Academic journal article African American Review

"I Follow My Eyes": An Interview with Clarence Major

Academic journal article African American Review

"I Follow My Eyes": An Interview with Clarence Major

Article excerpt

It was during the period of turmoil and transformation of the 1960s that Clarence Major first achieved literary recognition, initially as an editor, poet, and anthologist, and then - following the controversial publication in 1969 of his sexually charged, highly controversial first novel All-Night Visitors from Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press - as one of postmodern fiction's most versatile and radical innovators. Major's first publication was a pamphlet of (mostly forgettable) poems entitled The Fires That Burn in Heaven (1954); following a stint in the Air Force, Major began editing Coercion Review (1958-61), which gradually brought him into contact with such leading poetry figures as William Carlos Williams Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg. Over the years, Major has made editorial contributions to such journals as The Journal of Black Poetry, The American Book Review, and The American Poetry Review, as well as editing two collections of student work - Writers Workshop Anthology (1967) and Man Is a Child (1%9). He gained national attention with the publication of The New Black Poetry (1969), a controversial anthology of contemporary black poetry which he edited. Its eclecticism drew criticism from conservative and liberal factions of the black artistic community, who were both already heatedly discussing the implications of the "Black Aesthetic" being promoted by writers like Ishmael Reed, Ed Bullins, and Amiri Baraka. In addition to his creative work as a poet and fiction writer, Major has also published a wide variety of reviews, manifestoes and critical essays (some collected in his 1974 critical study The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work).

Major's first important poetry collection, Swallow the Lake (1970), explored some of interests that would recur in his later fiction (music, alienation and psychic dismemberment, male-female relationships, the relationship of art and reality, sex and death, etc.) in a wide variety of styles and voices. Three more collections followed rapidly: Private Line (1971), Symptoms & Madness (1971), and the Cotton Club (1972). Major's poetry is characterized by the same rich, unsettling mixture of humor and anger, passion and intellect, self-consciousness, free-wheeling energy, and formal daring found in his fiction.

Because Major has mainly avoided the social realist mode favored by most black American writers in favor of expressionistic, metafictional modes, his fiction has subsequently been analyzed primarily in terms of its "experimental" or "anti-realist" features. Unfortunately, this focus has tended to relegate Major to the "avant-garde ghetto," where his works have never attained the popularity or critical acclaim given his more publicly visible contemporaries such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed.

However, as with many other figures from postmodernism's "first wave" of literary innovators, what once seemed "anti-realistic" to a generation raised on the illusionistic assumptions of traditional realism can today be recognized as new approaches to realism. These approaches either describe a reality that itself seemed "unrealistic" by earlier norms or, as seems more relevant for Major's work, find fresh methods to depict irrational contradictory inner lives and selves that resist traditional formulations. Many of the features of Major's fictions are in fact designed to give voice to various irrational impulges and contradictory versions of self and personal identity that traditional realism couldn't give expression to. Thus, Major's best fiction often presents a fiercely passionate vision o jagged, tortured beauty that is analogous to that found in Goya or van Gogh, Hendrix or Eric Dolphy. While such non-literary analogies are always suspect, they are appropriate in this case due to Major's convictions concerning the inadequacies of verbal logic, which sustains the realistic novel, as a means of conveying the truth about experience. …

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