Kalamu ya Salaam: Cosmic Deputy: poetry and context 1968-2019 (University of New Orleans Press/Runagate Press, 2020)

… all cosmic deputies must commit/ a minimum of fifty-five/ random acts of kindness a day …/… freely offering/ unprovoked displays of beauty, must/ never sell what should be given …/ – Kalamu ya Salaam

In Perfection of Beauty, his preface to Cosmic Deputy, poet Afaa Michael Weaver (Spirit Boxing, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017) quotes Kalamu ya Salaam’s haiku # 58: black people believe/ in god, & i believe in/ black people, amen. Praising the “zen terseness” of a poem ... "nuanced by the subtleties of Black religiosity, formal and secular.” 

The poetry of Kalamu ya Salaam, Afaa Michael Weaver writes, reveal “a spirit planted deeply inside a faith in the beauty of blackness, a sensibility … that eschews anything that would diminish the sacredness of Black culture.” Weaver continues: “The regional capital of Black culture … is New Orleans … his love of African American culture is his love of New Orleans, and his love of New Orleans is his embodiment of the precious history of Black people.”  

Poetry and context. In this new book of essays and poetry, covering a period of more than fifty years, Kalamu ya Salaam does his own kind of ‘spirit boxing’. Two essays, What is Poetry? – Kalamu ya Salaam’s attempt to define poetry as a genre – and the introductory A Half Century of Poetry, are just a page each. A third essay, the extended Art for Life: My Story, My Song, described variously as autobiography, literary memoir, aesthetic theory and poetry collection, is essential, with some 40 representative poems embedded in the text to show his development as a poet.  

The poetry section prints 64 poems, with one, two or three poems from most of his published books and pamphlets of poetry, CDs and anthologies in order of publication, followed by previously uncollected poems. (Kalamu ya Salaam notes, though, that a number of these poems were published on his numerous internet blogs as well as in diverse journals, newspapers, and anthologies).

The making of a poet. Born in 1947 in New Orleans as Val Ferdinand (in 1970 he would change his name to the Swahili Kalamu ya Salaam, meaning Pen of Peace), he was taught early on at mostly Black public schools. Salaam mentions teachers like Mrs. Wilson, his sixth-grade teacher at the Phillis Wheatley elementary school, imparting pride in Black culture to youngsters ranging in hue from light-skinned “creoles” who could pass for white (and sometimes did) to dark-skinned folk; and Mrs. O. E. Nelson at Rivers Frederick Junior High School (named for a colored New Orleans physician) whom he credits for making a poet of him in the eight grade:  

“I know the exact moment I was saved as a writer: it was when I heard Langston Hughes reading his poetry with a jazz piano player in the background – all praises due Mrs. Nelson,” who had told the class: “Put your books away. I want you to listen to something,” sending him to the library.

At Frederick readings and study of Hughes made him editor of the school newspaper. At the private Catholic St. Augustine High School writing a glowing review of James Baldwin’s incendiary Blues for Mr. Charlie got him kicked off the student paper.

The example of Lanston Hughes and James Baldwin … Kalamu ya Salaam calls Langston Hughes (“first and always”), James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka his “triumvirate of patron saints.”

He credits Hughes for keeping working class Black folk as the central focus and foundation ground for all of his musings, for his resistance to assimilation (see Hughes’ 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”), and for his celebration of blues and jazz-based Black culture.

As for Baldwin, the best of his essays had “the Old Testament fire and brimstone, raunchy forthrightness and religious indignation” of a preacher in the Black church, and Salaam compares his early style of performing his poetry before an audience with that of a preacher speaking from the pulpit to his congregation, before he eventually became more like a blues singer on the stage.

… and Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones. Black poetry has always consisted of two trains running, Salaam argues, one train following Eurocentric literary traditions, the other one an orated, folk-based tradition. African American culture is an American culture, which means that it is a Creole culture: “Even though some of us may be eastbound, the west is nevertheless in us.”

This is where Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones comes in: “What attracted me to Jones before he became Baraka (as well as what attracted him to Baldwin) was the way he confronted the White world and also confronted his complicity and love of that world … his love of White literature,” his “personal life experiences, conundrums, confusions, dreams and aspirations” at the center of his poetry.

And there was the way Baraka/Jones projected a “cocky air of being ahead of the curve, always in the know, always the first one to arrive on the set wondering what took the rest of us so long …”

The Free Southern Theatre/FST, BLKARTSOUTH, and Ahidiana. The poetry collected in Cosmic Deputy was composed between 1968, when Kalamu ya Salaam came out of the army and began working with The Free Southern Theatre/FST, and the death of his second wife, Beaula ‘Nia’ McCoy, in 2020. Founded in 1963 in Mississippi by director Gilbert Moses and actor/playwright John O’Neal, its focus was on both theatre and civil rights. In 1966 the FST reorganized in New Orleans, now led by political activist/poet Tom Dent, assisted by Salaam (still Val Ferdinand) – see the poem my father is dead. again (for my father-friend tom dent), in tribute to his mentor.

BLKARTSOUTH and their publication Nkombo was an outgrowth of FST workshops, and the publisher of Salaam/Ferdinand’s first small volume of poems, The Blues Merchant (1969). Though nationalist in orientation, their definition of blackness stressed “color, culture, and consciousness” more than phenotype. And Kalamu ya Salaam was a prime mover in Ahidiana, a New Orleans based collective, with its school and food programs, bookstore and print shop, bringing the Black Arts Movement and Pan Africanism to the South. “Ahidiana was my graduate program” – Salaam.

A decade of development. From 1973 to 1979, Ahidiana was also the publishers of Kalamu ya Salaam’s next five books of poetry. The poetry chapbook Iron Flowers: A Poetic Rapport on a Visit to Haiti (1979) – described by Salaam as “the tightest thematically” even as he believes the 114 page Revolutionary Love (1978), containing more poems that all of his previously published books put together, to be the strongest – is a favorite of mine. With poetry and photographs by Salaam, it reminds you that, before he became a poet, he was known in high school as “the picture man.”

These early years were a time of exhilaration and freedom: “We had no masters. We had broken off the plantation ...” There were mistakes, too: a failure to document for the future what they were doing, and a tendency to isolate themselves from the rest of the country in a regional ‘bubble’.

And there were blemishes: Homophobia and misogyny. As for Salaam, his own brand of feminism was rooted in the example of his father, see Pa Ferdinand (on this man’s foundation i build my political support of feminism), and another early poem: Ntozake Shange (to those who wish she would shut up) – Shange had come under Black male fire for her 1976 play for colored girls …

The move towards electoral politics. Ahidiana did not survive past the mid-eighties. It had survived the rift between cultural and/or revolutionary nationalists and the neo-Marxists in BAM, the Black Arts Movement, but it did not survive the turn towards integration and electoral politics, and the successful election of Black politicians like Ernest Morial as the first Black mayor of New Orleans in 1978 and African American mayors in major cities across the country.  

“The foundation and inspiration for my artistic world crumbled and I was forced to reexamine everything: everything I believed, everything I had achieved, every dream I had ever conceived.” And most hurtful of all, his marriage broke up – see On Visiting My Ex-wife of 16 Years After Her Third Brain Tumor Operation. The next decade would be about “The Reconstruction of a Poet.”

 “this is my story/my song, i will sing these blues,/ tho they stole my tongue.” Among the poems from the alphabetically arranged section “Cosmic Deputy, 1968-2019,” there are praise-poems for Dr. Jerry Ward, friend and literary critic, famed New Orleans born soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and others. And Congo Square is an “oral toast” that you must compare to the version read/ performed by Kalamu ya Salaam with New Orleans music on the 1996 CD My Story, My Song

Poems like FREEDOM – A Haitian Rant and Morning Calm (For the women of Vietnam, patiently treading together their share, and more, of Third World struggle and solidarity), and the author’s note following the poem, testify to Salaam’s global outlook as a poet and activist.

Major achievements are the two long poems, My Story, My Song (from A Nation of Poets, 1989), and I don’t want to live anywhere where they are killing me, on the 2005 Katrina hurricane: “the water. my god the water. the angry water/ rain roaring sideways with the force of a freight train."

AS AN EPIGRAPH to each of the first six parts of his essay (except for the last part: coda) Kalamu ya Salaam quotes saxophone great John Coltrane. The epigraph to part one runs like this:  

“I think the best thing I can do at this time is to try to get myself in shape and know myself. If I can do that, then I’ll just play, you see, and leave it at that.”  

Perhaps this is where Kalamu ya Salaam is now. Maybe he will just ‘play’, and leave it at that.

UFI // 18 May 2022 

A postscript. Even as he predicts in the above mentioned essay, Art for Life: My Story, My Song, dated July 1994, that “it would be a long time before I would publish another book of poetry,” of late Kalamu ya Salaam has been rewardingly productive in terms of publications:

The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement (Third World Press, 2016) that expands on the definition of a Black Blues Aesthetic offered in the coda to the Art for Life essay. 

(In 1994 poet Haki R. Madhubuti’s Third World Press had published Salaam’s What Is Life? Reclaiming the Black Blues Self, a book of essays and poetry).   

The next four books were published by The University of New Orleans Press/Runagate Press: New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader (2018), edited by Salaam. Be About Beauty (2018), selected autobiographical writings (essays, poetry, etc.) on art and activism, with stunningly beautiful artwork by Black artist Adriene Cruz on the front cover. I Am New Orleans: 36 poets revisit Marcus Christian’s definitive poem (2020), edited by Salaam*. And now Cosmic Deputy (2020).

*See the Reading Black article on I Am New Orleans.