Spotlight: Harmony Holiday

Interview by Ken L. Walker

Harmony Holiday‘s 2011 Motherwell Prize-winning book Negro League Baseball inhabits an incredibly unique prosody, reflexive of an intellectual gaze directed toward rhythm as relic yet rhythm as embodiment. One phrase in the poem “Lonely Vessel” goes: “your charm hinge on your gimme, gimme, chest in your arms, jumping, like a famous junkie.” The book, not so ironically, comes with a CD of collage-esque remix tracks that puts a pharmacopeia of sound on display: interviews, film clips, jazz riffs, hip-hop backbeats, pieces of acapella, more. It’s great accompaniment to a book that, as Margo Jefferson claims, examines “language, thought and feeling” as “polyrhythmic and polyphonic” devices. As a younger person (many of my students call it “elevator music”) who absolutely loves Jazz — or, Black Classical music as Nina Simone terms it — and jazz history and funk and blues, I think a book like Negro League Baseball is incredibly refreshing at this moment in the dialectical process when certain scholars are stealing the obvious veneer of American racism and attempting to re-terminalize it away from the unfaded paradigms that Carmichael and Hamilton developed not even fifty years ago. Harmony and I, in the following, discuss various issues centrifugal to her work, and do so via a myriad of video clips. The YouTube intersperses were justifiably integral to the interview process and to discussing all the components that leaf through her poetry and thought. They are the centering force of the interview itself.

Of note, Harmony is performing Saturday night as part of a highly intriguing event curated by the great Terrence Hayes (and also featuring Jen Bervin, Major Jackson and Michael Dickman).

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KW: Eric Dolphy is one of the best modal soloists in jazz history, pretty underappreciated too. Mingus’s presence is ridiculously encompassing. And, Dannie Richmond is smoking and playing the drums, simultaneously. Two birds, one stone. Watching this clip reminded me of when you write the phrase “deconstruction via duplication.” I think, via brevity, that is a fantastic way to sum up precisely what 50s era jazz was doing, deconstructing modes and duplicating them and then extending them via solo-istic improvisation. How can prose do that?

HH: To me this clip is a rebellion, an act of dis-integration, and since this music stemmed from Dolphy and Mingus discussing the false integration that was pending in the southern states in the early 60s, Dolphy comparing the situation to concentration camps and Mingus responding with a composition that he hoped would serve as “wire cutters,” I consider this the literal continuation of that conversation between two men, both native to Los Angeles, Watts specifically, where rebellion would erupt just a year later in ‘65.  They had undergone parallel migrations as they followed their music wherever it took them and it usually took them along the frontlines of dis-integration into a kind of displacement that made them more acutely and intuitively aware of the dynamics of race in North America from region to region.

This clip also stokes thoughts about how style and aura function in the black community. Here, aloofness, or an erotic distractedness is to black America as casualness or an appealing accessibility is to white America, as a matter of entitlement but also a matter of the soul’s affinity. There is no room in 1964 for a casual negro, the atmosphere pervading the community is one of relentless seriousness, an intensity so crucial it is rejoiced in and coveted as a form of beauty (just look at Miles and the aesthisization of his pain), balladed, allegroed, never abandoned  urgency like a thin wire of grief being  tapped and misconstrued as unprovoked hostility by the monstrous media feds, and whoever else can’t relate.

And so out the door with Peter Pan Syndrome, the jazz aesthetic, which is the aesthetic of collective improvisation within the black community, demands that one look effortlessly sharp and original while on the bandstand. It just goes with the territory, which is a good way to segue into some discussion of the cover of Negro League Baseball which I chose in hopes that it would fuel ideas about the role of performance in the lives of black Americans or so-called negroes. I personally feel like it follows me everywhere (the duty to do something performative and then maybe subdue it so it’s versatile), there are few contexts within which my performed otherness doesn’t feel more hospitable than my actual…Sameness? Consistency?

So the cover is a candid document that the tastes were changing faster than the laws were.

And stages were the first quasi-safe places to be black and ‘free’ in this country, so we stay on ‘em, build ‘em around ourselves like fortresses, whatever it takes. And since my dad was a performer in that context and my inquiry into what that might have felt like in the 60s and what it did to his psyche, informed a lot of the book… It seems to me when I watch clips like this that a collective improvisation/having a team or a unit and a telos alleviates some of that pressure and codes performance in a way that makes it productive and kinetic again for the performers. A prayer. A collective, not just a gauntlet lain down on one soloist. Not just showmanship or cooning cause something new is being produced.

When Dolphy passed away later that same year Mingus renamed this piece “Praying with Eric” in homage. In the music and the attitude upheld while playing and creating it, grace, virility, patience, demand, the integrity/integration is achieved, not yet in society. In the United States it is mediated, and, on certain days, depending on my mood, I might argue that all blacks are forced in one way or another, to be entertainers, not that it’s an entirely negative thing, in the case of the these Meditations it allows a story to be communicated with absolute bravery and love.

As for writing, and how to reach these heights in prose, it’s hard to improvise alone, until you remember that the psyche is fragmented (we are every character in the dream) and stop being afraid of letting it communicate with itself.. so in prose, to achieve anything close to what Mingus, Dolphy, and company achieve here it feels like you have to be your own foil, your own sidekick, disagree with yourself without going against and violating yourself, ‘get you some discipline’ (as Sun Ra puts it) and master them so that the imagination isn’t hindered by human laziness or unpreparedness.

In order to improvise in some of the poems in the book I treated memory as accompaniment or instrument and played it, played with it, wishing it omni-directional. The poem, “Certain Ballads,” for example, is loosely based somewhere between my father and Mingus, both of whom struggled with a sort of dejected charisma and hyper-sensitivity/clairvoyance, that sometimes threatened their very sanity. This clips makes me think a lot about the battle between extreme composure and desire to just fuck shit up cause nothing was improving fast enough; this is another theme that runs through the book and settles in some of the poems as they go from direct address, to solipsistic stream of consciousness, to a ‘please be everywhere’ mentality.

What do you think of this one:

I am thinking about a interestingly positive connotation between Watch the Throne’s “Sweet baby Jesus/We made it in America”  lines. In this case, the “it” ain’t money. And in the case of Sun Ra, it’s more like making it in and through space. He takes tense out of it, like a large representative of non-time. That would be a hell of an intriguing poem, to represent non-time, something like Schopenhauer says when he writes that the present shouldn’t matter so much because it’s always noticed in passing. Finding something else. Lose yourself in a night of drunkenness, etc. I never forget that moment in Space is the Place when a man gets killed. The murder is possible! That murder is possible destroys your present-hood, basically.

How beyond just about every concrete construction Sun Ra really is/was. In a time of heightened Black Consciousness, he required formats of humanity and non-humanity to rise above seeing things in those sets of normalized ways that absurdly help us to survive. When direct and indirect (covert and overt) oppression and repression occurred in a myriad of locations and methods, he saw places where repression and oppression were un-born. And the places he constructed, clearly, were not to be visited or observed but lived. As did Albert Ayler and Alice Coltrane.

You write in the poem, “Ambassador:” 

Bafflement and its quotient climate, apathy and its quotient climate

Can you talk about that ideation in lieu of this clip: 

Langston wrote: Trouble mellows the golden note. Then Rita Dove went on: Fact is the invention of women under siege has been to sharpen love in the service of myth. These things come to mind as I watch Billie sing this version “Strange Fruit” and the question, who else sang this song ?  Her bravery and her frailty are so inextricably linked that it’s almost vicious of her, to be so versatile, generous, fierce, tender. Taurus in the arena of life © Charles Mingus. A Queen without her court, in the words of Abbey Lincoln. Everyone has something to say about Billie Holiday. Sometimes her legacy is co-opted to the extent that her work is seen as relic, like the time I was dating a guy who said ‘no one really listens to Billie Holiday,’ as if she is pure idea or an advertisement for the idea of listening to her music. The lines you asked about regard that type of legacy statuing and how it undermines so much of our oral history. Especially throughout black America. I want people like Billie to be kinetic and dynamic figures we can relate to, not frozen into interpretation by the idea they cast until no one really listens. “Ambassador” addresses the crossing of deep admiration for someone’s spirit and ways, particularly the spirit and mode of a musician, in contrast with the fear/hagiography/catacresis of that person’s stature that accounts for ignorant questions like ‘does anyone really listen to…’ I hope everyone really listens to “Strange Fruit,” the raw ache in Billie’s voice (and stance) as she sings it, and begins to think about who the real ambassadors are, the real soloists, maybe sharpening myth in the service of love (and its quotient climate).

You should speak to this:

I remember reading tributes to Weldon Irvine the day after he died because he was, then, still so obscure to me — this multi-instrumentalist and teacher-man. I bought his record Liberated Brother in Louisville, Kentucky after reading that he taught Mos Def how to play drums and showed him tricks on the keys. Then, I saw pictures of those two gentlemen just kind of figuring stuff out while in the studio during the recording of Mos’s (Yasiin Bey’s) Black on Both Sides. Critics called Weldon Irvine a mentor. But, he played like six instruments for Nina Simone! And, then the Lorraine Hansberry love-thing. My god.

That reminds me of a Nathaniel Mackey line: “I wake up mumbling, “I’m/not at the music’s/mercy,”  You write something similar (and I know the referent is different but I like to think that lines can be broken and broken down, a Coltrane-type thought) in the poem “House to House”:

dress up but to mean time has come//rendered like a banded possession

 Weldon Irvine strokes and kind of brutally tickles the tightly-strung and then returns and the whole comeback of hand from within piano descends to keys but there may as well be two pianos. The time in between is what kills us.

I think, on a different note, you should tell your ex-manfriend, that most Sunday mornings I really (try, at least, to) listen to Billie Holiday. And, in the middle of these listening sessions, I think about how we (white folks) tend to co-opt like it’s an organic process. Then again, to uncover the veil of things exposes the privileges. Within naked negativity is the possibility of positivity. So, in another regard, the Billie Holiday thing brings up a more interesting topic. Now, I know I should be concerned that you throwing a Weldon Irvine video at me means that you may have wanted to talk about hip-hop, or lead up to it, but this paradigmatic thing happens there, too (aside from Jean Grae or Nikki Minaj) but women in jazz  history and exterior conversations revolving around jazz — even the Coffee House Press anthology, Moment’s Notice — the ladies are absentees. That’s  a product of so many things that overwhelm me. You write:  

heteronyms for near to you I am a woman some far away lady your gaze approaches

Here’s something to dress that:

That’s a great Mackey line. I think it sort of does the work and answers some of the questions we’re posing, in the sense that, let’s say he were to admit, in some safely muted parallel biosphere, or in the benevolent confines of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes where hearing and ‘testifying’ would be pure and intrepid, that he is at the music’s mercy, that that mercy makes him servant, mercenary, proselytiser, both muse and obsessor in a tantrically linked binary that enhances the erotics of a refusal. That’s sort of what I want to admit with the lines you mention from my own work. That’s my bias. I think that as a woman I have the luxury of being less afraid to admit the elements that drive and lead me, less afraid of not being sovereign arbiter of what I create, more willingness to remain at the music’s mercy even as I try to assemble my own words as music. This may be due to the simple fact that women are used to being objectified in the history of the music be it blues, gospel, jazz, soul, hip hop, sonnet. Even an interview I read of Mahalia Jackson (as sanctified as it gets) opens with a description of her looks. When something is as powerful as the music is, resistance and acceptance serve the same function, they admit its power. On the other hand there is something defiant about the vulnerability of both postures. As if the goal is to fall, get back up, and assume the same position with the same amount of reckless abandon as the first time. I sometimes talk with a close friend who is a musician about how I want my poems to “wobble,” the way some of his songs do, to take that same wavering flight over the depths the music takes at its best. Last but not least, in his chapbook Who are the Tribes , Terrance Hayes has a great poem called “The Antidote to Invisibility.” I really like the title, and some twist in it reminds me how sometimes I think women are lucky to get dissed and punked nonstop as authorities on and practitioners of the music, cause in many I think the antidote to invisibility is invisibility. A modal take on hiding in plain sight.

Here’s a cascade of clips that come to mind:

Oh man, Sergei P! His movements of instantaneously-changing identities remind me of the idea of your new project which is very intriguing–both conceptually and ideally–centered around, at least, the name of Madlib’s made-up altered ego. And ego (speaking of Lil B) is huge in hip-hop but to alter the ego and make more you’s of you and to make myths . . . 

HH:  The Autobiography of Malik Flavors is an exploration of the true myth, a response to Sun Ra’s daintily lain gauntlet “show us your myths.”  So dainty it gouges. He was speaking to black Americans and, in my opinion, specifically to black males in the United States , and even more specifically, to black male entertainers. He was addressing these men from the crackling mindframe of the Dumas poem “Thought” which reads: One of the greatest roles created by Western man has been the role of “Negro.”  One of the greatest actors to play the role has been the “Nigger.”  He was saying: nigger, make some shit up to get out of this mess, dig, take the vernacular and throw it against store-front glass and start a riot the way the white man “used myths to justify white supremacy” create some of your own myths to overturn it, and don’t stop there, create the true myth of your own love supreme, not just in The Music, and verbal units beyond the utterance, write it down, in the words of Stevie “tell your story fast, if you lie, yeah it will come to pass.” “The truth is dangerous.” Mobilizing all of those contradictions toward an essence and ‘ensemble time’ this factlesss autobiography explores the psyche of a fictional jazz nass player who becomes the tragi-triumphant foil of his inventor, and how the outcome of such successful self- mythologizing is a loss of self, or a sacrificing of the ego to the commons where it is mutilated and returns as soul, hopefully.

But, thinking in the terms of the Dumas poem’s rigged syllogism:The nigger refuses to be destroyed, the negro never existed, we need a new order of being, a modal blackness that can sustain the end of blackness as we know it– as we know that familiar end of familiarity is coming in this golden age of the apocalypse. The book is also a love story, a personal account of the role a woman plays in the central figure’s transformation and a look at the kind of terrorism true love and devotion can be, weather between a man and a woman, a man and his craft, a man and his image (of himself),  no matter what betweens, in a society that teaches the black man to doubt and hate himself,  his romantic love can become a very childlike fascination steeped in the pain of longing even when it’s requited, at once up close and dislocated like a prayer. And what is the recipient of that type of love to do to make it sustainable for herself, that does not shatter all of her lover’s myths? Where does intimacy enter and disrupt the mythos with its irresistible… disruptiveness? Through words and images and sections on everything from ‘work-for-hire’ recording contracts to the Wu-Tang Clan to Frued’s Aesop, etc.. I try and flesh out some of these topics in a fractured-to-be-holistic way. I’m trying something different and releasing one section of the manuscript entitled “Interviews Transcribed from Memory” as a sort of primer for the full text, early this summer, just to introduce Flavors’ aura into the ecosystem while it’s warm. I think a myth needs to arrive gradually and so that it kind of feels like a friendly but not-playing ghost that’s been there the whole time.