Essex Hemphill...More things to remember in November.
Poetry comes and goes.
It is dictated by fashion, reputation, and patronage.
If the audience called common poetry readers likes you…
If the academic world lives through you…
If the publishers believe you have a name to come…
But when your writing is favoured by none of these, what then?
Regrettably, it means your work goes out of print, which has just happened in the case of Essex Hemphill. There are some expressing concern that the corpus will be lost, but the truth really is that the body of work has never been there.
Hemphill died from AIDS related causes in November 1995. Prior to his "Introduction" to Hemphill’s Ceremonies (2000). Charles Nero decided to check Hemphill’s papers in the New York Public Library. Rather too late, he discovered that they had never been deposited after Hemphill’s death and had been missing for years: the suspicion is that his published manuscripts and a novel/autobiography were destroyed by his disapproving family.
Apparently, Brother to Brother, edited by Hemphill will be re-printed later in 2006—there is a market for historical accounts (in poetry and prose) of the black gay experience during the early battles with AIDs. But not the poetry.
Ceremonies is the critical volume that readers rely on, yet that in itself is not really a true account. It is not a collected poetry and prose volume. Ceremonies does not contain one key autobiographical short-story. It does not contain his last work Vital Signs and its working through of an African aesthetic for poetry. It does not contain all of the poems from Earth Life and Conditions: 12 interesting poems are missing. Rather like the black experience, Hemphill’s work has been scattered through gay anthologies, chap-books, journals and his one critical volume.
Amidst this compartmentalisation, one important fact has been overlooked: Hemphill was a fine poet and a fine reader of his poetry, something that many poets are not. The poems that he reads in Looking for Langston testify to his rich attention to detail…he jokes that it is the little details in a poem that are so hard to deliver on film.
So many poets are falling by the wayside, as time passes, another example would be the inspirational theatre director and academic Owen Dodson.
Here is a forgotten and out-of print poem by Hemphill. Perhaps, it might jolt some towards remembering…for he deserves attention…to be taken up by a serious publisher, by the world of academia, and the readers of poetry.
State of the Art.
I have only been here a week.
I almost don’t belong.
I slipped through.
I came during the night.
I have a room in the centre of town.
Whatever dreams I had coming here
seem suddenly dangerous under foot.
Do I start again
to blow glass into another replica of worship?
If so, then I ask as a young man who is skeptical:
how do you blow life into glass? And when you do,
should you stand like the Piper of Hamelin,
or like Patton in the drilling yard at dawn,
or like Dizzy, under a waterfall of perspiration,
his cheeks puffed, black, sails.
Beautifully timed, and suggestive!
(Earth Life, original edition).