When I first met Ishmael Reed, as a student in his poetry
workshop, the first words he said to me were: "Get out of my chair."
A reader familiar with his work would not be surprised. Ishmael Reed's
most visible occupation seems to be that of controversy-creator, but he
has a number of roles--recent MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient,
social activist, Pulitzer-nominated novelist and poet, foundational postmodern
writer, playwright, multicultural icon, Oakland's resident artist, and
now the author of the newly released "Reed Reader." Reed stands
out from the usual list of authors that grace college reading lists--not
just because he's alive and black--but because he appears as often in
the opinions section as he does in course syllabi.
Satellite. What's your latest
S. You've said "No one
says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a
vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled
by demons." And, you've done TV, novels, poems, and even an opera
and screenplay. I've read that you write every day for your novels but
only write poetry with inspiration. How do you approach these mediums
S. You're currently moving
to another medium--the Internet--and edit Vines and Konch, both online
magazines. How do you think the Internet will influence contemporary writers
in the same way that TV, movies, radio, and jazz have influenced you?
S. And, to follow up on that,
it seems like modern America caters to sex and violence so self-paradoxically
that I wonder if it's even possible to shock any more. You've been called
the meanest writer in America--do you think it's still possible to be
'mean' and controversial? You once said that you look at Free Lance Pallbearers,
your first book, and look at it as the work of a younger writer. Do you
think your approach to satire has changed over time? Also, you've said
that, possibly because of your race, many critics have been unable to
appreciate your satire because they think that your novels are straight
narratives (!)--what effect do you think your race has had on your satire?
S. What work by other artists
interests you now? Any recent books, poems, TV shows, or movies you especially
S. A long time ago, you said
that we were entering a new Renaissance because of the incorporation of
minority narratives into American literature. But now you've said that
everyone is doing it--implying that it's becoming clichéd. Also
some of your other experimental techniques, like switching to other mediums,
are also popular. So many new novels seem to reiterate the same old tricks,
and there seem to be so many poems about writing poems. What do you think
will be the next avant garde in literature? Is it even possible to be
S. Your 1972 novel, Mumbo
Jumbo, presented HooDooism, a counter-mythology to Western culture, and
your poems have multiple references to the Egyptian god, Osirus (When
you were included in Norton's Anthology, you mentioned that out of several
centuries of poetry, you were the only one with any reference to Africa).
You draw a lot from African traditions, and often, reviewers criticize
your work simply because they don't understand African conventions. How
do you think these traditions differ from Western ones?
S. What writers would you
recommend to someone interested in the topic?
S. You're an outspoken voice
in racial politics. How did you feel about the current landscape of race
in America, especially with the recent brown-out of network television,
the loss of the black-and-white binary opposition of race politics, and
the first census that will allow mixed ethnicity entries? Also, you've
adamantly campaigned for an accurate representation of African American
males in the media, and called the modern English department just another
form of "ethnic studies" for dead European writers. But you've
also said that you're not a nationalist, and "there's a danger because
I do see people aligning themselves on ethnic and racial lines in competition
over resources and political power." I'm curious of your take on
the ethnic studies movement that simultaneously defended an under-funded
and important department but simultaneously divided the campus.
S. When jazz composer Jon
Jang visited the campus last semester, he commented that even though you
recently received the MacArthur Grant, you "hadn't changed,"
meaning that you were still an activist for minority causes. You've been
critically successful: you've been twice nominated for the National Book
Award, as well as for the Pulitzer Prize and the Lewis H. Michaux Literary
Prize. Has your success diluted your political credibility? What sort
of causes are you interested now?
S. You've been really influenced
by jazz and artists like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Cole Porter.
The hip trend in poetry--spoken word and Islam readings--seem to appeal
to a rap aesthetic, and you have poets like Quincey Troupe, who was the
Heavyweight Slam champion of the world and also wrote a book on Miles
Davis. You've said that Black poets have been more successful at rhythm,
and what's your opinion of this link between music and poetry? Where do
you think African American writing is headed?