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Jack Foley (Foley)
Username: Foley

Post Number: 179
Registered: 01-2010
Posted on Sunday, July 06, 2014 - 12:02 pm:   Edit Post Print Post



Don’t let the minute spoil the hour.
—Ted Joans

One of the best pieces of news for readers in this year 2000 is the appearance of a widely-distributed, easy-to-find, generous selection of the poems of Ted Joans. For that we have Coffee House Press to thank—and particularly Gerald Nicosia, who wrote the introduction to the book.

Those of us who have had the good luck to hear Ted Joans read know what he’s about: we have had to search in rare book stores, used book stores, even new book stores, just to get a shot of that wonderful, wildly imaginative oeuvre of his; people who have heard him know, and so we look for his books.

Joans is Beat, yes—one of the originals—but he has never benefited from the extraordinary publicity given to so many Beat writers, and he is only rarely included in Beat anthologies. You can find him in Ann Charters’ The Beat Reader, but only in the hardcover version: he has been excised from the paperback—despite the fact that one of his phrases is the title of one of Charters’ sections. Joans is Surrealist—one of the originals there too—but you won’t find him in those anthologies either. Indeed, he is African American, but most anthologies of African American writing (including the big Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay) exclude him. Amazingly, you will find him in Women of the Beat Generation, edited by Brenda Knight.

There are many reasons—most of them to the great discredit of the anthologists—for this neglect, but perhaps the most important thing to know about it is the fact that Joans really doesn’t care. He is about the least careerist poet one could imagine. He wrote to me once, “I was never in the rat race, only the rhino race [the rhino is his totem animal] in search of the marvelous.”

That’s it exactly. The “marvelous”—with full Surrealist implications of that word—is what he aims for over and over again. You won’t find the marvelous in anthologies—or, if you do, you find it accidentally: the point of the anthology is not the marvelous. Joans is that most American of things, an independent thinker, and some people have found him “difficult” as a result. Again, he couldn’t care less. He was an “unreconstructed black man” long before Quincy Troupe formulated the concept in order to talk about Miles Davis. Like Miles Davis, Joans is deeply American and constantly on the edge, an artist whose parameters are not easy to define; like Davis, he has remained in motion.

Wow: Poems by Ted Joans with Drawings by Laura Corsiglia is the kind of book Joans has published for many years. A limited edition, elegant, with beautiful work by both poet and artist. Here is “Above Him” from that book:

I saw Senghor
I was above him
Not hovering
Like a cloud
or a helicopter
but just a
Looking down
At Senghor the poet
Who hovers high
Like a cloud
or a heavenly
filled with leaflets
that shame betterflies’ wings
And rainbows end
I saw Senghor
the poet
Dressed in contradiction.

The word play (“betterflies” is intentional), the paradox of above and below, the careful observation—all these are characteristic of Joans, who is himself often “Dressed in contradiction.”

Teducation—as the name might suggest—is a much heftier book and, as I mentioned, reasonably easy to find. It covers the waterfront if you want a full dose of Joans at all periods. Its range is extraordinarily wide, including delicate lyrics, “hand grenade poems,” Surreal pieces, “sound” pieces, love poems, “jazz” pieces like “Jazz Anatomy” (“my penis is a violin / my chest is a guitar”)—all immensely enlivened by the poet’s wonderfully inventive, playful sense of language. This is “Watermelon”:

It’s got a good shape / the outside color is green / it’s one of them
foods from Africa
It’s got stripes sometimes like a zebra or Florida prison pants
It’s bright red inside / the black eyes are flat and shiny / it won’t
make you fat
It’s got heavy liquid weight / the sweet taste is unique / some people
are shamed of it /
I ain’t afraid to eat it / indoors or out / it’s a soul food thing / Watermelon
is what I’m
Talking about Yeah watermelon is what I’m talking about

Joans is a considerable visual artist—one of his paintings, “Bird Lives,” hangs in San Francisco’s de Young Museum—but in this book you’ll find some magnificent Surrealist drawings by Heriberto Cogollo. Cogollo’s La Vendedora de Nada (The Seller of Nothing) alone is worth the price of the book. The cover illustration, obviously mislabeled by Coffee House, is by Wilfredo Lam.

It’s wonderful to have this book, and Coffee House deserves our praise and gratitude for making it available.

But I want to close with a blurb, never printed, I wrote for one of Joans’ books:

Who but Ted Joans—that’s J-o-a-n-s, not J-o-n-e-s—would have transformed the word “Surrealist” into “Sure, really I is”? This brilliantly playful, deeply serious (Groucho) Marxist has been creating exemplary art, music and poetry since the days of the Gaslight, Cafe Wha and Cafe Bizarre in Beat-era Greenwich Village—since the day in 1955 when he and some friends stunningly denied the death of jazz great Charlie Parker by scrawling “BIRD LIVES” all over New York. An intimate of André Breton, Max Ernst and Paul Bowles, this spiritual son of Langston Hughes is well aware of the African connections of Surrealism—knows that “Dada” is a word you can find in Africa. Joans is the original Rent-a-Beatnik, a hep cat from a 40s band who has blown his way around the world from Cairo, Illinois to Cairo, Egypt. He has lived everywhere, done everything; he’s spent time in Seattle, Timbuktu and Paris (which he has attempted to “sell”). He is the last hipster, the last bohemian, someone who astonishes the young by magnificently asserting a way of life it never occurred to them existed. The best word for him is an ancient African one: “wow.” Do you want “an alternative life style”? Do you want poetry? Well, shut my mouth wide open. Joans lives.

Laura Corsiglia writes on the fourth of July, 11:56 p.m.:

Dear friends & family,

happy tedjoans’ birthday (observed)!

in hope you are well in health and spirits

+++ Now it is time for a poem & libation, while it's still today on the western edge.
I was thinking of this one - Jazz Anatomy - please pick up its sounds aloud, with your mouth!

It's in Mehr Blitzliebe Poems, Verlag Michael Kellner, Hamburg 1982, and in Teducation, Coffee House Press 1999.

Jazz Anatomy

my head is a trumpet
my heart is a drum
both arms are pianos
both legs are bass viols
my stomach the trombone
my nose the saxophone
both lungs are flutes
both ears are clarinets
my penis is a violin
my chest is a guitar
vibes are my ribs
cymbals are my eyes
my mouth is the score
and my soul is where the music lies

Dedicated to the memory of Ted Joans which lives when spoken aloud/
and to the memory of Mr. Jack Hazzard whose passage i just learned.

I answered:


Beautiful Ted
Father of his country
Of jazz and “bread”
And Surreal effront'ry!
I hear his voice
Sublimely blowing
And his mama's comment:
"Ted, your thing is showing!"
Oh, it showed, it showed!

“A man drinks sun, is water, is earth” *

* “el hombre bebe sol, es agua, es tierra”
—Octavio Paz, “Serpiente Labrada Sobre Un Muro” (“Serpent Carved on a Wall”)

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