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An Interview with Welton Smith

from Journal of Black Poetry (1972)

JBP: Last night, when we were talking, you said you were hunting for a verb. What kind of verb are you looking for?

WS: Hunting for a verb -- I was actually talking about a predicate as it functions in a sentence. You know, one of our problems. . . . Well, first, let's talk about the kinds of verbs that won't do; then second, why assume that western civilization can give you such a thing as a sentence. . . and we don't call that into question. Maybe a new thing altogether is needed.

O.K., the verbs that won't do are the kinds of verbs that if seen on a page, most people in western civilization would automatically assume . . . assume that something white is going to be the direct object of the verb. Those verbs won't do. But there are other verbs that jar people by their existence on the page -- they call blackness to mind, and not whiteness. Like cut, dig, love. Some nouns become verbs, too, like Johnson (L.B.J.). Johnsoned, johnsoning, I'm gonna johnson him --

JBP: Why love? Why do you put love there?

WS: Mainly because if you don't know all of yourself, you don't have the capacity to love, only the capability of being in love. Anybody is capable. But capacity indicates a wholeness. The verb, the action, takes place in you because you have the capacity. That's why bloods and whites could never share that verb in western civilization. You have to be whole to love -- and you can't love whites. To try to love them undercuts your wholeness as a blood.

JBP: No wholeness, no love.

WS: Yes, but then, the culture we live in removes large areas of ourselves, from black people. So, in general, we have little love with each other. This is public self I'm talking about, not private. By public I mean being black in the U.S., as opposed to being a black person, a particular black person.

JBP: Private self and public self. Maybe we can come back to that.

WS: O.K., let's get to questioning the sentence as a way of communicating. A sentence, linguistically, is a message that begins when a sound or symbol starts off a series of sounds or symbols and ends when a sound or symbol indicates an end. But a sentence is also a period of confinement, a sort of prison. And yet the sentence is perfect for the kind of communication given to me by the culture I want to break through--. I have two parts of me I can turn into weapons--. Let me put it like this, the message aspect of a sentence is very much like the ability to make poetry, and it is at my disposal; the other thing is knowing you are confined -- that knowledge becomes a weapon to break out of confinement with. I'll explain that. Poetry in a healthy culture is a continuous process. Art is no special thing in certain societies. It's just something you might do. And the artistic message that comes from life is continuous -- it's there, like when you feel at peace with your neighbors, when you are digging on something. I'm trying to break out of the confinement that puts me, and all bloods, in a bind. I want to break out, and bring out other brothers, by making the message continuous, rather than the start-stop, start-stop thing. . .

Radio waves are always there. Tuning in to them doesn't create sound waves. You tune in to a continuous message. But when whites get a hold of them (radio waves), they bring in -- build in -- frustration and paranoia -- like make you want to brush your teeth or take a bath right then. They interrupt, jam the continuous waves. Rather than using peace as a basis to sell wares, they go into jive by building up frustration and paranoia -- and people go out and buy the soap or toothpaste. Like that.

But the verb I want is one that gives complete freedom and complete parity to my private and public self. So then there is some relation between how I am perceived, in terms of color, height, dress, and how I am, the private me. Someone might ask, aren't you just asking how to be black and american and yourself? To that I would answer, no, because the questioner probably doesn't know about the public offenses commited against me and those who look like me, and the capacity of whites to make people forget those offenses or make them afraid to remember those offenses. . . . And they make you forget the huge amount of beautiful but unclaimed memories that are in the land, the air but, you know, they are just "Bad for business." The business of America is business. I'm talking about the things I am forced to believe have happened, because they don't happen now, and the things I am forced to cry about, because I see them all the time -- those kinds of things that make you feel too drained to go on in this country. And the things you are forced to believe, like everyone can't be a bastard, so you must believe there was someone who wasn't. And to see so much pain inflicted makes you want to cry out, and makes you want a certain way of being, a certain kind of action, that will bring out the wholeness in people, bring out their capacity to do things ... like love ... and that would enable me to eliminate whoever or whatever makes it impossible for people to be whole. There are many ways of getting there, like shooting, but shooting will never be as important as conceiving a child ... yet it's getting to the point where if you don't do one, you won't be able to do the other.

JBP: It's beginning to look like that.

WS: Verbs. They have to be put into sound clusters, like, "It's more important to pull the trigger than conceive the child." Music tells a lot about verbs. In music every note is a verb. In the beat poems, every word is a verb, because every verb will be structured to test your capacity as a reader for action or response.

JBP: That's not too clear. A little way back there, the "sound clusters."

WS: O.K., I'll clear that up. In that kind of a poem, there will be sounds that occur in your mind. When you read the poem, every word, every one of those sounds that occur in your mind will move you in the way that music does. It's that joining of sound and meaning in poetry, that a poet may achieve, that will make you continually respond all the way through, no matter how simple or complex the word is. Silence is important, too. Great musicians know the importance of silence. Like Monk. He can make a silence that will make you respond. Poets can do the same thing. But in the same way a musician must have tones, a poet must have certain words. If the culture does not have the words, the poet must go to other languages or create words. American English seldom provides the black poet with the words ... it often hides them because of the jarring associations, the memories that come with those words.

JBP: Like we were talking about before, "The business of America is business"?

WS: Yes, and it's how you use it, too. Look at the difference between "Take care of business" and "Take care of the business."

JBP: The same language, but different conceptions or use.

WS: There are differences. For many of us, bloods, the "South" has to be a verb. I'm going to south you -- send you back south. But in a less complicated sense, brothers and sisters who are going to write should check out our history to see what is happening. Like it's very hard to read slave narratives or early spirituals without seeing that a black language system existed that we need access to today. But in order to be able to talk about what was being felt, you have to know what the slave is saying --.

We have to find a verb. I'm looking for a verb -- to get all of the words together that I know privately, and bloods know as a group, and which no one else knows. Coming in from another direction, we are not sure exactly what it means when we hear, for example, "...quasi-stationary unemployment for tri-zone East 'A’," but we know they are talking about us, because we are the unemployed. We know that.

JBP. We know we are there.

WS: Yes. We have to find a way of talking very easily about some facts. Of course the language does prevent you from thinking on one level of abstraction. There are some blocks. Like when Hitler, Augustus, Julius Caeser, or Charlemagne ... when they would say, "I am the state," it was true, because what they said went. In that same sense, any joker in that culture, any typical Norman or Roman could say what Caeser, or whoever, said and be right -- the point being, he had access to a way of thinking in the same way that Caeser did. He could identify with some things that we cannot identify with.

JBP: And some things we would not want to identify with.

WS: Yes. Now, some bloods learn to think like whites, but we can never really think like them, because we don't have the thing whites have that keeps them thinking like that. So there are some blocks, some problems, using this language. But, functioning from where most of us are, what we want is a verb that indicates that you have always been ruler of the universe, because you are a man.

JBP: Who do you think is writing today? What books would you suggest for, say, a young writer?

WS: Cesaire -- for his language. Dubois. There are so many books. So much similar writing in different people. When bloods were not reading as much as they do now, those would be good questions. But, for myself, I try to read things that help me grow.

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