Joyful Noise: A Conversation with Giovanni Singleton
Why I Started to Write
Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, I was somehow always aware of the historical struggle of African-Americans, to learn how to read and write the English language. Their struggle and that of Native Americans and in fact, of all ancestors, was payment for the freedom of future generations. And so I believed that it was my obligation to repay them for that struggle, as recounted in many slave narratives, by learning how to read and write. I equated reading and writing with all types of freedom. They have the capacity to liberate one from any prison—be it external or internal. And so while at an early age, toys were great fun, I also loved the feel of all kinds of pens, pencils, and crayons. I enjoyed the act of creation, of calling the unseen, the unknown, into being. Writing is power, as is literacy. Both are gateways to connecting with a sense of the Divine, something greater than oneself. I want to “trace echoes to their sources” as noted in Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing. I write because writing is to make a thing so.
Music as Inspiration
Like many poets, I draw from music—one of the highest forms of human expression. I am particularly drawn to avant-garde jazz and “new music”: Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Alice Coltrane, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Marion Brown, etc. And so there’s also the Blues: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, and of the contemporary set, Koko Taylor and Corey Harris, who has an amazing album called Mississippi to Mali, which traces the connections between African music and American Blues. Then there’s the poet John Taggart, who, speaking of music, can really turn it out. I also walk along the right side of the tracks, namely gospel music of Mahalia Jackson, The Gerald Sisters, Clara Ward, Inez Andrews, Rev. James Cleveland, and Aretha Franklin. And too, there is always a place for James Brown, Prince, and house music. However, of late, Nina Simone’s “Come Ye,” “Take Me to The Water,” “I’m On My Way,” “Feeling Good,” and “I Shall Be Released” have been in heavy rotation. Classical music and renewed practice playing clarinet.
So I know I’ve mentioned a lot of the masters, but I feel we haven’t studied them nearly enough, and it takes time; it takes a lot of time to catch up to someone like Sun Ra who created an amazing amount of visionary music that is so rich it deserves our attention.
In grad school, where there was a great emphasis on avant-garde and experimental writing, I was helped a great deal by the idea of working on projects rather than on individual poems. To some extent I initially saw experimentation as a luxury for the privileged elite, but then came the poet and font-master Douglas Kearney, who suggested experimentation as a process rather than an aesthetic. When seen in this way, I was able to trace a thread of improvisation to oppressed and displaced people that begins in “the making of a way out of no way,” and goes to “using what you have in order to create something new.” These are the shirts and pants that become the quilt. For example, our human interaction, or lack thereof, with the natural world is one of great experimentation—how to co-exist in a balanced and beneficial way. This balance, to me, is exemplified by the actress Beah Richards as Baby Suggs in the film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in the sermonizing scene that takes place in the “clearing.”
I studied Stein and Olson and the canon: Whitman and Dickinson and they gave me something to go off of, but they also took something away to the point that I had to put them away in order to locate my own voice. All along, I was carrying around the poetry of Jayne Cortez, who I think is in possession of a certain kind of fearlessness that I respect and admire—having the courage to actually get out and to push the envelope. And too, I’ve had Lucille Clifton’s work in hand for the better part of two decades along with our hours of conversations and her tutelage in all things wise. I’ve also carried the work of Norman Pritchard, an African-American poet and member of Umbra, who did a lot of visual experimentation with text. The poets, and in fact all manner of people and artists, who make up the rich tapestry of influences who inspired and continue to inspire me are many, and here, I’m going to go ahead and truncate a rather longish list of contemporaries: poet and performer Julie Patton of Cleveland continues to inspire me through our many conversations about ecology, human nature, and how not to not mistake kindness for weakness; the literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller of Washington, D.C. was a mentor while I was studying journalism at The American University; the poet Ed Roberson who, unafraid to cry, is one of the most astonishing poets around, along with Will Alexander and Fred Moten; the Black Took Collective, a group of three poets whom I met through Cave Canem; and Harryette Mullen, who sat on my thesis committee when I was in graduate school.
Visual artists Remedios Varo, Elisabeth Sunday, Albert Chong, Beauford Delaney, Eva Hesse, and Mildred Howard, all have helped me immensely in what John Cage means when he says, “I’m for the birds, not for the cages that people put them in.” Their work has influenced me in my pursuit of liberation and experimentation which I then carry over into my editing and teaching. I’m neither in nor out of any box. I’m a box and I’m not a box. Writing to me is an open field, a borderless canvas, and I’m continually challenged by all of my sources of inspiration to cast a wide net and make use of the catch.
As founder and editor of nocturnes (re)view of the literary arts, I find inspiration in other literary journals and small presses such as Umbra Magazine, and Hambone—both journals founded and edited by poets, David Henderson and Nathaniel Mackey, Soulbook, Charles Rowell’s Callaloo—Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, Naomi Long Madgett at Lotus Press, and Ishmael Reed’s multicultural anthologies and publications including Yardbird.
In terms of actual writing, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist texts have been a huge influence. Humanness and compassion, to which the poet Brenda Hillman and Carolyn Micklem, former director of Cave Canem have contributed great lessons, are also important to my work. A pilgrimage to Lorine Niedecker’s home and grave deepened my contemplation of her work. She had her ear to the ground and sky both. In my bones too remains an introduction to Surrealism by Dr. Jon Woodson at Howard University, and I adore Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets, with so many blue notes and its explosion of poetic form. Otherwise, hummingbirds, deer, wild turkeys, the dead mouse the cat dragged in all tutor me.
Poets to Follow
As the publisher of a literary journal, anyone I’m interested in or curious about I try to contact to send me work. It is always difficult for me to “name names” as I continue to read widely and voraciously across genres in the field of international literature—particularly Spanish and Japanese language poets. But here in the United States, I am looking to Pennsylvania these days in eager anticipation of more work from Nzadi Keita, Yona Harvey, and Yolanda Wisher. It would also be an incredible gift to finally see the publication of Phebus Etienne’s (1966-2007) debut collection Chainstitching. And I continue to follow or read many of the poets and artists previously mentioned.
On Form and Language
What’s also really interesting to me at the moment is learning Japanese calligraphy and actually establishing connection between the brush, the breath, the heart, and writing. I did a lot of concrete poetry for visual art exhibition out here so I’m hopefully developing a different way of looking at the poem and what is possible in terms of the book. I am working in non-traditional forms such as composer/musician John Cage’s mesostic and various other chance operations derived from the I Ching. All of which has led me to using a brush to write which has been a completely other experience. I thought I knew how to write, and now I have this brush that already knows its own mind.
Why I Continue to Write
At this point, I write out of habit—a wish to be free. With that said, “He that would eat the nut, must crack the shell,” and I see the shell as fear and the nut as the ability to be fully alive in the present moment, which is one way of being entirely liberated. Poetry is a way of developing, of cultivating, fearlessness. Writing and working with language makes the world, makes life, for me anyway, more tolerable and more true. I see this craft of “charging words with energy” as an adventure. Through writing, through making art, a joyful noise, I am learning how to “trust in Nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees.”
Favorite Line of Poetry. Ever.
where is the light in one leaf / falling? —Lucille Clifton