DS: You’ve written political, or culturally critical, poems in the past. Do you still use the poem as a political tool?
LT: Right now I have been writing a number of poems about my family, things I remember about them from my childhood. Aunts and uncles, you know, who had interesting history, immigrant history, it seems to me, when they were younger, had all kinds of amazing adventures in this country long before I was born. And, I don’t know, I guess it’s a function of age and memory that I feel like going back and reconstructing snippets of things I heard when I was a child, and writing poetry based on that. I don’t know if that says anything about the particular moment that we’re in. I used to write poetry that people considered very political, though I don’t consider all of it to be so. But everything has a social context to it. I don’t think that these [recent] poems are different really. They each have a political comment based on what those people, my aunts and uncles, analyzed as the place they were living in, and the actions that they took accordingly. I’m publishing, maybe, what I know of the actions. But if you read further into it, or if you read closely, you can see that they were reacting to a situation, and that reaction was in some sense a political reaction. Though I am not saying the personal is political, because that’s nonsense. Politics is the conscious response to the social setting you find yourself in. “Anything I do is political because it’s me”—that’s not what I mean. These were immigrant black folks who had to make a way in this country, which at that time was not particularly a good country for black folks, immigrants or native born. And so I think part of what I’ve been doing in these poems is trying to understand what those stories I heard as a child really meant.
The prose things I’ve been working on, the book that comes out in February, Extraordinary Measures, goes back and looks at William Stanley Braithwaite, Fenton Johnson, Margaret Walker [and others]. I went back and started with the teens, with [Paul Laurence] Dunbar and Fenton Johnson, because, again, I had the desire, reading this for experience. I know my life, and everything that happened with my life, but I’m fascinated to know what happened before I was here. And I guess I was also looking at people like Braithwaite and Fenton Johnson as being poets who faced the same issues and problems that I faced and did something in response to those. So Fenton Johnson in particular is, I would say, the first African-American modernist poet. And I wanted to know how he became that. How did he become the first black poet to be published in Poetry magazine? How did he become a featured writer in Alfred Kreymborg’s Others magazine, and I think maybe for a while, the only black poet who was, you know, part of that circle? What did that mean to him? So I think that’s one of the things I wanted to look at because in some ways that spoke to the situation I find myself in often.
DS: What did you find out about Fenton Johnson?
LT: I found out that he was an excellent poet and a horribly naive politician who eventually was driven into silence by the FBI. He turns up under FBI surveillance as a radical dissident because of magazines he was publishing. They weren’t poetry magazines. They were magazines intended for the general public, discussing the issues of World War I, segregation and the Jim Crow laws and their relationship to this country that’s fighting to make the world safe for Democracy, [even though] black people can’t vote or walk the streets safely in the United States. So he’s approaching those issues, but unlike W.E.B. Du Bois, at the Crisis, who has 100,000 readers who are members of the NAACP, Fenton Johnson has a thousand readers and is publishing his magazine out of his pocket. He can’t stand up to the FBI.
DS: So what happened?
LT: What happens is he shuts up, is what happens. So that’s, you know, a kind of a horrible story. It’s not the only story of that type but it is a story that is fascinating to me. And I wanted to know more about that. And what I found out in looking at that is the situation Fenton Johnson faced during the World War I period is very much like what happened later on to somebody like Melvin B. Tolson during the World War II period. Tolson had a newspaper column called “Caviar and Cabbages,” in a weekly black newspaper called The Washington Tribune. He has these poems of that era—”Rendezvous with America” is a very beautiful poem—that are very kind of upbeat in a sense—you know, songs in praise of democracy and all that. And I was interested to see how he reconciles all this. He knows better. He’s lived in Texas in a segregated town. Lynchings go on around him. There’s all kinds of labor strife going on in the very defense factories where black folks work, thinking, well hey, are black workers going to get a decent payday here, or does the same system continue while once again we fight to save the world democracies, fighting for freedom as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was talking about it? So I wanted to understand Tolson. How does he articulate this? Essentially what he does is he writes on two levels. One level is praising the promise of America as a democratic society and the other level is pointing out the shortcomings. And those are both interwoven into the same poems, and they certainly are the subject matter of his newspaper columns.
Langston Hughes is much the same. “I, Too, Sing America” is Langston Hughs doing exactly that. On one level it praises the promise of democracy in American society while very pointedly pointing out our objections to the reality which has never matched the rhetoric, even today. So essentially what I discovered going back to look at that, was that those are analogous to the 1960s when the civil rights movement began to change into something else, the Black Arts movement and things like that. Those issues were very real in the ’60s. And what I learned in going back and doing the research is that’s not the first time it happened, and unfortunately, it probably will not be the last time, because the forces that desire inequality in this society do not rest. They are at work doing evil all the time. So it’s our business to pay attention. I think that going back and seeing how earlier thinkers, intellectuals or writers tried to deal with the situation can be instructive for us. We can look at where they fell off the tracks, or were pushed, and in most cases it’s what’s pushed, in this country’s history. I think that can be instructive. I’m very dismayed when I talk to people today who think that everything started in 1980 and have no apparent interest in going back and looking at the history here and understanding what happened, what’s still happening. Early on in the 1960s I was paying attention not only to African-American poets, of course. Ted Greenwald and I made a very conscious, careful study of Ezra Pound. We read everything we had heard about him. At the same time I made a very careful study, for me anyway, of a number of Surrealist writers, and talked to people like Ron Padgett who of course knew a lot more about it. Ron is a translator of French, so he knows what he’s talking about.
—Lorenzo Thomas in conversation with Dale Smith, Fall 2000