In Voluntary Solitude: An Interview with Charles Henry Rowell
By Vievee FrancisMay 31, 2013
PRIVATE, SOLITARY, DEMANDING, KEENLY INTELLECTUAL, worldly and possessing a challenging wit, Charles Henry Rowell is neither easy to know nor judge. He's subsumed much of his own life (and the possibility of the limelight, however liminal, afforded creative writers) for what he believes to be the privilege of discovering, and in many cases sustaining, the broad swath of literary talent within the African Diaspora through Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts & Letters, and its myriad projects. Other enterprises include the Callaloo Creative Writers Workshop (CCWW) Rowell began for “new and emergent” writers of poetry and fiction, which takes place for two weeks during the summer in the US and has this year expanded to the UK.
Rowell — poet, scholar, and cultural critic — is keenly aware of the shifting plates beneath the feet of American writers at large. He's opted to let the growing numbers of writers whose political, sociocultural, and even historical spheres (given the recent watershed in historical scholarship particularly as it concerns African Americans) speak to the current era’s concerns in the manner they see fit. Not a collective voice; rather, an aggregation of voices in various cross-streams. This is amply shown in Rowell’s latest offering: Angles of Ascent, A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, for which he wrote the introduction and edited over the course of four years.
For several days beginning in April 2013, I conducted this interview with Rowell by email. With the release of what may well be considered a seminal anthology, we discuss Callaloo’s history in brief, its recent expansion into the United Kingdom, and how Angles of Ascent relates to Rowell’s vision for Callaloo. During this interview, Rowell allows a glimpse behind the curtain of one of the most impactful, and enigmatic, men of letters in America.
VIEVEE FRANCIS: Neither the plant nor the dish called “callaloo” is common here in the United States. Although you have spoken on this before, would you briefly state how you derived the title for the journal Callaloo?
CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: A few months before I began to call for and collect manuscripts from Southern black writers I knew for the inaugural issue of the journal Callaloo, I happened to chat by telephone with Lelia Taylor, one of my Southern University colleagues in Baton Rouge, about certain forms of Southern cooking. Because I had heard others talk about her excellent cooking, I telephoned her about a dish I wanted to make — I can’t remember what it was just now. But as I was describing for her what we — that is my family — called gumbo in my native Auburn, Alabama, she and I both agreed that Auburn gumbo was nothing like that in southern Louisiana. Before I had finished describing the vegetables (cut corn, lima beans, tomatoes, and, especially, okra) and small cubes of beef or cuts of sausage I saw my mother place into a cast iron cooking pot with boiling water, I heard Lelia say, “Ah, that’s not gumbo. That’s callaloo.” “What did you say?” I wanted to know. That is the first time I had ever heard that word, and how strange and yet how fascinating it sounded to my ear. “Callaloo,” she repeated it. “How do you spell it?” I wanted to know. She did not know, and I laughed at her saying, “You’re an English professor, and you cannot spell a word you used,” all the while forgetting that there are many vernacular words we use or hear over and over but, because they remain oral or unwritten, there is no exact or fixed spelling for them. At any rate, Lelia immediately defended herself by telling me that her grandfather, who was from the Caribbean, had made callaloo many times for her family.
After this causal conversation with Lelia Taylor, I thought long about the word “callaloo,” sometimes saying it aloud to myself. I was deeply impressed by its sound and, after I discovered spellings of it, I immediately realized how strange and fascinating and captivating it looked in script. I just knew I had to use it as the title of the Black South literary and cultural journal I, with assistance of a number of thoughtful people in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, was beginning to create. I had been looking for a name for the journal, and I wanted something that symbolized or profoundly suggested, rather than aggressively announced, our blackness without having to say the word “black” or, at that time, “Afro-American.”
That is how I stumbled upon the word “callaloo.” Back then I did not know the use of the word “callaloo” in the Caribbean or in countries in West Africa or for a similar kind of dish called “cararú” in Brazil, whose recipe eventually found its way to Angola, which already had a stew-like dish called “calulu.” The ancestors too must have been responsible for that title, for the name has all kinds of suggestions for this, now African Diaspora, journal. Again, the word “callaloo,” like “gumbo,” suggests “mixture.” And the Black South journal I was creating at that time would be a mixture of genres and perspectives. Black people in the United States are a mixture of bloodlines and cultural heritages. Actually, when I selected “callaloo” as the name of the journal, I was doing more than I knew. But the ancestors knew; they were guiding my hands, my eyes, my ears, my every move — and I am now convinced of that.
VF: You have begun to use a drawing (now celebrated) of Phillis Wheatley as the logo for the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. Why?
CHR: As you know, Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved African woman who wrote during the latter part of the 1700s in Boston, Massachusetts, is an iconic figure in African American literary history — and so is her fellow bondsman in art history, Scipio Moorhead, who rendered one of the two images of Ms. Wheatley that has come down to us. I use this image of her for a number of reasons. One is to remind new and emerging writers, who write both fiction and/or poetry, of our long history of writing in the African Diaspora, especially in what is now called the United States. It is, moreover, very important for the new and emerging writers — and the rest of the world — to see for once an early black figure engaged in an activity that is not forced manual labor at the service of white people. Moreover, Phillis Wheatley is also a superb example of the human will to triumph over those who viewed her as less than human. With mental faculties far superior to those who viewed her as a thing to be bought and sold, inferior to other human beings, she should be a person worthy of sustained praise songs. In spite of the degrading position and conditions she was forced into as a slave, Ms. Wheatley not only declared her human dignity, publishing the first book of poems by an African American in 1776; she also triumphed.
Triumphed: the same is true of Scipio Moorhead, who represented Phillis Wheatley for eternity. One feels the necessity to applaud him for representing Phillis Wheatley as her own agency — dignified and thoughtfully writing herself into American literary history. In other words, both of the examples convey to younger writers that the line of African Americans making art goes back, far beyond the recent past, and all the way back to the 1700s. Then too I am very grateful to both of these enslaved Africans in America for leaving behind a record, however partial or incomplete, of their will to be free: they asserted their humanity in the faces of their enemies and claimed and declared their own subjectivity in their art — revolutionary acts indeed.
Scipio Moorhead’s drawing of her graces the frontispiece of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), in which she inscribed a poem “To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works." It is said that he was a painter and a poet. (Unfortunately, this image of Phillis Wheatley is the only piece of his work that survives.) With Scipio Moorhead’s image of Phillis Wheatley as our logo for the workshop, I say to new and emerging writers, “Look at the image of Phillis Wheatley and see yourself.” Get to know our ancestors, great and small, and build on whatever they had the chance to leave behind for our benefit. Love them as we should love ourselves.
VF: Considering the full arc of Wheatley’s personhood seems to me in keeping with Callaloo’s interrogation of the received, traditional notions or beliefs within various literary communities. She remains a controversial figure for some given her early writings.
CHR: I love her as an ancestor who left behind poems, creative productions that attest to the infinite possibilities for each of us as individuals within a group of descendants. When we read and critique Phillis Wheatley, each of us should try to contextualize Phillis Wheatley. Two immediate circumstances should be major concerns for us as we read her poems. First of all, as an enslaved African person, she was not even considered to be a human being by her white enslavers. These are the people who dominated and controlled her life, her person, her movement, her words — her everything; she had no authority over herself, not to mention over the white people around her, in what would become the USA. And yet she, ironically — she became an author, a title and a reality that requires linguistic and ideational authority in the face of her readers. Her revolutionary intentions become obvious when, in one of her poems, “To the University of Cambridge, in New England,” she lectures the students at Harvard College about their sinful ways. She acquired the power to lecture them by mastering the English — a second language for her — and by engaging in their contemporary literary practice, Neoclassical British poetics.
Our second concern is the literary models available to her — or apparently recommended to her by the Wheatley family members, who were experimenting on her to find out whether black people could learn to read and write in English. (She not only learned to read and write in English, she also advanced in Latin and Greek — achievements very few white New Englanders boast.) Remember that we are talking about a very young African captive. She neither had written African models nor the vernacular traditions we have come to associate with the Black South available to her sources on which to build her own poetics. Then, too, the white Wheatleys of Boston, what did they know of poetry and, especially, of poetic practices?
Why didn’t Phillis Wheatley attack enslavement or her own circumstances directly in her poetry immediately? Look at her models. Protests against slavery in poetry would not be widely written in English until the 19th century, when the Abolitionist Movement would reach a high pitch in England and North America. Then, too, would Phillis Wheatley’s enslavers allow any of her direct thoughts against enslavement to see the light of day on paper? I would think not.
Let us not jump quickly to attack or dismiss Phillis Wheatley. Instead we should continue to respect and celebrate our ancestor for what she left behind: a documentation of her humanity and, ultimately, a celebration of our own.
VF: This question has been posed several times, but needs to be asked periodically because the answer may change given another decade’s reflection: what would you say accounts for Callaloo’s longevity?
CHR: Yes, Callaloo is, as far as I know, the longest continuously published black literary journal of its kind published in the United States. The key words here are “continuously published” and “of its kind.” African American Review and Obsidian are older than Callaloo, and they too focus on African American literature. African American Review was founded in 1967 as the Negro American Literature Forum, and Alvin Aubert, as founding editor, began publishing Obsidian in 1975. Although it occasionally publishes creative literature texts, African American Review focuses, in the main, on academic commentary about African American literature published in the United States. Obsidian is similar to Callaloo in that it, too, publishes the works of creative writers alongside critical texts about the literature of the African Diaspora. But Obsidian has not been “continuously published;” it has not enjoyed the continuity that has been afforded Callaloo. Since Aubert retired as its founding editor, Obsidian has had its periods of stops and starts in the hands of different editors. Then, too, Callaloo is more than a literary journal.
Since its inception in 1976, Callaloo has evolved as a veritable literary center, publishing book-length literary texts by poets and fiction writers; and critical volumes about the literature and culture of the Diaspora. By the early 1990s, the Callaloo office began sponsoring annual creative writing workshops in poetry and fiction writing. At the last three universities [University of Kentucky, University of Virginia, and, now, Texas A&M University] sponsoring the journal, which is published quarterly by Johns Hopkins University Press, we have offered a reading and lecture series for the institutions and their adjacent communities. Since its 30th anniversary celebration (October 24–27, 2007) in Baltimore, Callaloo has also sponsored annual conferences, designed to bring creative writers together, in conversation with each other, to explore together issues and problems of our times in relation to the cultural forms they produce. In October 2012, the conference, assembling at Princeton University, focused on “Love,” and in November, 2013, the Callaloo Conference will meet at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where conference members and invited speakers will engage each other in discussions dealing with issues in the growing field of transatlantic studies.
Another component that distinguishes Callaloo from several journals is its other projects, each of which will be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press: Callaloo Art, an annual publication, and the Callaloo African Diaspora Series. In the very first issue of Callaloo, I did not conceal my passion for visual art, for that inaugural number is graced by the Washington, DC, photographer Roy Lewis. Subsequent issues demonstrate how partial I am to visual cultural productions: not only have I exhibited the art work of painters, sculptors, photographers, and other artists on covers of the journal, but I have also featured images of some of their work as portfolios along with their extensive interviews in different numbers of Callaloo. Callaloo Art is a new project that will serve as a forum for visual artists of the African Diaspora and for those academics who write about visual art and other forms of visual culture. This, of course, does not mean that I will cease publishing visual art images on the covers and inside Callaloo; I will continue to expose publically my addiction for beautiful and provocative things. The Callaloo African Diaspora Series is long overdue as support for Africana literary and cultural studies; the series will publish various academic books devoted to the literature and culture of the African Diaspora. I know of no other African Diaspora–centered project that makes as its raison d’être the efforts to address the developmental as well as the publication needs of creative writers (and other kinds of producers of black culture) and literary and cultural critics throughout the African Diaspora. That Callaloo attempts to address these needs sets it apart in dramatic ways and represents Callaloo as a unique institution in the United States. Or so I’d like to think.
What accounts for Callaloo’s longevity? The answers to this question comes to me in a succession of words: dedication, discipline, focus, action, determination, vision, and the ever burning will to triumph over challenges, especially those perpetrated by detracting bigots, mean-spirited colleagues, and unmitigated envy. You see, Vievee, I, like you, come from a people who have fought — and continue to fight — in a long struggle. I know that we must not merely survive; we must triumph. The ancestors do not expect anything less.
VF: In an era where so many print journals are being lost due to economic challenges it is stunning that Callaloo continues to grow. Could you discuss why the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop has recently expanded to the United Kingdom?
CHR: I am going first to the UK because the reception for Callaloo and its different projects has been very strong there. Keep in mind that, although Callaloo originally began as a publication outlet for black writers in the South, the journal rapidly developed into a periodical for black writers across the United States and a little later on for writers throughout the African Diaspora in all its linguistic diversity. I have long thought that if Callaloo is going to serve the Diaspora, then it should also help to develop new writers in the African Diaspora. In fact, I have never thought of Callaloo for only now; I created and worked hard to develop Callaloo for the future.
I chose London workshop as our first extension because London is the center of black writing in the United Kingdom, and because Dr. Anim-Addo — director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London — graciously threw her support behind the project. And I might not be mistaken in my assumption that Britain has the largest black literary and diverse English-language population after the United States in the Diaspora.
I am hoping that writers throughout the United Kingdom will continue to submit applications for our competitive admission to the fiction and poetry workshops meeting for one week in November, just before our annual 2013 Callaloo Conference, which will meet at Oxford University.
VF: Where else do you see the Callaloo Creative Writers Workshop going after its establishment in the UK?
CHR: Once we have firmly established the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop in the UK, I want to take the workshop next to Canada and to one of the English-speaking islands in the Caribbean — that is, if they will have us there. One cannot just walk into these sites and say here is a workshop; one needs to be invited and hosted there under the blessings of a leader or person of much influence in the different writing communities. Small settings with only a few writers can be territorial, you know. I am hoping that we never experience that sort of division-making among writers and other artists anywhere in the African Diaspora. In time, after we have worked with a number of writers in these different settings, I hope we will be able to publish a number of new young writers — that is, if they ready themselves and their work for publication and, of course, if they want their work to appear in the pages of Callaloo.
We have published a number of non-English-speaking writers from other sites in the Diaspora — that is, we have also been fortunate in our efforts to locate excellent translators to help us publish writers’ poetry and fiction in very good English translations. It would be very difficult, however, to offer workshops in French in Martinique or Haiti; or in Dutch or Sranan Tongo in Surinam, for example. We do not have the human or financial resources to extend the workshops to non-English speaking regions of the Diaspora. It is as simple as this: to offer a successful poetry workshop in Salvador da Bahia, for example, one needs to have access to black poets who write excellent poetry in Portuguese and who also fluently speak and read English. The workshop leaders and I would need to communicate with each other, but my Portuguese and that of members of my staff are woefully limited — almost non-existent. But as long as we find very good writers whose publishable work can be well translated into publishable English, I will make sure that their translated work will appear in the pages of Callaloo — as well as that in the original language, if it is poetry — as we have done so many times. So long as we do not have writers to offer workshops in French, Spanish, Dutch, or Portuguese, we will then have to limit our workshop outreach to a few English-speaking sites.
VF: Where does the recent, Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry fit into your vision of African Diaspora letters?
CHR: Angles of Ascent is, first of all, a record that accounts for the state of African American poetry at the present time — that is, a survey of our poetry in the United States since the 1980s. With this gathering of poems by established and emerging voices, we hear the sound of freedom — the freedom of each artist to write the self against the backdrop of the community, its past and its present circumstances. Angles of Ascent, in other words, documents a dramatic change in African American poetry — the change from repeating the aspirations of the tribe to articulating the interiority of the individual persona whose self-asserted agency allows each poet to write as she or he wishes on any subject he or she desires. In the history of African American poetry, such an act is freedom. And to make use of that freedom is revolutionary. In Angles of Ascent, the reader encounters the words of myriad individual black voices speaking on innumerable subjects and raising countless questions about humanity as the 21st century commences.
I am therefore convinced that contemporary poetry, which Angles of Ascent represents, will make a major impact on English-language poets in the African Diaspora. It will, I hope, encourage them to follow the example of contemporary African American poets: to write from the angle of self, to free themselves of the responsibility for the burden of the group, for if other Diaspora poets write with a self-acquired agency, they too, however directly or indirectly, will also speak in the interest of their tribe, as well as for all of the human tribes of the globe. But I would caution other African Diaspora poets — as I do contemporary black American poets — to make poems that embody engaging metaphysics that self-consciously raise questions about humanity at large. To do so is always to remember that the poem, like other inscribed artistic texts, is metaphor, a stand-in, let’s say, for an idea or a question — or what’s a poem for?
If you were to ask me to address other African Diaspora poets, I would ask you to allow me to repeat myself: since the 1980s black literary poets in the USA — while remembering our collective past and remaining fully conscious of our present circumstances as a group — have assumed a large measure of freedom and are now speaking as individuals on subjects they have as individuals elected for themselves. Join African Americans, I would say to other African Diaspora poets, and write from your own imaginaries. And think about this — what is the origin of art if not, first, the self in relation to the world it encounters?
VF: You have written a poem that speaks to that, an ars poetica.
Ars Poetica #1
“I am part of all that I have met . . . .”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
The sound I make
is what I hear
in the streets,
a topography of babel.
At the 7-11, as I fill my tank,
across from the cursing man
chastising his autistic son.
Or when I pull down a book
and sit in my reading chair
fronting the colonnade
of windows in the sunroom,
the talk rising from the pages
sending me beyond myself.
In beds of roses, lantana,
daisies , and whatever else
I find to make bloom a frame
for the backyard deck,
the courtyard of my imagining,
where mint competes with
and potted basil declares
its shimmering fragrance
stronger than the reddest rose.
And this all in the past tense,
always the past as now
and to come.
Whatever I speak
onto this canvas
is what I am, all I wish
You could have successfully, early on, gone on to clear your path as a creative writer. I’d like to ask what has been sacrificed? What about your own creative work?
CHR: I am so very happy you have asked those questions, because very few people understand, or care to understand, what goes into the conception and the making of issues of Callaloo — not to think of the kind, quality, and extent of the work required for the other projects that are also vital supports for the development and advancement of African Diaspora literature and other forms of cultural productions. I think that you, as one of our associate editors, have gotten a glimpse of the endless work that the journal and its various projects require of our current in-house staff of only three individuals, which is the largest professional staff I have ever had all of these 30-odd years. Such a small staff — no matter how dedicated they are or how hard they work — can only do but so much within an eight-hour work day. The day is too short for us to keep up with all of the demands of the office — which means that I have very little or no time to write anything of my own for publication. I need not say this to you, a working poet, with two books of poems: be it creative or critical, serious writing of the first order requires time and space apart from all other activities — personal and professional. Its creation germinates, grows, and develops in its own conservatory — that is, its own psychological and physical space.
Yes, editing Callaloo has been a major lifetime personal sacrifice, because I, like you as poet, for example, or Brent Edwards as literary and cultural critic, want to put on paper, for all to read, my thoughts and imaginings. But when am I allowed the time and space? Where is the time? Where is the space? For example, I moved to Texas A&M University in 2001, but I have not had a single leave of absence. How could I? Who is going to edit Callaloo or direct its various projects?
Are you aware that in the academy very few of our colleagues understand or respect editors and what they do? And they forget the invaluable contributions that editors make to the work of academics. I am speaking about the “behind the scenes” impact that editors make on their academic advancements in various areas of literary and cultural studies. I have heard too many of our colleagues — in total ignorance of what editors do for them as specialists, as well as for creative writers — speak of editors as “he is only an editor” and “she is just an editor,” as if an editor should be classified as the bottom rung of the academic heap — at the lower rank of the academy’s pernicious class stratification.
After working all day into the early hours of the evening on Callaloo, I, beginning at 5:00 a.m. each day, can find no space in my head to read or write or even to imagine or think beyond the journal and its demanding projects. This has been going on now for over 30 years. And until about five or six years ago I was also teaching both graduate and undergraduate classes. If you look closely at what we do and how we must do it, you will soon discover that Callaloo is more than a fulltime job. If you know someone interested in endowing Callaloo — and finally afford me additional staff to relieve me of some of the work I have long had to do for the life and development of the journal — I will show you more of my own writing, both creative and critical.
My formal education and my sensibility have two related dimensions: they are, on the one hand, academic and intellectual, and, on the other, creative and spiritual. Vievee, you have no idea about how sad I become when I arrive at ideas about a single author or about literature and culture in general to write and realize that I have other more immediate Callaloo responsibilities to address. Or sometimes in the middle of washing dishes or cooking a meal when images and phrases come to me — the kind on which I could build poems — and suddenly I realize that there are two, three, or more Callaloo manuscripts in my brief case that I must critique before I head off to sleep. I tell you all of this to let you know that directing the “Callaloo Show” is not an idle or relaxing affair; it is, rather, a life-consuming job, which a small staff cannot address alone. So being the founding editor of Callaloo is joyous and sad — what for the energy alone that the journal has for over 30-odd years exacted from me, and what for the pleasure that newly published issues of Callaloo afford me. Being editor of Callaloo has, of necessity, silenced my creative and critical voices.
VF: Your response brings to mind part of a poem you wrote for Melvin White, “One Measure,” a birthday poem:
but the years, with their will to unstitch
or do I speak myself,
projecting what you will become
if you keep counting, and rightly so;
an apprentice to solitude…
You commented in an interview with Shona Jackson in 2006 that you refuse to toe the line of family or “collective” expectations handed down to you, that you “refuse to walk straight.” However, in not having the time to write your own work, you have indeed relinquished a powerful measure of yourself for the collective good. But why in “solitude”?
CHR: As you probably know, most of my graduate studies in English language and literature at the Ohio State University focused on courses in Old English and Middle English literature. I will never forget what happened to me one morning as I was preparing to go to my seminar on Beowulf, which was a course in translation and grammar, literary and textual criticism, and cultural studies as related to history of the Beowulf text. I will never forget that morning. As I dressed for class, a news flash came on TV, showing state sanctioned violence against civil rights workers in Selma, Alabama, my home state. (I was born and reared on the opposite side of the state, in Auburn.) That moment changed my direction in literary studies: in an effort to do what I thought "relevant," I changed the focus of my literary studies to American and contemporary literature. And I vowed that I would return to the Black South to teach and work with black college students. I, in other words, became “a race man” in the original sense of that concept. That is how and why I took my first step to devote my career to African Diaspora literature. But work on Callaloo — its beginning, development, et cetera — has prevented me from writing the critical texts that I have long wanted to produce on African American literature. Then there is also the creative side of my sensibility, which I have had to neglect. I have long wanted to write poetry, which, as you so well know, requires an energy, vision, and linguistic play very different from those needed for literary and cultural criticism. Instead of exploiting these two sides of my sensibility for myself, I have had to use them for over 30 years now to build a very strong Callaloo which is so much larger than I or any one person. Eventually, however, you will hear from the whole of me on paper. And I say so politely. I hope you can see clearly where that moment in graduate studies at the Ohio State University led me — the dotted lines are easy to connect.
You asked me about my voluntary solitude. If you will notice my movement from one institution to another in the South, different sites in the region — from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, northward to Lexington, Kentucky, then east to Charlottesville, Virginia, and, finally, back to the Deep South (or what some people here attempt to call it, “the Southwest,”) to College Station, Texas, each of which is “an out of the way” place. Within each of these contexts, I have found myself alone, without a group of people as friends on whom I could depend for different social and intellectual needs. I found out early on that the people with whom I thought I could connect did not always share my values or my world vision, neither its political and aesthetic dimensions nor spiritual commands. For survival I withdrew into a very private world that I invented, a site that feeds my imagination and my intellect, and therefore a world that issues an unnamed force that directs the work I do for Callaloo. That invented world, a product of my own imaginary, is the source of my strength. It is the lenses through which I view the world at large. It could also fuel my writing or inscriptive desires if I only had time to hail and live with those visitations, those ancestral voices, for a sustained while. In short, I live my work, and my work directs the life I live. As an outsider-insider of this society in North America, I have freed myself to see and read with clarity. In fact, living in the margins voluntarily is a positive transgressive act from which I profit as a literary editor, who is required to evaluate fairly creative and critical texts from across the United States and the globe. One needs to approach such work with openness and awareness, and my living a private life in voluntary solitude affords me infinite freedom.
VF: In this watershed moment in history where so many people (not just writers) are reaching for new vocabularies and forms to speak to various shifting landscapes of race and gender, what does it mean to be a black, gay editor in the USA?
CHR: No one has ever publicly asked me this kind of question before — neither about my sexuality and my personal life in general nor about how my sexual orientation might inform my work as an editor. An African American literary editor who is gay, a rare species, indeed. Long ago, in response to your question, I would have said to you, “What has Ingeld to do with Christ.” That is, what has my sexuality or my sexual practices to do with my work as a professional? Because US American society was very much homophobic as late as the early 1990s, I was very cautious not to speak or write publically about my sexuality. I was not about to tell anyone that I was gay. Why? I was afraid that people would then begin in numbers to reject Callaloo and all the good it tries to promote. And I also feared that many of our writers would refuse to submit work for publication in a journal edited by a black queer man. I was not so much concerned about myself as I was the thing I have created, nurtured, and developed: Callaloo. As far as I can discern now, many individuals, seniors as well as young people, have become more respectful of gay people. The comparisons from my lifetime are obvious: the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, racism and sexism, for example. No matter how homophobic or heterosexist that small group of Americans might be or become, they will try to destroy Callaloo. I will always fight to defend the journal no matter from which land or region the bigoted dragon rises up. I keep my sword and shield ready for battle, and I will not lay them down until our detractors find peace beyond their bigotry. Callaloo, as you know, has become a vital institution for a major component of US American culture — African American, literary and other, arts productions.
Yes, to protect Callaloo, I want to repeat, is the reason I have never before spoken of my sexual orientation in this kind of a public forum. But if you have noticed I have, as editor of the journal, published numerous gay writers. In fact, I have focused back issues of Callaloo, for example, on both Audre Lorde and Melvin Dixon with interviews and commentaries. The first book in the now defunct Callaloo Poetry Series was Melvin Dixon’s first poetry collection, A Change of Territory. Moreover, the 2000 winter issue of Callaloo (Volume 23.1) is devoted to “Black Queer Studies,” to queer creative writing and to queer studies. The academic section of that special issue, entitled “Plum Nellie,” (edited by Dwight McBride and Jennifer Brody) — like the special “Jazz Poetics” section (25.1, Winter 2002, winning our second prize) edited by Brent Edwards and Farah Jasmine Griffin — garnered for Callaloo its third prize from the Council of Editors of Literary Journal (CELJ). (The double Haitian issues of Callaloo (15.2 and 3, 1992) received our first prize from CELJ.) I have also represented a number of queer poets in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (2013) — Reginald Shepard, Jewelle Gomez, Cyrus Cassells, Forrest Hamer, Carl Phillips, Jericho Brown, and others. The point I want to make is that Callaloo has also tried to serve as a forum for the best of black queer writers; for years the journal has supported and promoted excellent black gay writing alongside that of heterosexual writers. I will never forget the moment that my department chairman at the University of Kentucky summoned me to his office shortly after a certain issue of Callaloo was published. Pointing to an obviously homoerotic poem by Essex Hemphill in the new issue of the journal, my supervisor challenged in a menacing tone, “What’s this?” “That’s a poem,” I politely answered. “Why?” “It is a good poem, and it is about a human experience. For me no human experience is foreign. When that experience is very well represented and is not anti-human, I will publish it in Callaloo.” With that retort, I left my chairman’s office.
Vievee Francis is the author of Horse in the Dark (Northwestern University Press, 2012) which won the Cave Canem Northwestern University Poetry Prize for a second collection, and Blue-Tail Fly (Wayne State University, 2006). Her work has appeared in numerous journals, textbooks and anthologies including Best American Poetry 2010 and Angles of Ascent, A Norton Anthology of African American Poetry. She is an Associate Editor for Callaloo.
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