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Joe Johnson at the Hudson Diner, New York City, May 2016. Photograph by Sanjay Agnihotri
joe johnson local knowledge magazine poetry

A Conversation with Joe Johnson

The following conversation with the poets, Joe Johnson and Harry Lewis, and the writer Sanjay Agnihotri took place at the Hudson Diner in NYC on May 31, 2016.

SA: Your piece in this issue comes out of a larger piece, correct?

JJ: Yes. When I was a kid, I grew up in Harlem, and I said when I was about 10 years old that I wanted to define the world. Every Saturday I would decide that I would like to see what the world looked like 100 blocks from where I lived. I lived on 147th Street. A hundred blocks from 147th Street is of course–

SA: That’s a walk.

JJ: Yes, I would walk and I would take in what was going on so that it was a kind of a local knowledge of that 100 block area. It actually changed my sensibility.

SA: How long did you do that for? How old were you when you started going on these walks?

JJ: I started when I was about 10 and I would sort of disappear. Since I was finished with my chores by the time my folks were doing what they did, they would understand that at a certain point I would go out into the street, and I would say I was going to take a walk.

HL: The two parts of this piece are the uptown, and moving down into 42nd street.

JJ: The Harlem section is a lion unto itself. It’s a different kind of music. Most of this was written and completed in 1976.

HL: It’s how time changes.

JJ: One of the things we can say about my views is that they are very dated. My views at that time were very much a product that called for “conduct.” Maybe all of this is a product of conduct. I met Langston Hughes in 1964. I’m introduced to him through Louise Thompson.
Louise Thompson was an American communist who had a profound influence in terms of ideology. He introduced me to the book Tambourines To Glory. Yeah, it was the ’60s. I was impressed by it, I was impressed by the fact that Langston Hughes was such a civil being. I mean he was overly polite, he was dressed immaculate, he had very soft hands and he was polite to everybody. That kind of politeness kind of extends into his poetry because he does not shit or piss on anybody. I remember hearing him, and he was very open to the response from the people hearing him read. He sort of fed on it. The people that were there were very young. Most of the Harlem middle class, upper class.

HL: His impact on blacks has an important role in black history; his influence is as someone who reaches out to white. I mean it is going back to the minister, it makes, it softens, it makes black experience more acceptable.

JJ: That’s a point that you make about Hughes and his importance. He brings two points of the American sensibility into play. He brings Langston Hughes and Wallace Stevens into active play.

 

HL: Yeah.

JJ: Countee Cullen takes these because they’re just dark. He takes these guys and he sort of shapes and molds them into the white / black kind of dichotomy.

HL: That becomes the poetic line and it’s an interesting choice.

JJ: He takes them both almost simultaneously. When I was a kid, well by the time I get to junior high school in the early ’50s, Countee Cullen is dead. He taught French and Literature at High School 139. But Countee Cullen, well, maybe about ten years prior he has another student who he cultivated, and that is James Baldwin.

HL: That’s something I didn’t know.

JJ: Yeah. James Baldwin is between Herman Porter and Countee Cullen.

HL: Yeah.

JJ: Porter was never my teacher, Cullen was there, but the whole idea of this kind of a timelessness. He’s very different. Very different. Because these guys, Herman Porter and Cullen, they were, originals. So let me mention Laurence Dunbar before I go on, Dunbar is read initially by the mother of William Carlos Willlams. So as a child Williams is reading Dunbar.

HL: Williams is Puerto Rican. He always goes back to that as real in his sense “of the American grain.”

JJ: And to that medium, which was his. If you think about it in the American way. So all of these parts are subject to different influences which go against the definable category ‘who you are.’ Granted, there is kind of an initial racial identification, which is necessary in terms of identity. Which is there. But that becomes totally secondary to who you become. They will, well, probably like Roi [Leroi Jones], is free in terms of being in Europe to look at it all in a different context. Looking back, he was to be submitted to all the scrutiny of people who make these judgments and that is always of primary importance to him.

HL: He has no way to go, he doesn’t know what to do. In the very odd sense he is free for a little while there.

JJ: Oh, absolutely.

HL: Which is what he needs to define, to try and put together what he’s trying to put together.

JJ: Yeah. Writing this section, this is done in a hotel too. I wrote this in about 1976, I’m living in the Hotel Chelsea and at that point I’m thinking, “Who am I?” By the time that I’m coming to this, I’ve been asking myself essential questions so, “What are the cultural influences?” So I hear my mother and father in terms of their dialect and their dialect says this: they’re coming out the Gullah dialect of South Carolina. Which is a kind of nagging holding on to West African dialect and American English. I’m in that kind of place, but at the same time I’m usually using the dialect that emerged in Detroit, black Detroit. I don’t know exactly why. This dialect is identifiable, marketable, and accepted. The dialectic of my parents, at the same time, is the same dialectic which is spoken in a modified way by upper class Charleston blacks because of the definition in terms of progress. What it all points to is a kind of an idiom, a kind of a sensibility which is not definable in terms of blacks but definable in terms of place, the local knowledge that they have of the language and sensibility that they must exchange in order to migrate.

joe johnson local knowledge harry lewis

Harry Lewis and Joe Johnson at the Hudson Diner, New York City, May 2016 photograph by Sanjay Agnihotri

HL: It’ll probably be another ten years from when you’re talking, about 1970, when the whole South Carolina thing becomes documented and sentimentalized.

JJ: Absolutely. I’m looking for, I’m coming out of the car port rear, so in 1964 on the corner of – what’s the street that Ted Wilentz and Eli lived on?

HL: The 8th street book shop moved from Macdougal and 8th Street on the southeast corner, across the street to a whole building that the Wilentz brothers bought.

JJ: They all went.

HL: They all went. Macdougal and on the southeast corner of Macdougal and 8th Street, right where Macdougal bottoms out into 8th Street.

JJ: Yep. Walking along the street and who should I see doing crossword puzzles from
The London Times but W. H. Auden.

HL: This is interesting.

JJ: I talked to Auden, I said “How are you doing? I love your work!” And he was very polite and he said “Oh, good!” I said, “I read it.” I said, “I want you to look at my poetry.” He said, “Okay.” He took my address and I told him that what I liked about that 1939 poem was that it was the rhythm of it, the fact that nothing was holding it back except just …. With the beats, what the people call breathing, that poem and for a modern poem, is breathing because it’s just a statement of how he’s thinking, and how he’s talking and since most of American poetry is coming not necessarily for the eye, but for the ear.

HL: Or in struggle with that. I suspect that one of the reasons Auden stayed in America and became so identified in America even though he’s truly the penultimate in the British tradition out of Yates and out of Hardy and stuff like that, but that in American he finds a freedom …

JJ: Excellent point.

HL: But he can’t quite break out of where the projected is. He’s clearly more comfortable to write in the older traditional atmosphere. I’ve always felt that he was trapped and struggling.

JJ: Also, probably his sexuality. The exception is living down on 8th street and St. Marks.
St. Marks! I get a little note from him for time and place and bring in my work and we talk briefly. He talks about, you know, who am I. I, of course, know him. The guy Kellerman is his boyfriend, so he pops in to see what’s going down. We talk for a while and we talked about, um …. He gets an impression of it, “Well, I have to read it.” I come back maybe about a week later and he’s read the work and he’s very kind, kind in the sense that I look at some of the work, the work that I let him see. It’s very crude in terms of its … Well, it doesn’t have a place. It’s doesn’t have the location of my sensibilities. What he does do, and I credit him with a lot, is he makes good suggestions. One is that he gives me this book by, I think Miles [Josephine Miles], about the linguistics of … American linguistics. I forgot the ladies name … Josephine Miles book, that’s it. And he says “If you’re going to play the game, you must know the rules.” Therefore, that whole idea of a formal approach was an interesting approach in terms of being more concerned about it.

HL: Much like most of the painters, you know, like Josef Albers at Black Mountain, he’d take you out to Black Mountain, you would just be free form but, in fact, in a sense you have to know the rules. You have to know the references. You have to know what you’re working out of and what you’re working against and what you’re working for.

JJ: You put yourself in a context.

HL: You can’t become a painter just by painting.

JJ: Yeah. That was, I think, if you look at a lot of the good stuff, which is definably black, categorized demographically against the modern period, is that they avoid that formalism. They go to the formalism of minstrel and that’s the kind of pivot for the work.

HL: Yeah, the minstrel is very interesting in that Stanley Crouch and Al Murray, and to some extent Ralph Ellison, pick up on the minstrel as very important…

JJ: It is.

HL: But, it’s interesting that I don’t think any of them really quite get it as a form, as much as a political and cultural weight. What I get from you is not a direct comment on the minstrel as much as that it’s something in your work that comes from the same impulse. The same impulse as a minstrel, not the same impulse as these guys who are trying to come to terms with the socio-political nature of minstrel.

JJ: Yeah, and I think that you got it when you said political because they’re looking at it politically… that it causes a lot of confusion.

HL: That is very interesting because it’s very hard, because of the political and social realities of racism as a political and historical issue, it’s very hard to realize just what kind of impact that the minstrels have, not just in black culture but in American culture; in how pervasive it is. In one sentence, Roi [Leroi Jones] winds up on the same page as Olsen in a certain sense, and if you really follow it back, they’re both influenced by the minstrel condition but they don’t know it.
Roi probably knew it more than Olsen, but I think Olsen would have found the minstrel was something uniquely American.

JJ: That’s a very interesting point because, in a fucked up way, the minstrel parodying blacks by giving a white interpretation of an experience which has been formed in the same place.

HL: In a sort of double play, it’s a black commentary on that process, so in a sense, it’s a very complex process not only intellectually, but also linguistically.

JJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. American language.

HL: That, in some way, begins to make a direct connection to your work and for Auden saying you have to know the rules. What happens is you look at someone like Ishmael Reed and some of the later works of Baraka [Amira Baraka], they lack that connection to understanding. They really don’t get how central the minstrel experience is to the whole American language and culture.

JJ: Well, I think that there’s a problem. The problem is not knowing the American language. The French language is neither white or black, it’s red. The redness of the American language is all of the words that come in the American language from Chinese. There are words that come in from Spanish, Italian,etc.

HL: And African.

JJ: … African, from the far East …

HL: Creole.

JJ: … the near East. That’s what makes … That’s why America essentially dominates the world because all of the worlds from these various cultures and languages are embodied and enmeshed and encouraged with American language.

HL: And then you get to the tradition that brings us back to Williams. Williams saying, “You want to write poems in American, not English” The failure of Eliot is that he writes poems in English. He doesn’t write poems in American; but no matter how hard he tries he is American. Now that is a minstrel show.

JJ: He doesn’t. He can’t.

HL: And when Sanjay talks about someone like Cubby [Hubert Selby Jr.] The reason we need to get so excited about Cubby is because he intuitively gets it and, in a sense, you can make an argument that a lot of what you read in Selby, particularly in Last Exit To Brooklyn has a white minstrel quality to it.

JJ: Yeah! If you get to that section in Selby’s work Tra la la.

HL: Right. That’s a minstrel –

JJ: He is really American there. He’s really American. That American just rips through the language and description.

HL: And that’s how he has a very deep condition essentially, and that story resonates very deeply with your work.

JJ: Essential to American culture is the violence of American language. The violence of American language, in terms of the violence of the American spirit. I mean, shit, Texas was a frontier about 100 years ago.

HL: The language is hard.

 

JJ: I think what happened with Langston Hughes, with a lot of that was the issue to make it smooth. To make it more polite, more presentable. I think that one of the reasons why I back away from presenting the things that I have in the house, in the closet, is because of the violence of it, of the areas I’ve written about. I think with Harry’s encouragement, I’m slowly beginning to see, I should be more generous with what I have, not to prove anything, but …

HL: But because it’s there, because it’s a piece that’s missing.

JJ: Yeah. All of this, a major part of my writing, it’s already been written.

HL: That’s another thing a lot of people don’t realize is that all these years Joe has been a sort of legend, writing tons and tons of stuff and it’s just – you somehow conjure this sort of disappearing act.

JJ: I think part of it is survival because I think that what I had to say and what I believed would have been … I don’t think people of the 60’s and 70’s, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we’re ready in the sense that ideologically, the things that I’ve been making would have had any kind of value because, I think, a lot of it was mean spirited, racist and, to some extent, my outlook. A lot of the writing that was placed during that period, a lot of the standards and judgement were only seen in the view in terms of the demographic of white and black. I accepted the inconvenience of being not placed, not that it was … At a certain point it did matter that the work and the writing would continue.

HL: Well, there wasn’t a place for it, which was interesting because you had socially and politically a place in the black avant-garde, but your writing itself instrumentally was basically out of the minstrel, and played to the white audience in its own way. It’s going to be very hard to put together the major influence in your work, but you wouldn’t know it by reading your work; it makes sense if you understand your work, that Auden is a major influence.

JJ: Auden also told me another thing that I took seriously. He said, “Read outside of your subject, anything outside of your subject.” When you think about that, it’s not so much about the theory and different kind of poets, but it’s about how do you put together a sewing machine, all of these things which go into the process. He made me a kind of connection by being clear about what you want to say and being authentic about the purpose of saying it. When you’re reading outside of the cultural national sphere, you’re not afraid to accept and understand your humanness by saying that Olsen or Eliot or whoever they may be is as much a part of who I am than by the woman’s tubes that I came out of.

HL: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, but part of the problem for black writers – is that it speaks something about Joe, it’s very hard to be just a writer. There’s a lot of rhetoric and talk and discussion about that, but I’m talking not so much as a political statement, but to get back to other things, read outside your frame, outside of your location. Joe is unquestionably someplace in the black tradition, he doesn’t fit into any of the ideas of what a black writer should be and he doesn’t fit into any ideas of what a white writer should be. He simply is, to me… what I always liked about him is he was just simply going and, what a writer should be, using whatever was available to him. Where someone like Roi and others get caught between: ‘this is my work coming out the white position, this is my work coming out of the black position,’ instead of ‘this is my work.’

 

That basically sets an academic or restrictive content. In some ways, it might be interesting that the reason we can begin to look at Joe’s work now, begin to bring it out, is that, in a sense, those frames have become so formal that you don’t really need to … In a sense, white writing and black writing, black or hispanic, have become academies. I’ve always found Joe outside of the academy, but that place is in an odd position because he’s not … black writers in general, of his generation, don’t know what to do with it. White writers are fascinated by it, but it’s too violent, it’s too extreme. You actually start out with thinking how much of this is projected experience and art and Olsen’s projected growth, but if you look a Joe’s work it’s more than almost anybody in the Allen Anthology, this is projected the most.

We’ll see what kind of reaction Joe’s work gets. I’m particularly interested to see if we get this 3-part, major opus that this is a part of out there, maybe in 3 volumes or 1 large volume, what people make of it or don’t make of it. My guess is what a lot of people are going to do is shrug, like they do with most work that’s not in an academy.

 

JJ: I think that what happens is that, when you’re in the early to late 40s, into the ’50s, you have an educational system which is going to the New York Public school, which is pushing toward kind of a standardized understanding of what literature is, and it comes through the Harcourt Brace literature books. Who are you being fed by? You’re not being fed anything outside that. You have to hunt for that. It doesn’t really appear. What you’re being fed by is the traditional British and American. You’re being fed by the Americans in terms of most of the modern things. Eliot, Cummings and that literature.

In terms of that kind of exposure, in terms of the what you’re taking a little test on, these are the people you’re hearing. Choose your own local knowledge, and that is your culture and that’s where some of the elementary schools were, there’s kind of an area which is at that point called the ‘slum.’ You do hear of Hughes. Hughes did come up. He doesn’t necessarily come up, he’s come up in terms of the cultural reference. He’s not part of that what you would call, at that point, the American poetry canon.

HL: There’s no place to go for Hughes except repeat more.

JJ: Yeah, and he’s essentially coming from Sandburg. Sandburg is essentially coming from Whitman, so there’s no kind of, he does use the dialect, yes, but so does …

HL: Which one? Sandburg?

JJ: Yeah, he uses the dialect. The guy who’s a master, the guy who does this thing about the Congo.

Harry: Oh, um –

JJ: Vachel Lindsay

HL: Actually Hughes comes very strongly out of Lindsay – is clearly much more racially stereotyped and much more of a minstrel show. There’s an element of that in Hughes.

JJ: That’s an excellent point. You know why? I think that Hughes would not be appreciated if not for this whole tradition of minstrel.

HL: Yeah, Hughes is definitely within the minstrel tradition, although he’s trying to upgrade it in a sense.

JJ: That’s kind of culturally inconvenient but also …

HL: Convenient. Yeah. This is not going to be a popular interview, in terms of a lot of what you’re saying. I’m still trying to find, ironically as we talk, I think of ironic even though you’ve had a history of problems with Ishmael Reed, then in some ways Ismael’s writing, or elements of it do in a sense reflect some of what you do, although not to the same purpose and necessarily the same …

JJ: I think in the sense that he goes in his own direction, but a lot of this is what you’ve read, either for yourself or imposed on you, so that a lot of the writing that is quote, unquote labeled “black”, is something that was almost grafted onto any kind of sensibility of that working after or during that period of the ’60s, where you had a definable market, you had all kinds of literary and critical theories arguing for separate self for black literature. Therefore that lent itself, that encourages that whole kind of aesthetic that came out of what had to be certifiably, definably black in terms of its intent and its audience, taking on certain features of what you would call at that point, black English, which evolved into Ebonics, for marketing. That was kind of a rejection of what the whole tradition – I guess of poetry because it’s more opens in terms of what influences you see and appreciate and you find ultimately by defining “this is who I am.”

It’s to test how black you are or how black your work is. It’s a false kind of aesthetic because it doesn’t factor in that when you become part of a cultural situation which is America, all that becomes important in the sense that it’s, how should I say it, secondary to your being open to the cultural influences that are around modern, American culture which is an amalgam of all of these things.

 

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