The World’s First Black Gay Sci-fi Writer Devours the Classroom
To Samuel Delany
By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
He needed a black/ gay muse. From
Mars. Launch pad. Blast off. Moon Shits
— that’s shots, marking it, such bad taste
He coveted like porn exhumed on Saturn.
For red light zone phrases he’d misread
Any error. His bias: Texts are viral —
Chewing on a yummy while he insists
Systems still matter. Note: on fictive worlds
— if plotted with a sense of style —
Systems vary: air, earth, water, blue skies
And sand crystals. Stare out a window —
The real world’s as pied as prose,
In silence and storm, how language seesaws
In a wild weft of schema heterodox .
Writes Wellington: I call it a source of endless mystery and fascination how relevant language, subject, memory, prosody, and the rhythms of written verse and everyday speech lead you down a road which curves, opens up, doubles back, and hopefully coalesces into something readable. This particular poem looks like a sonnet split into two halves (7 lines apiece) with the essential “turn” occurring in the eighth line: meaning the poem has a 7-7 division instead of a classic sonnet’s 8-6 division. There is — in this case — another structure hidden inside the apparent structure, an embryo inside a carapace. The hidden form which I have developed into a sonnet is a “kwansaba” a form invented by poet Eugene B Redmond of East St Louis, Illinois. It’s a form primarily used in poems of praise and tribute. Every year Redmond sponsors the publication of kwansabas of tribute to selected artists in an issue of his magazine Drumvoices. I wrote a kwansaba to Richard Wright (which Redmond published) and other poems building kwansaba variations into eccentric statuettes. My tribute is whole-heartedly sincere. I am a great admirer — and was almost fifteen years ago a student of — the extraordinarily prolific and brilliant speculative fiction writer, Samuel R. Delany, known to friends and students by the nickname “Chip.” Chip was an inspirational and challenging teacher who truly hit us with literary theories as ingenious as “a wild weft of schema heterodox.”
The rules for a kwansaba go as thus: Think 7-7-7. The poem is in 7 lines. Each line must include 7 words. No word can have more than 7 letters except for an essential word which names the “honoree” or an essential quality of the honoree. My essential word in praise of Chip Delany is “heterodox.” The kwansaba is a VERY useful form for teaching purposes, more expansive than a haiku, but not too challenging for students to “find a way in” given that it’s based on counting words (not counting iambs or syllables). The form teaches both the value of attentiveness, and the value of simplicity. The seven words dictum gives the poem tightness, while the seven letters dictum bars the poet from pseudo-poetic words. It keeps the poet conscious of the relationship between sound, sense, and sonorous language for its own sake. I responded to the form by writing a double kwansaba — which of course amounts to a sonnet. Furthermore, most kwansabas published in Drumvoices tend toward imagistic free verse, consisting of word clusters so tightly compacted that each phrase becomes a rhythmic unit. I expanded the form to make it more discursive, a frame for a tight, little argument, and with this personalizing touch my double kwansaba — a form created by Black poet and associated with Black English — became a colloquial sonnet. The ghosts of literary influence haunt my double kwansaba, with occasional lines such as “The real world’s as pied as prose/ In silence and storm, how language seesaws” which correspond to the Shakespearian ideal of four or five beats per line. My sense of the poem remains attached to its source, however, a classroom, in which Chip Delany’s radical aesthetic met literary history — so the rhythm of the poem for me is the sound of Chip’s voice, speeding up whenever he became excited as he wandered peripatetically over his favorite subjects: gay literature, sci-fi, signs and signifiers, how writing simultaneously existed inside and outside the system he called the visible universe, and ( to top all that) how the wonderfully elaborate system known as reality included ( and no one should be ashamed of) bad taste. The visible world seemed like a descriptive prison, but if writers learned how to approach it the system was a yummy, heterodox piece of candy. He pointed out the large glass classroom window once, and told us there were no monochromatic worlds (and here he would usually pause and wave his hands like a magician conjuring the big secret) in fact, paying attention to the variations within the system was the “key” to strong prose. I left his classes reeling between the imaginary worlds which writers of caliber used their storehouse of tricks to render real, and the unrealized worlds of literary creation he inspired us to believe were achievable.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and culture critic living in Santa Fe, NM. He has published his work in The Nation, Dissent, Boston Review, Pedestal Magazine, Turtle Island Quarterly, New Politics, and other places.