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35 years as a literary maverick: Clarence Major is revered and respected for his literary achievements. He's just not as widely known as he should be.

Never really a bold faced name even in African American letters, the literary achievements of Clarence Major are nonetheless monumental: He produced high-quality fiction and poetry during the most critical years of the latter part of the last century without receiving the kind of public acclaim his work so deserved. That may change, however, with his new novel, One Flesh (November 2003), recently released from Kensington Books. Accessible in a way that many of his early modernist novels never were, this story is about John Canoe, a solitary painter, living in New York City's Soho district. He finds his comfortable loneliness turned upside down when a Chinese American woman enters his world and challenges him to embrace life. The narrative is a landmark effort from one of the most highly versatile creative minds in America.

For Major, One Flesh offered him an opportunity to explore America's cultural diversity, something that has been both a great asset and a frightening liability to this nation that professes to live up to its potential. "My hope is that One Flesh suggests the richness and complexity of America with its tremendous cultural variety, although that was not primarily why I wrote the hook," Major says. "I wanted to explore the relationship between poetry and painting. Having lived in California for fifteen years, I've become extremely interested in Asian Americans and their variety of cultures. One of lily daughters-in law is of Asian heritage."

Among Major's peers, he is revered and respected for the range of his artistic endeavors: poet, novelist, painter, essayist, editor and anthologist. Or as Toni Morrison, the grande dame of African American literature, so aptly put it: "Clarence Major has a remarkable mind and the talent to match."

Major's creative gifts were evident quite early in his life. As a child, he moved with his mother to Chicago from his native Atlanta after the breakup of his parents' marriage. In Chicago, he was exposed to modern art; at the age of 17, he studied at the Chicago Art Institute for a short time. His interest in art became a lifelong fascination that has surfaced periodically in his writing.

"Drawing and painting were what many of us did from day one in preschool," Major recalls. "This is why painting came first for me. I had a particular talent for it. And I was writing poetry, too. My mother started that. When I was, say, five or six, she wrote a poem for me to recite in church. As shy as I was, somehow I managed to get through the recitation. The important thing, though, was the writing--she wrote a poem. She didn't find one in a book and say now learn this and recite it. She herself served, in that moment, as a living example of the creative art. Writing poetry became possible for me from that minute forward."

In 1955, Major joined the Air Force, taking correspondence courses after being discharged two years later He married and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1958, where he stayed until 1966. Then he decided to move to New York City to pursue his artistic dreams. The city's cultural scene was thriving at the time with black artists, writers, dancers and musicians being a key ingredient of an explosive and vital artistic movement.

Major, who felt there was nothing much for him to do with his talents in the Midwest, knew New York was the place to be if he wanted to be successful. "In the Midwest, I'd reached a creative dead end," he recalls. "I moved to New York because I believed, at age twenty-nine, had already missed out on so much by not being there. When I hit the scene, it was everything I'd hoped for."

Despite his poverty, Major knew success was within his reach and he quickly leaped into the Lower East Side culture, becoming friends with other poets like Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton and Lennox Raphael. He found an apartment for $45 a month, consisting of two small rooms, with a bathtub in the kitchen. Major says that he did the usual free cultural things like attend house parties and poetry readings with poets June Jordan and Audre Lorde. He also frequented the jazz spots where John Cohrane, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Miles Davis and Sun Ra held court. There were chats with writers Larry Neal, Stanley Crouch, Grace Paley, Allen Ginsberg, Keorapetse Kgositile, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks.

There was always something notable in Major's work that set his poetry apart from the other poets who were writing during the heady years of the Black Arts Movement. Though he frequently dealt with topics that explored black themes, Major also experimented with form, image, story and language using structures and styles ignored by his peers. His reputation grew as he published work in magazines of the time: The Journal of Black Poetry, Negro Digest, Soulbook, Black World and Onyx. The literary community took notice of his first collection, Swallow the lake (Wesleyan University Press, June 1970), followed by a significant book, The Cotton Club (October, 1972), published by Dudley Randall's Broadside Press, which made him a key player of the popular arts movement.

"Dudley Randall was not my first black publisher, but I feel his interest in my work further solidified my place as a card-carrying member of the Black Arts Movement, since Dudley was so central to everything that Movement represented," Major recalls.

The Black Arts Movement, deeply influenced by the work of Amiri Baraka and Larry Neat, was controversial in that it broke with the civil rights protest literature of the time and urged black writers to celebrate Black Power--to use their rage, to use their own history to forge a new aesthetic. Neal's 1968 essay, "The Black Arts Movement" set the defiant tone for the new self-determinist approach, but there were dissenters who felt black art would be handcuffed by the black nationalist dogma, and Major was one of them.

"Ish Reed, myself and the rest of the Umbra poets were largely against a straightjacket approach to creativity," Major remembers. "Neal's manifesto took the position that literature needed to be a cultural arm to the larger agenda for freedom and justice. I believe I was the first to publish a statement opposing that position. 'Black Criterion appeared in 1966 in The Journal of Black Poetry alongside Baraka's call for a black nationalist approach. Essentially, I wrote that art could change people and that freedom and justice could be achieved without harnessing art into the service of a political agenda. I didn't want to write or paint mere propaganda. I had strong political beliefs. In fact, I was further to the Left than most people I knew. Wherever art had been used in the interest of political views, it had often tailed miserably. As Du Bois said, "all art is propaganda but not all propaganda is art.' That was exactly my point."

In numerous poetry collections, books of essays and fiction that followed, Major closely adhered to this view of an unfettered aesthetic--not yoked to any ideology or dogma. He wanted to be free to explore and experiment with his art. If his poetry defied many of the traditional conventions, it was in his fiction that he achieved his most startling achievements in stretching the limits of the American novel with fresh ideas about narration, structure, story, pacing and description, lie was in a league with other rogue novelists such as Roland Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme and Reed. Each new novel during this period showed another Facet of his literary alchemy, including works such as All-Night Visitors (1969), No (1973), Reflex and Bone Structure (1975), Emergency Exit (1979), and My Amputations (1986).

Of all his novels, Major has a special fondness for his lauded first novel, All-Night Visitors, a sexual romp that attacked the social and political mores of the period. Deemed too hot for the market, it was trimmed, sanitized and criticized by some fur its pioneering look at black sexuality. "I wanted to show in the novel how I was responding emotionally to my own times, to the violence, to the so called sexual revolution made possible by the advent of the 'the pill,'" Major says about the book, reissued ha 1998 in an unexpurgated edition by Northeastern University Press. "I didn't realize how innovative the novel was. Of course, it was first rejected by every publisher in New York, but then Olympia Press, a publisher of quality erotica, picked it up and told me to rewrite it. I set out to make it a better novel. The woman I was living with flew with me to Mexico where I rewrote the novel, expanding it by a hundred pages. The publisher threatened not to publish it unless I cut it back to its original size. I wanted it published, so I cut it. Cutting the book was central to my breakup with Sheila, for she felt I had sold out. I was just being practical. It was many years before the book was restored and republished.

"My work became more and more experimental after that," Major says. "I was searching for what felt right for me. Each novel I wrote was a new investigation, an exploration in open-mindedness. In retrospect, I can see with novels like Emergency Exit, that I was trying to bridge poetry, prose and painting."

During the years of his great experimentation, Major was teaching at various places, Brooklyn College among them, where his groundbreaking work was welcomed by Jonathan Baumbach, Peter Spielberg, and other writers who were forming the pioneering group, The Fiction Collective. It was here where one of his most celebrated novels, Reflex and Bone Structure, which was nominated for the French Prix Maurice Edgar Cointreau Award, was published. He joined the group and continued to produce provocative writing before mellowing into a more accessible fictional style in the late 1980s, with his novels Such Was the Season (1987) and Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar (1988). The latter was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times. A later collection of stories titled Fun and Games (1990) also won acclaim with a Los Angeles Times Book Critic Award nomination.

"These books were further experiments in areas I had not previously touched," Major says. "I now believe I became disillusioned over time in my search in the 1980s, when post-modernism seemed finished. That doesn't mean I regret any of my early novels or poetry collections. What it means is that artistic achievement has its natural limits. I wanted more, artistically, than it was possible for me to have."

Part of that search meant constant writing, teaching and visiting places for continual creative growth. Major traveled to Italy, Greece, England, France, Germany, Liberia, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, among other countries, meeting writers, artists mad musicians.

"Traveling and living in foreign places certainly have been good for my perspective," he notes. "Jimmy Baldwin once said to me that he lived in Paris for several years before he learned to speak an understandable level of French, and in doing so, it taught him a great deal about himself and how much one can learn from silence. I understood what he meant. One understands perhaps for the first time what it means to be an American. I never felt more American than when I lived in France and later Italy."

Putting together anthologies, collections of various authors in one volume, has been one of Major's finest accomplishments, works such as The New Black Poetry (1969), Calling The Wind: Twentieth-Century African American Short Stories (1993), and The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African American Poetry (1996). "Editing an anthology is often a thankless task," he says. "For my anthology The New Black Poetry, I was given an advance of only $250 out of which to pay 76 poets. Some of them were angry about the small fee, even to this day. At the same time, anthologies of African American literature are important because we still have a racist society that tends Io exclude black people at every level. Ironically, on the other hand, we are offered the chance to gather work that reflects the complexity of black culture in America under one cover."

Major is currently a professor of English at the University of California, Davis; and that passion for sparking a creative fire in his students still burns strong. "Over the years, I've grown as a teacher and I feel very positive about teaching. My teaching career started in 1968 and by the end of the 1970s, as a teacher, I hit my stride. Today, I feel that teaching is an excellent counterbalance to the aloneness required for writing or painting."

In later years, his work, including his poetry, has received even more critical attention and respect from his peers. He was a National Book Award finalist for his poetry collection Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998 (Copper Canyon Press, December 1998). Recently, his paintings have been exhibited in galleries across America, including the Kresge Art Museum in Michigan and the Porter Troupe Gallery in San Diego. His current focus is a series of landscape paintings, awash with bright colors, seductive lines and evocative moods, all in preparation for a group show in January 2004 in a gallery in Sacramento, California.

Personally, Major's life is good these days, but it has not always been that way. "Pamela and I have been happily married for nearly twenty four years," Major says. "But before Pamela and I married, living the life of an artist and writer had a profoundly positive and negative effect on my personal life. My commitment to art was not totally unrelated to the fact that I survived three divorces and did not always have a close relationship with my six children. They are all grown now, and mostly happy in what they are doing."

When asked his views about post-9/11 America, Major muses with some concern about the state of things: "Since 9/11, everything about America and everybody in America have changed. One doesn't know where the country is headed anymore. "The fact that we always seem to have money for war but not for education worries me. What we must continue to do as human beings is to try as hard as we can not to lose our humanity and the dignity that makes it possible, despite the fact our humanity is constantly in danger of disappearing."

Clarence Major: A Selected Bibliography

All-Night Visitors (1969)

Northeastern University Press, December 1998

ISBN 1-555-53367-1

Calling the Word: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories

HarperCollins, January 1883

ASIN 0-060-18337-3 (out of print)

Come by Here: My Mother's Life

John Wiley & Sons, April 2002

ISBN 0-471-41518-9

Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998

Copper Canyon Press, December 1998

ISBN 1-556-59090-3

Emergency Exit (1979)

Fiction Collective Two, April 1980

ASIN 0-914-59058-8 (out of print)

Fun and Games: Short Fictions

Holy Cow! Press, March 1990

ISBN 0-930-10034-4

The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry

HarperCollins, February 1996

ASIN 0-060-55364-2 (out of print)

Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang

Viking Press, February 1994

ASIN 0-670-85264-3

My Amputations

Fiction Collective Two, January 1986

ASIN 0-914-59096-0 (out of print)

Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism

Coffee House Press, April 2001

ISBN 1-566-89109-4

Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar

Sun & Moon Press, September 1988

ASIN 1-557-13002-7 (out of print)

Reflex and Bone Structure (1975)

Mercury House, May 1996

ASIN 1-562-79084-6 (out of print)

Such Was the Season

Mercury House, September 1987

ASIN 0-916-51520-6 (out of print)

Surfaces and Masks: A Poem

Coffee House Press, September 1988

ISBN 0-918-27343-9

Waiting for Sweet Betty

Copper Canyon Press, October 2002

ISBN 1-556-59179-9

Robert Fleming is the editor of Intimacy: Erotic Stories of Love, Lust and Marriage by Black Men. He is also the author of the recently released Havoc After Dark: Tales of Terror.
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Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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