Russ Goings and the "Now!" Experience


Russell Goings and I traded epics at the West Chester Poetry Conference last summer. I gave him my Soutine, a book-length poem in terza rima on the painter Chaïm Soutine, and he gave me his The Children of Children Keep Coming, a griot song epic on the black experience in American history. Goings, a onetime pro football player, is also the first African American to have held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He is the co-founder of Essence magazine and a past chairman of the Studio Museum of Harlem. He came to poetry in a big way late in life—Children was published by Pocket Books and Karen Hunter Publishing in 2009.

We realized at breakfast on day one of the conference that, in addition to writing long poems, we have art in common. My instructor at the Arts Student League of New York, Ernest Crichlow, was an associate of Goings’ close friend Romare Bearden, the great Harlem Renaissance painter. Russ and I hit it off. I read his book, and have wanted very much to talk to him about it and publish that conversation. Thanks to Kin for the opportunity. Russ and I met for breakfast again at Malecon restaurant in New York’s Upper West Side earlier this year. Our conversation follows:

Rick Mullin: One of the things that most impressed me in The Children of Children Keep Coming is the notion of time. The last word in the book is “Now!” The word seems to run the whole way through, an echo going back in time. Throughout your book, the question is asked, “is this the day?” I think of Nina Simone singing "Mississippi Goddam," pushing back on the notion of “go slow.” I’m reminded of the new Lincoln movie in which there is the very dramatic moment as Lincoln admonishes his cabinet, “Now, now, now!” This idea of “Now!”—what President Obama called the never-ending journey of democracy—is essential to the experience in your book. Your poem, about this great struggle in American history, seems organized around a kind of infinite and urgent immediacy.

Russell Goings: Within the experience, “Now” is the collective notion of what colors the moment, what colors the past, the present and the future. “Now” has to do, for me, with the perception of having once been enslaved. There is nothing more urgent when you have been enslaved than “Now.” It’s a matter of how you can preserve some notion of your being and a notion of what you are going to do in order to survive without going insane. “Now” becomes part of what Satchmo used to be. We used to talk about him scratching his head, acting like Stepin Fetchit. But he would quickly tell you how that has to do with survival. The notion I grew up with in my family is that “Now” is about improvisation when you’re enslaved.

RM: Tell me what you mean when you say that you were enslaved. Obviously that is part of your heritage, but you speak of it as if from personal experience.

RG: Well, we were enslaved as a people. I can never forget that. But I carry the notion of enslavement every day of my life in a physical way. I have what they call chronic lymphadentitis, an inflammation of my lymph nodes. An African endocrinologist looked at me years back and said, “Well, I know where you’ve been.” He told me the lymph glands were the first defense that my ancestors had when they were enslaved and brought from Africa to this country—they were the defense against the kind of infection we had in the hulls of hell. That was passed along and I still carry that.

RM: Tell me what got you started on The Children of Children Keep Coming? Was there a distinct inspiration, something that triggered it?

RG: All right—On October 16, 1859, John Brown takes Harpers Ferry. On October 16, 1995, a million black men are gathering on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The Million Man March. I attribute this to something that is almost surreal as a coincidence. But there we were, a million black men, and there they were, 22 men in 1859 taking Harper’s Ferry. I looked at this, and what was being presented in Washington, and over the plain, I see all of these black men coming and they are my brothers. I know at this instant that I am my brother’s keeper. I recognize the notion that we are dancing to the same music. Swaying to the same kind of music. I am my brother’s keeper. I understand that the gang bang and that group is also part of “My Brother’s Keeper.” I just kind of dismiss it. I go through the whole thing and take the train home. On the train I hear the clickety clack clack of the train against the clack clack of the rails. I hear the clickety clack clack clack of time, of what had happened at Harper’s Ferry. I hear the music of Nat Turner. I hear the music of Jim Crow and his Crows. I hear all of this on one train ride after this monumental experience. It becomes an epiphany that finds resonance: Somewhere deep in the valley a Child says, “I am a child of the valley, Callie, a child of the valley.” I start writing, just putting down thoughts. I put it all down in prose. I go to Cornelius Eady. He says this is more poetic than it is prosaic. He asks if I know how to break a line. I say no. I take a class with him. I then take what I’ve written to Kim Bridgford. And she says, “I like it. Why don’t you get in my class?” I started taking the courses, and I start writing what I’m feeling.

RM: Your experience is one of getting it down on paper and turning it into poetry. Very interesting in that your poem is a griot song, a traditional African song form. Was it much of a journey from prose to griot song?

RG: There is this complication—It makes no sense for me to sit down and study Whitman, study Gilgemesh, study The Iliad and The Odyssey, study other people’s epics, and not have one of my own. I could have written it all in form and meter such as you would find in The Iliad. But it makes no sense for me to do that, because I can’t do better than Shakespeare in the Park. It makes no sense. I needed to be able to go with my emotion on something epic, with some kind of jazz and some kind of blues and some kind of rhythm of my people.

RM: And a personal voice as well.

RG: Yes

RM: It’s the personal voice that intrigues me. Let’s talk about personal expression in art. There’s your good friend, Romare Bearden, the Harlem Renaissance painter, who had such a distinctive voice in pictorial art. And then there’s William H. Johnson, another painter associated with the Harlem arts movement with a voice all his own. In his early days, Johnson was influenced by my guy, Soutine. He was a black American in Europe. He married a Danish woman. He visited Morocco, but painted in Europe for years in the European modernist style. It wasn’t until he returned to the U.S., moving to Harlem, that he adopted a more personal style, though clearly influenced by the artistic activity in Harlem at the time. By analogy, it is almost as if he had worked for years on the sonnet before coming here and letting go of the European tradition. As a writer, you went first to your own experience, this internalized song form—and you started much later in life.

RG: It is all about echoes. In Bearden, you find an echo of something that has gone before. What you have is a personalized extension. When you listen to Miles Davis or Ellington or Basie, you hear, in a grand sense, an echo of what happened in the past. But it becomes so personalized and culturefied. It becomes part of your culture. So I want to get away from the form. I can do the lines, I can do the breaks, but I don’t want to get caught up in a box, because I know that the notion of my survival has to do with improvisation. And it also means I must go along and honor, or at least pay homage to, what happened in the past. So when I try to do onomatopoeia, which I do in the book, onomatopoeia is an echo of the lungs that are within me, the history within me, the kind of stuff I can only get from going to my church. I grew up in Stamford, Conn., and I grew up in the church. Because of my limited experience, the Baptist minister could lay down in the Sunday service all the notion of the poetics, all the notion of meter, all the notion of scansion. All of that.

RM: It’s interesting, though, because Children, in addition to its marvelous theatrical and musical qualities, has major elements of classical Greek tragedy as well. You have the Three Graces—Insight, Awareness, and Understanding. You have the three brothers, Intelligence, Intellect, and Wisdom. For that matter, three giants, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey. You have what is essentially a big chorus from which characters step out on cue to comment. And you have Tellit from Shout It Out, Tennessee, who does just that, an auricle and a female character. Women are extremely strong in the poem. The Grandmother for example. This poem, stemming from the Million Man March, has a matriarchal theme. We see this in Bearden’s drawings that you’ve shown me. There is that drawing of Rosa Parks in a jail cell. And, of course, Rosa Parks becomes the center of the universe in Children.

RG: Hello!? You got it. And the “Now” becomes “We will not move.” And the “Now” goes on at the beginning. Rosa Parks tells the conductor, “Start singing our song.” That is “Now.” It becomes a continuum and it reflects a resolve.

RM: She stands for strength and leadership.

RG: This is an epic, and it’s not hubris to say so. This is an epic that is driven by, colored by, presented by, women. If you go through the simple parity of my character Evalina and Rosa Parks, it goes to all women, because the rising force happens to be women. We’ve got the character See See Rider, which is the pick up on the Blues song "C. C. Rider," but viewed through Intellect, Intelligence and Wisdom. These are all women. This is deliberate.

RM:Let’s go back to the beginning of the book, when Callie asserts “I have one mind for white folks and one mind for me.” A bifurcated self assertion, really. One that carries through the book?

RG: Well, a reconciliation comes out in the praise. It comes out in the music. There is reconciliation. It is very much alive in the book.

RM: It comes out with jazz, it seems.

RG: I was just about to say that. It comes out when Charlie Yardbird Parker seduces Jim Crow’s crows to drink sweet water from Ida B Wells’ wells at Birdland. Reconciliation is found in the black notes and the half notes and the quarter notes. The scale itself becomes a metaphor for the scale of justice, for the scale of equality, for the scale that measures the relationship between people and the human thing. And the reconciliation also finds itself in the music that came from the soul and the books that use soul-fullness. That’s soulfulness with two “I”s in full. One “l” is half full, two “l”s is fullness. There is no more soul in a white person than there is in an Indian or a black man. There is this kind of reconciliation. Reconciliation comes from the music of Marian Anderson or any of the people I name as musicians.

RM: Jazz seems so important in the book, as important as it is to American history. It’s the closest thing to a purely American art, and it came from black people. It also comes from the quintessential American city, New Orleans, the cultural melting pot where European culture, Native American culture, and black culture produce truly American culture. Louis Armstrong wisely put out that he was born on the 4th of July. A personal mythmaking. But, let’s talk about myth. The popular concept of myth is that it is something science dispels with the truth. I cringe at the popular concept! Myth is a vehicle conveying the truth, no?

RG: Myth only becomes powerful once it is discerned. There is a subjective level, but it has to be discerned. The myth of African American survival was always a part of the expression, “go get what the man got.” There is this expression that I lived with coming from my Grandmother—this notion of going to get what the man got. We are not talking about material things. What we are really talking about is freedom, the ability to make intelligent and humanistic decisions—to get what the man got. There is a notion, and there has been for a long time, that “equality and liberty” is a myth. My concept of a myth is that it acts as a guide. It gets you to something else. I don’t know if it explains something as much as gives you something to go to with, almost blind faith. The notion of a myth goes back to the Socratic experience. The Socratic experience suggests that what I need to do is go from a less certain mind to a more certain mind. Within the notion of a myth, I am always trying to get to something more certain. That there is a God. That there is another kind of existence, another kind of higher notion beyond our immediate comprehension. The myth that God will make the way for me allows me to go to the edge without going insane and doing something crazy. I have to go there. At the last moment, I will say, “Oh my God, come help me,” or whatever. Right? But it is still a myth. I don’t know what to do without a myth.

RM: Some of the “myth” elements of the book would seem to be discernable exclusively within the black experience. How does “go get what the man got” relate to Callie’s “one mind for white folks and one mind for me.”

RG: I have to say at some point I have to leave my blackness alone and go to the universal notion about stuff. Within the universal notion about stuff, some parts are about myth. And the notion of my myth, which has to do with love, is no different than my Greek companion’s or my Italian or Polish companion’s or whatever. That allows me to deal within the universal. It also gives me a groundedness that tells me there is something richer, harder, and more humanistic that is guiding the next notion.

RM: I’m very much taken with some of the simple, running metaphors in the book, which I think work so effectively in a long poem. The train in section one, which is titled Taking the Train to Freedom. The constant reference to lawns, to grass evoking Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. And of course the lilacs, which occur in proximity to Lincoln—Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloomed.”

RG: Hello! Absolutely. Tell me about that.

RM: Ha! OK. Well, there is a moment in the book at Lincoln’s death when there seems to be a wrench in time. It’s like, what happens to the “Now” at this moment? I am interested in how you deal with Lincoln in this book. He was certainly not as aggressive in his push to end slavery as was, say, Salmon Chase or the radical Republicans, as they called them at the time. But he was also a political genius in that he timed things perfectly. There is that balance.

RG: There is another notion. Divine intervention. Let me jump ahead. When Obama was elected president the first time, he walked across the stage at Grant Park. Do you know who the first person was that got a call? Grant called Lincoln. Lincoln called Frederick Douglas. Frederick Douglas called Rosa. There was a conversation as Obama stepped before the nation. Grant said to Lincoln, look what we have wrought. What makes it so wonderful is the clickety-clack-clack of the train that took Obama from Philadelphia to Washington, to the White House, for his first inauguration. And that one moment in the White House when there was this joyous get-together of my ancestors—because they built the White House! This is a part of the history. You can feel it. There is our history, our country’s history. He took the train, the clickety-clack, just the clack-clack-clacking. He then, after his inauguration, proceeded to walk up the street to the White House. There was a spiritual moment at which he had to pause, because that house was built by his ancestors.

RM: Yes, there is this idea of people in history, certainly American history, who are in the right place at the right time, who seem to embody the Angle in the Whirlwind. Divine intervention. Washington. Lincoln. There was an important meeting between Frederick Douglas and Lincoln near the end of the Civil War. Douglas had serious misgivings about Lincoln, but he came out of that meeting amazed with a feeling that there was something special about the president. It couldn’t possibly have been easy to win Douglas over simply by trying to do so. There was something big there.

RG: Let me give you a couple of thoughts about the divine involving both instances of Obama’s election. The Republican convention in 2008 had to be downsized because of a storm that would hit New Orleans and Florida. Hurricane Gustav. But do you know with the second election, the same thing happened?

RM: Sure, Isaac. Then, of course, Sandy.

RG: Hello! Those moments certainly chased the Crows away, leveled the playing field in many respects. It rings of something of a higher power. Well the same thing happened with Lincoln. I think the more he got into the Civil War and the notion of losing the war, he was moved to free us as a people and to deal with us on a different level.

RM: In addition to the divine, there are the heroic figures, as there would be in any epic. And you have a lot of drawings of important figures made by Bearden illustrating the book. How did that come about?

RG: Bearden was near death. And he handed me a portfolio of drawings. I said, what do you want me to do with this? He said you’ll find something to do with it. The poem is about the kinds of conversations we have had for years about the very people in these drawings. This is Harriet Tubman, This is Ida B. Wells, the fierce journalist in Tulsa. She was fierce, right? This is Monroe Trotter. He and Du Bois were the first black PhDs at Harvard. This is the great man, Marcus Garvey. Marcus Garvey today is like Prometheus. Prometheus is my real hero. He was the one that provided us with fire. And what did he get for this? He was tied to some mountain and a big bird would come and eat his liver all the time. There are two great heroes in my life—Prometheus and John Brown. We don’t have a Prometheus day. No one ever talks about Prometheus.

RM: Well, there is one place his name may come up from time to time. The West Chester Poetry Conference! I’m interested in your experience there. Last year was my first, but you’ve been coming for a while now. You were involved in a track on hip-hop last year, which a lot of people saw as an attempt to enhance diversity at the conference.

RG: The participants never talked about the hip-hop program making things more diverse. Those who participated were thinking about it as providing a voice. When I first started going, I thought West Chester could use some diversification. And it still can. But it’s a lot better than what it was. It had been a predominantly white universe, and predominantly men. Most of the people there are academics. They are already deeply entrenched.

RM: Is the problem of diversity at West Chester partly a problem of formalism, in particular New Formalism, being perceived as being in its own ghetto, sort of stodgy and not interesting to people that aren’t familiar with what goes on there? Certainly New Formalism was something of a guy clique when it started in the 1980s.

RG: But females are in an important position now and will command even more. Women are coming in droves. We have some black formalists. Marilyn Nelson, Rita Dove, Herman Beavers, Kwame Dawes, Tyehimba Jess. Tyehimba did the panel on sonnet crowns. My problem with my white counterparts is that if a black person is up on the stage, they don’t show up. But they are the first to criticize. What happened with the hip-hop session at West Chester is certainly the same thing that happened with black music years ago. They called it Race Music. When it was first given a stage in academia, they said, well, it was awkward, inserted, didn’t have the depth. That kind of thing goes with the notion of being young. Nascent. I’d like to see some more Asians and others at the conference. We are missing a whole group of people. And I really don’t know why we would not have the rappers. I mean, what is poetry? You can’t define the thing. It’s like jazz. What we want to do is create something that people will want to come and visit and participate in.

RM: I want to read a stanza from The Children that I love—one in which you are obviously drawing from tradition. It’s about reconciliation.

Don’t explain, don’t complain America,
Just see the purple mountains,
Just enjoy the waves of amber,
Just share the grains.
All Americans are the same.

RG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t explain, don’t complain. That is the mantra that I have heard all my life. My mother, my father, my grandmother. The amber waves of grain. The notion carries through to what Tellit says at the graveside of Martin Luther King Jr. in the book:

This land of sweet liberty
Is your land, my land, our land.
My country ‘tis of thee
Includes you and me….

One Black star shines no more….

On the grave
Red roses….

Hush now, hush now,
God’s redeeming sun
Shines on his fallen Black son….

Hush now!
Just the clickety clacking of
Democracy’s train.

This feeling goes with Martin Luther King when he asks at the Lorraine, who is going to stand over my grave, who is going to sing the song and who is going to close the day? I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen tomorrow. I have seen the rain, and that’s reign and rain. But my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, this land belongs to you and me. This land…. I mean, that’s the thing that goes with "My Country tis of Thee." That’s the music of America. That pays homage to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Russell Goings studied writing at Fairfield University and the 92nd Street Y. He has been writing poetry for sixteen years. He was a pro football player, the first African American brokerage manager for a New York Stock Exchange Member firm; the first owner of an African American firm to manage assets for Fortune 500 companies; the first African American Chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem; and founder and Chairman for Essence magazine. An inductee into the Wall Street Hall of Fame, Goings has also been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Black Enterprise magazine. His book, The Children of Children Keep Coming, was published by Simon and Schuster.

Photographs by Nancy Crampton

Rick Mullin’s epic poem, Soutine, on the life of the artist Chaïm Soutine, was published in 2012 by Dos Madres Press, Loveland, Ohio. His book-length poem, Huncke, was published in 2010 by Seven Towers, Dublin. His chapbook, Aquinas Flinched, was published in 2008 by the Modern Metrics imprint of Exot Books, New York City. Another chapbook, The Stones Jones Canzones, was published in 2013 by Finishing Line Press. He works as an editor for the American Chemical Society. His forthcoming collection, Coelacanth, will be published by Dos Madres this summer, and will include "Chimaera" and "My Fisherman's Sweater".

Within the experience, “Now” is the collective notion of what colors the moment, what colors the past, the present and the future.