Affrilachian Poet Makalani Bandele on the “Wild, Poetic Line”

Poet Makalani Bandele will read Saturday Nov. 10 at 4pm @A Reader’s Corner (2044 Frankfort Ave. Louisville, KY 40206) with Merle Bachman and Sonja de Vries. Keep Louisville Literary caught up with Mak to ask about his jazz poetic and life as an Affrilachian poet:

Keep Louisville Literary: Some of your poems explore African-American history with jazz inspired lines. The resulting poems, in my opinion, carry the reader through stories and emotions the same way that listeners were and still are taken on journeys by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and other jazz greats. Could you tell us about your unique poetic?

Makalani Bandele: First and foremost, I craft poems that are in dialogue with a great tradition, poets I reach for: Rita Dove, Amiri Baraka, Ed Roberson, Carl Phillips, Hart Crane, Robert Hayden, Pablo  Neruda, Claudia Rankine, T. S. Eliot, Richard Hugo, Ezra Pound, James Wright, John Ashbery, Theodore Roethke, Bruce Smith, Lucille Clifton, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Frank Bidart, Gwendolyn Brooks, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, Stephen Jonas, Federico Garcia Lorca, Audre Lorde, Tyehimba Jess. My poems come out of books more than my life. Of course what I see, feel and experience work themselves into the poems, however I strive to make my experience relevant, relevant to the larger things like the Middle Passage, sexism, poverty, or global warming.

Second, from a young age I was bathed in the twin African-American traditions of orality and music. From a child, I have been enamored with the art of storytelling, the linguistic inventiveness and musicality of African-American expression I heard in my home and in the streets. I also developed an intimate connection to African-American music as a child listening to the Hard Bop and rhythm & blues music of my parents, and the funk, hip hop and 70’s Soul music of my older sister. So, my poetics are largely made up of an experiment to capture and contain the nuances of an African American worldview, as well as the arts of African American speech and music within a wild, poetic line. I am concerned with how to write poems that are as imaginative and musical, that is to say funky, as they can be. This translates into poems rhythmically or sonically interesting, but also funky in how ideas or a collage of images might excite the reader’s imagination to dance or heart to melt.

More to the point I often use music theory to guide my understanding of how I want to approach the poetic line. For example, I often create and organize the lines in a poem in the way that I understand improvisers do in their solos. People think Jazz improvisation is all about feeling, that the musician is playing what he or she is feeling at the moment. This is a very sexy way of looking at Jazz, but it is not really accurate. Jazz improvisation is actually quite a cerebral activity. Solos are full of memorized phrases and chord progressions, references to popular songs and other musicians’ solos, as well as fill-in-the-blanks with the right note based on your own tastes, and knowledge of the scales and ability to play them. Now how things get put together, that is what line follows what, has to do with various kinds of associations the musician might make. She may have one phrase follow another because they lead into each other based on their chord structure, or they may be chiastic, or a couple of notes in one phrase may be the foundation of  a popular four bar phrase that could follow it. I like constructing poems using this same type of associative approach to line generation and organization. I will come up with a line, and the line that follows it may pick up one word from the first line and make it its subject. The next line might be an image that relates tangentially to the subject of the previous line like coffee and cigarette might relate.

KLL: Other poems delve directly into and between jazz notes, even becoming part of the text and in turn rhythms that you hum and mimic on the microphone. These music-centric poems, such as le fete (trans: The Celebration), examine the effect of music on the listener. I’m not familiar with poems which have attempted this, so I’ll ask two things: Is there a poet who influenced you on this subject and style, or is this just the influence of jazz and blues that has inspired you personally? Who are a few of the musicians who inspire you to write these types of poems?

MB: The real pioneer of what I am trying to do stylistically would probably be Langston Hughes. Hughes was the first poet I came across using what I call sonics (a phonetic rendering of music, i.e. da-da-da-da-da   dada, which is how you might render the first four bars of Coltrane’s Giant Steps) in his poems. In all truth though, sonics is just what in Jazz is called scatting. Think of a poem like Hughes’s Dream Boogie , which captures the rhythms of Swing almost perfectly and ends with some lovely vocal improvisation: “Hey, pop!/ Re-bop!/ Mop!/ Y-e-a-h!” After Hughes, the next poet to come along and incorporate this Jazz vocalization in poetry would be Amiri Baraka, and he would be who I would say I have borrowed/learned the most from. Baraka took it the next level.

Another rhetorical device that I use a great deal is the referencing of songs lyrics in the text of the poem and singing them in its recitation. This goes back as far as James Weldon Johnson. [Unfortunately] the African-American poetic tradition is pretty much entirely ignored by academia (to the detriment of the craft of poetry). Although I will say that poems of mine like la fete and a black history lesson are the first that I am aware of that make use the vocalization of traditional West African drumming rhythms as rhetorical devices.

As far as subject matter, again African-American poets have always been intensely interested in the African-American music tradition. African-American poets have always written about, tried to capture, and mimic the Spirituals, Blues, Jazz, and now Hip Hop. I am just as Arthur Blythe says, “in the tradition.” And so being in the tradition, I have poems that are influenced by different genres of African-American music, not just Jazz. I hate to single out individuals or groups that inspire me so let me list a couple from the various genres.

-The worksongs: Johnny Lee Moore, Benny Will Richardson

-Blues: Charlie Patton, Texas Alexander

-Jazz: Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy

-Funk: The Barkays, The Ohio Players

-Soul: Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack

-Dancehall: Cutty Ranks, Sister Nancy

-Hip Hop: The Roots, Goodie Mob

KLL: Your collection Hellfightin’ came out this year from Willow Books. Has the book publication changed your life as a poet (more performances, reviews, touring, fans, etc.)?

MB: No, not really. The way the current landscape of literary poetry is arrayed, either your book has to win one of the elite awards, or you have to be well connected in academia, teaching or administrating, to really acquire a lot of readings and acclaim for your work. I can’t complain though, being an Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem fellow has helped me tremendously in terms of getting reviewed, readings, and the exposure I need. I have it so much better than many emerging poets out there. I can’t praise these two organizations enough. It is pretty amazing how my relationship with the writers in these organizations make me a better poet through workshop opportunities and one-on-one mentoring, but also most of my opportunities in the way you are thinking (readings, reviews, etc.,) comes from these same relationships.

I have to say though that the actual writing of the book changed me and by extension my life. I am so much more aware and in touch with my “selves” after writing this book. I feel more fully in control of my faculties of seeing, introspection, and expression than before I wrote this book. It’s a lot more difficult for me to bullshit myself after writing Hellfightin’.

KLL: You’re also part of the Affrilachian poets, a group founded by Frank X Walker. Could you tell us about the purpose of that group, and how being a part of it has affected you as a poet?

MB: The purpose of the AP’s is to create a cultural space for writers of color that live or have their roots in the region of Appalachia, the mountain range stretching over thirteen states along the East Coast of the U.S. from Alabama to New York. Prior to [the AP’s] founding, hardly anyone associated people of color with Appalachia, let alone artists and writers of color. We see our work as giving voice to the life and struggle of people of color in this region and supporting and nurturing those writers that are sharing in this work. As I mentioned earlier, being an AP has been a twofold blessing: woodshedding and work-shopping my work with other AP’s has helped me to hone my craft. Fellow AP’s hip me to new poetry and critical work that is out. We push each other to excellence, when somebody wins a book prize, or is awarded a prestigious fellowship the rest of us are inspired and driven to become the best we can be. But we also help each other professionally. You don’t know how to write a CV? Somebody in the group has your back. And then there are all the opportunities to read and teach that come along in connection with the cultural work that we do. Make no mistake, being an Affrilachian Poet has been the single-most important factor in the development of my craft and professional career as a writer.

KLL: I’m assuming you’ve been all over. How are the Affrilachian poets received in places outside of the Appalachian region?

MB: When I have traveled with the Affrilachian Poets, it has mostly been in the Appalachian Region, which is practically the whole eastern seaboard. There are mountain folk and their attendant culture from New York all the way down to Alabama. And then, you have to think about feeder cities, which are the metropolitan areas that mountain people migrate to, places like Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, Cincinnati, Richmond, Charlotte, Louisville, Nashville, and the list goes on. When mountain folk migrate to these cities they take their ways with them. Appalachian Mountain culture has had a profound impact on the culture of America. I would argue that outside of African-American culture, no sub-culture has had more of an impact on popular American culture than Appalachian culture. From whiskey-making to NASCAR to Country Music, all these things have their antecedents in Appalachian culture. So, getting back to your question, the farthest West outside of Appalachia that I have traveled with the AP’s is Chicago. And they loved us in Chitown. We have such a broad range of subject matter in our work (we don’t just talk about Appalachia) that we are really not going to have a problem reaching and connecting with people wherever we go.

KLL: Finally, the tried and true closer: Which poets have inspired you lately? What books are you reading?

MB: To be honest, I haven’t been reading much at all in the past few months, which tells you I haven’t been writing much. I have been in kind of a funk lately, which means I have been watching a lot movies (I especially love Latin American films), British tele, and bumping into a lot of art and music on the interwebs.

But since the final days of writing Hellfightin’, three poets are my go to cats in terms of inspiration and imitation: Fred Moten, Ed Roberson, and Bruce Smith. I am seldom ever out and about without my copies of Smith’s Devotions and Moten’s B Jenkins. Other than those three I am finding the work of women and LGBTQ poets the most interesting. I am very moved by the work of Saeed Jones, he doesn’t have a book out yet, but it won’t be long now. He is one of the most visceral and poignant poets I have ever read. His images elicit a bodily response from me every time. There are lines in his poems where after I have read it, I know in my fingertips, my tongue, and spine what he is talking about. It is a strange feeling when something so fresh and new to you as a line you’ve never read before, can feel so immediately familiar. Saeed is one of Jericho Brown’s (a great poet in his own right) Phantastique 5. I love all of these guys’ work. I am also very fond of the work of Lillian Yvonne-Bertram. She has a new book out called But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise, which is devastating. In my mind, she is one of the most wildly imaginative young poets writing. For me reading one of Lillian’s poems is like walking into a funhouse of language when you are totally tweaking. One more poet particularly interesting me at the moment is Betsy Wheeler, her new book is called Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room. Her work is just crazy fun. Her imagination is just so unbridled and I love how you never know where she is going from one line to the next, it’s not as extreme as Ashbery, you can still see how lines are leading to one another, but it’s still discursive enough to surprise and delight at every turn [of phrase].

Makalani (or “mak”) Bandele is a Louisville, KY native. He is an ordained Baptist minister and pastored churches in North Carolina before becoming a writer, musician, and freelance instructor of Literature and Creative Writing. He holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Shaw University-Divinity School. A member of the Affrilachian Poets since 2008, Makalani is the recipient of an Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize, a Literary LEO 1st Prize in Poetry, and a fellowship from Cave Canem Foundation. His poetry has been anthologized in My Brothers’ Keeper, Storytellers, and the upcoming Red Holler and can be read or is forthcoming in Mythium Literary Magazine, Tidal Basin Review, African-American Review, Prime Number Magazine, Pluck!, The Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, Black Arts Quarterly, Platte Valley Review, and Sou’wester. Makalani has a self-published chapbook called the Cadence of Echoes, and Hellfightin’, published by Willow Books, is his first full-length volume of poetry. Learn more and connect with Mak on his website.