Sunday, October 13, 2013


American Poet James EmmanuelAmerican poet James A. Emanuel recently passed away at the age of 92 in Paris after living in France for the last several decades.  He is widely considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, though one of the least known.  He taught at City College during the sixties, later accepting a teaching position overseas, and from there, although he traveled, remained in Europe and refused to return to the United States.  He invented a new form of poetry known as jazz haiku, or jazz-and-blues haiku, while also writing about racism and social injustice.  For example, he composed the following on Emmett Till:

I hear a whistling
Through the water.
Little Emmett
Won't be still.
He keeps floating
Round the darkness,
Edging through
The silent chill.
Tell me, please,
That bedtime story
Of the fairy
River Boy
Who swims forever,
Deep in treasures,
Necklaced in
A coral toy.

And this poem depicting the psychological effects of unemployment on people, For A Depressed Woman --

My friends do not know.
But what could my friends not know?
About what? What friends?

She sleeps late each day,
stifling each reason to rise,
choked into the quilt.

"I'll never find work."
She swallows this thought with pills,
finds tears in the glass.
In 2011, Joseph Langley posted a lesser known video conversation with James Emanuel (shown below at the bottom of the post) taped at James Emanuel's Paris home since 1986, a sixth floor walk-up in Montparnasse.  During the video, the poet discusses his life and work, and recites a couple of more poems.

In 2009, Professor Janet Hulstrand's CUNY class exchanged a correspondence interview with James Emanuel during her summer course, Paris Through the Eyes of Travelers.  When asked "Why is poetry important?" and "What is important about it?" the long-time poet and educator responded,
Poetry is important because reading it, and certainly writing it, brings the whole man and woman into activity, just as stretching and reaching are vital exercises in formally planned training. A person reading a new poem expects to encounter unusual combinations of familiar words; thus he has agreed to accept changes, however small—and hence however vast—in his being. Juggling the common sign at a railroad crossing, we could say that one change can hide another.  Jumping minor steps in similar processes, we might claim that reading or writing poetry could lead to revolutionary thought.  Dictators keep their eyes on libraries, and in our truly thoughtful moments we know why.
You can also read an in-depth James Emanuel interview here, and Nebraska NPR has an interview (he was born and raised in Nebraska), but an audio link doesn't appear to be available.  Some reviews here, here, and here.  Wiki reportedly has an extensive listing of James A. Emmanuel publications; articles about James Emanuel's life here in France Revisited - and by Janet Hulstrand when the poet turned 90, and here in Entrée to Black Paris, speaking with nephew James Smith, his last living relative on his mother's side.

*Photo credit/top, via Embassy of the United States, France, February 27, 2010,  “The African-American Expatriates, Yesterday and Today,” James Emanuel reading poetry at a Black History Month event hosted by the Cultural Affairs Office for the American Embassy at the NYU campus in Paris.

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