Ted Joans


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(1928–2003), poet, multimedia performer, musician, painter, surrealist, traveling storyteller, Beat writer, and Black Nationalist Manifesto writer.

Ted Joans was born in Cairo, Illinois, on 4 July 1928, to African American entertainers working on Mississippi riverboats. He says that by the age of thirteen, he had learned to play the trumpet as well as the crowd and otherwise to fend for himself after his father's death in the Detroit Riot of 1943. Upon earning a bachelor's degree in painting at Indiana University (1951), he headed for New York, where his studio/apartment soon became a famous salon and party site. With other New York bohemians, he attended the New School for Social Research, but the extracurricular activities of Greenwich Village and, increasingly, of Harlem's Black Arts movement, were his preferred teaching and learning venues. After marrying and fathering four children (three of them sons, bio-blurbs remind, with heroic African surnames), he departed conventional life entirely, in order, experientially and textually, to break and reformulate habits of music, art, sex, and politics. His friends and cohorts included Bob Kaufman, the then LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Jack Kerouac, John Coltrane, Stokely Carmichael, and Allen Ginsberg; the last, according to Joans, turned him from painting to performing his jazz, Beat, and revolutionary poetry at clubs, public readings, and as a “Rent-a-Beatnik” jazzman before well-paying private art consumers.

Joans met and exchanged words, ideas, and influence with many key political thinkers and creative artists in and beyond the United States. His poems, performances, and legendary conversations reflect, by turns, serious, respectful, satirical, and playfully challenging engagement with André Breton (“Nadja Rendevous”, “Flying Piranha”, named for Breton's parrot), Langston Hughes (“Passed on Blues: Homage to a Poet”), Malcolm X (“The Ace of Spades”), Kwame Nkrumah (“PAN AFRICA”), and Frantz Fanon (indirectly, in “Proposition for a Black Power Manifesto”). Typical is his poetic address to Andy Warhol, whose simultaneous exploitation and exposure of popular culture's obsessive yet repressed sexuality Joans improvised into a kind of jazz chant and/or typographically experimental text, in “Pubik Pak”. Refusing equally the roles of victim, respectable bourgeois, nationalist, and traditional activist, Joans's work variously assaults assimilationism and guilty white liberalism; “Mau Mau Message to Liberals”, “God Blame America”, and “For the Viet Congo” are representative. In erotic, angry, dramatic, and often bitterly ironic short poems, he adopts and explodes from within various limiting personae imposed upon black men, especially African Americans. In this regard, “Let's Play Something” is programmatic, while “The Underground Bitch” bears comparison with Baraka/Jones's Dutchman. While he is everywhere complex, ironic, thought-provoking, and deliberately surreal, his recurrent themes of the “virgin-whore” dichotomy and mythic Mother-Africa do not endear him to empirical feminists or mainstream postcolonialists. Nevertheless, his contributions to poetic style and his critiques of identity politics ensure continued relevance.

For his Beat period texts in context, see The Beat Scene, ed. Elias Wilentz (1960) and City Lights Journal #1 (1963), which includes “Afrique Accidentale,” his first poem written from Timbuctu, predicting the full range of his continuing surrealist, Marxist, French, and African commitments. In addition to being collected or translated in France, England, Italy, Germany, and South America, Joans's short political and memorial lyrics have also been anthologized by and with African American poets, including Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1970, 1970), Gwendolyn Brooks (A Broadside Treasury, 1971), and Dudley Randall and Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs (For Malcolm, 1973, with bio-bibliography). Sonia Sanchez published his story “A Few Fact Filled Fiction of African Reality” (We Be Word Sorcerers, 1973). Major poetry, prose-poems, manifestoes, and collages in English are published or reprinted by Marion Boyars, Ltd., A Black Manifesto in Jazz Poetry and Prose (London, 1971); Black Pow-Wow: Jazz Poems (London, 1973); Afrodisia: New Poems (London, 1976); and, with Joyce Mansour, for Bola Press, Flying Piranha (1978). For years he has promised and continues to live, revise, and add to “Spadework: The Autobiography of a Hipster” (sequel to the 1961 All of Ted Joans and No More), “I, Black Surrealist”, and a novel “Niggers from Outer Space”. Splitting residence between Paris and Timbuctu, he remains part of a casual and underground, though current and international poetry scene. Relatively neglected by critics, if not by fellow poets, the few academic essays about him show a surprising range.


Subjects: Literature.

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