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People Get ReadyAfrican American and Caribbean Cultural Exchange$

Kevin Meehan

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9781604732818

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604732818.001.0001

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(p.162) Appendix An Interview with Jayne Cortez

(p.162) Appendix An Interview with Jayne Cortez

Source:
People Get Ready
Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi

Recorded by telephone February 12, 2001, 6:05–6:35 P.M

Revised through correspondence in 2003 and 2006.

KM:

  • I guess the first question I have is how you came to write this group of poems.
  • JC:

  • Maybe I should talk about each person because I did not write these poems as a group.
  • KM:

  • Could you start with Damas?
  • JC:

  • In the fall of 1969 Damas participated in a conference in Canada. On his way back to France he stopped in New York City. He stayed with a friend who was a professor at New York University. I met him, gave him my book of poetry, took him to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Later, I introduced him to the sculptor Melvin Edwards, and together we took Damas all over New York City. He decided to extend his visit and moved into the Great Northern Hotel. Damas introduced us to Wilfred Cartey. With Damas we had many conversations about Negritude, Africa, art, poetry, politics, and French Guiana. We became close and were his extended family in the United States. Later, his lovely wife, Marietta, came from Brazil to join him in Washington, D.C., where he accepted teaching positions at Federal City College and Howard University. We stayed in contact by telephone and frequent visits. He was like an older brother, a mentor and adviser. He passed in 1978, and I read his poems at the funeral. We did New York things while in New York, went to hear a lot of music, that kind of thing. We took him to jazz clubs, to places like Slugs’ on the Lower East Side of New York City. (p.163)
  • KM:

  • What was his reaction to those places?
  • JC:

  • Oh, wonderful, you know. He’d push his hat to one side and groove to the music of Sun Ra. We had a great time [laughter]. Damas introduced us to some very good French wine. Damas was very sharp, he was a sharp thinker, a real critical thinker, and he could put his finger on the pulse right away. He was a sharp, intense, humorous, confrontational brother all in one slice.
  • KM:

  • Do you have an anecdote about that quality?
  • JC:

  • He did not like being used or manipulated. That attitude is projected in his poetry. In all of our conversations when he commented on something or somebody, he sort of was able to go straight to the core of it and do it in two or three words, just like his poetry—rhythmic—and just like that with that curious gleam in his eye. He was very poetic, ironic, and precise.
  • KM:

  • Did you collaborate with him at all on creative projects?
  • JC:

  • We did not have time to collaborate on any projects. He was instrumental in my receiving a grant to go to Africa in 1970. It was my second trip to Africa. It was just a friendship, very close, brother-sister friendship. And you know we just went back and forth. He was preoccupied with his responsibilities as director of the Institute for African Studies at Howard University, but he would call me with whatever he was thinking. We were people, and we just went back and forth like that.
  • KM:

  • Any other comments about Marietta?
  • JC:

  • Yeah, Marietta Campos Damas was from Brazil, she was from Rio de Janeiro. She worked in a bank there. Her father was a writer, and she was introduced to Damas by artist-politician Abdias Nascimento. In fact, after his death, and after she left Washington, D.C., and went back to Brazil, we went there and visited her on a couple of occasions and made long distance calls back and forth until her passing. She was like him, different but like him. I could see why they were really together because they complemented each other. She was a cultural activist and a warm, wise person. She was his driver, she was his chauffeur [laughter], and he was a good cook, a very good cook. Damas cooked a mean French Guiana fish stew.
  • KM:

  • Did it have red pepper in it?
  • JC:

  • It had red pepper in it—lots of red pepper. I call the poem I wrote for Damas “The Red Pepper Poet” because he was very hot and very intense and direct. It was through Damas that I met Leopold Senghor in the early ’70s. He was here in New York for something with the PEN American Center, and to (p.164) read his poetry at the 92nd Street Y. Mel and I also went with Damas to a conference honoring Senghor in Vermont, and I had a chance to sit down and be in their company while they were together privately. It was very good, but you know being in that situation at that time, I wasn’t really thinking that this was “important,” I just thought I was there. Just listening, just tuning in. I like the works of Senghor, I like the works of Damas and Césaire.
  • KM:

  • Did Senghor read at all during this time?
  • JC:

  • Yes, Senghor read at the 92nd Street Y. And I remember that reading very well because I think he played some kora music in the background, and I remember sitting there listening to him read, and sitting next to Robert Hayden, and Raymond Patterson too.
  • KM:

  • Was that before you used kora music in your recordings?
  • JC:

  • Oh, yeah, way before I’d used kora, way before. But I had used other combinations of African and Western instruments.
  • KM:

  • Did you get any inspiration from him, or was it just a natural evolution on your part?
  • JC:

  • I think I was inspired by that whole Negritude movement. By the fact of their revolutionary intentions at the moment, I think I was very influenced by that, and many people—well not many people, but poets in the 1960s—would have taken a look at that movement, and a look at Fanon coming as a part of it too. They were against colonialism and imperialism. They were asserting their blackness at a time when it was not the popular thing to do. Damas and Césaire had revolutionary intentions.
  • KM:

  • Does Negritude go beyond the thematic issues and the focus on revolutionary intention? Do the Negritude writers also represent a kind of artistic practice, or a model of how to be an artist?
  • JC:

  • They’re definitely a model of how to be an artist, that would be the first thing to me because once those particular poets chose that way in order to express themselves, I think how they were going to do it was very important. They were students of literature, students of history. They were interested in African liberation, in black freedom. They explored the conditions and possibilities in their poems. Damas used rhythms, Césaire used surrealism, and Senghor was like a pro-African romantic. Negritude encompasses everything. It has variety, it’s a way of life. (p.165)
  • KM:

  • How were they different?
  • JC:

  • They were different because they were three different people. One was from Senegal, one from Martinique, one from French Guiana. And it was different because they were from different families, and because they had different concepts. But they had a lot in common because when they came together as students in Paris then they were certainly interested in clearing up some misinformation. They all dealt with Western art and culture as if it had already been strongly influenced by African culture. They had gone a long way together. They were artists and they were brotherly.
  • KM:

  • What about Aimé Césaire?
  • JC:

  • I met Aimé Césaire in 1979. I had already read his Return to My Native Land, I think in the late ’60s. I was impressed with the way he wrote that, his returning home to find himself, to purge himself of his years in France, to try to find a new direction, to carve out a new path for himself through the use of the subconscious as a way of liberating himself. I thought that was really explosive. I thought the way he put words together and his use of surrealism was fantastically dynamic.
  • KM:

  • Is Return to My Native Land the main work for you in your processing of Aimé Césaire?
  • JC:

  • Well that was what I first read. Later I read his other poetry, plays, and essays on colonialism. He’s one of the great poets of the twentieth century. A profound person in literature and philosophy.
  • KM:

  • Why hasn’t he gotten a Nobel Prize?
  • JC:

  • Well, I don’t think he’s sitting by the door waiting. He is a great poet. And so if they were giving it based on the fact that you did something with the language and based on that you are a great poet, then they would have given it to him, but obviously that’s not the reason that you get the vote for a Nobel Prize. The Nobel committee is not of noble intent. Nobel is a prize backed by dynamite. Negritude is too explosive.
  • KM:

  • I wanted to ask you about Nicolás Guillén as well, who is from the same generation but coming from a different place in the Caribbean.
  • JC:

  • When I discovered the poetry of Damas and Césaire, I also discovered the poems of Nicolás Guillén. All those pieces were translated by Langston Hughes, you know in that anthology, Poetry of the Negro. Somebody gave me (p.166) that in about 1963, and I don’t know why but I really was attracted to those particular poets, and so I became aware of the Negritude movement, Negrismo, Haiti, the Negro Renaissance, and their connection to the civil rights movement, the Black Arts Movement.
  • KM:

  • There’s a continuum.
  • JC:

  • Yes, a continuum. And so, with Guillén, I discovered his work, and then I had a chance to go to Cuba, but the first time I went to Cuba was in 1981 and I didn’t find Nicolás Guillén. When I went back in 1985, I was leading a delegation of African American women writers and I met Nicolás Guillén. He was at UNEAC [Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba]. He was there listening to some young school kids who recited and sang his poetry. The poet Nancy Morejón introduced us. It was a really wonderful moment, and Nicolás Guillén enjoyed meeting all the women.
  • KM:

  • What about Ana Mendieta, another Cuban connection?
  • JC:

  • I went to Cuba with Ana in 1981. We were Ana’s New York family. She was my next-door neighbor. We were very close: we ate together, joked together, went to hear music together, went to Cuba together, shared secrets together. She was a short, tough lady, a very talented artist, just a forceful, fantastic person.
  • KM:

  • And your husband has a sculpture, Justice for Tropic Ana, based on her work?
  • JC:

  • It’s not based on her work, but it is dedicated to her. We think of Ana always, especially when we go to Cuba and things like that.
  • KM:

  • Can you say something about Gilberto de la Nuez?
  • JC:

  • Gilberto was an artist, a painter in Havana. Gilberto died oh I guess it must have been maybe five years now since his death, but was a wonderful painter, a self-taught painter of historical Cuban themes. We used to go and visit Gilberto and his family. We own some of his paintings.
  • KM:

  • Can you describe them at all?
  • JC:

  • I guess they would be—what would they be considered—folkloric, maybe. He painted scenes of Cuban life, and would paint the celebrations in the plaza. Like if there were musicians in a park or dancing in a park, he would draw and paint those figures. But it’s more than that, it just had a real freedom and free (p.167) flow about it, and I would have to show you that for you to see it. He painted the struggles of people. He painted the revolt against slavery. He painted leaders of the labor movement. He painted life in the streets of Havana.
  • KM:

  • We’ve talked about the Francophone and Creole-speaking and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but not the English speaking Caribbean yet.
  • JC:

  • Well, Mel and I met Wilfred Cartey at a party in Manhattan in the winter of 1969. That party was for Léon Damas, so we went and we took Damas to the party which was full of people from the Caribbean and Africa, and we met Wilfred there and became acquainted of course with his Whispers and became friends. Over the years we organized together a series of dialogues called Focus on Southern Africa which we presented at the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem from about 1975 to 1981. You know Wilfred was a professor [laughter] of African Caribbean literature, he was a writer, a poet, but he had—all of these people seemed to have—a good sense of humor. He was very serious person too! Mel and I spent many evenings at Wilfred’s apartment meeting his family and friends and organizing cultural and political events.
  • KM:

  • Where was he from again?
  • JC:

  • Trinidad.
  • KM:

  • In the list that I made, there is a poem for another Trinidadian, John La Rose.
  • JC:

  • John La Rose ok, well, let’s see—
  • KM:

  • “Lord Political Activator”—
  • JC:

  • —yes [laughter]. Through a person named William Tanifeani in Paris, I met Darcus Howe and his wife, Leila. I don’t know if you Darcus Howe—
  • KM:

  • Sure, the name and the work, not personally—
  • JC:

  • —I met Darcus in Paris in 1984. They came to the hotel and talked about the Black Third World and Radical Book Fair in London. They asked me if I ever wanted to come. I said, “Sure.” And then I received an invitation from John La Rose to read there in 1985, which is when I met John and his wife, Sara, and his son, Michael, and other writers and activists in London including Linton Kwesi Johnson, David Abdullah, Jean Binta Breeze, and Lorna Goodison. Later, I met C. L. R. James who lived in a building where Race Today had its offices and David Abdullah. I attended the book fair until it ended—I can’t remember (p.168) the exact date that it ended in the 1990s—but I’m still in touch with John and Linton. We still talk on the telephone, and I when I visit London I visit John and his wife in their bookstore.
  • KM:

  • New Beacon?
  • JC:

  • Yep.
  • KM:

  • Which is still open?
  • JC:

  • Still open. You know they created a meeting place upstairs in the same building as New Beacon, it’s called the George Padmore Center. They have people coming in to give talks, and to have conversations and so on there.
  • KM:

  • You have a poem for Mikey Smith as well.
  • JC:

  • Mikey Smith, yes. Yes, yes, yes. I met Michael Smith in 1982. In 1982 we were both reading with about fifteen other poets from the world at UNESCO in Paris. The event was called “Guerre à la Guerre,” which is “War against War,” and we became close friends right then and there. We traveled together all through Paris, and then we traveled together to Milan, Italy, to read. And I remember one night, reading in this cold, cold church in Milan, and my work wasn’t translated into Italian [laughter], and neither were any of the other works. I mean, the poets were from different places—Russia, you know. I think the only person really translated was Lawrence Ferlinghetti—oh yeah, and Allen Ginsburg, they both had stuff in Italian. But I did not have my translations and so I read in English, and it was a pretty interesting reading, I thought. Anyhow, some guy jumped up and said, “Oh! Read in Italian, da-da-da-da-dada,” and Michael jumped and told the guy he was gonna kick his behind [heavy laughter]. So it was like that, you know. It was an experience knowing Michael, and Michael, to me, when I heard him read, he was such a brilliant dub poet. He had his message to give, and I guess it was that message that got him in trouble. He was very pure. Actually, it was Linton who called me in 1983 to tell me about Michael’s death. I was really stunned.
  • KM:

  • When you travel overseas, do you ever read in languages other than English?
  • JC:

  • No, but my work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, so usually I read in English and somebody else will read in French or whatever.
  • KM:

  • How about the musicians, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh?
  • JC:

  • Well, everybody knew of Bob Marley, I never met Bob Marley. He was a brilliant composer/songwriter and interpreter of his music. He gave us a new (p.169) moment in music which was an extension and a musical innovation that produced reggae. I did have the opportunity to tour with Peter Tosh. I was contacted by Peter Tosh’s manager, Herbie Miller, who had heard my recording “Celebrations and Solitudes” with bass player Richard Davis. Herbie loved jazz and liked what we did on the recording, and so Richard and I had a chance to travel and be on the same bill with Peter Tosh’s group in Chicago and in Madison, Wisconsin. I was very impressed with Peter and in having a chance to ride on the bus with them, with the group. Listening to their conversations and seeing what kind of books they read, I was really really impressed because they had a lot of books on the black experience, black history, black political thought, which I thought was good. It was a wonderful experience and a significant opportunity to exchange ideas with a major poetic voice in contemporary Jamaican music.
  • KM:

  • What year was that?
  • JC:

  • That had to be, 1979, ’78–’79, somewhere in there.
  • KM:

  • When you think about the music that you use in your recordings, do you think about the influence of Caribbean music at all?
  • JC:

  • [Thoughtful pause.] It depends on what I’m trying to do. Certainly, when I thought about Nicolás Guillén and working on that piece with musicians, we thought about Cuba and Cuban music, and the influence of Cuban music. I thought about Cuba and Africa. The musicians respond to the poems—to the images, pitch, direction, and word sounds like “I See Chano Pozo,” or “Adupe.” It would be the same about music from other places in the Caribbean. I think the poem “Gypsy Cabman” has a nice island bounce to it.
  • KM:

  • If you think about the Caribbean-based poems as a group, do they have any significance to you as a group?
  • JC:

  • I just don’t—I can’t—think about them as a group, except that these are a group of people—I mean, I knew the people. There was some relationship there. I’d have to sit down and look at all those pieces as a group. They are a part of my Pan-African life as a writer.
  • KM:

  • Do you think that your connections with the Caribbean are like that, too, that they just flow from the anecdotes and the relationships in your life?
  • JC:

  • I think they flow from relationships. There’s just a back-and-forth movement that we’ve all had. And you know living in New York City, with so many people from the Caribbean right here, who are friends, it’s just a back and forth, kind of give-and-take response to each other. You know, we’re in the same struggle, (p.170) you see, and we share the same ancestors, we have the same—you know, we’re talking about the transatlantic slave trade and it’s consequences. We are there, we’re together. We organize together. In 1997, I helped organize the conference “Yari Yari: Black Women Writers and the Future” at NYU, and this included several women from the Caribbean, as well as women from Africa. And then in 1999, when I proposed and organized a conference called “Slaves Routes: A Long Memory” at NYU, it included a lot of Caribbean scholars. Maryse Condé also helped by organizing two panels at Columbia. So we all came together to talk about the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences, where we are now and how do we get beyond it.
  • KM:

  • So the Caribbean/African American dialogue, part of it is that it fits into a larger picture, which is a Pan-African picture?
  • JC:

  • It’s a Pan-African picture, and it always was. The dialogue and the friendships, and the sister-brotherly family, it will continue.
  • KM:

  • Can you say something about the reception of your work in Caribbean settings?
  • JC:

  • I’ve read in Cuba, in Guadeloupe, in Trinidad, in Martinique, and in French Guiana. The reception, or the comments, were always very interesting, a lot of questions about the work, the images, and about the struggle in the United States, about what we’re doing here, and about music. I think the response to my work was wonderful.
  • KM:

  • Let me ask you about one line in particular. I think the name of the poem is “Rum,” and I love this two-line bit that goes, “Caliban for literature/Rum for reality.”
  • JC:

  • [laughter]. I don’t know what I was thinking! When I was writing it and thinking about rum, and about all the rum I’d had, and all of the people I’d had rum with, then you know somehow that made me think about how much Caliban is used in literature. And how it should just stay there, because it has nothing to do with the life outside, really, but rum is closer to it. Yes it’s just that: Caliban for literature and rum for the people.
  • KM:

  • So that’s a happy kind of statement in some way?
  • JC:

  • Yes.
  • KM:

  • There’s one question I had that’s not specific to your Caribbean poems. I was dying to hear something about the book with Ted Joans.
  • JC:

  • Ted has a new book out. (p.171)
  • KM:

  • Teducation.
  • JC:

  • Yeah, you have that?
  • KM:

  • Um-hmm, yes.
  • JC:

  • I published his book, The Flying Piranha with Joyce Mansour. That had to be in the ’80s. I just got a letter from Ted telling me he was going to be here in February, this February, but he hasn’t shown up yet. I used to see Ted in Paris a lot, but Ted now lives in Canada, in Vancouver, and for past three years or four years he lived in Seattle, Washington. But he still spends a lot of time in Africa, so our paths always cross, and we always stay in touch and write each other back and forth throughout the year.
  • KM:

  • How did you get in touch with him in the first place?
  • JC:

  • In the first place, I met Ted Joans when I first came to New York—no I came to New York in ’67 and I met Ted Joans ’68. I think it was ’68 because I was at a party that Nikki Giovanni was having, among other people, and Ted Joans was there. And I met this very talkative man [laughter], who was talking so much about the Sahara Desert, and all this stuff about crossing the desert, and all these places. It was very good for me, because I had just been, I had just come from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, I had come from there into New York in 1967. Then later I got a phone call from him, saying, “You wrote Pissstained Stairs and the Monkeyman’s Wares?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I wanna meet you, this is Ted Joans.” And I think I was reading at The East, we met and went to The East with friends that night. The East was a cultural center on Claver Place in Brooklyn that presented musicians and poets. I used to read there on the same bill with singer Betty Carter or Sun Ra and his Arkestra. But that’s how I met Ted, and we’ve been really good friends ever since. Ted Joans is my brother, one of my favorite poets and a surrealist comrade.