Sincerely, Langston

MY REVIEW of Selected Letters of Langston Hughes for the Los Angeles Times is now live.You can find it here.

The book comes in at nearly 500 pages and is a vivid sampling of an archive of letters that could fill perhaps 20 volumes, according to the editors. Hughes was a prodigious letter writer. How he found time to do so (and with such detail), amid his other writing — short stories, poems, plays, librettos, children’s stories and poetry — is mind spinning.

From the piece:

Mail arrived from many corners of the black experience — from the first bloom of Harlem Renaissance stretching well into the trenches of civil rights era. The specific details and texture found within them granted him entree — and lent him gravitas as an informed eyewitness who helped to shape a deeper understanding of blackness in a global sphere. Through letters Hughes cultivated a circle of literary cohorts, business associates and patrons (Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Carl Van Vechten, Arna Bontemps, Blanche and Alfred Knopf among them), some of whom remained close nearly the entire arc of his professional life.

There is a Los Angeles tie in this. Not in terms of his letter-writing life, but about his relationship to the city.  Hughes didn’t very much care for the city. langstson He’d swing through town for meetings or work and at one point took a brief stay downtown at  Hotel Clark on Hill Street. However, much of his distaste for the place had to do with his frustrations with work in Hollywood and an on-going battle that had been waged against him by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson founder of the Foursquare Church. Hughes had made mention of McPherson in a poem “Goodbye Christ,” in which he charges that she is both “materialistic” and an “exploited.” Although he would  later retract the poem from publication, it wasn’t over, for McPherson whose publicity arm organized a group from her Angelus Temple congregation in Echo Park to protest the poet’s appearance at Pasadena’s elegant Vista del Arroyo Hotel in November of 1940, on the occasion of the publication of his memoir, The Big Sea. It was a poem, as the letters suggest, that would tail Hughes throughout the rest of his career. Click here to read more. Also, here’s black-owned newspaper, the California Eagle’s take on the imbroglio.

Voice (24)

LangstonHughes_on-stoop-In-Harlem“I am sorry if I am discouraging you with all my would-be good advice. But if you’re like me you’ll do as you want to do anyhow. I always do as I want, preferring to kill myself in my own way rather than die of boredom trying to live according to somebody else’s “good advice.” Besides adventure is two-thrids uncertainty. Had I been sure about Paris, I wouldn’t have been nearly as thrilled as I was when I came here with eight dollars, and wondered how Fortune would let me live. But I’m a ‘nut.’ You needn’t be one. It’s better to stay home.”

— Langston Hughes in a letter to Harold Jackman, May, 1924
from Selected Letters of Langston Hughes

The Night We Land on the Moon . . . .


“It’s a great place to grow up [Los Angeles] as a creator because there’s no intellectual hierarchy. I remember going to a party in New York about 35 years ago. They all called me Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I said, “You, ma’am, your name and phone number? And you, sir, your phone number? And you, sir?” And they said, “Why are you taking our phone numbers?” I said, “Because the night we land on the moon, you’re going to get called.” I was in London when we did. I called three of them, and when they answered I said, “Stupid son of a bitch,” and hung up.
— Ray Bradbury, quoted in Newsweek (November 1998)

Voice (9)

“Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and some asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all – it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. . . . . . . . . . . .”


from “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff
And a million thanks to Ann D., because now you can hear Wolff read it right here

“The Comet’s Tail of Memory”

A FRIEND of mine just posted this morning that Tobias Wolff was in town over last weekend and did a reading at Antioch University here in L.A. and my heart just sank. I missed it. Wolff, for me, is one of those writer’s that I can’t break the rhythm once I’ve started reading. There are a few like that. I finish one story and then I want another, and then another — like a salt fix. I want to stay in those cadences; I want to continue peering through his lens. In other words, I don’t want to be interrupted.

Below is a section from one of my favorite short stories of his, “Bullet in the Brain,” in which a critic who can’t stop mouthing off, expressing his scathing opinions, makes himself a vivid target.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is…

What is remarkable about this story is the shifts in emotion, tone and voice. The first section is almost slapstick, but the moment that the violence pierces the narrative, everything changes. Becomes science and then poetry. It’s a short, short story. Slim but resonates deeply. It’s best heard out loud.

Here is an NPR interview and longer excerpt from the story. And, if I can find it, Woolf did a reading of the entire story over NPR some years back right around the time the collection, The Night in Question was published. This short story also appears in his most recent collection, Our Story Begins. It’s worth it just to hear him speak that very last line:

they is, they is, they is.

And here he is talking about reading writing and his novel, Old School, for the Big Read Project:

Voice (8)

Fantastic Names of Jazz

Zoot Sims, Joshua Redman,
Billie Holiday, Pete Fountain,
Fate Marable, Ivie Anderson,
Meade Lux Lewis, Mezz Mezzrow,
Manzie Johnson, Marcus Roberts,
Omer Simeon, Miff Mole, Sister
Rosetta Tharpe, Freddie Slack,
Thelonious Monk, Charlie Teagarden,
Max Roach, Paul Celestin, Muggsy
Spanier, Boomie Richman, Panama
Francis, Abdullah Ibrahim, Piano
Red, Champion Jack Dupree,
Cow Cow Davenport, Shirley Horn,
Cedar Walton, Sweets Edison,
Jaki Byard, John Heard, Joy Harjo,
Pinetop Smith, Tricky Sam
Nanton, Major Holley, Stuff Smith,
Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan,
Mr. Cleanhead Vinson, Ruby Braff,
Cootie Williams, Cab Calloway,
Lockjaw Davis, Chippie Hill,
And of course Jelly Roll Morton.

— Hayden Carruth

“So it goes . . . “

THE NEW YORK TIMES has a sweet, small piece on the opening of the Kurt Vonnegut library in Vonnegut’s home town, Indianapolis, Indiana. The native son’s birthday was just a week and a half ago, November 11, Veterans’ Day — it would have been a fitting gift for a man who was once asked what book would he recommend to a child to get him/her interested in reading:

“Any damn book,” he quipped.

Vonnegut died in 2007. He was 84.

From the piece:

“All my jokes are Indianapolis,” Mr. Vonnegut said at a speech here in 1986. “All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”

Tourism officials hope the library will draw visitors from around the world to a city known more for auto racing than its literary scene.

Fifteen Authors

THE FACEBOOK meme this week.

I’ve done different versions of these. Fifteen albums, books, songs etc….

This one wasn’t any easier. I dislike boiling things down and thinking about words like “influenced” because they mean different things at different times in my life — my journalist head, my fiction writer head, my poet head and the all-important, dreamer head and heart. There are books and authors I may never return to or might have a completely different read on now (which is why I fear revisiting some books) but were either instructive or inspirational or impacted me in some crucial way because of the very timing.

One of my L.A. Times colleagues sent this around and so, I did it and passed it on to some old friends and new ones. People I’ve encountered from different times in my life. This is what came to me within the 15-minute window. I’m waiting to see other’s results. It could be revealing — a map of where they’ve been and where they want to go.

The Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. You’re supposed to tag at least fifteen friends, including me.

This was difficult. Very. And I don’t think I got everyone — in fact I know I didn’t . . . This list, for me, probably most represents authors who moved me early.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
J.D. Salinger
T.S. Eliot
James Baldwin
Truman Capote
Kurt Vonnegut
Toni Morrison
Gina Berriault
Leonard Michaels
Jack Kerouac
Paul Bowles
Joan Didion
John Edgar Wideman
Paul Auster
Tobias Wolff

Can’t forget Jamaica Kincaid either. Or Amy Bloom.

Oh, and Harriet over there to the right? i’d call that seeds —
something about those notebooks she carried . . .