A writer of African descent who writes a credible book—let’s say a How To book like: How To Fix Your Car— will have as much likelihood of getting published as a European American if they write it in a mainstream style. So race and culture are not the same. To me, what you’re talking about is writing that has a cultural message. So if a writer is an Italian American, that’s OK. If one is Jewish, that’s also, OK. You will find these writers in the general fiction or poetry section of the bookstore. But if one likes African American writers, you’ll have to go to the Black section of the bookstore. Because that’s ethnic writing. (Laughter). So that’s why I’m talking about people of different culture.
Since the publishing industry found out that Black people can read—there used to be laws against it—certainly, there’s been more publication opportunities for writers of African descent. But mostly they want stories that seem to support what they (major publishers) want to know or hear about the Black experience. Let’s take Sapphire for example. I have to say I have much respect for Sapphire, as a poet and a novelist. It’s no wonder that Sapphire got, I believe, a $100,000 advance for Push. But what is it? It’s a book about a sexually abused fourteen year-old whose father gives her not only two children, but AIDS. Of course! Not to say that it’s not a valid book for Sapphire to write, that it wasn’t an interesting book, that it wasn’t a good read, that it didn’t deserve to be out there. But there is a reason that that book was supported on such a large level. There’s a reason that those tell-all, exploitation books are being put out in front.
There is a lot of really excellent writing being done. Luckily, because there is a fairly healthy small press movement going on—I don’t know for how long with the economic situation being what it is—there are a lot of good books coming out. I mean, you’re out. Erasure by Percival Everett, an experimental Black novel, was just a wonderful book. It deals with race and all kinds of stuff in a new way. It’s out and got some awards somewhere. So I think that there is more coming out on a lot of small presses. But we’re not being supported on the level we’re at; there’s not the depth of voices. I mean, there’s one Toni Morrison, there’s one Alice Walker. So the major publishers seem to think we don’t need any more literature working on those levels. You know what I mean? But we can have lots of Bebe Moore Campbells and Terry McMillans. That level can be expanded.
The publishing industry has changed its positions. It used to be that a writer with a book that had respectable success was called a mid-list author. Somebody with the kind of success I had with my first book, An Open Weave, would immediately get a major press to take on their second book. Maybe even a contract for a second and a third book. They would put people with an editor who would shepherd your work through. That was the old industry before Coca-Cola and other corporations took over. With the new industry, if your first book didn’t sell 50,000 copies they don’t want to talk to you. My paperback run for An Open Weave was 25,000 copies, and now it’s out of print. No reprints. It’s a different world. Capitalism is about selling product.

PF: How do you deal with race in your own writing? How does race appear as part of your own writing?

dm: Culture appears. I’m serious. I write about what I think I know. Though I’m writing science fiction now. No, not sci-fi. It’s Speculative Fiction. As opposed to magical realism, this is absolutely speculative fiction. I don’t know as much about that, so I’m feeling my way more. But in the first two books, I wrote about Black families and Black communities. Although I made up the city in An Open Weave, I had a lot of visions of Englewood, New Jersey, which is a small town where my grandparents lived and we would visit during the summer. I wanted a small town with that kind of feel. But I used the geography of Southern California, because I knew Southern California geography. But in terms of what does a small town city feel like, I used the experience I had of Englewood, in which the part where we lived was all Black. Brown Glass Windows takes place in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. I came to adulthood in Fillmore; I’ve lived most of my adult life in Fillmore. So I wrote about a community I knew. There are rhythms of voice, and there’s music within my novels.

PF: I feel like it can be debated whether Fillmore is a Black community anymore, or has it been gentrified? Would you still consider Fillmore a Black community now?

dm: Well, the three blocks I’m in. (Laughter) I live in a co-op where they tore down the block to build it. Our co-op little area of the Hayes Valley is predominately Black. But of course, the Fillmore has been taken over. It’s in transition. There’s still a Black community there, I don’t think it’s debatable. In numbers, in businesses, and residents… It’s just a very fractured community. But that’s why they play to the Black vote there. If Black candidates run and win it’s because the Black vote there is present and progressive. Certainly, you don’t recognize Fillmore Street anymore, that’s what the book is about. But when I grew up it was still Black. When I was there I read poetry at Minnie’s Can Do Club. It was a Black-owned wine and beer club on Fillmore. They had open readings on Tuesday nights. It was the first place that Ntzoke Shange did “For Colored Girls…”. She was just doing poems from the play then; it hadn’t become a full show yet. When I saw “Colored Girls” in New York, I recognized some of the poems she used to read at Minnie’s. It was Black then.

PF: Why do you spell your name with lower case letters?

dm: Well, the way I started it was because my poems were in all lower case. Because I wanted the words to be valued for what they were. So that “The” didn’t have more value because it started a sentence. And someone’s name that just happens to be that name didn’t have more value than the act they did: ‘A man named John picked up a gun and shot his wife.’ John! On the page, to look at, the act of shooting his wife is not as important as the name. I thought that differentiating probably did something unconscious to you. So I started writing my poems all in lower case and just my name would be in upper case. Then I thought, ‘so now what am I saying?’ When you look at it on a page the name pops out. When you see poet’s names on a page with a poem in lower case, the name immediately jumps out before the poem, and I didn’t want that to happen. So I was equalizing it. The Rastas use i and i, and they write i and i in lower case. Because it’s not you and me, and it’s not I, a proper noun. If you think about a sentence, ‘I am doing this, and you are doing that.’ I am more important. Not just because I’m first, but because that’s the way you see it on the page. I was trying to make it all equal so people could find the value in the words. And it just naturally spun into my name.

PF: I have a two-part question. Recently you participated in the Living Word Literary Arts Festival in San Francisco, and one of the themes of the festival was “The Possibilities of Language.” First, what does that mean to you? Second, what do you see happening in the local writing community that interests you?

dm: If thoughts are things, and I do believe that thoughts are things, and if words are expressions of the things that thoughts are, then language can be a starting point to create change, to shape alternatives, to shape solutions, to shape actions. Before one acts one has the thought—unless we are dealing with a flight or fight kind of thing where it’s pure instinct—and the thought has a word, and that’s language. So language is very vital in these times, where we are in fact being so manipulated by the powers that be, manipulated to fear. Because the language is being used to keep people afraid. So while they are dismantling the Bill of Rights, people are saying, ‘Well, it’s better to be safe than sorry.’ It’s being done with the language.
So the possibilities of language for positive and negative are vast. It certainly is contingent upon us to find ways to be clear and speak truth, so people will hear and say, ‘This is truth. I feel it in my gut.’ And that is something that can be done with language. If enough people see truth they’ll move in the right way. I believe people are moving in the wrong way because they don’t understand it’s the wrong way. Except for a few people who don’t care because they want to run the universe. I mean, relatively speaking, most people want their families, they want a roof over their head, they want clothes, and a little leisure time.
In terms of writers in the Bay Area, I think that question is almost too big. There are a lot of exciting things happening. I love a lot of writers in the Bay Area. I love Marvin White, I think he’s fabulous. I love G. E. Patterson, who I probably shouldn’t call a Bay Area writer. He’s in the Bay Area for a few months every year. And of course, Opal (Palmer Adisa). I think that spoken word is not the same as writing, although people may write it down. It’s not the same as poetry, although it may interface. There’s more attention in poetry paid to issues of rhythm, metaphor, concise language, use of repetition sparingly. The words work on the page and live. As opposed to many spoken word artists who are dynamite when you hear them, but when you read them on the page they flatten out a lot. That’s because it’s spoken word, not written word! You have that difference because it’s in its life as spoken word; it’s not alive written as poetry. In spoken word there’s a nuance that turns and flips it that makes it good. Sometimes that’s effective, but sometimes people can rely on it and seem to do the same thing. The first two times you saw it, you were like ‘Wow!’ But then you find out that was their repertoire.

PF: Are you saying that poetry has more cultural value than spoken word?

dm: We don’t know until it stands the test of time. The reason I have always performed my poetry is that poetry is oral art. Absolutely. I think that it doesn’t live until it’s performed. So, no, I don’t think poetry has more value. What I think is that poets who perceive of themselves in that way spend more time looking at what the words are doing and how they’re doing it. Whereas my experience has been that spoken word artists will know they have a righteous idea, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. It works—at least it works when they do it. But what about when you die? Can somebody else pick that up and do it? Will it still resound? Will it last for five years, ten years or twenty-five years? Rumi is the best selling poet in America right now, and he’s been dead for centuries. That’s what I want my work to do. I want it to be around one hundred years from now, when I’m not. I want to get that good. And I don’t think I’m that good, but that’s how clean I want to be. How accessible. Because that means people who haven’t gone to college are buying books by Rumi, you know what I mean? All kinds of Arab peasants are quoting Rumi and talking about Rumi. And I think that aspiring to make that kind of cultural breath that lasts requires an assiduousness to craft that is not always present in spoken word today.

PF: I don’t think people would argue with you. I think most spoken word artists know what they’re doing and they write to get on the mic, first and foremost. So I think that is a fair critique or estimation of the two. However, spoken word is very popular and has a lot of people interested, whereas I feel that poetry still doesn’t get read that much.

dm: One reason is because the poetry that was exciting in performance isn’t seen that often. So most people get poetry shoved down their throats in school, and it left a very bad taste in their mouth, possibly a wretched case of indigestion. People are afraid of it. People already know they don’t like it. So it’s not because of the form. When I go into any high school I don’t do spoken word. I do poetry. I learn my stuff. I perform it. I know a lot of it by heart. I must say that spoken word has driven me to learn more off book. I was an actress; it’s not that big of a thing to learn lines. But I did that specifically for young people because they want to engage you while you’re performing. I do that. I’m not going to have the rhythms that a spoken word artist will; I’m a different generation. But I can still be as entertaining. Which is part of what spoken word does, it entertains. It’s relevant, it’s political, it’s now but it’s entertaining, too. And that’s why it’s gotten so popular. Because it’s all of those things. Who wants to be bored? I’ve been to some poetry readings, because I was on the bill, and I’ve been like ‘Oh God, please.’
And that’s why people have that response to poetry. Because there are so many poets who do not understand that their role is to excite, to bring the news, to be a sound, to be a match. They didn’t understand poetry in that way. They didn’t deliver it in that way. So it has got a bad rap. Historically, that’s not what poetry was. I understand that Kamau D’aood (from Los Angeles) says that when he went to Africa, nobody knew who he was, but he had audiences of one thousand, two thousand people. Because poetry there is oral, it’s culture. Poetry is a vital thing there, so people come out. But here, we’ve kind of killed it. So it’s not that the arts are different, but that people like myself, Kamau, Genny Lim, poets that are really performing in ways that are exciting, our voices weren’t really out there that much. Because that wasn’t what was being pushed. And now spoken word is there.

PF: What adjustments do you make in your process between writing a novel, and going to the page for poetry?

dm: I write character driven novels as opposed to plot driven novels. So characters either talk to me, or I start having them have conversations in my head. I then realize something is coming. I either run to the computer at home, or I pull off to the side of the road and write down a few lines. I put that piece away and come back to it later. I know where it fits. I might do this chapter and switch the order.
A poem is much more channeling for me, something strikes a chord. This week I’m working on a Basra poem.
Basra is a city in Iraq that is forty miles from where they say the Garden of Eden was. It’s where Sinbad was born, and where he took off for every one of his seven voyages. It’s where the oil pipe lines end and where the United States has been bombing since 1991. So we all know where Basra is, but we don’t know where Basra is. Because when I said Sinbad, you get a picture: ‘Oh I know where Sinbad’s voyages were.’ You’ve seen Sinbad movies, right? The market places, the guys with the turbans. Ok, so it’s a fake Basra. But still, we have a sense that it’s a real place. It’s near the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The U.S. completely bombed an oil refinery that’s been rebuilt. And they’re bombing it consistently.
I heard an interview with a family from Basra, and I was so moved by them. Particularly by this one woman, who whenever the bombers fly overhead, she just falls to the floor, curls up, and starts crying and weeping. Her husband can do nothing to calm her fears. They’ve already lost one house to bombs. So it’s been haunting me, and I’ve been writing. Now I need to find a way to get in the Garden of Eden. Because I think that the pipeline is the Garden of Eden, and the snake. But I can’t plan it like a plot. I’m just thinking on it, and worrying over it. And I’m an out loud poet. So I read my poem out loud while I’m writing it, and I hear it in my ear and I know I’m stuck at that part. Then I’ll read clear, and it’s like going down a path. You know how you get stuck in a maze, and then you back track from here and go another way? That’s how I write. I go, ‘Ok. That was the wrong direction’. So I go back to the beginning of the maze, and find out where I was going. It’s much more of a meditation; I don’t control where it goes. I open doors up and let it go. With a novel, once the characters have shown themselves, I feel like I have more control over it. More intellectual control. Whereas poetry is much more of a spiritual route.

PF: Your Basra poem sounds like it has a lot to do with what is happening right now. It wasn’t like a voice from Basra spoke to you in your head. It was like an external experience, as if your poetry comes from a level of greater or collective consciousness.

dm: Yes. It was haunting me. It was like you need to write about this. Because this is here. People aren’t looking, aren’t understanding. You look at Baghdad getting bombed—Baghdad is the cradle of Western Civilization. It’s not just any old city. You can bomb LA. I mean, I don’t think we should bomb LA. Still, what’s going to be lost, primarily, is a lot of wonderful beings. But when you bomb Baghdad, you lose 5,000 years of human history, too. So I feel like we need to understand the language of the war that’s being fought, and what is being destroyed. It’s a different place. I am political, but I don’t ever think ‘I’m going to write a political anti-war poem.’ I never think like that. Like terrorism…OK. What is terror? What does terror mean? And I came up with a poem on terrorism. I remember looking at this book at my parent’s house with lynching photos and there was a little kid grinning at the camera. At the time, I was a little kid, and I shivered with fear that there were people who would do this. As a child, looking at the picture was terrorizing to me. That became the start of my poem on terrorism. Even though terrorism was the issue in the air, I couldn’t just start there.

PF: But you decided to write a poem, not a novel about terrorism.

dm: I don’t know how to write a novel about a thing, I only know how to write a novel to tell stories. So I tell stories about people. I know how to talk about people. People do write novels about things like that. Although I perceive of my writing to be incredibly political, progressive, revolutionary—that’s the voice I try to bring to it—I don’t write revolutionary poetry. I try to write truth.

PF: That can be revolutionary in itself.

dm: But I try not to be didactic. I don’t want to try to tell people how to think; I don’t think that’s poetry. I don’t want to tell people how to feel. I just want to be able to say: ‘Dying baby. Castrated man. Beaten woman. Are you mad yet?’ You know? I don’t want to tell people to get angry. Because if they don’t get angry, they’re lost. It’s very different for me to tell a story, or paint a word picture. Even when I go narrative in a poem, I’m not investigating their character. But what makes a novel unique is this character loving this character. It’s this individual character surmounting this hardship. There are thousands of novels about a character surmounting a hardship, about a character facing death. So what makes it different? What makes it different is the individual or individuals that we use the novel to study. But it’s different in a poem; a poem is about spirit. It’s much closer to prayer for me. It’s not in my head; it’s totally in my heart and my belly. It’s a physically different place.

END

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