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Books: Complex History

Dr. Tyrone Williams discusses his latest collection of poetry

By Steven Lansky · July 9th, 2008 · Books
  Dr. Tyrone Williams, author of On Spec
Raven Bull

Dr. Tyrone Williams, author of On Spec

Dr. Tyrone Williams is a poet and literary theorist born in Detroit. He's been in the English Department at Xavier University since 1983.

On Spec is his second book of poetry. Published this February by Omnidawn, this collection reads like a hybrid text, full of brief epigraphs which generate an intertextuality that seems to be in motion, pulling narrative elements, experimental elements, a vastly complex table of contents and juxtaposed details chock-full of micro-punctuation, interspersed with black vernacular.

Williams has taken African-American narrative lyric poetics and cross-pollinated them with experimental language poetry. On Spec is comparable to the work of Junot Diaz and also hearkens to Jean Toomer's Cane, while capturing the playful qualities of Richard Brautigan. Where rhythm, punctuation, page placement, repetitive headings and wordplay take over, the work is less narrative, less lyric and more cryptic, driven by elusive links that a close reader struggles against, occasionally getting stuck.

My strategy when I started reading was to open up to my own ignorance, so wherever I came across an epigraph I couldn't identify I used Google. Lo and behold, I discovered a world of literature, music and minutia that Williams intersperses among his energetic lines. For example, Sam "Boonie" Walton is mentioned in a poem entitled: "Is He Still Black Qua Charged" which goes in part:

The inevitable as other

than mediation, what

nonetheless holds out as it is taken in, what

wags the heads, face down in pools of belly


My parenthetic explication: (Walton was on the New York Jets Super Bowl team led by Joe "Willie" Namath.

Walton played every regular season game with the Jets that year, but did not play in the playoffs or Superbowl. He was a very large lineman. He was the second member of the team to die, at age 57, a homeless vagrant. He had slipped into oblivion.)

The poem concludes:

How far away were "Sam" and "Boonie"

[one, a star, one, "a homeless vagrant"]

when they started shooting at one another

over a continent shaped like a navel?

Other epigraphs, dedications and quotations mention Kathy Aker, Yvonne Vera, Steve McCaffery, Steve Chabot, Robert Rauschenberg, Michael Oxley, Stephen Sondheim, Dmitri Tiomkin, Jagger/Richards, Michelle Wallace, Siri Hustvedt, Katherine Durham, Thomas Green Bethune, Sherrie Levine and Lauryn Hill.

It's great fun to read the music of Dr. Williams' poetry and browse the Internet learning about his complex world of interconnected poetics. This is a collection that needs more time to be read and re-read, to be discussed among poets and theorists, and to be heard read aloud by its author.

CityBeat had the opportunity to ask Williams a few questions.

CityBeat: When I first heard you read aloud in the '90s, you had some works which seemed in keeping with the rhythms of the black lyric tradition: Blues poems, Jazz poems, narrative musical pieces that seemed familiar. You also read some experimental pieces. It seems here in On Spec you have bound the two approaches together. How did this happen?
Tyrone Williams: It's largely a matter of reading a wide range of poetry and fiction, a great deal of it experimental, avant-garde, what have you. For me the growing complexity of the work is simply a reflection of my sense of the growing complexity of the world, especially as it concerns people of the African diaspora.

CB: The varying structures in this collection, starting with the table of contents, suggest a larger order. There's a playfulness, a rejection of uniformity and a sense of experiment, yet the experiments have common elements, poems that appear in couplets, triplets or otherwise in patterned line structures and use of parenthesis around individual letters within words to generate ambiguity. All this is carefully crafted. Can you talk about this without getting too theoretical?
TW: Absolutely. It has nothing to do with theory per se. I was going to call the book AAB but I wound up using that title for a small chapbook of poems in 2004. Nonetheless, I think the format of the book and the use of interrelated and cross-stitched titles, lines and themes is a reflection of the AAB motif -- which is, of course, the foundational structure of Blues and Jazz in particular and all of popular music in general.

CB: Could you explain the section heading: Eshuneutics?
TW: That was actually going to be the title of the book. It's a play on, revision of, hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, which I read as etymologically derived from the Greek god Hermes (Mercury, in the Roman lexicon). Eshu is Eshu-Legba, the African god akin to Hermes. Both are trickster figures and gods of messages, communication.

CB: What would you want a reader to take away from this collection?
TW: A sense of the complexity of the history of African-American lives, a complexity resilient and resistant to our ongoing challenges, both internal and external.

TYRONE WILLIAMS' On Spec is available at www.omnidawn.com.



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