Writing for a Global Audience: An Interview with Poet Ishmael Reed

This article was originally published, on October 7, 2019, by The North Star.
Ishmael Reed is one of the most significant literary figures of our time. He has ...

Ishmael Reed is one of the most significant literary figures of our time. He has published more than 30 books of poetry, prose, essays, and plays as well as penned hundreds of lyrics for musicians ranging from Taj Mahal to Macy Gray. Reed’s books of poetry include Conjure (1972), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Chattanooga (1973), A Secretary to the Spirits (1978), New and Collected Poems (1988), and New and Collected Poems, 1964–2007 (2007), which was named one of the best books of poetry of the year by the New York Times and won the California Gold Medal in Poetry, awarded by the Commonwealth Club.

Reed’s poems have been published in other forms as well. His work has been featured as part of poetry walks in Berkeley, California, and Richmond, New York; it also appears as an installation in a BART station in Richmond, California. Reed’s many novels include the critically acclaimed Mumbo Jumbo,(1972), The Terrible Twos (1982), Japanese by Spring (1993), and Juice! (2011). Recent essay collections include The Complete Muhammad Ali (2015), Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown (2012), Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media; or, The Return of the Nigger Breakers (2010), and Mixing It Up: Taking On the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (2008). Ishmael Reed: The Plays collected Reed’s six plays and was published in 2003. Reed has also edited numerous anthologies, most recently among them Black Hollywood Unchained: Commentary on the State of Black Hollywood (2015) and Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience; Short Fiction from Then to Now (2008), which he coedited with Carla Blank.

Reed currently teaches at The University of California, Berkeley, and the California College of the Arts, where he is a Distinguished Professor. His latest book is Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico. His book of poetry Why The Black Hole Sings the Blues will be published in the spring. In this exclusive interview for The North Star, he discusses his past, current, and future projects.

Keisha N. Blain (KNB): What made you decide to become a writer and a poet?


Ishmael Reed (IR): I was good at it—from an early age. I remember starting on a play in 2nd grade. It was based on fairy tales I’d read. It was about a young man seeking his fortune. My mother commissioned me to write a birthday poem for a fellow employee. It rhymed. Later, I wrote essays in high school. I wrote for a Black newspaper at 16—The Empire Star, in the 1950s. The publisher was A. J. Smitherman, who was one of the targets of the mob during the Tulsa, Oklahoma, riots of 1921, which I found out years later because he never talked about it. I wrote a short story in a class at night school and, as a result, was offered a full scholarship at the University of Buffalo. I write free verse, but I love to rhyme. Two recent poems I’ve written rhyme. My mother’s was my first commission.

Since then, I’ve received other commissions. I wrote Jerry Brown’s inaugural poem. My poem “Moving Richmond,” is part of a Mildred Howard installation. It greets passengers who use Richmond’s Bay Area Rapid Transit station. Commissioned by Robert Hass, my poem “Going East” appears on a sidewalk in Berkeley, California. Commissioned by the San Francisco Jazz Center, a poem, “When I Die I Will Go to Jazz,” appears in the Raise Up Off Me Alley in San Francisco. The alley was named after the title of Hampton Hawes’s autobiography. A jazz pianist, he was in Lexington, Kentucky, for drug possession and was pardoned by JFK. I received a Poetry in Public Places Award, and my poem appeared on New York buses. A poem appears on a walk in Rochester, New York. Songs I’ve written are played on the radio in the US, Europe, and Asia. I’m a public poet.


KNB: What would you say is your role as a writer and poet today?


IR: Writers have to decide for themselves. I found that my writing became more combative after I moved to inner-city Oakland, California. Inner cities are marooned because they don’t get the services that more affluent areas receive. So, I’ve gotten material from the district where I live. My experience was the basis of a recent article printed in Alta magazine.


KNB: You’ve previously indicated that you have been greatly influenced by poets of the Harlem Renaissance era. Tell us more about how they have influenced your work. Which Harlem Renaissance poets do you most admire and why?


IR: I met three members of the Harlem Renaissance while they were still alive—George Schuyler, Langston Hughes, and Bruce Nugent. I admired Schuyler for his novel Black No More—Afro-Futurism before there was a critical term. I wrote the introduction for the Modern Library reprint. Langston Hughes was responsible for the publication of my first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers. I was influenced by his use of Black language and popular forms like the blues. I admire Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder and Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, for which I wrote the Harper[Collin]s introduction, though the publisher hides the fact. I admire Countee Cullen’s poetry. Jean Toomer eludes me.


A Black Counternarrative

By Jehan Roberson

KNB: You have had an extraordinary career as a writer, poet, and editor (to name just a few titles). What would you say is your greatest accomplishment?


IR: Well, I think that my greatest accomplishment was going global, so I don’t get hemmed in by the white media’s choosing of one Black artist at a time. Powerful white media have been imposing tokens on the Black writing scene for over a hundred years. Right now it’s bourgeois feminism, or powerful neocon interests like The Atlantic and The New Republic. When I was living in New York, I was a token-in-waiting, but when they chose to anoint me, I said that there were Black writers who were as good as me. I left New York for the West. I wish all tokens would make that announcement. bell hooks said that white feminists told her that in order to succeed, she had to write for them. As a result of tokenism, generations of Black writers who write as well or better have been obscured. It’s all political.

The board of directors of our Before Columbus Foundation has more literary heft than the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards. We have a winner of the Booker Prize, former and current US Poet Laureates, a MacArthur Fellow, and the recipient of a Presidential Medal for literature, which is why top writers like Don DeLillo, John A. Williams, Gloria Naylor, Nelson George, and Edwidge Danticat have attended our American Book Awards at their own expense. Yet we don’t get the kind of press coverage accorded the corporate awards.

My constant Black base is supplemented with audiences in China, Africa, and Europe. This began after my studying of Japanese. My novel Japanese by Spring was a hit in Japan. It’s a national project in China, which means that the study of the novel is paid for by the government.

And so when I appeared on a literary panel in San Francisco, visiting Chinese students dominated the audience. This novel earned me trips to Japan and China. I read a song that I wrote in Japanese before an audience at the Blue Note in Tokyo in connection with the Conjure band appearing there. Conjure is a musical group that performs my poetry and songs. We have three CDs that are available on Amazon—Conjure one, two, and three. “Mother Hubbard”—a play that was performed at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theater, The Lorraine Hansberry in San Francisco, and The Nuyorican Poets Cafe—was performed by a Chinese cast in Hunan. PBS was supposed to do it, but they backed out. Chinese universities have invited me twice.

I studied Yoruba and read a poem written in the language before a Nigerian audience. The poem has been recorded. Cassandra Wilson, Taj Mahal, Macy Gray, Gregory Porter, and Bobby Womack have all recorded my songs. When I returned to the United States from Nigeria, I published two books by Nigerian authors. The new novel, Conjugating Hindi, has been ignored in this country but praised by Pakistani and Indian critics. I think that my greatest accomplishment has been to write in different languages and genres and to maintain a Black and multicultural fan base in this country.


KNB: Your book Mumbo Jumbo is considered one of the best books ever published. Literary critic Harold Bloom described the novel as one of the five hundred most important books in the Western canon. Who or what inspired you to write the book? What are your thoughts on the book’s reception?


IR: Well, Mumbo Jumbo is a result of my being influenced by New York artists who used collages brilliantly and by jazz musicians. All of my novels are in print, including my first, which was recently cited on NPR as one of eight novels one should read in order to understand the current political situation. It was published in 1967. Mumbo Jumbo, first published in 1972, was recently published in China and England. It continues to be called “manic,” “paranoid,” “trippy,” and “madcap,” recently by a white critic. The other adjectives were applied surprisingly by a Bangladeshi American first-generation critic from Harvard and a Chinese American critic writing in The New Yorker. White artists have been using the techniques I’ve used since the 1920s, and they don’t get called that. No, I wasn’t addicted to LSD or any other drug when I wrote the book. It’s like when they say that Bird [Charlie Parker] had to have heroin before blowing everybody off the bandstand. This is to discount the thousand hours of practice he put into his art. If anybody thinks that jazz is easy, check out the solo sheet for [Thelonious] Monk’s “Don’t Blame Me,” as I have been doing every day for the last six weeks.


James Baldwin's Istanbul

By Suzy Hansen

KNB: How has your work evolved over the years? What has changed—and why? What has remained consistent?


IR: I’ve become a more careful writer. I also learned that negative response to Black writers in the United States might not be shared by critics in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In this country when they’re not blasting you, they send their “Squantos,” the name of the Native American who would inform the Puritans of what the Native Americans were up to. Two Black critics were permitted by their sponsors to assail my work without mentioning a single character or what the story was about. Whites have given critics like these a lot of power because readers rely on their opinions. They abuse it.

Two syndicated writers dismissed my novel Juice! with some flip observations. One was Henry Louis Gates’s collaborator, who was described to me by one of Gates’s former employees as “a white boy who thinks he knows something about hip-hop.” He called my novel homophobic and misogynist. He’s one of these honorary Black feminists. My last five awards are from organizations headed by Black women. I have strong ties with Latinx, Native American, and Asian American women writers. The famous Latinx poet Lorna Dee Cervantes wrote a tribute to me. It’s on YouTube. No, I get called a misogynist by honorary Black feminists: white males who want to transfer the blame of misogyny to the brothers and feminists from other ethnic groups, who are scared to challenge the misogyny taking place in their communities, and therefore who scapegoat the brothers.

Not that the brothers can’t be stupid when it comes to women—I’ve been there; they’ve been singled out. And though it was Black women who created literary Black feminism, it’s white guys like Steven Spielberg who are making all of the money. Kathryn Stockett, who wrote The Help and studied the genre, she’s making more money than all of the Black women writers combined. Gates was making all of the money from Black literary feminism until he was challenged by Michele Wallace and Barbara Christian.

Now Gates’s collaborator who wrote a bad review of Juice!, which took me 14 years to write, can dish it out but can’t take it. He announced that his criticism is not sponsored by the government. I merely asked whether the subject had come up. He threatened to sue me. Incredibly he has been appointed book editor at the African American Review, which has received more government support than any other Black literary magazine. Some of the Black contributors have protested the rule changes that he has made. The other syndicated review from a Black critic was so bad that he apologized. By contrast, as part of my global strategy, I received a thorough reading of the book from Professor Yuqling Lin of Beijing University. Every mainstream media review of a Black author in the United States is political. It’s not how pretty you write; it’s what you say.

What’s remained constant? I’m still finding new ways to tell stories. I began illustrating my novels, beginning with Juice!. I’m still mixing and sampling, which began with my early poetry. Flight to Canada, for which I coined the [term] “neo-slave narrative” in a 1984 interview with the late Reginald Martin, was also published in England. I see by the book reviews that it’s influenced younger writers.


KNB: Your written work spans across many different forms, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and music. What is your favorite genre/medium and why? Why do you think it’s important to use these various mediums/genres?


IR: Well, I must write in a variety of genres, because if you stick to one, it’s easier for them to shut you down. This Bangladeshi American woman, writing for The Nation and who was one of Gates’s students at Harvard, followed the line promoted about me and peddled by him and a white critic who poses as an expert on my work. Their line is that I’m no longer an artist but someone who is merely interested in facts, that I was done in the early ’70s, and since then that I haven’t done anything. I’m in the latest Best American Poetry, 2019. I received an award from AUDELCO, the highest prize in Black theater. I received the Alberto Dubito Award from Ca’ Foscari University, in Venice. Stanley Crouch gave me some more time. Writing in The Nation, he said that I was done in 1988. So while my recent books have been ignored here, they have received a flurry of publicity recently from VogueHarper’s BazaarTown and Country, and Gentleman’s Quarterly, after Grace Wales Bonner, the fashion phenomenon, invited me to play jazz piano at her London show. That’s why it’s important to do a bunch of things. When they shut you down in one field, you can switch to another.

I have a play that has been running since January called, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” which challenges the idea that the Hamiltons and Schuylers were abolitionists. They weren’t. We have little money, and I’m using my cash and raising money through GoFundMe. But we’ve made them back up. They’re now saying that he wasn’t an abolitionist, their original sales pitch, but was opposed to slavery. Opposed to slavery? He sided with French slaveholders against the revolution in Haiti.


Black Speculation, Black Freedom

By Petal Samuel

KNB: What projects are you currently working on? From where do you draw inspiration?


IR: My new book of essays was published in Canada, which is where, in 1856, Benjamin Drew organized a book in which fugitive slaves were able to say what they couldn’t say here. My new book of poetry, Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues, will be published in March. I’m finishing up The Terrible Fours, which follows The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes.


KNB: What books are you currently reading? Who are your favorite contemporary authors?


IR: I read mostly nonfiction. However, I used books by Toni Morrison, Margaret Walker, and James Baldwin in my last class at the California College of the Arts. As a novel about slavery, Jubilee hasn’t been surpassed. There will be a delay in classifying Toni’s Tar Baby as a classic because it doesn’t obey the feminist party line. Giovanni’s Room is Baldwin’s best novel, structurally—Go Tell It on the Mountain and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. I read Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner—an underrated classic. icon

Featured image: Ishmael Reed in Beijing, 2012. Photograph by Carla Blank