It was heartbreaking. I had hoped to win the Walt Whitman Award in 1983, but my manuscript, something entitled "City Folk," had only been selected as one of forty finalists out of a field of twelve hundred manuscripts. I have only rarely submitted manuscripts to contests and have not done even that in many years, but at this point in my life I can say that was not a bad showing. I was still in factory, working as a janitor in the warehouse at Baltimore's Procter & Gamble plant, and I wanted to escape. I had a plan, but the best laid plans are only plans. The imponderable civic of human activity and the intelligence that governs it have other plans.
In 1975 I wrote the first version of what became "City Folk," and that became "Water Song" in 1985, a sojourn of ten years between first draft of a manuscript and a published book. In 1975, "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" was a box office favorite, and ten years later it was "The Last Dragon," and arguably postmodern look at identity and hybridity around the theme of the interface between African American and Asian cultures. If the warehouse was my own cuckoo's nest, I "sure nough" wanted to fly, and I was more the "Leroy" character, utterly naive but hopeful, than the power wielding "Sho Nuff" Shogun in "The Last Dragon." Those were ten years of trying to know myself and the world through my writing while stacking boxes, loading trucks, cleaning bathrooms, and scrubbing floors.
"City Folk" was written on a portable electric typewriter I bought while living in a garden apartment in East Baltimore. In 1980 my wife and I moved to a house near the old stadium in Baltimore where the Colts and Orioles played. I could hear the crowds cheering, and I could feel the stomach ache of a lull when things weren't going so well. It was a two story house where I used the third bedroom as my study. A few months after my rejection/congratulations letter from the Academy of American Poets, I received a phone call from Charles H. Rowell, editor of Callaloo magazine and the Callaloo series of books of poetry by such notables as Jay Wright.
It was 1984, a Sunday morning in spring, my reflection time. The phone rang, and Charles announced himself. Before long he asked if I had a manuscript. My breathing stopped. My heart skipped a few beats. This was a moment I had been waiting for, a chance to publish. I was so excited, and I immediately said that I had two manuscripts, as I tended then, as I do now, to write in at least two streams when I am actively writing. I had other irons in the works. I had enrolled in a non-resident university program in New York to finish my bachelor's degree. I had been applying for a NEA fellowship in poetry. I was preparing to apply to the writing program at Brown. But this seemed golden. I was so excited. Then another shoe dropped.
"How tall are you?" Charles asked.
I was caught and suddenly fearful where I had been so excited, but I gave my height. It seemed so awkward, and Charles replied, "Oh, and so sensitive."
Charles is an exceptionally intelligent man, well read and, quietly enough, perhaps one of the moreknowledgable persons in the field of African American literature. He is also well versed in the dynamics of how people move in the literary world. At the time I knew nothing of such things, but my exit from the factory seemed more plausible now. I did not want to jeopardize this opportunity.
Fall approached and Charles began writing to me, letters I have since misplaced. He wanted me to come and spend a weekend with him in Charlottesville, so we could take rides in the mountains and talk about my poetry. Call it a misunderstanding, but I was only comfortable with a visit where I could get a hotel room nearby. Things fell apart and we did not communicate much until earlier the following year, after much had happened for me.
I had applied for the NEA again, and this time I won. It was January, 1985, and I was able to leave Procter & Gamble. I left friends behind, and I carried with me what I still have, a penchant for habits such as stopping by the 7 Eleven for a coffee in the evenings, or taking long walks away from my office at Simmons to remember some of what it was to spend a whole day on my feet. I left, and some of my black coworkers gave me a dinner at a posh restaurant on Falls Road. I left and moved out into the world half expecting people to know who I was, which was so naive. I had no sense of the competitiveness in American poetry, the way people guard their territories. My own sense of propriety would take years to cultivate. But there I was, out of factory life. I had applied to Brown before I left and that acceptance would come in April with a full university fellowship.
Water Song was in limbo. My personal life was in flux. I had left my second wife and was dating the lady who would become my third wife. I was a celeb in Baltimore, an ignorable fact in New York, but in B'more I was everywhere, and I did the best I could with handling the success. There are quite a few poet workers in America, but among black poets I was rare, and I was more rarer for having made my exit from blue collar life with an NEA. It was a singular accomplishment, more so than I understood at the time. Water Song would follow later in the year, but there were hurdles. Charles and I had another misunderstanding.
I called him from my fiancee's apartment and announced, somewhere in the conversation, that I was remarrying. Charles was less than happy to hear this news. In fact, he was furious. He thought that I was not taking my talent seriously. Charles assessed my gift as a poet to be distinctive. His wish for me was that I live a more monastic life, monastic except that I should make my romantic liaisons with men. He thought women would take my essential energy away from me.
"I don't know if I will be able to do your book! I might do a small book, but I don't know when that will happen." The call ended abruptly. We communicated infrequently by mail after that, and it was agreed that I would ask David Driskell for a cover image. Professor Driskell is one of the giants among African American painters, and I was thrilled. My fiancee and I went to his studio in College Park, Maryland, and Driskell told me to choose whatever I liked. I chose a beautiful painting of his depicting a minister with wings around him, and I choose woodcuts of nude figures for the two sections of the book. Water Song treats the southern roots of my family and black culture in the first section, and in the second section there are poems about the industrial north. It is thoroughly working class.
Other people tried to give me advice about how to navigate this new space in my life, and when I chose to take some of my NEA money for my first trip to Europe, some thought it unwise because I should have been attending to my book. But I wanted a touch of class, insecure as I was about having been a laborer for so long, insecure and afraid of people's judgments. I had done all I could do for my book, I thought, and I trusted Charles to look after the proofreading.
In late June I returned to the States after wandering in Europe, and the box containing the first copies of Water Song arrived, and it was full of surprises. The cover was not the one I chose, and the woodcuts were not inside because Charles said there would be no naked people in his books. Finally, there were typos and lines had been arbitrarily broken in a few poems. I felt like I had been throughly whooped, allowed a measure of success with my first book but only after being picked up like a puppy, prodded and smacked around the ears. In any event, there I was, with first book in hand.
Call it a shared southern sense of communication, or call it the persistence of my own false humility, but Charles took it upon himself to recommend that I go spend the summer with Mrs. Catrina White in Indian Pond, New Hampshire, because Jay Wright lived nearby and I could get a chance to get to know him. Charles explained that he thought Wright and I have something in common, a metaphysical centering, among other things. Mrs. White, an elderly woman, was in the habit of keeping an artist as a summer helper, and I became that artist helper, and I started to get to know Jay Wright. That summer changed the course of my writing and my life.
When I work with young poets nowadays, I do so only if asked. Once I decide to work with them, I try to be as judicious as possible. They are a vulnerable lot, the necessary keepers of our cultural consciousness, vulnerable as they may or may not be. When I sit in places where decisions are made, I remember all of what I have seen, the politics and betrayals as well as the unabashed displays of compassion, and I try to do the right thing.
I go forward trying to remember what things cost, as in James Baldwin's trope "The Price of the Ticket."