This past spring, at a meeting of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, Professor Cecil Giscombe was awarded the 2010 Stephen E. Henderson Prize by the African American Literature and Culture Society. The Henderson Prize recognizes outstanding achievement in literature and poetry. Past recipients include Sam Cornish (1995), Ouincy Troupe (1996), E. Ethelbert Miller (1997), Sherley Anne Williams (1998), Clarence Major (2002), Askia Toure´ (2003), Charles Johnson (2004), the poet laureate of California Al Young (2006), Marilyn Nelson (2007), Nathaniel Mackey (2008) and inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander (2009).
Professor Gicombe gave a heartfelt and humble acceptance speech which follows here:
It’s an unexpected joy for me to be here with you this evening. Some time ago Aldon Nielsen e-mailed me from State College and said, “If you’re going to be in town Memorial Day Weekend next May I have something I’d like to involve you in at the [American Literature Association] conference.” I’d written back and said Sure, I’m in town, and here we are.
In the space of Aldon and my subsequent communications and in the spaces between those e-mails, I remembered reading Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry more than twenty years ago. I’m thinking in particular of Henderson’s introduction to the anthology, the essay he titled “The Forms of Things Unknown.” Henderson’s title came to him from Richard Wright, and it had come to Richard Wright, as Harryette Mullen points out, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Early in the essay he casts a broad net in response to the question, “What is Black poetry?” He comes up with five criteria and then says, “Each of these statements poses certain serious and wide-ranging problems of an aesthetic, sociological, historical, political, and critical nature….I raise them chiefly to stimulate creative discussion.” And the essay—I re-read it recently—is consistently like this, consistent in its generosity: I mean it opens the field of black writing. It permits; it generates. He makes reference to “a poet pure and simple” and then, half a breath later, revises that to a poet “pure and complex.” Re-reading his work I’m incredibly moved to be receiving this honor.
I stole from Stephen Henderson, the phrase “worrying the line,” the folk expression I encountered for the first time in Understanding the New Black Poetry. My parents had come from the south and had tried, upon their arrival in Ohio, to distance themselves from the old country. It occurs—the line—in a poem of mine from the 90s, which I’ll read in a few minutes.
But I wanted to say first that I’m honored to be in the company I’m in tonight—Stephen Henderson himself and also the other recipients of this award that bears his name, people whose work I’ve admired so long. You know the list. But I’d wanted to especially underline my debt to Sherley Anne Williams who was the recipient of the Stephen Henderson Award in 1998, the year before she died. I met her when she was at Cornell in the early 1980s. My encounter (in my 30s) with the brilliant unwieldiness of her two poetry books—The Peacock Poems and especially Some One Sweet Angel Chile—well, that encounter continues to be a very big presence in my life as a writer. The books are multiple, the poetry is insistent and vocal and interior and specific—the poetry is beyond category. I taught one of the whole sections of the second book (Letters from a New England Negro) in the 90s and I still recall the day that two of my best students—Yolanda Whitehead and Cherie Reid—appeared together in my office, very excited and wanting to talk more about the work. Ms. Reid had a Xerox and I saw that at the place in one poem where Sherley Williams talked about hair, about the ambivalent desire for “such patient plaiting of my tangled hair” and for a scarf to “cover now/ my wild and sullen head,” Ms. Reid had written one word in the margin, “Beautiful.”
The poem Giscombe promised to read, the one in which he steals Henderson’s line, is itself rather “beautiful” and follows below. It is entitled “Three Ideas About the Future” and comes from his second book of poetry, Here (Dalkey Archive, 1994). Please join us in congratulating Professor Cecil Giscombe on this significant accomplishment.
Three Ideas About the Future
No real chance against the hidden facts ahead, the long view
forward into tighter & tighter cadences, to myself on the edge of them
all inscrutable, looking like nothing—
no chance in the ugly face of what’s coming, its moments
hanging over that landscape
(like heat or like the wilderness of voices
—this is a paltry given, this is scant news & no speaker here saying so or has to be
At the edge of some heart
it was my father giving me money, an extra 10
sometimes even a 20 slipped to me at the airport
to keep, he’d say, the ha’nts off you
which was language & not here or here
in the world but words for the attitude that was
& which sd If you can see it coming you can buy a way out
that love alone doesn’t do, empty pockets don’t
In Syracuse a line of Southern Railway boxcars I saw once
January 1978 in truth, uncorrected, each painted
LOOK AHEAD-LOOK SOUTH, the new slogan then
a long fragment of the 1-2-3 disembodied on a siding
the future looking unbearable based on the foreground
(the site, the conditions coupled
& all between that & exactly here ritual
improvised at best, that
that or the touted specificity of winter in upstate NY—
the attitude worries the line through the service belt around Syracuse
what the line of boxcars says, where
& how it says to look meant
Look at yourself, I saw