Janice A. Lowe, author of Leaving CLE: Poems of Nomadic Dispersal, grew up reading album liner notes and appreciating the songwriting of Bootsy Collins, Duke Ellington, Junie Morrison, Laura Nyro, Nina Simone, Billy Strayhorn, Allen Toussaint Maurice White, and Stevie Wonder, among many others, as well as appreciating the unique vocal arrangements of her grandmother, the sacred harp singer Lee Arla Green, and reading her mother’s lovingly collected trove of books by Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, and Toni Morrison.
Lowe is also co-founder—along with poets Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis—of the celebrated Dark Room Collective, whose members have included Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Major Jackson, and John Keene. In this interview, Lowe discusses artists and activism, migration, and how music and geography influence her poetry.
Rochelle Spencer: You’ve had a distinguished career as a poet and composer, but you’re only recently published your first collection. How did you decide that now was the time to publish?
Janice A. Lowe: From early on, I expressed myself in a hybrid of poems, songs, prose and playscripts. After seeing a touring company perform Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls at Cleveland’s Hanna Theater, my teenage self wanted to create choreopoems.
The way I moved in and out of song eventually prepared me for musical-izing the text of writers other than myself. When I was in my twenties and living in NYC, the playwright Charles Drew asked me to compose songs for an original cabaret he was writing and directing. From there we began writing full-length musical theater pieces.
Charles, and a group of young theater artists, including myself, co-founded absolute theater, a company dedicated to producing new and not often heard voices. -Off -off Broadway, and way downtown, absolute produced full theatrical seasons for more than 10 years.
I was singularly focused on composing but continued to write sporadically. I published a few essays but stopped submitting poems for publication in journals. To get my writing muscles back, I wrote libretti for a song cycle and opera. From there I got back to making hybrid stuff, performed with a trio at Frank’s Write Night in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and wrote a play. By this time, I had enough material, albeit multi-genre, to fill several volumes. Six months before Leaving CLE was published, Belladonna Series published my play, SWAM, in chapbook form. SWAM explores the historical family kernels of my family’s migration and reverse migration story. Leaving CLE develops thematic threads from SWAM.
Rochelle Spencer: One of your poems, “The End of Chicago” appears midway through the collection and describes the impetus for an African-American family’s reverse migration from the midwest to the south. Readers may be familiar with the Great Migration, the period between 1915 and 1970 when African-Americans moved from the rural south to the urban north, but can you talk about the reverse migration in Leaving CLE?
Janice A. Lowe: My parents, from different towns in Alabama, met in college, and then married and migrated to Chicago in the early 1950s. They tried a few routes and cities. They left the south for twenty-five years and lived in Cleveland, twice; New Jersey, twice; New York City and Washington, DC in addition to Chicago. There was a bit of crisscrossing from Midwest to East and back. One of the reasons they left the south had to with my father’s lack of access to the health care. My father had a paralyzed left arm and other medical issues resulting from injuries he suffered in WWII. The VA Hospital in his hometown refused to treat black vets.
They experienced the civil rights movement as it played out in the north. Dad used to tell a story about marching with Dr. King in Cleveland, where they finally settled while carrying a sign that said, “I scored 99% on a civil service exam and still can’t get a job.”
Rochelle Spencer: Your parents’ travels were different from yours. How did this affect your childhood?
Janice A. Lowe: My younger brother and I were born quite a few years after they migrated. By the time we came along, they were acculturated as northerners or midwesterners and were settling into their careers. My mom was one of the first black English teachers at a suburban Cleveland high school. My father worked a civil service job by day and did community work on nights and weekends with the street clubs, community associations and the Cleveland Area Council, which was a consortium of neighborhood associations. What I didn’t know was that he was just as serious about returning to the south, purchasing some land, putting the extended family back together as he was about he was about keeping young black men in school, away from the military and nowhere near jail in both locations. Leaving CLE was born from my attempt to square my cultural or regional identity, really, and my sense of home with what home was to my father.
For me, the south was a place to visit. My family spent a few days every summer visiting relatives Atlanta, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa; Enterprise, Alabama, Fulton, Mississippi. We were very protected. I had no idea, when my family moved to Tuscaloosa, that George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door happened there.
Rochelle Spencer: You write about urban centers—Cleveland, Chicago, New York—and gentrification, with cities developing the latest “cafe/laundry drop off” or “artist uncooperative knitting spaces.” Can you talk about gentrification in your work?
Janice A. Lowe: The neighborhood, I live in now, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn has some of the most beautiful housing stock in New York City. Bed-Stuy is a like a village. People talk or nod to teach other, look out for the block and are neighborly. As whites become less afraid of living in black urban areas, gentrification, of course, makes living in the neighborhood less affordable for the people who have held the neighborhood down and kept it thriving. More and more elderly homeowners are being scammed out of their townhouses with phony sale documents and forged signatures. My poems “Restoration” and “Edge-acation” reference these scams and disrespect for neighborhood customs and culture. I also write about cultural homogenization. I love the creatively named and designed business signs in Bed-Stuy. As rents go up, the locals with their flair and uniqueness have a harder time coping with rising rents. The first section of “Sign” is a found poem culled from a defaced subway poster depicting a black woman and three small children. The poster was scrawled over with derogatory statements about black women and welfare, which became a graffiti dialogue between opposing opinions—about the backstory of these fictional people, a dialogue which spoke volumes about stereotyping. Black homeowners also benefit from gentrification and the neighborhood gets increased services and a greater diversity of goods. I think about that, too—what artists bring, re-make and demand. Are we gentrifiers, too?
Rochelle Spencer: Nature collides with the city life in “Boy Flower Tamir,” a powerful poem about the death of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice from a police shooting. In this poem, you cull newspaper headlines and describe Rice as both a “boy flower” and a combination of pixilated images. Can you go into more detail about the way these natural images intersect with brutal, urban ones?
Janice A. Lowe: Cleveland, aka The Forest City, is proud of her Emerald Necklace green-ness, her ocean-like Lake Erie-ness, of being unexpectedly sylvan. Tamir Rice played everyday in a park located a steps away from his school and a recreation center where he spent lots of time. He was playing in a gazebo when killed by police. Park conservation is big in the Cleveland. People are passionate about protecting trees, wildflowers, birds. Chipmunks and rabbits are coming back. After reading a few articles about preservation of wildflowers in various Midwestern cities, I wondered if that same impulse to protect were being extended to black and brown children. The poem “Boy Flower Tamir”, which explores that question, is an assemblage of nature conservation language, internet chatter about the killing and the deprioritizing of black children. I know from my own upbringing that people in communities, on the ground, like 100 Black Men of Greater Cleveland, is addressing issues related to improving education, access to activities, youth jobs and internships and community–police relation. However, the caring—the dedication of resources—needs to be wider, systemic.
Rochelle Spencer: Your poems are rhythmical and reference music, from “pentecostal praise songs” to contemporary artists such as Janelle Monae and Jean Grae, but they’re also highly visual, with experimental typography and poems written as mini-plays or essays. What’s the role of visual elements in your poetry?
Janice A. Lowe: In my Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, as I mentioned previously, there is beautiful, funny, uplifting, ironic, quirky signage everywhere. Some of it is handwritten, some painted, some printed or etched. I like 3-D of them, the unexpected bursts of color and informality of some of them.
I also dig the text experiments of writer-visual artist Julie Patton and Krista Franklin. I appreciate the handwriting murals of Shantell Martin and Glenn Ligon work with historical text.
As a musician, I exploit a word for its sound capabilities. My text experiments are really sound-based ways to convey the ascending and descending melody, as well as polyphony, which on a musical staff, has shape.
Depending on the context, a run of italicized word might connote sweetness or a legato feel. Giant or bolded letters may convey bass-y tones or accents. A squeezed font might signify lack of space, air, or quickness of tempo, rhythmic play. Randomly bolded letters do make a visual and chordal sculpture of sorts—definitely visual. All in all, the words are a musical score—that in itself is aural and visual. My grandmother was a sacred harp singer and arranger—a shaped note singer. When we moved down, I really got to see her in action. This is my maternal grandmother who lived in southeast Alabama, close to Florida and four hours and a world away from Tuscaloosa.
Rochelle Spencer: As a composer and poet, how do you feel about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize?
Janice A. Lowe: Most of the fun of the Nobel Prize’s acknowledgment of Dylan is that he is deliciously multi-genre and spare with words, just as often as he is verbose. Is he a lyricist, poet, writer of micro-fiction, folklorist, three-second folklore sampler, thief, and homage player? Does he twist and bend song forms? Is he traditional, radical, and repetitive? Is he clear on the African-American origins of rock and roll? Does he like to groove? I grew up studying music, playing in orchestras, singing in choirs, and playing in bands enough to know that certain streams of music can be hierarchical. Dylan respects song forms enough to both exploit and bust them up. Thematically, he plays with the unsettled.
Rochelle Spencer: Your admiration for your parents and the struggles of regular community activists, the people who aren’t famous but still make a difference in their communities, comes through in your work. Can you talk a little more about how activism fuels your work?
Janice A. Lowe: My mother taught high school English. I grew up hearing my father speak of his mentors—black teachers, business owners, the elders, the people who looked out for him when he was growing up in Alabama. He also spoke of Du Bois and Malcolm X. When my folks lived on the East coast, my father would go to hear Malcolm speak in Newark and Harlem and was careful to sit near the door, as he told it, in case anything went down. Dad spoke admiringly of Malcolm’s plan for the Organization of African American Unity, clearly modeling his approach to community empowerment after the OAAU.
My dad worked a 9-5 civil service job and spent most evenings and weekends involved in community work headquartered in a church basement. Whenever there was a community function, community clean up or plans to be made or youth activities to organize or a candidate’s forum, Dad brought me along. He challenged me to participate. He would ask me, “What are you doing to help somebody?”
Those former black Alabamians in Cleveland were no joke when it came to organization. Mr. John Holley, the elder statesman of black civil right organizing in Cleveland, was from Tuscaloosa, AL. He instituted the “Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work” boycotts in the 1940s. Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, my father and other activist learned from Mr. Holley. They were about shifting from consumerism to ownership and from constituency to political power. The rainbow coalition of the Stokes campaign, organized by Cleveland’s Arnold Pinkney, who later ran Jesse Jackson’s campaigns, was a major influence on Harold Washington’s mayoral run in Chicago and later, Barack Obama’s presidential bid. Writers own their words. Strategic social media use enhances that. Always, the next step is breaking open the strangle hold on Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American expression. It is happening. I’m trying to help preserve the record, the activism record.
Leaving CLE: Poems of Nomadic Dispersal by Janice A. Lowe
Miami University Press
Published April 19, 2016
I'm a writer and reader based in Oakland, CA. Visit me at http://rochellespencer.com/