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American Poets Interview Series
Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon Tour

Tour Log: August 29th, 1998

Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam
by Jordan Green

Kalamu ya Salaam Kalamu ya Salaam is a poet with maroon guttiness and holy daring. His is a literate tongue, articulating the history and future of Black life, sharp enough to cut through concrete and barbed wire, round enough to sculpt out a song of love and grace, a poet whose voice is an open channel of affirmation for Black women, for Black ancestors, for Black liberation.
Kalamu ya Salaam is the founder of Runagate Press. He is co-editor with Kysha N. Brown of Fertile Ground: Memories & Visions, an anthology of Black literature released in 1996, and From A Bend In the River, published earlier this year.

My Story, My Song is available from All For One Records, P.O. Box 3598, New Orleans, LA 70182-3598, 504/897-2976

Kalamu can be contacted through Runagate Press, P.O. Box 52723, New Orleans, LA 70152-2723,

The last stop of our tour was New Orleans and we brought Bernard Pierce, his lovely wife Tracy, and their friend Adele with us from Lafayette, Louisiana. So Kalamu held court for three hours in his office dazzling Bernard, Tracy, Adele, Stiles, and I with his vast knowledge and intellect.

Jordan Green: How did you start working with Doug Brinkley (Professor of History at University of New Orleans)?

Kalamu ya Salaam: I think "working" may be a misleading phrase. I met him when they had the Insomniacathon here two years ago.

Jordan: You and Doug are producing the Sonia Sanchez tribute together, right?

Kalamu: Well, what happened is Doug asked me did I have any ideas. And I said, "We should do a tribute to Sonia and bring her in." And so we tried to put that together. And basically, the Eisenhower Center (at UNO) is going to fund the operation.
Some people who had a magazine asked me to participate in the Insomniacathon -- was it Tribe?

Jordan: Yeah, Tribe hosted it with the literary renaissance.

Kalamu: So we met through that.

Jordan: Yeah, Ron (Whitehead) gave me a copy of your CD, My Story, My Song and a copy of Fertile Ground last Christmas. And I was totally inspired by the CD. My friends from Chicago borrowed the book and I never saw it for several months. I've just been reading it constantly since I finally got it back.

Kalamu: We've been working on a number of projects. The last book we published was From A Bend in the River -- one hundred New Orleans poets -- and Doug was included in that.

Jordan: Link magazine, this campus magazine that goes out across the country, did a story on me and Tilt-A-Whirl Press. They asked me what my biggest influences were and I told them on one hand Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, and on the other hand Kalamu ya Salaam and Philip Shabazz. They didn't even mention it though.

Kalamu: Well, what was influential about me?

Jordan: Well, I think that you and Philip Shabazz delve really deeply into locales and your community as your big project, and the fact that you keep a close ear to the cadences of conversation and common speech. Amiri Baraka kind of tuned my ear to that, but most of the stuff I read before that didn't really bring that out.
Your stuff on My Story, My Song is incredible visions to take you into the future and that's rare to see too. That CD is the communitarian, humanistic vision that I feel like I need to carry through into the next century. It's the same everywhere, but in the blue collar world of Kentucky, I'm surrounded by this dog-eat-dog hierarchical mentality, people trying to get ahead and betraying those of their class at every opportunity.

Kalamu: Welcome to America.

Jordan: I guess the first thing I wanted to ask you about is the Free Southern Theater. John O'Neil (founder of FST) is an alum of Antioch College, so I found out about him through that. So what got you involved in Civil Rights theater and what was illuminating and empowering about that whole endeavor?

Kalamu: Well, the Free Southern Theater was founded by John O'Neil and Doris Derby. It was founded in Jackson, Mississippi. I want to say '64 -- either '64 or '65. And they moved down to New Orleans in '67.
I graduated from high school here in '64. Since about '60, '61 I had been active in the Civil Rights movement in New Orleans. I went away to college briefly, then was in the Army. And when I came back to New Orleans in the summer of '68, I was interested in writing. I was interested in music. I was also doing photography. I gave up music and decided to concentrate on writing. In the area I grew up in, the Lower Ninth Ward, there was a community center and in the community center I taught photography.
And also I decided to pursue my writing by joining the Free Southern Theater. Which at the time the touring company was defunct. They just had a writing workshop and an acting workshop going. And Tom Dent, who died recently, was running the writing workshop. So we joined the workshop.
It was the experience of not only learning how to write and learning about theater in a student-teacher kind of way, but becoming actively involved. So we began writing our own scripts, and performing, and touring. We went throughout the South. We went somewhere in Carolina for an SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) conference. But mostly we performed in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, occasionally in Arkansas, and a little bit in rural Alabama. I stayed with the Theater from '68 through about '72.

Jordan: Was the Free Southern Theater like an extension of the Movement?

Kalamu: Oh, it was a direct extension of the Movement. All the people who founded the Free Southern Theater were members of SNCC at the time -- Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. One of the slogans was to bring theater to people where there was no theater. But one of the things was to use art as a means to inspire people for social involvement. That was the activist orientation.

Jordan: I also wondered if you could talk a little bit about the blues. You have that one piece in My Story, My Song about the blues as a form of expression, and resilience and survival.

Kalamu: When I was doing voter registration work, sometimes on Saturday mornings we'd go from house to house. I can specifically remember working uptown around where Louis Armstrong was born, where the Parish Prison is now. They tore all the houses down to build a prison complex. I can remember going from house to house and hearing the Blues coming out of the houses.
Both my grandfathers were preachers. One was a jack-leg preacher in the sense that he didn't have a church. The other on my mother's side had a church in the country and a church in the city. We went to the church in the city. I had been brought up in the church. I left the church when I was about 15.
I was brought up in an area of the city that was rural. When we moved into the house that I spent most of my childhood in, in the next block was a farm with cows, and pigs, and chickens -- in the Ninth Ward of the city. It's separated from the rest of the city by an industrial canal. A lot of people built their own houses on weekends. In that environment, the music was all around even if you didn't pay attention to it.
It was only around '62 -- I was born in '47 -- that I really started paying close attention to the music. Before that, it was just around me. Then I heard it and really related to it. In later years, when I was in the Free Southern Theater, Tom would introduce me to some musicians. I met Danny Barker and Danny was a historian. He collected instruments and costumes and music sheets. When we'd go to his house, he'd show us all kind of things. And I began to study more and more. Eventually, I began to develop my own ideas and concepts about what the music meant, and developed a Blues esthetic, that I really believed that there was an esthetic that talked about what was good and what was beautiful and why, that came out of that whole blues music.
So I've used that. I've also used elements of the church thing, the preaching and what have you, but that is more stylistic than philosophical. I don't have any philosophical inclination towards the church thing. Whereas with the blues, when I'm not doing the blues stylistically, philosophically it's still ...

Jordan: ... that spirit of resilience and down-to-earth ...

Kalamu: There's a lot to it. I'll give you a piece I wrote called "The Blues Esthetic".

Jordan: How has your own esthetic of poetry and music developed over the past 30 years?

Kalamu: 30 years, yeah. My eighth grade teacher introduced me to James Weldon Johnson. We just recited that stuff. You can be a witness and not understand. You can be a participant and not know what you're doing. At that point, I was a participant in a culture.
When this teacher brought in Langston Hughes, she said, "Put your books away. I want you to hear something." She took out this record and played the record with Langston Hughes reciting poetry with a jazz piano player behind him.
I said, "That's it." I went to the library that evening and checked out all the Langston Hughes I could find. I responded to that poem and I did not hear any more music and poetry for a number of years.
The next thing that I heard that I could remember would be Charles Mingus did a jazz piece with poetry. Langston Hughes' "Weary Blues" was with Charles Mingus also. Then I heard "Black Dada Nihilismus" by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and the New York Art Quartet. That must have been '64 or '65.
Then by the late '60s, early '70s, Archie Shepp was doing some things and more people began to do it. After I joined the Free Southern Theater, we started doing it in our own way. And I've been investigating it ever since. When I decided to do My Story, My Song, I wanted a specific sound. I was attempting to do something that had a historical sweep to it. And I wanted to demonstrate by fact, not by argument -- I wasn't arguing, I was just doing it -- and whether people picked up on it or not, I wanted to show that building on African rhythms and taking the very sensibilities -- the blues sensibility, the jazz sensibility, the gospel and all that -- we came up with this Black music. I was doing poetry that was informed and influenced by this music. Philosophically, it was shaped by the music. So that some of the pieces are just straight poetry. Other pieces are completely improvised. The last piece, "Negroidal Noise" we didn't have no rehearsal, no paper, just walk in and do it.

Jordan: Going back to Langston Hughes, what do you think the significance of his work is because I've talked to a lot of poets that say he was the first person that really pricked their consciousness.

Kalamu: Well, Langston was important because he was more than a poet; he was a writer. By that, I mean he didn't draw a boundary and say, "I'm a poet, I'm a fiction writer, I'm a journalist." He did it all.
It was in the late 60's before I consciously realized that there was such a thing as being a poet or being a novelist. Even though I was reading all this stuff, it never struck me because I started with Langston Hughes and he did everything: he wrote poetry, he wrote short stories, he wrote plays, he wrote operas, he was an editor, he traveled, he wrote history books, he did all of that. So for me, the first importance of Langston Hughes was he opened up my eyes and gave me an attitude that you do it all. Just go ahead and do it. So I never thought of just doing one thing. That never occurred to me because I was under the influence of Langston Hughes.
Secondly, Langston Hughes work was grounded in the African-American community, but he was aware of everything. People who talk about him as being a "folk poet", unsophisticated are basically showing their own ignorance. The man spoke three languages. He translated from the French and Spanish and not just Black poets. He did one of the best translations of Federico Garcia Lorca. He was not just someone doing what he did without thinking about it. He was someone who made a decision to do what he did and translated three languages. You wouldn't call someone like that a "folk artist" but that's what they called Langston Hughes. That's a way of putting him down without having to understand the real profoundness of this man. He was voluntarily committed to African American culture, but it wasn't because he didn't know nothing else. He was more sophisticated than the people that were putting him down for being a "folk poet".

Jordan: And at the same time he was translating between the intelligencia and the common folk.

Kalamu: Well he didn't even see it as that. That's the important thing because the intelligencia -- the petite bourgeoisie who are trained to work in the field of ideas, usually for the maintenance of the status quo -- think of being intelligencia as being different from the common folk because the common folk don't even have idea. He didn't even think of it in those terms. Hey, we all have ideas and the so-called intelligencia, you just on the payroll of the bourgeoisie. Your ideas are designed just to keep the status quo in place.
Langston Hughes was talking about a whole different thing. Through Langston Hughes, I started studying Chinese writers, Japanese writers, writers from South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa. Langston Hughes did two major anthologies of African literature. One was called African Treasury and one was called Black Poetry From Africa. He would go around the world pulling this stuff together and presenting it. So he wasn't translating it for the intelligencia because that wasn't even his concern. He was grounded in the community of his people and the working class folk. He spoke in the language that they would understand. That's the mistake we make in our times because once we start trying to translate for the intelligencia, we start posing our work in the terms that they use as their lingua franca, their currency, their language for their ideas, and the people we grew up with can't even understand it.

Jordan: I wondered if you could talk a little bit about a communitarian vision of survival.

Kalamu: As long as we got people running around trying to be individuals, we're not gonna have any organization. You can talk that David and Goliath all you want. David might take down Goliath, but David ain't gonna take down the whole Philistine army by himself. It's not Goliath that's the problem; it's the whole army. We're faced against people who are organized for our exploitation and our oppression, and you can't take them down as individuals.

Bernard Pierce: That's like people think about the President. He's only there for four years. There must be something else driving the country.

Kalamu: The President is the Commander-In-Chief, but the people who run the military have been there 30 years. He may be there for four years and he may have a lot to say about the specifics, the details, but at a certain point when they decide to go to war, we goin' to war.

Jordan: Yeah, I really believe in that communitarian vision of small communities and neighborhood networks to try to get things done, but at the same time, since I've become a young man and tried to make my way through the world, I always come up against older folks who ask me, "How have you proved yourself? How have you proved your worth?" They don't ask me what I've done to help out in my community.

Kalamu: People who have failed to make change have an emotional and vested interest in the continuation of failure because if you succeed you prove them wrong.

Stiles: I like that. I need to keep that quote. That's the reason we have so many urban ghettos and so many people are afraid to leave because if they succeed they get exiled. Because everybody wants to see everybody below them. That's how I look at it.

Kalamu: Well I don't know if they everybody wants to see people below them, but nobody wants to be wrong. When you're wrong, you don't want to be wrong.

Stiles: But you got to admit though that in the ghettos if you do see someone who's doing a little better than you, you try to take that person down cos you automatically, "Oh, he probably thinks he's better than me."
No, I don't think I'm better than you. You can have the same thing I got.

Kalamu: Yeah, I think that happens when you look at things materially. It also happens when society is influenced by ideas that don't support the concept of community. If you grow up in places that support the concept of community -- I've been in places where the church will pass the plate to make sure so-and-so gets to eat. If you got accepted to college and you didn't have money to go, the whole church would make sure you had enough money to go to school, not because they thought if you went away to college you were gonna end up better than them. They didn't feel that way.

Adele: You represent them.

Kalamu: That's right. You're part of them. That was the whole community ethos. We don't have that ethos today. The ghetto is just a replication of that whole thing. And I'm telling you, you watch the American ethos. It pushes individuals It's all about 'look what I got'.

Bernard Pierce: You don't need a dime to get somewhere spiritually. Like when I went down to Mexico, these people selling children. You could buy a human being for a couple of dollars. Two twelve year old girls and it's like no self-respect for their lives. I think because the focus is on money or possessions and I don't think people are focused on bettering their souls that they would allow their daughters to be raped by men for money.

Kalamu: Well, what do you do when you've got to have money to survive?

Bernard: I don't know, not let my daughter be raped though.

Kalamu: What do you do when you've got to have money to survive. I didn't ask whether you'd let your daughter be raped?

Jordan: This woman that I talked to in Austin said that she was down in Central America penniless. She was reading tarot cards out in the street to try and make a little money. She said in Mexico, people took care of her. A family with five children gave her a little corner on the floor with the grandmothers, something you probably don't see too much of in the United States.

Kalamu: It's a question of community and that's what it's gonna take to survive. People instinctively know that, but what we haven't figured out in this society is how to do it in a healthy way. That's why people join gangs. People don't join gangs because they're forced to. They have a real need to be part of the group. We all do.

Jordan: I want to ask you a question about race relations between White and Black, and other groups too since a lot of White folks and most Black folks are getting kept in poverty for the same reasons. How do you see this country going in terms of racial polarization. Do you think that Black and White are headed down separate paths or do you think there's a need for us to overcome those barriers to move ahead together?

Kalamu: Well, the notion of progress is an interesting concept that I don't personally think history bears out. I think that life is a cycle. It's not a line. It's not a question of us moving forward together or moving backwards together. It's a question of at any given time, what are we doing to maximize our potential as human beings? At any given time, in any given era. Because when you get right down to it doesn't affect how happy you are. There are people with a million dollars who are happy and there are people with a million dollars who are unhappy. There are people with ten dollars who are happy and there are people with ten dollars who are unhappy.
But we live in a society in which a certain amount of money is necessary to meet basic standards of living. That becomes a source of tension and the acquisition of money becomes important.
But when you ask about the racial situation, it implies that America and the American vision is important. I think the whole thing is no longer important at all.

Jordan: It's already disintegrated.

Kalamu: Yeah, it's already disintegrated. It's difficult to see when you're stuck here but when you move outside of the United States -- I was in Germany for about 18 days and when I came back, even though I was glad to get back home, I started seeing things.
We ask questions in the United States in the hopes of trying to continue the United States. But why should we continue a society that is based on the genocide of the Native Americans, the enslavement of the Black, and the erasure of the ethnicity of all people called "white"? Why should we continue that type of society? Why should we even want to continue that type of society. And most people never even think about that.
If there is karma, if there is justice, then somebody gotta pay for that. All this land and all these Native Americans that are just wiped out. The question is always posed in a black-white way, but it really doesn't have anything to do with just black-white. There's a whole question of social justice there. It will eventually have to be addressed one way or another and this society is unprepared to even speak to those questions.
It is clear that when you're in a society in which murder is the norm, you're not in a healthy society. I don't care how you dress it up. Plus, historically, this society is an experiment which has failed.
Historically, it doesn't mean much because 500 years is nothing. If you want to talk about empires, you had the Chinese dynasty that lasted four or five times longer than this. Thirteen Egyptian dynasties, each one of which lasted longer than this. So I'm saying, let's put all this stuff into context. Part of the problem is the assumption is that this is the pinnacle of social achievement. So how do we continue it? How do we improve it? It didn't work.

Jordan: Then the next logical question we have to ask ourselves is what new way do we relate to each other when we put aside that American nationalism?

Kalamu: Well, I think what we have to ask ourselves is what are we gonna do with our lives once we realize that this is what it is? That's what we have to ask ourselves. See because you're not gonna stop General Motors from being General Motors unless you buy 'em out. I was in Germany Daimler-Benz bought Chrysler. So they just bought Chrysler. During World War II, Chrysler was making tanks; Benz was making tanks. Benz was making tanks for Germany, Chrysler was making tanks for the United States and they were shooting at each other. Come 1998, Benz is buying Chrysler, but Germany lost the war. So General Motors is gonna be General Motors. Microsoft is gonna be Microsoft.
There are people who think they can run the world. But that's happened before. People are always thinking they can run the world. Individuals and small groups. But it'll never happen. There was a time when the Roman Empire was so big they thought sure ... what did they say, all roads lead to Rome. Yeah, they might still lead to Rome, but ain't nobody going.
So who conquered the Roman Empire? When did it come to be irrelevant? You understand what I'm saying? It didn't fall from the inside. The same thing's gonna happen in America. For those of us who are here, we're gonna have to deal with that. But America as a major world power will not be the same. Things come and go. But the question is how are we gonna live up to our fullest human potential in the time that we're here. Not in some future that we imagine or in some past that we admire. Right now, given whatever our conditions are.
One of the traps that we get stuck in is we think there's no other possibilities. "We're on this train so let's stay with it." That's not quite true. And in fact, that's probably what it means to be an artist, to take the world as it is and envision it as it could be. That's what art is. We take our imagination and form it into something else with whatever we have.

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