PoetryThe Last Poet
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Editor's note: This story originally appeared in Metro Times for June 28, 1995:And how will I live, without money, without love, without fame? —Frank O'Hara
"Some of the greatest artists never created anything," says poet Ron Allen, with a taunting grin. Beneath that grin you know he's dead serious. He has the day off from his job as a chef at the Cass Café. He and I are sitting in his walk-up apartment on Third Street. The building sits just outside the even-horizon of Wayne State University and round the way from the Cass Corridor. Ron is a longtime resident. The corridor is in his blood, he says. If his work as a writer, editor, publisher, arts organizer and teacher were ever to draw him too far away from it, he feels he'd suffer spiritually.
I watch Ron sigh as he thinks about this claim he has just made about artists not creating anything. He leans back in his chair, and his grin disappears.
We are surrounded by stacks of books and records and a roomful of papers inscribed with his handwriting — poems, notes, ideas and the play he's working on. I suggest to him that with the "artists who create nothing," he's invoking the conceptual heritage of modernists like Marcel Duchamp and Miles Davis, who deliberately disregarded audience expectations by choosing to do other things besides create, or by creating works no one would accept.
He seems interested, and nods thoughtfully. But, of course, he hasn't meant this at all. True, he's invoking the modernism of artists like Breton, Duchamp, Miles. But Ron is invoking even more than that.
Being an artist, a poet, he asserts, is not about what you do — the parties you go to, the schools or styles you identify with, shoes you wear, open readings you crash, or the fat arts grants you fish for. It's not about your proximity to institutions like universities, or your ability to shop in Royal Oak on the tail end of a paycheck. Being a poet's an identity.
Ron is invoking, with his work, words and life, the original definition of the "poet" as someone who lives life in a way reflective of the human values behind self-expression, freedom of thought, and spiritual progress.
One wonders if he sees himself as detached from the material world, some sort of Buddha. But he obviously sees himself more as Bodhisattva — the mythical figure who speaks of the spirit and immortality, yet voluntarily enters into the sorrow of the material world.
Ron sees the role of the poet not to transcend, but rather to embrace the sorrow, the decay and the pain around him or her.
"Poetry is a state of mind that determines my everyday actions," he says. "Capitalism, status — I think those things have no part in the values you're talking about if you're talking about poetry. My art reaches back to the tribal shamans, the soothsayers. So ‘art' defines politics."
He's speaking to a group of recovering addicts at the Harbor Light Mission, a Cass Corridor rehabilitation center. As he teaches poetry to the street-hardened men, they sit at attention, because they can sense that he's not an "academic" speaking rules, but someone with whom they can connect.
His most moving poems are about carnality, body images of blood sweat and saliva, about pain and loss — the physical realm.
But he keeps saying that "spiritualism" has something to do with poetry.
Is he claiming a life of the soul while his poems about the body, poverty, sickness, pain and terror have take the stage before Detroit poetry audiences for nearly 14 years? Is this some cosmic rap he's offering up?
"I'm not talking about the superficial," he says. "Not the crap we see being commercialized as ‘New Age' but the real thing: spiritual rootedness. Poetry can heal us, give us a sense of community. Music, paintings and words. Culture. It's what makes us human."
This is going to be harder than I thought.
Ron sets a steaming plate of eggplant a la Ron on the table. On the side, he's serving me curried rice. Sunlight streams into the Cass Café like shattered rods of glass. He smiles and heads back for the kitchen, where he is surfing the last of the lunch crowd's orders.
I wait for Ron to get off his shift to talk. Looking down at food, which smells like a cross between Algerian and Cajun, I don't mind the wait. He has worked as a chef in some popular Detroit restaurants, including Union Street, before coming to Cass Café.
"Cooking has been a mainstay to fall back on when I needed a job," he says. "But after a few years, I realized it was an art. So tried to learn all I could about culinary arts — French, European, soul food, American Southern and Western cuisine, Cajun and, lately, vegetarian."
Ron began his life as a chef in Vietnam. "I went into the Army," he says. "And there I learned … how to cut on a flame under a pot. It was only after the Army that I learned to prepare food in that pot!"
His return to his hometown of Detroit after Vietnam is what led to his cultural, spiritual and political awakening. This was when he began to move toward being an artist, when he realized that being a chef satisfied his need to express his humanity.
As he sits down now, wiping his hands on his apron, clearly happy I'm eating, it seems impossible that he once said, "When I got back from the brutality and horror of war, me and my homeboys would fantasize about killing a cop. Man, I hated cops! Still do. They represent oppression in every sense of the word."
The Black Power movement of the 1970s gave Ron a sense of his own self-worth and of his cultural identity — things that had been denied him in the segregated, oppressive culture of the '50s.
"After I got back, I was a Marxist-Leninist with a particular affinity for the Black Panther Party. I'd grown up on the East Side in the pile of rubble, hovels, whiskey stills and lack of education which was Detroit."
Born in 1947, Ron got a GED while in the Army. In the aftermath of his political awakening, he grew into an understanding of himself as a victim of America's apartheid system of race and class. When the radical early '70s gave way to cultural collapse later in the decade (ascendant capitalism, drugs and police occupation of ethnic urban America), Ron found that in order to avoid the cynicism of the post-"revolution" era, he had to find ways to move forward with what he had learned.
"1982: That was the year I became spiritually overloaded." The death of his father, his witnessing of the destruction of many Detroit black cultural movements because of drug addiction and fierce poverty, all pushed him toward his metamorphosis as a poet.
A poet, he says, is not concerned with the dominant European conception of the artist as a salesman, huckster and "star," but is a politically aware, spiritually liberated agent for the healing of his own community — Detroit, in this case.
In 1982, Ron co-founded Horizons in Poetry (HIP) with friends John Mason and Wardell Montgomery, a monthly reading series and arts collective. It was designed to remain organically connected to the true talent and genius of Detroit artists, many of whom were being ignored then (as now) by mainstream and academic arts circles.
Many of these poets have gone on to record, publish, each, edit, study and perform across the country and overseas, though they tend to remain ignored and obscure here in Detroit.
Those associated with HIP read like a "who's who" list of at least three generations of the Detroit School of the Arts: Alvin Aubert, Ron Carter, Dudley Randall, Nubia Kai, Vievee Francis, Faruq Bey, Schaarazetta Natelege, Stella Crews, Taslimah Hall, Chris Tysh, Tani Tabbal, Kofi Natambu, Larry Gabriel, Willie Williams, Spencer Barefield, Lolita Hernandez, George Tysh, Katen Sandets, Geoffrey Jacques, Leonard King, Kalimah Hasan, Ibn Pitts, Michelle McKinney, Trinidad Sanchez, Saundra Douglas, Jessie Nowells, Semaj, Lesia Duskin, Esperanza Cintron, Rico Berry, Lynn Crawford, Charles Gervin, Perri Giovannucci, James Carter, Leslie Reese and others.
Ron talks continually about the meaning and theory behind their works, and about the interrelationships between Detroiters and the artistic traditions in America and the world.
In a long conversation with him, however, one comes to realize that his "who's who" list is also a "who's ignored."
Many black and Latino poets in Detroit feel that the "coffeehouse scene" now thriving in the city and suburbs is an exclusionary sort of culture. This culture, Ron points out, is largely run and peopled by a young generation of white academics and white, middle-class "performance poets."
The American tradition of stepping on and over earlier generations of urban ethnics and their progressive white comrades is alive and well in Detroit. Those who do not flee Detroit must live with the bitterness of obscurity.
Obscurity awaits them outside Detroit too, but many feel it's better to suffer it in the country at large than at home. Ron, who grew up in the '50s, feels he can readily recognize why the arts in metro Detroit are flawed: He sees something akin to the crude cultural theft by the '50s "beat" generation which worshiped image, and knew how to capitalize on the American tendency to mistake signs and trappings of art as true wonders.
Beats took much of the identity (at least, their mass-marketed identity) from the earlier bebop artists, just as rock and rollers appropriated the segregated and exploited "race musics" of black blues and R&B later on.
So-called "spoken word" and retro-bop poetry styles now popular in suburban America have pilfered styles, vernacular, image and artistic ides from black culture and the jazz aesthetic. This sort of theft, benign neglect and institutional hostility toward generations of urban artists is seemingly all the rage in Detroit.
Many of those associated with HIP throughout the '80s, before the "coffeehouse" craze, are obscure now. And Ron, though he virtually inaugurated the form years before Hamtramck was a poetry mecca, is never credited for what he is: a godfather of open mics and poetry readings in Detroit bars and cafés.
Walking the distance between the front of the café and the utility bar inside, I see Ron sitting with poet Vievee Francis and with his niece. It is striking that Ron's friends mostly seem to be women. More than the inevitable result of the scarcity of sane, unincarcerated, uninterred black men, this seems also a result of his tendency to relate to people in an intensely nurturing way.
I watch Ron looking down with joy into the face of his 3-month-old grandniece in Vievee's arms. Some thing about this reminds of an earlier conversation, in which Ron defended values generally thought of as being far left of the conservative attitudes of many working-class, urban blacks.
"Women suffer terrible brutality at the hands of the patriarchy," he told me. "It's that attitude that says, the land is mine, this chair is mine, this woman is mine — it's the end result of thinking your gender gives you the privilege to take and dominate. It's sad that the black working class has swallowed that whole possessive, material attitude that comes with partriarchy."
His way of dealing with this is, of course, artistic.
Recently, he's been working on a cycle of plays that addresses the issues. The first was a Brechtian one-act examining the relations between economic oppression, racism and sexism, in which a Playboy centerfold comes to life and engages in an argument with a black man, who must himself deal with the demands of his black male boss.
The second play, the one he is currently writing, deals with the past, present and possible future of American black women under the double oppression of racism and sexism.
Ron has been published in scores of Detroit literary and cultural forums. He's guest-lectured at the Center for Creative Studies, was an adjudicator for the Detroit Council of the Arts, served as a local organizer for Ishmael Reed's national boycott of network news, and published and edited a cultural journal he created called Eye to the Ground, which he plans to revive.
As he talked once about his hopes to stage and perform his plays downtown, I couldn't resist asking why he would want to. Why not find a producer in New York? Why even go on here, in what cultural critic Kofi Natambu calls "The Post-Industrial Village?"
After all, nationally acclaimed black novelist Xam Cartier, who spent a brief, unhappy season in Detroit as a visiting author at Wayne State, where she felt isolated, ignored and depressed, has taken to referring to Detroit as "Distraught." Detroit's expatriates Geoffrey Jacques in Manhattan, Leslie Reese in Alabama, Karen Sanders in Texas) all have called Detroit names.
"The more people left Detroit, the more holes were were left here," Ron says. "During a period here, '86 and '87, a lot of issues were dealt with through community organizations and activity. People were also caught up in the daily struggle to live.
"Those things are not to be avoided — they are part of my identity, because they led to my being more involved. I learned so much from my community that was healing, transformative and which contributed to my growth as an artist."
This is beginning to make sense. Ron is and always has been talking off the focus I've brought into these conversations — the focus of most adult American artists. Understanding Ron's point requires the overturning of perception and interpretation.
Ron smiles now, as if he can tell what I'm thinking. He leans forward in the car, on the bus seat, on the barstool, leans in close as we walk up Cass together past the Detroit Public Library.
"Yes, the decay here is sad. A lot of healing is needed. But it's up to the artists — healers — to mend those wounds. Economics is only part of the reason for the situation. It's universal. It's not ‘capitalism' but entropy. Even the Marxists have got it wrong, and I used to think of myself as a Marxist. When you get into eliminating whole classes of people, you have a problem.
"What does it mean to blame, as Marx did, the middle class, and mark them for elimination? Engels was middle-class. Ideas can come from the middle class, so not all those people have to be dealt with pejoratively. We can say things generally, but not specifically, about class."
The plays, he asserts, will be performed here. People will come to see them.
Whether there are three, 30 or 100 people in the audience is irrelevant. Just as the poverty and abandonment have plagued Detroit for years is irrelevant. Only the core of values and beliefs from which we draw in our response to these circumstances is important to Ron.
Much noise is made lately about Detroit's "comeback." The "empowerment zone," the election of a new, Crown Victoria-chauffeured mayor with fashion sense in place of Mayor Young's class warfare chic.
But try as you might, you cannot entice Ron to give up you an opinion of current politics. "The administration is brand-new," he says. "I'll wait and see what ends up getting done and doesn't."
It is not so much patience as a disinterest on his part. He says that politics is superficial, and those who play at it are fostering the illusion that they stand for or seek change. True change begins and ends at the spiritual level. Far from a crackpot attitude, it seems to be a deeply transformative lesson he learned from the turmoil of the '60s and '70s and the particular failures of political camps for that era.
"Change has got to be something more fundamental than shifting political pretensions. We have to live according to natural forces. Decay and entropy are two of those forces. There is massive shifting and purging to be gone through; it's coming."
What about injustice? What about racism? Does he expect people to see racism as a manifestation of the universal laws of entropy?
"I deal with that as an artist. That's the real challenge. What you say you're about, and what you really are about — what's inside you.
"A lot of people are posturing and posing, but they aren't poets. They aren't poets because they don't have the calling to be poets — it's not in them to be. It's just something cool and hip to do. The racism comes into it, because these people don't have inside them the spiritual resources, or the connection to community that makes for art and artistic expression. They just have money and status. They think that they must obscure the power of others to release their own power. These people do ‘poetry slams,' a form of acting out which I despise. It's about competition and aggression rather than community.
"Everything boils down to how we live and interact. If we don't take care of that as artists, it ain't gonna come from anywhere else. It won't come from politics, because politics are sick. It won't come from religion, because it is corrupt. All cultures transmit and work out these ideas through art."
And in Detroit, he stresses, it is not simply a case of suburbanites and Detroiters on opposite sides. Class and gender are just as crucial as race in confronting the need for change.
"Look at brothers, for instance. Brothers say to me, ‘We need to emulate what already exists. We'll be liberated and empowered if we do.'"
Ron laughs, his voice resounding off the walls of his apartment, off the foyer of the Detroit Institute of Arts, echoing along the sidewalk down Willis Street, and disappearing into wet skies above Church's Chicken at Forest and Woodward — a hundred laughs, a hundred conversations, a thousand cups of coffee and scores of books, papers and discussions about Dharma, Hegel, Cicero and Angela Davis.
Rayfield A. Waller is a Detroit writer on the faculty of Wayne State University.
"Dream Number I"
by Ron Allen
he is the bearer of redemption
his eyes wear the sackcloth of osiris
he wears sourdough dresses
in the skull of satan
he drinks the dead meat of red beer
he has survived many nights of salted urine
he has tasted the female blood on his pillow
he is looking for the dream life
he is looking for darkness
the toothless hag of the future
he chases rats from the room
and licks the wounds from old photographs
he licks the dew from the walls
armed with blankets and pills
he has rushed the five alarm fire of day
his mouth a century old scowl
he has fallen to his knees
to swallow it whole and let gush from his pores
his grandmother whispers tantric
verse in his ear
his organs shudder
he dies the death
of many dreams
he pulls his eyeleids
to his knees
and reaches to
that he is God.
Special thanks to editorial intern Robert Guttersohn for his assistance with this column. Send comments to email@example.com.