On June 15, 2011, one of America’s greatest living poets celebrates his 90th birthday quietly in the company of a few close friends, in Paris, where he has lived since 1984. Admired, respected and acknowledged as a master poet by many writers, literary critics, and scholars, wider recognition has eluded him. France Revisited is therefore pleased to introduce James A. Emanuel to our savvy readers and experienced travelers through this exclusive article by Janet Hulstrand, with photographs by Sophia Pagan, followed by Mr. Emanuel’s poem Christmas at the Quaker Center (Paris, 1981).
James A. Emanuel, a Great American Poet, Turns 90 in Paris
By Janet Hulstrand
Author of more than 400 published poems and 13 volumes of poetry, winner of numerous prestigious literary and scholarly awards, a well-respected critic and teacher, James A. Emanuel was referred to in a 2000 American Book Review article as “the Dean of Black Paris.” The same reviewer also noted that Emanuel has been “curiously overlooked…when one considers…the sheer power of his work.”
“I represent almost everything that has happened to African-Americans in and beyond the USA, from the beastly things to the heart-warming things,” Emanuel says.
Indeed his life story is quintessentially American, for both better and worse. Born (1921) and raised in the small town of Alliance, Nebraska, Emanuel left home at the age of 17 and never turned back. In his youth he held a variety of jobs: cowboy, junkyard worker, elevator operator, professional basketball player, Confidential Secretary to Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. at the War Department in Washington, D.C., and foot soldier in the Philippines during World War II.
After the war he earned degrees at Howard and Northwestern Universities before continuing with graduate study at Columbia University, choosing to focus on the work of Langston Hughes for his doctoral research. Hughes, who responded promptly to Emanuel’s request for access to his papers, gave the young scholar free reign in his home.
When the work was done Hughes told Emanuel, “You know more about my stories than I do.” He saw promise in Emanuel’s poetry, and offered him editorial suggestions. (Always an independent thinker, Emanuel accepted some of the suggestions, and rejected others.)
In the 1960s, as a member of the faculty at City College of the City University of New York, Emanuel introduced the school’s first course in Black Poetry and championed the inclusion of African-American literature in the curriculum. His dissertation, published in 1967, was the first full-length critical study of the work of Langston Hughes by an American author.
“It broke the barrier of silence imposed upon African-American writers by the establishment,” Emanuel says, noting that there hadn’t been anything like it published since The Negro Caravan in 1941.
The following year Emanuel published, with Theodore L. Gross, a groundbreaking anthology, Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, referred to by many scholars to this day as a “bible.”
In the 1970s he began spending significant amounts of time in Europe, first teaching at the University of Grenoble on an invitational Fulbright, and later at the Universities of Toulouse and Warsaw.
“I don’t know what my rather long years in France, my year in Poland, and my travels in China, India, Thailand, Turkey and less exotic trips in Europe have meant to me beyond the clichés we all know,” Emanuel says. “Generally, my life as an American professor in Europe taught me what I already knew, or guessed: that all French people, all European and African people are not the same.”
Then, in 1983, he suffered a loss he has described as “the wound from which I never recovered” when his only child, James Jr., committed suicide after being beaten by “three cowardly cops” in California. His comment about the effect of this life-shattering event in his autobiography, The Force and the Reckoning (2001, Lotus Press, Detroit), is terse. “My life, turning a corner in 1983, has not followed old paths since then,” he wrote, with characteristic restraint and stoicism.
He left the United States in 1984. Since then he has lived in Paris, devoting himself to writing poetry.
In 1999 he introduced through the publication of JAZZ from the Haiku King a unique new genre, jazz-and-blues haiku. He has read his haiku with musical accompaniment in Europe, Africa, and Australia, and he recorded a CD of the poems, with saxophonist Chansse Evanns. He has also done innovative collaborative work with Godelieve Simons, a Belgian printmaker who was moved to illustrate some of his poems: over time they developed a close artistic collaboration, and he has also written poems in response to her prints. Occasionally he participates in readings, literary conferences, and other cultural events. He has been a regular participant in Jacques Rancourt’s Festival Franco-Anglais de Poésie since the late 1980s. In 2008 he was invited to participate in the Centennial Richard Wright Conference held in Paris.
American novelist Jake Lamar met Emanuel shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1993, through the poet Ted Joans. Lamar recalls that Joans invited him to join him at the Café Le Rouquet one “gray drizzly Wednesday afternoon” where Joans “held court” three times a week for a couple of hours in the afternoon with fellow poets Emanuel and Hart Leroy Bibbs. During the course of the conversation, Joans quoted a brief passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Without missing a beat, Emanuel picked up where Joans had left off, quoting the rest of the passage from memory.
“I was thirty-two years old and had felt, up until then, very isolated in my situation as an African-American author,” Lamar recalls. “Suddenly, listening to James recite Ellison, I felt that I had somehow found my true place, my real community, right there at that café table.”
Of Emanuel’s work, Lamar says, “I could go on and on about his writing, the brilliance and profound depth of feeling…But one particular set of poems, the jazz haiku…there’s nothing like them that I know of in world literature. They’re imbued with the combination of discipline and play, improvisation and exactitude, inspiration and perspiration that defines the music he so beautifully describes. This is the work of a master artist. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to know him.”
Emanuel’s work is indeed powerful as well as prolific. His poem “A Negro Author” is an artist’s defiant declaration of independence from any “ism” that might confine him. “Emmett Till” is an American masterpiece: a spare, tender, and profoundly sad tribute to the innocent boy victimized by the incomprehensible brutality and violence of racial hatred. “After the Accident” is the poem that literally jolted me into realizing that I was reading the work of a great poet, and led me to seek him out, to see if I could convince him to read to my students. (He graciously agreed to do so, and nearly every year since 2000 he has read to them, answered their questions, and even—in one particularly memorable session—created poetry with them.)
Like his poetry, Emanuel’s personality is powerful, though his quiet, understated manner does not instantly reveal this. Almost inevitably it is the most skeptical of my students who are the most moved by Emanuel and his work when they meet him. One remembers his “very beautiful, kind, old-school type of voice…so different than what we hear most of the time.” Yet the gentleman and scholar is also a fighter, of which his poetry supplies abundant evidence, such as this small sample from “For Racists Remembered”:
We said “Sir” sometimes
“Sir Charles,” “Sir Honkie,” and then
the big lie: “the Man.”
Asked what he most appreciates about living in France, what it has given him, he replies, “Nothing visible or tactile, ugly or beautiful, can do more for me than leaving me alone, free to recreate my environment in ways that I can understand. France has been silent when I had no questions; and it has been wise and ultimately generous, even poetic, when I needed counsel to walk on, or surf to carry me toward some shore.”
Whatever the reasons for Emanuel’s work being overlooked, the fact of is a shame. It is a shame that, as he approaches his 90th birthday, one of the world’s great poets is not receiving the recognition and honor he deserves. It is an even bigger shame that his exquisite poetry, which ranges from the comic to the rageful to the elegiac—all of it masterfully well crafted, all of it infused with extraordinary grace and humanity—has not reached a wider audience.
In its condemnation of human oppression in all its forms, as well as its illumination of the best in humanity, especially the innocent genius of children, the poetry of James A. Emanuel is work that should be lifted up to its proper place in the pantheon of world poetry. More important, we should be reading it—carefully, for it reveals both our best and our worst selves, offering help in knowing ourselves better, and the chance to choose a better path.
(c) 2011, Janet Hulstrand
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches Paris: Literary Adventure each summer in Paris for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a village in the Champagne region of France. Her 2009 interview with James A. Emanuel appears on her blog Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.
Photographer Sophia Pagan grew up in the inner city streets of New York, where she witnessed and lived through the difficulties of urban culture. Through her upbringing she developed an appreciation for things considered to be “outside her reach” and seeks to use that appreciation in her photography as she sets out to capture the fine balance between the modern metropolis and the old world charms of Paris, where she now lives. Examples of her work can be seen on her website.
Christmas at the Quaker Center (Paris, 1981)
By James A. Emanuel
Once upon a Christmastime
sleighbells snowed the sky
and when I slid the covers back
to slip a wonder-why
through windowfrost I wiped away
I couldn’t see a thing
except the hushed Nebraska night
and the little flaky ring
a sparrow dug into the snow
to spring himself to flight.
Once upon a Christmastime
I sneaked a sandwich where
old Santa couldn’t miss it:
that table was so bare
his bag of toys and reindeer food
would leave him room to spare,
to sit on while he ate and thought
“This boy is really nice.
I’ll search among the toys I’ve brought
And fill his stocking twice.”
Years grew long, and years grew hard,
but I can clear my sight
by twisting certain memories
to make it come out right
that I still hope to see again
a lovely-featured time
that stirs beneath my pillow
and wakes my heart to climb
into the sky on Christmas Eve
and listen to those bells
that ring because I do believe
a snowflake sound that tells
about a sleigh that’s coming,
that’s driving through the air,
with gifts for everyone who’s good,
who struggles to be fair.
And now when I see Santa
I grip him with my eyes,
with all my how-about-its,
with all my tell-me-whys;
and if he takes them standing
and if he shakes my hand
I bag another year of them
and try to understand
this load that makes us human,
those gifts on Santa’s back,
our bells for one another
that chime our starry track.
From Whole Grain: Collected Poems 1958-89 (Lotus Press: Detroit, 1991)
© 1983 James A. Emanuel