Madison McCartha: Admittedly, my reasons for pursuing this interview are existential; I still find myself wondering who, exactly, my poetry is ‘for’, and what it ‘does’? For many Black poets, I imagine, questions of audience can feel particularly heavy, or urgent, and so I wonder if you’d be willing to discuss how you’ve handled these questions earlier on in your career?
Will Alexander: What I’ve known from the beginning is that the power of language remains solar, ignites in all lands, and has the capability to form bonds with all manner of beings. This is not a naive or arrogant statement. Since the nature of my language has naturally felt empowered by its solar leaning I have never had to consciously question its leaning or value. It has always remained inspired by a natural psychology that has continued to course through its realm. It has always remained inspired by the character of urgency, and this urgency has remained not unlike a living spell—a lingual centigrade capable of overcoming the disparate nature of all rational categories. Not unlike Bud Powell’s poetry formed in me before I knew what it was. When I first heard Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane collaborate I felt something brewing in me not unlike a field of rye on fire in my system—an intuition which I have followed since the beginning. When I first heard Jackie McLean I instantly felt New York City, even though I was 14 and never close enough to get there, having grown up on the West Coast. This is not to say that assiduous study and personal struggle did not transpire. As Max Roach once put it, artistic power is not without its doubts and inspirations; artistic power transpires through struggle. This is certainly not poetic ignition as we’ve been taught to know it. Thus beings such as Robert Frost have never been on my agenda as absolute necessity. Poetry, as an activity, has never been academic, but one of desperation and necessity.
MM: Andrew Joron—who I imagine you’ve known for many years—describes the speaker in your poems as a voice forged in a “cataclysm akin to the one that created the chemical elements.” Joron also writes that your poems are actively engaged in a “struggle against,” invoking Manuel De Landa, “‘linear equilibrium structures’,” and that your work argues for “a language in which the vocabularies of magic and science become (once again, but as never before) interchangeable.” What do ‘you’ feel the charge between these different registers makes possible in the poem?
WA: I have known Andrew Joron for many years. To me it is a seasoned and telepathic friendship that doesn’t need superficial tending. The level from which we work is naturally intuitive. Friendship in this sense never functions according to a conversation that extolls the architecture of the immediate, yet I always feel his immediacy as a special form of poetic wisdom. Because our conversations feel infinitely protracted, quotidian daily movement is never of concern. It feels as a realm saturated with maturation. For us language has never been moved by ideology, yet Surrealism has remained for us ignition via susurration. The voice that arises as magic, that arises from the purest charge of language. To communicate such depth an alchemical quiet is required. And this quiet requires the rules of ones on advancement. Let me say from my end that poetic language is a magical component; it does not arise from the residue of quotidian approximation. Instead it crystallizes and rivets. In a curious sense it is not unlike the language of science that carries the cadence of other realms. As I’ve developed this cadence has continued to evolve as a continuing mechanism of sound.
MM: Do you feel there were other writers or experiences which gave you permission to work this way?
WA: Because my poetry extends from my own Afro-Indian rooting, writers such as Bob Kaufman, Octavio Paz, Aimé Césaire and Philip Lamantia naturally appealed to me. As I stated in the introduction to The Combustion Cycle, I have a naturally non-linear mind that sees no contradiction between the gargantuan and the microscopic, between the visible and invisible, the higher and the lower. I understand us to be subsequent creatures who extend from natural forces, whether individual belief systems square with this or not. In this sense I remain non-ideological and resistant to exteriorised coding. The liberty of the imagination remains crucial. In hindsight I can now call this scholarship by synecdoche. My zeal to know the world continues to be scattered according to linear modeling. When I graduated school and evolved beyond the transient nature of the grading system I began to relax knowing I had escaped shadowy stricture. A bound grenade of atoms somehow creating life-long self assessment. Not unlike the threat that issues from Christian belief. Threat diminishes possibility, creates susurrant bedlam so that the imagination is altered by the collective pall of quotidian sense that resembles domesticated quilt making that limits and sires logic as a prime sense of beauty.
MM: I’m glad you found a way out. A few years ago a younger poet asked me how they might reconcile their “role” as a poet in the world and the role of their writing — something especially difficult for artists whose goal isn’t necessarily transparent communication. Seems like the way out of this question, for many poets, is to teach poetry, but of course not everyone finds that to be the most practical or urgent solution. I’m thinking of experimental poet Rodrigo Toscano who works as a union organizer, or the late Aimé Césaire who went into politics, etc. — Have you dealt with this question before? How do ‘you’ deal?
WA: My development vis-a-vis the world has remained protracted and difficult. I remember once telling a professor at UCLA that I wanted to be a poet. He attempted to shy me away from the topic and I understand why. I was always concerned with developing inner lingual power so I have never organically been bound to the glistening of material reward. Octavio Paz and others such as Octavia E. Butler have taken low earning positions along the way sacrificing an exteriorised, material claim for one that blooms as inner imaginal power. Common perception seems to always judge one’s effort according to outer display. This remains a common difficulty for poets especially during the dawning of their initial effort.
MM: Have you ever felt, over the years, a certain duty or obligation to give back to the literary community in ways other than writing?
WA: As one extends one’s poetic praxis an evolutive propulsion transpires. What seemed out of the question during one’s early lingual dawning naturally develops and kinetically matures over duration. For instance, at the outsmart, I had no idea I would be writing book blurbs, or writing aphorisms or plays or drawing covers for myself and others. In other words the poetic act cannot be planned development. It is not industry, though if you read some poetic quarterlies you get the sense of a seminar always hectored by a sense of rivalry and who is smartest. It remains like being condoned by an adolescent culture. Thus one remains at home and never strikes out into the wilderness. One remains a perpetual under study repeating oneself ad infinitum. Maybe what seems to be weakness according to conventional agreement somehow morphs into unalterable strength. What I’m saying is that there is no formula for mature lingual progression. Because one is in such a struggle to maneuver life’s waters there is no time to chart fatigue or consider the quicksand that is the marketplace. Out of this other genuine practitioners emerge not perhaps from some popular or adolescent clique but the complexity that rises from genuine quality. Poetry is not the exercise we find in the sports page or other forms of commercialized praxis. When the public began reading Rimbaud he had realized further adventure. What makes genuine poetry so scarce it is not about quantity. It is about the genuine quality of one’s evolutive effort.
MM: Thank you for this insight. I’ve been meaning to ask you, specifically, about the “I” in The Combustion Cycle:
[from “The Henbane Bird”:
my molecules ghosts /
my genetics in abstentia //
of the avians /
I am the pre-existing Hillstar /
not collapsed into form //
I am obscure /
& proto-endemic as voltage /
like a sun minus saffron as weight /
MM: If a poem’s speaker can arrive from nowhere, or from nothing (e.g. Anne Waldman’s “Painting Makeup on Empty Space”), understanding this speaker as an ‘obscure’ presence, ‘not collapsed into form’, affords a great freedom both to the poet and to the ways the poem might move. For you, an enduring visionary shamanic practice, you suggest in your introduction, makes this particular non-linear movement and ‘felt experience’ possible. Do you feel this is another reason you were drawn to the work and character of Philip Lamantia?
WA: Césaire once put it that Breton taught us “boldness.” He was speaking of a positive trait past onward by association with Breton. When I met Lamantia we had a 12 hour conversation that crossed the boundary of one day spilling over into the next. For me it was an experience that commingled stamina and insight. We commenced our conversation one afternoon and it ended up crossing the horizon of the following day. Much like commingling with the conversational energy that I’ve had with Charles Mingus’s drummer Dannie Richmond, and the alto player Jackie McLean to a lesser degree, the conversation with Lamantia came at an earlier development in my life and was more intense and protracted. For me it was not unlike sustained absorption that continues to this hour. Having conversation with Lamantia was like absorbing a living flow of invisible nutrients that continues to propel an alchemical lingual praxis. This was not didactic contact on my behalf but one of propulsive energy. Not cannibalism of energy but commingling with its rays that issue from fertility. This conversation retains its essence for me because I was not seeking the moment but striding into a transpersonal realm. What was and remains paramount for is remaining conversant with states of energy that empower the mind other than the rational mind. I knew of no other being so magnetically connected to surrealism at its root. He who held the honor of Breton’s enabling presence retained the latter’s commanding, moral presence. The honesty of Breton’s first inscription remained alive in Philip not unlike a bevy of latter day pseudo practitioners. Like Césaire he was an original meteor, a practitioner rife with integrity. He remained alive for me with the charisma of originality. I feel honored to have known him.
MM: That’s an incredible account. To be honest, sometimes I feel my own work is coming, in part, from this kind of visionary tradition, but am hesitant to name it, since scholars of poetry tend to shy away from its association with the occult. Additionally, my impression has been that many Black poets in the US, who have struggled historically to gain recognition or legitimacy in academic institutions, also shy away from this association. Have you found this to be true? If so, how have you navigated this?
WA: Not unlike the original mark of segregation, literary praxis has been stained by contamination that marked the old South. When I realized that this praxis retained its absolute charisma within the basic character of T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams and others, and that their writings remained the bedrock of academia, I understood finally the underlying stratagem of American poetry. When I read Aldon Nielsen’s uncovering of their letters we sense a wave of vermin who hold their basic attitudes. The complication of this replication, of this notorious craft remains. Césaire, Paz, and Kaufman remain my original beacons pointing beyond this endemic racial isolation that continues to mark creative written expression. One of the things that caught my attention: I casually walked into a chain bookstore in New York and what caught my eye was the poetry section, where African-American poetry was in a separate section from the official poetry section; maybe this was done for marketing purposes, but it felt as if I were witnessing subconscious apartheid in real time. To get to what you are revealing, the subject prescribed for African-American projects should remain domestically fettered to a recognizable terrain, so it has left minds’ such as Tolson or Kaufman on the outside looking in. An unfettered mind is dangerous to all shapes and forms of established order especially in times of general imbalance when susurration from the chaotic seems now in the course of taking over known reality. What has been sired over the past several centuries remains an emboldened repetition. To paraphrase Marx, ‘matter is primary; consciousness is secondary’. When you think of, say, the psyche of old Egypt there exists no current within daily mental propulsion. So when more esoteric lingual elements are electrified within creative work it tends to remain generally eschewed in favor of more terminal claustrophobic elements cloistered as they are within concerns of the moment. Because the African-American psyche has been so fraught with the exigencies of survival a more mundane mode is favored for distribution. As Egyptians we originally authored the meta- levels (The Egyptian Book of The Dead, sophisticated religious praxis) it seems what is now favored are subjects more kindled by recognized transactional concerns. Saying this, I am not pitting one dimension against the other, but noting what seems to be the prevailing predilection. Since Black creative life has always been seen as a threat with its history always marked for suppression it is no wonder that the powers that be seem to favor a more mundane level of expression. As always, sales and transactional popularity are given priority as the outlet for African-American expression, so deeper concerns for the most part seem improperly attended to. It seems the American mind remains a general exponent of the old Roman mind as it existed two thousand years ago.
MM: Thank you. I’ve really appreciated your perspective, and wish we could talk more. Before I go, would you mind telling me about the relationship you see between poetry and visual art? I’m moved by your writing on Byron Baker’s drawings, which you describe as “a fusillade of energy full of fresh and reactive coils that explode, lengthen, and regather, all the while startling our sensitivity via an immaculate pharmacopoeia of the unknown.” Do you often write about visual artists? What role has ekphrasis played in your practice as a poet?
WA: As for ekphrasis, I have remained in pitched concentration with its praxis. Not only working with Byron Baker as painter on a series of abstract triptychs I have written on his work and entitled his drawings as a form of verbal telepathy done from scratch without any cognitive prompting. It remains an existential exercise that increases my honing of my essays and poetry. It remains an arcane exercise that strengthens the mind. In concert with this exercise I am working with a product entitled “Bio-Up” that helps clarify the minds’ vision on both conscious and subconscious planes. For me the mind is a splendiferous concert of elements like the electrical confluence that lights itself as a spontaneous ensemble. So one can paint with language as well as write with painting. I am thinking above all of Joan Miró in this regard and the work conducted by André Breton in his book entitled Surrealism and Painting. Of course there are other examples but these two come immediately to mind. So what I’ve found that when one closely collaborates over time spontaneous telepathy accrues and feels natural like spontaneous architecture. Elvin Jones took note of this when he played with Coltrane, McCoy, and Garrison. I understand what he’s talking about. While collaborating with Byron Baker over the past number of years an unseen rhythm of thought emerges culminating in a wave where particles of individual thought match with accuracy over a protracted span of time. Not thought projected within a pre-planned register but thought that freely moves like a seance of wind, commingling, speaking to itself, accurate within the scope of its spontaneous motion. Within this register of thought energy continuously ignites its own notion when we hear that complementary ferocity, that momentous exchange between Dolphy and Coltrane on India, or when this aforementioned power circulates within the quartet recorded at the Half Note as sonic exchange on One Down One Up; this power being not unlike the sight that Le Grand Jeu unlocks when Daumal can accurately announce the colors on a matchbook impossibly locked away in a drawer. These are just examples, but I am speaking of the telepathy that ignites these examples. Let’s say a whole range of beings could immerse themselves in this power, beings who would be less mentally convened in trying to procure power from objects they possess. I am thinking in this tenor of Roman household gods splintered and decreed by whims of momentary secular power. These Gods being nothing other than objects of gainless self-decreed ascendance. In my description a cognitive mural, not unlike the Aztec rain God Tlaloc; as I recall, Carlos Fuentes or Julio Cortazar noted that everywhere this God was taken it rained. I don’t want to get side tracked, but to take note of the fact that what is deemed at best arcane in our strict hyper cognitive structural mind with its up or down, on or off asphyxiation, I now understand that this is merely a phase; hopefully not one that signals human extinction but merely transition to a plane that heralds collective deepening rather than one of unalterable decimation.
Will Alexander is a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, philosopher, visual artist and pianist, who is approaching 40 titles in the aforementioned genres. He is the poet-in-residence at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California. He lives in Los Angeles.
Madison McCartha is a black, queer multimedia artist and poet whose work appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, The Fanzine, jubilat, Prelude, Tarpaulin Sky, and elsewhere. Their debut book-length poem, FREAKOPHONE WORLD, is available from Inside the Castle. Madison holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz. @MadisonMccartha