Art In Conversation
Ishmael Reed with Bob Holman
“Anthologies are acts of resistance because anthologies are able to show a full range of writing from any group, not just the divas and divos.”
March 9–March 26, 2023
My wife, Elizabeth Murray, asked me for some lines to incorporate into her mosaic for the 6 train 59th St/Bloomingdales station; she picked Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind,” which is certainly the vibe of the blender of multilayered passageways at that subway stop. It’s also the feeling I got listening to Ishmael Reed discuss his new play, The Conductor, along with everything else over the sun, for the Rail. Though it may be difficult to edge in a question during Ish’s mammoth intellect spew, his non-stop provocateurship, one thing’s for sure—what we’re living through now he wrote about back in the sixties, which means that what he’s theorizing about now we can look forward to actually happening in another fifty years.
In this conversation, Reed reaches back to his days in New York when he was instrumental in founding the Umbra scene and St. Mark’s Poetry Project. He talks about his moves from poetry to music including the landmark theater production of Conjure, and even delves a bit into his own piano playing, the jazz of a poet, and his two albums. His vibe is hot, there’s no way around that. You’re never just talking with Ishmael Reed. You’re battling a ponderous, corrupt system with words—your ammunition—and a heart of pure art.
Bob Holman (Rail): I’ve been listening to you play piano … You’re good! [Laughs] What a beautiful album The Hands of Grace is…
Ishmael Reed: You’ve got to tell that to my Ukrainian piano teacher.
Rail: I shall! Because I’m Ukrainian. Ukrainian American, you know.
Reed: He has me playing Chopin. And he’s constantly correcting me. He had to cancel yesterday because the Russians threatened to bomb his city.
Rail: It is too much to bear. My poems are in the Ukrainian-American Poets Respond anthology, so I’m officially hyphenated, too, now, Ish.
Reed: Well, that’s great! You know that Ukrainians were never considered white people.
Rail: And I’m Jewish besides!
Reed: Yeah, okay—there you go! We’re all mongrels here.
Rail: That’s for sure.
Reed: A mongrel conversation between mongrels.
Rail: Your new play, The Conductor, is set to open in New York City. The earth is trembling. [Laughs] So here you are, bringing the dirty laundry of the San Francisco School Board—
Reed: Well, it’s happening in New York, too.
Rail: It is happening in New York—
Reed: It’s happening in New York, and it’s not being called out. You have the intelligentsia in New York, who’s asleep at brunch. They’re obsessed with academic theories, which don’t mean a thing to the working-class Black people I live among. The big stories for me of the last year, besides the police shootings, were the use of Black prisoners as guinea pigs for experiments conducted by American universities and the continued robbing of hundreds of millions of dollars in Black equity no matter their class.
The Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education organization in New York is also opposed to the lottery system. And the New York Times quoted a Chinese American spokesman for the group. But when you go to the list of the Board of Directors, there are very few Chinese Americans on the board; the majority are white, and the co-founder is a right-wing, former New York City cop. They did the same thing out here, but in this case, they used an Indian immigrant Siva Raj who is not a citizen. It would never have succeeded if it hadn’t been for right-wing billionaires lurking behind the recall.
The Manhattan Institute is out in San Francisco, causing mischief. The new district attorney seems to be taking instructions from this think tank which gave us “broken windows,” which led to a crackdown on the Black, brown, and poor. Their chief spokesperson is John McWhorter, who seems to think that Blacks should have their genes spliced or given a serum to make them intelligent and less violent. Governor DeSantis, who graduated from Yale with a degree in history, has been designated as the leader of monoculturalism. He’s the little Knight crusader who wants to save Western civilization, which they wouldn’t have without Arab scholarship. Klan leader David Duke also majored in history. They must have learned history from Ken Burns’s Civil War, narrated by pro-confederate Shelby Foote, who compared the Klan to the French resistance. But their spokesperson is John McWhorter, the most dangerous Black person in America.
So while members of the East Coast intelligentsia are at the faculty club sipping fancy bottles of wine and debating Critical Race Theory, the 1619 theory, or awaiting the arrival of the latest unintelligible theory that they can copy, The Manhattan Institute is trying to sneak in John McWhorter as the Black writer that students should read. People with Security of Employment jobs offer these theories. They distract from real issues that everyday people face—the fleecing of Black assets by criminal banks to the tune of hundreds of millions. Appraisers have been exposed as giving less value on a home for sale by Blacks than by whites. The ongoing experiments on Black prisoners without their consent by Universities and Pharmaceutical companies.The increasing homelessness and suicide rates among young Blacks. The flooding of guns and drugs into the cities from the suburbs and members of the model minority. The effort to extinguish Black culture, which was successfully used against Native Americans in the past.
Like a nation under occupation where the dominant group dictates that we assimilate, one of the M.H.I.’s donors is the Bradley Foundation, which financed The Bell Curve. The fact that the Times asks Ilya Shapiro to dictate which Black writers students should study, a man with no qualifications, and who referred to a possible Black woman supreme court nominee as a “lesser Black woman” demonstrates how the Times and other media boycott Black scholars. He suggests that students study John McWhorter, who defended Shapiro’s insult. Does Shapiro agree with his Nazi thought? If McWhorter had done his homework before blurting this racist idea, he would have found that Jennifer Doudna, who shared the Nobel Prize award for developing the precise genome-editing technology CRISPR, and others have warned about the ethical implications of the procedure.
Rail: Well, you certainly pulled that string all the way. Indians play a significant role in the play. And you even have a plot point of India shooting down a US spy plane. That results in all the Indians in the US trying to fly back to India, with those who can’t make it fleeing to Canada… Your satire unspools and doesn’t stop, like a reel-to-reel tape recorder that’s beginningless and endless.
Reed: What we have here is casteism being introduced into this country by upper-caste Indians. And you’ll find many of them in these right-wing places, you know? The head of the Manhattan Institute is Indian. Indians who know Black history and culture, like Brooklyn writer Rishi Nath, need more space than the British-trained writers who write in the quaint nineteenth-century British language and view Black Americans as “untouchables” importing that caste shit.
Rail: You don’t shy away from interracial conflict not being just a Black-white thing.
Reed: And out here, this guy Siva Raj, who high-tech billionaires used as a minority face of the recall, got into a correspondence with me about the play because I was telling him that he had unleashed a lot of these MAGA nuts on these two women. Even though they were recalled, they’re still being threatened. And he said, well, he didn’t wish harm upon them. He said that by taking their side, I was harming my legacy. I told him that he was the one who was hanging with bad company. Proud Boys. People who have made the hate list of The Southern Poverty Law Center. But this is what results from this recall. It’s like a cult. It’s not enough to defeat Collins and Lopez, they have to be destroyed.
Rail: Here’s a line spoken by the Indian guy in your play: “I have nothing to do with India. I’m an American. I’m always able to answer all the questions on Jeopardy.” And right there in a nutshell is one of the significant signals of your writing. There you are, presenting a stark reality of this character while at the same time it’s a satire and it’s also hilarious. How you blend politics into your everyday—that’s what gives life to all your writing, to me. When you bite into an idea, that idea is going to explode and “Make sure everybody gets it… gets to see it, gets to hear it, gets to hold onto it,” because first they’re going to laugh at it, gasp at it.
Reed: Well, you know—the oral tradition uses comedy to make serious points. These Marxist and Existentialist novels are aberrations. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was correct when he said that I come from the “toast” tradition, which might have West African roots. These emerged around the 1900s and were rendered in rhymes. Two of the most popular are And Shine Swam On and The Signifying Monkey. Sophisticated audio equipment was added to these toasts and they became known as rap. The idea that rap is fifty years old is wrong.
Rail: That’s how I first came across you, and it was the saving grace for me when I was going to Columbia, to read your novels. To read Mumbo Jumbo, and The Terrible Twos and The Free-Lance Pallbearers, you know, it opened up a whole new world. That’s why I moved downtown! Where were we, yes, the threats to the Board of Ed members? The news we were getting was how they were changing the names of the school; Abe Lincoln was out. And how they were not letting the kids go back to school during COVID. You deal with that in the play, but what’s front and center is this idea of a lottery for places in special schools. Is that you seeing through a smoke screen?
Reed: Look. These tests are rigged, and there have been scandals associated with these entry tests all over the country. We had that scandal where those rich people could pay for their kids to get into school. White kids grow up in homes filled with Eurocentric materials and have SAT coaches. Even with that, when Americans think of Europe, it’s usually France or England. The American Curriculum ignores China, India, South America, and Africa. It covers four countries in Europe. After visiting Finland, I mentioned the Kalevala, the oral epics of Finland, in a Times book review. The editors at the Times changed it to Kabbalah.
Reed: A Chinese American woman from the Manhattan Institute objected to the lottery system and began the recall—now, my doctor said that she attended the same high school in the seventies where there was a sort of affirmative action for white males because their brains were considered “not developed as rapidly” or something. [Laughs] Some quackery. So you know, Lowell High school began as the affirmative action school for white males, and then all of a sudden some parents protested, and they started these admission tests.
Now an Assemblymember, Matt Haney, said he went to church, and they talked about Colin Kaepernick, the football player. He had the idea that some of these so-called founding fathers were scoundrels. I covered that in the Hamilton play. One columnist dismissed the idea of renaming high schools as “a sideshow” and “circus.” Is she defending the reputation of people like George Washington, who enslaved her Black sisters? Or Junipero Serra, who used her Native American sisters as sex slaves? This is why Black and brown feminists have problems with the white feminists whom the patriarchal media have selected to represent the movement.
Rail: The sins of the founding fathers was the subject of your anti-Hamilton play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Reed: Over two hundred comments published in the New York Times and Broadway World cast me as sacrilegious by suggesting that the founding fathers were less than holy. I see them as victims of a Eurocentric education in which American history is seen as a parade of flawless great white men. It’s the curriculum, stupid. But finally, the Times and Fox News published evidence that Hamilton owned slaves and sold them.
Rail: Several historians are in your corner on this one.
Reed: There were three women, Lyra Monteiro, Nancy Isenberg, and especially Michelle DuRoss, University at Albany, State University of New York, who began the controversy about whether he was a slave owner, or not. I merely staged their research. What’s happening with the historical establishment in this country is new historians are challenging it.
Hispanics, women, Blacks, Native Americans, and Asian Americans are giving a different reading on American history than the “good old boys” like Chernow and Meacham—Jon Meacham, a television historian, said slavery lasted ninety years. Then he corrected himself and said one hundred years. So I mean, Ron Chernow, who called Hamilton an “ardent abolitionist,” led Lin-Manuel Miranda astray. Challenging the old guard with the new historians is the basis of the culture wars. Of course, the diversity side has won, which is the reason for the panic.
Rail: Full of polemics and vinegar…
Reed: All these different plays which people have been doing since ancient times, even the Aztecs had fools, you know, who were able to talk back, challenge the official version. That’s what we did in the Lower East Side, East Village, and other underground newspapers—we challenged the “official versions” of the corporate press. So I’m still with that, challenging the official version. With The Conductor, I fill in the gaps that the corporate media left out; for example, they tried to make it into an Asian American/Black conflict. There are Asian Americans who support Collins and Lopez. They left that out, and although the ABC News did cover that, ABC covered the fact that there are Asian Americans who supported Lopez and Collins in their contention that there were racist incidents that were occurring at that high school.
You look at DeSantis—he doesn’t even get white history right! He believes that the abolitionist movement began after the American Revolution. It took Jon Meacham to correct him, a guy who doesn’t have the history of slavery nailed. He called Andrew Jackson a rockstar.
Rail: [Laughs ]What you’re talking about is on the front page of the Times today, with the dropping of BLM and everything from the African American History AP courses. De Santis wants to drop writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks.
Reed: You know Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson? The musical?
Rail: Yes, yes. Yes.
Reed: Carla and I did a book of essays called Bigotry on Broadway where we invite Chinese Americans, Native Americans, and others to talk about Broadway plays like Oklahoma!, South Pacific, you know, Flower Drum Song, Miss Saigon, all that stuff that they put up there, all this bigoted stuff. And we talked about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And a Native American woman said she was in the development of Bloody Bloody Andrew, which was done at The Public Theater, wouldn’t you know, and Tony Kushner came in and endorsed the version that they did. [Laughs]
Andrew Jackson not only assaulted thousands of Native Americans but even less known was that he killed three hundred Blacks and Indians in Spanish territory in Florida, which he invaded even though it was Spanish territory. He invaded there. Jackson bombed a fort that Native Americans and runaway slaves had taken over. He bombed it, killed three hundred people, and didn’t even get the permission of the president at the time, James Monroe. And so he killed—I mean he butchered—a lot of Native Americans, which is how the invaders got Alabama, twenty two million acres. Yet they honor him.
Rail: Your plays are the opposite. Try to write that….
Reed: So what’s happening is that we’re getting more accurate. Let’s put it this way; we’re getting more points of view of what has happened in American history,
Rail: This is where The Conductor comes in. Whether it’s from the history of the Dalits in India, or the slavery years, that’s where the title comes from. Lots of ironies in seeing one of the characters as being like a conductor on the Underground Railroad. To get this information, you go into accurate historical detail with your characters. Do you get worried that the entertainment is gone, that people will fall asleep during these didactic parts? None of your humor in the polemics!
Reed: Well, I’m not worried about the audience. I’ve never been concerned about that. I’ve got about two thousand people buying my books. Yet people in the East are always siccing surrogates on me as though I were some threat to their divas and divos. [Laughs] This is the fiftieth anniversary of Mumbo Jumbo, and Scribner just put out the fiftieth-anniversary edition. So I think my stuff has sold over the decades. But I was never really concerned about that coming from the Lower East Side. You know, you’re lucky to get ten people in the audience.
Rail: Now we’re talking Bowery Poetry Club.
Reed: So those ten people should be served, right? I mean, you get ten to twenty people. So I’m never going to be considered someone who writes a blockbuster. But I’ve read that some of the younger generations are influenced by my work. So I’m not concerned about that. But it’s essential that you not only entertain but cover new territory. So there’s a dialogue between two women, Melody and Kala, about Black women and Indian women in the United States.
Rail: That’s an exciting moment! They’re resounding in conversation when your character Warren tries to smooth things over and tries to bring peace to them. And they shut him up real quick.
Reed: He does it awkwardly. Yes, this guy is supposed to be progressive, but he’s still got to learn some things.
Rail: I thought that was great. You take heat from some feminists, you know. So I thought that it was quite something that you would turn the tables here. Women really speak for themselves in The Conductor, you know, even argue politically with each other. And if a male comes up with something stupid, “I’ve got the answer,” they’re quick to become sisters.
Regarding overt political language, I remember that Baraka had a play called, What Was the Relationship of The Lone Ranger to the Means of Production. You’re not content with flowing along on the surface of the so-called plot of your story, which is always a satire and outrageous and often surreal. Sometimes it’s just a framework for you to get these ideas across.
Reed: The ideas are important. I was influenced by Baraka, who was doing this Marcel Duchamp stuff before it became fashionable. I went out to Newark and saw how he inverted a simple radio series in his play JELLO. And it was about Jack Benny and Rochester. Rochester, instead of the servant with the raspy voice, becomes a militant and robs his master. The New York Times took this to mean that Jack Benny influenced me. In the Times book review section, Black writers must always be apprentices to a white master. They’ve recruited British-trained upper-caste critics like Karan Mahajan to patrol Black writers. Mahajan said that Gulliver’s Travels influenced Colson Whitehead. In a review of Colson Whitehead from September 14, 2021, he tried to Anglicize Harlem Shuffle: “The runaway slave tale ‘The Underground Railroad’ takes inspiration in equal part from “Gulliver’s Travels” and (somewhat to its detriment) children’s books like ‘Harry Potter.’” Ain’t that dumb?
This guy has never heard of the slave narrative or the neo-slave narrative, a genre I created in a 1984 interview with the late Reginald Martin. I began the trend with my 1976 novel, Flight To Canada, which is still in print! Karan Mahajan complained that in Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, there wasn’t enough “misogyny or sexual violence.”
Rail: I remember The Jack Benny Show.
Reed: Yeah, Baraka turned the thing upside down! Taking a standard radio serial and giving it an artistic touch. And I think the guy that played Rochester went on to play in Good Times; it’s one of those popular television series. Baraka was very influential to some of my writing. We looked to Baraka for technique and Baldwin for a story, which is a big difference. Baraka was probably one of the most advanced original writers, but they didn’t like what he was saying. So we found that no matter how pretty you write, it’s the content that the establishment looks at.
Unlike Baldwin and Ellison, he and other sixties writers helped to inspire thousands to write. Chester Himes was right when he said that Baldwin was ambitious. After the New York literary establishment dropped him in favor of Eldridge Cleaver, I helped to get him gigs at the University of California and Bowling Green. What does he do? He lies about me on his deathbed. He said that every time I encountered him, I called him a “cocksucker,” a term used frequently in his novel. That was a fucking lie! Nobody at The Village Voice, where the lie was published, fact-checked the lie with me. Since then, all kinds of unstable people have been dogging me. The last guy admitted that he was “suicidal.” I thought I absented myself from the token wars when I left New York.
Rail: In that article about the Black Arts Movement and Umbra that you wrote, you take Baraka through his paces, how he changed after he moved uptown, and his writing. You also talk about N.H. Pritchard in there, who’s having his moment right now. He was on the wall right down the corridor from Steve Cannon’s couch at the Whitney Biennial—
Reed: What, is there a photo of him?
Rail: No, it was a twenty-six-page poem on which he had done calligraphy and drawings. It was beautifully done—each page framed separately. I never knew that he’d done anything like this, his abstract, concrete sound poetry. You place him of interest to the Language school in that article. And sure enough, he was a precursor.
Reed: Charles Bernstein appropriates him as a Language poet, but you know, his basis, his stuff was Black, his rhythms were Black. And he was doing hip hop before it was popular—well, we all were. There’s an album with a lot of us called New Jazz Poets produced by Folkways. So hip hop is nothing but a variation on these old early twentieth century toasts—
Rail: Toasts, it comes from toasting, sure…
Reed: Nobody knows the origin of “toasts.”
Rail: So I’m going down to John Sims’s memorial. It’s so ironic that his face is looking out at us from the cover of the Black Lives Matter issue of Gathering of the Tribes that you edited.
Reed: That’s a great cover.
Rail: Did you ever get to meet John?
Reed: I never met him, but I’m still getting emails from people who still need to get their copy, Including Anthony Barboza, the photographer. He took that great photo in the New York Review of Books. There’s Quincy Troupe, James Baldwin’s sister Gloria Smart, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Chinweizu Ibekwe, the Nigerian critic.
Rail: Historic photo. John Sims did come over and say hello to your image via Zoom when he was there at the zine launch at the Bowery Poetry Club.
Reed: Well, what happened, he died of what?
Rail: You know, he was only fifty-four, and I didn’t see any health issues with him at all. I’m going to Sarasota with Reverend Billy for his memorial. He just keeled over, found on the morning of December 11, in his neighbor’s yard, face up on the ground. He was such a marvelous artist—he did it all, MathArt, quilts. He did a remix of Dixie in fourteen different Black music styles. When he said he was going to hang a show and put the Confederate flag in it, he meant it. He built himself a gallows and put a noose around the Confederate flag. Moving. Wild. That’s a wonderful issue you did with Danny Simmons curating the art and Margaret Porter Troupe, Assistant Editor. John was going to work with Danny Simmons to put together an art exhibit of the artists in the issue at Kenkeleba House. Nothing has happened since John died, sad to say…
Reed: I included Kenkeleba House in a short story. It’s coming out in March. You know, that building has a history. The Rosenbergs were married there! It used to be a whole community place where people had weddings and things. So the place has got history.
Rail: Joe Overstreet, the founder, a great artist, died in 2019. Corinne Jennings is still there. So, you’re just such a busy man there, Mr. Reed. And I didn’t even know that you were a musician. I saw you fool around with Steve Cannon’s piano. But you have two albums out.
Reed: We did a CD in the early 2000s called For All We Know, which has Roger Glenn, Chris Planas, and Carla Blank. Probably the only CD where David Murray plays piano!
Rail: Oh, for goodness sake. [Laughs] I mean, I do know Conjure, and that was, you know, that’s still one of the greatest “spoken word” albums ever. You know, that was a beautiful theatrical piece. Skip Hanrahan.
Reed: It’s the most extended jazz poetry collaboration in history. We lasted thirty years. The last performance was in 2013 at Sardinia. Sardinia Jazz Festival. We went all over Europe, and we went to Japan with the Conjure Band. Then David Murray commissioned me to write songs for Cassandra Wilson, Macy Gray, and others. Those have all been recorded.
Rail: Have they been released?
Reed: Yeah. I did the Cassandra Wilson song after the Greek myth. It’s a blues piece based on Greek mythology. Cassandra wore her hair wild in the Greek legend, so hearing that Cassandra Wilson let her hair go wild….
Rail: Yep. That’s her hair. The new album, Hands of Grace, is just so moving. So very different from the hard-edged, straight-ahead, get out of my way writing tone your prose has. The album is spare and has some cracked harmonies, almost Monk-like. Another side of Ish. I’ve always wondered—how can you be so angry and so fucking funny?
Reed: I look at Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans’s harmonies every week. Ha! Well, I got a piece coming out in the New Yorker that shows a different side, and I’m going to record it tonight. I have different moods for different genres. For nonfiction and plays, I’m in combat mode. But I think in poetry and probably music, it’s pretty different.
Rail: Wow, that’s a good word for you—combat mode. Words attack the page and explode off it!
Reed: Sonny Rollins has always mentioned one of my books, Another Day at the Front, as what every Black man has to go through in a nation that is at war with us.
Rail: Beautiful, beautiful.
Reed: That’s what Black men are up against every day. You don’t know whether you’re going to come back alive—every day.
Rail: This is a truth, the sad truth. This is what you are trying to wake up this country too, and the moment that’s going on right now just, you know, everything that happens is right in line with your vision over the decades.
Reed: Yeah, well, one of the major problems is that my plays can do it. And we did have a strong Black press in the 1940s. The Black press was so powerful that J. Edgar Hoover wanted to indict the Black editors for sedition. You know, they were so subversive, and even pro-Japanese. That press has less influence, and so now others, even our enemies, define the Black experience. They’re the ones who choose the McWhorters. None of the East Coast intelligentsia has challenged his rise. The most dangerous Black man in America.
Rail: So that was also the heyday of the Yiddish press back then, when there were like eight Yiddish daily newspapers.
Reed: Well, you know, what happened was white ethnic America graduated into a sort of Anglo sensibility, or assimilated. I learned about the Holocaust in Europe before I learned about the Black Holocaust. I didn’t learn about it in school, I learned about it in the library, because I went to work in a library and found this edition of Life Magazine and saw all these corpses in the ovens.
Rail: Yes, I remember that. My parents wouldn’t let me watch.
Reed: I wasn’t taught it, you know, I didn’t learn about it in high school or anything like that. A lot of these histories are left out. I talked to Kyrie Irving about a month ago, when he was having difficulty. I don’t know what I said to him that led him to apologize for that antisemitic thing he tweeted. But I said, you know, “Nazis hate you too.”
Rail: Damn straight. My father was Jewish, Ukrainian Jew. So I’m not Jewish enough for the Jews, but I’m Jewish enough for the Nazis.
Reed: If you read their material, their dream is eliminating Blacks and Jews.
Rail: Talking with you Ish, you know, in this formal way for the Brooklyn Rail, it makes me think that how you talk is how you write. You put out this thesis, you give me some examples of it, you talk about Kyrie Irving or whatever you want to pull out “for example;” you build up your facts. Then, boom! You seem to be debating with the universe. You’re always on your toes in a stance, ready to go at it. Because the truth is you keep busting through this seemingly invisible wall. The propaganda that pours down on us is just so blinding that the only way to keep breathing is to transmit live from the combat zone.
Reed: Like the hip-hoppers say, they’re CNN. We don’t have the resources to get our points of view out there. I was telling this guy from El País, he called me from Washington, and I said I can’t get editorials published here, I get published abroad. So that’s the situation of writers from my background in this country.
Rail: Trivia you hate to know. Well, Ish, give us the lowdown on what’s going on right now.
Reed: The Conductor opens at Theater for the New City on March 9. I have a sci-fi horror piece called The Man Who Haunted Himself that Audible just released. I laid down three of my works, one is called Malcolm and Me. And The Fool Who Thought Too Much, about the conflict between the Enlightenment and the court fools in Germany in the 1700s. So those are three pieces. I’m working on the Terrible Fives cause some critics hate the Terribles—Terrible Twos, Terrible Threes, Terrible Fours, which wasn’t even reviewed—
Rail: You’ve got the Terrible Fours done, you’re onto the Terrible Fives. I haven’t checked in since the Twos.
Reed: Feminist editor at the Times Rebecca Pepper Sinkler hired a surrogate to take down The Terrible Threes without providing evidence that he’d read it. The late Stanley Crouch’s buddy. After that no New York publisher would publish The Terrible Fours. The late John O’Brien who was knighted for publishing French avant-garde writers, stepped in and said he’d publish anything I wrote regardless of sales. He also published my book of poetry, Why The Black Hole Sings The Blues, and my daughter Tennessee’s book, Califia Burning. Thunder’s Mouth published my late daughter Timothy’s book Showing Out. She left behind two novellas that we are editing.
Rail: Take Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. He’s not writing in English anymore. He’ll only write in Gikuyu, his mother tongue, you know.
Reed: That’s what’s happening all over Africa. The Zimbabwe women are writing in Shona. I was guided through a translation of Igbó Olódùmarè (The Forest of God), by Yoruba writer D.O. Fágúnwà when I got up before an audience in Lagos and read my poem I’d written in Yoruba “Mo Ku Lana, Mo Jinde Loni.” People were very charitable when they showed their enthusiasm. The same thing happened at the Blue Note in Japan when I read a song in Japanese before Fernando Saunders sang it. There are a lot of stories in Indigenous languages that haven’t been translated. That’s the next big task; the American Anglo establishment prefers people writing in English. So when I came back from Africa, I had a whole box full of books that people publish, self-publish, and all that. We published 25 New Nigerian Poets and Short Stories by 16 Nigerian Women. Just as there’s only one token at a time in this country, the same happens in Africa, where they’re writing for English audiences. That’s why anthologies are essential. Anthologies are acts of resistance because anthologies are able to show a full range of writing from any group, not just the divas and divos.
Rail: You’re certainly the master of the anthologies. I don’t know how many you have created, but—
Reed: About sixteen. But if you do anthologies, if you edit a magazine, like Tennessee and I, it makes you very humble because you see people write as well as you do or better.
Rail: I noticed that when you put Konch into your play, you capitalized it. A reference, I assume, to your own magazine.
Reed: Oh absolutely, I’m gonna plug my magazine, man! We don’t get the money. All these other guys get all these big grants and stuff. And you know, we put our own money up for Konch.
Rail: That’s lovely. I love that little nod, just a little nod to your own zine.
Reed: Let me tell you about Konch.
Rail: Let’s talk about Konch.
Reed: It’s an international magazine, see? So a writer in Switzerland was published in Konch. And a woman in Philadelphia saw it and invited him to a conference in Philadelphia.
Rail: That’s what it’s for.
Reed: Then we did a plague issue that had people from all over the world talking about the plague: South Africa, Europe, China, all over, England, talking about the plague. So that’s the kind of reach that Konch has.
Rail: But it’s not printed anymore.
Reed: No, it’s online. I used to lug that thing around. I used to distribute it on the road. We went online in the late nineties. I had to put up with some arrogant web designers. For one, we had to pay her and feed her lunch and babysit her kid. Tennessee, who has a Masters of Fine Arts from Mills, went back to school, Berkeley City College, and studied web design, photoshop, etc. Now she produces the magazine.
Rail: It was beautiful.
Reed: It cost me 750 dollars each in those print days. Now, we have much more flexibility.
Rail: Absolutely. Ah, the digital. Do you think the digital is a synthesis of orality and text?
Reed: Yeah, I think so. Some of the most brilliant writing is being written in social media. And corporate media believe that they’re superior to social media, right?
Rail: So you’re active on social media?
Reed: We get a broader view of Black life on social media than in the corporate press. I get to hear Black scientists and historians instead of athletes and entertainers, which we hear daily in the corporate media. You pick up the paper today, you can find all the Blacks on entertainment pages or sports pages or crime pages. So, I mean, social media gives us a more expanded idea of Black, brown, POC life. I hear about Blacks in a ghetto high school winning national chess championships. That’s why they are afraid of it. Because they’re still in the—they haven’t changed in a couple of hundred years—how they depict minorities. Booker T. Washington complained about corporate media coverage of Blacks.
Rail: Back to the music, please. It’s beautiful how you end your new album, The Hands of Grace, with that piece for Steve Cannon that Carla plays on. And then you have the piece for your daughter, Timothy. And your daughter Tennessee reads a poem in one piece. You know, you rarely get personal like that in your work, but the music seems to be able to pull it out of you.
Reed: Well, the last time I saw Steve, I played his favorite piece on the piano. “I Want To Talk About You,” by Billy Eckstine. A nice ballad. And so as I was leaving, he put John Coltrane’s version on, and said, “Now top that!”
Rail: [Laughs] Well, you guys sure did have different debating styles.
Reed: We had our ups and downs. Put it that way. Steve was everybody’s friend. To a fault. He’d take people in, and they’d start forging checks. He helped many people—they won’t admit it—get their start because Steve put them up or gave them money or whatever in New York. Stanley Crouch and people like that. Steve would take you in if you were ever down and out in New York, and you were a writer or something.
Rail: That’s for sure.
Reed: He had a big heart.
Rail: Oh, the most generous man ever. His couch was just on exhibit at the Whitney Biennial. It was your bedroom if you needed a place to crash. It was the Last Crash Pad on the Lower East Side. The Gathering of the Tribes.
Reed: Well, Blank Forms is reprinting Groove, Bang and Jive Around and the film Personal Problems, which we produced and which starred Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Walter Cotton, directed by Bill Gunn and shot by Robert Polidori, ranked forty-one as one of the best films shot in New York, according to New York Magazine, beating out films with multi-million dollar budgets. We spent 55,000 dollars.