What kind of form are the blues? When I say form, I do not only mean traditional verse forms like the sonnet. Everything that is intelligently conceived has form even if that structure is a nonce form (or a one-of-a-kind design). Moreover, even things that are ill-conceived have form (albeit, problematic arrangements). What I say here is different than some poets who only use the word form to signify a finite number of traditional, usually European-descended arrangements like the rhyme royal or the sestina.
The blues are and will always be a radical American art form because despite its deep penetration and proliferation within the art and culture of the United States and the world, it has always been marginalized. There is a certain violence to the way that the blues is cross-culturally perceived, a disenfranchisement that I understand intimately. The blues are an anti-normative form, a queer endeavor that challenges our attempts to institutionalize it all the time.
Thinking about the blues helped me to understand the world in forms. Understanding the world in forms means that I am always ascertaining the structures through which things are made. This understanding may be more radical for me than for others. When I was a child, I was habitually told that I was not normal. Growing up suspect meant that I became suspicious of normalcy itself. I began to associate the word normal with natural, unquestioned, deterministic states. What others understood to be normal, I understood to be just another made thing, or just another construction given hierarchical power, dominance, or control over me for a myriad of often mysterious reasons.
From these origins came a critical notion: even if I do not know the maker or have a name for the form, I know that it is made or being made. My first foray into truly critical thought (the kind that bespeaks true liberal arts of deeply free thinking) came when I understood that what seems normal is, in fact, just another construction.
Normalcy reassurances us as much as it controls us. We need reassurance at the same time that we need to question patterns of control. Understanding the world in forms means that I am always investigating the fault lines between what controls us and what we can control, or between how we make our worlds and how the world seems to make us. Things that others take for granted are subjected to enormous scrutiny.
Most people simply accept their assigned name, their assigned race, their assigned gender, and all sorts of other seemingly natural states. But even as a child, I never simply accepted these states. I critiqued them relentlessly. I wanted to understand the power within these constructions. Invariably, that power is confederated into forms, or into always shifting arrangements. I tried to describe, analyze, and interpret these forms. I created my own forms.
Let me explain why my perspective is radical even though it may seem that talking about form is the most traditional thing that any poet could do.
As a black child of extreme violence, I was, by definition, radicalized. Normalcy was a luxury that I did not enjoy. Even while I endured violence, foster facilities, and homelessness, I gained and sought privileges. My mother had me scholastically tested and when I scored high, she took me out of a predominately black, impoverished public school; fought to gain a scholarship for me; and, once obtained, enrolled me in a brutally uncaring, aloof, predominately white, wealthy private middle school in a nearby state outside of Washington, D.C. at enormous physical cost for me because I attended this school briefly while living in homeless shelters with my mother.
I would leave whatever homeless shelter at which we lived at 5:30 a.m. in the cold, dark of the morning and make an arduous, almost three hour journey: two city buses to a school bus stop on the edge of the city limits, and then forty-five minutes out of the city to a school where heads of state sent their children to study with body guards. When I arrived at the school I was filthy. I could never wash properly at the homeless shelters, and the walking between buses and the riding on sticky seats between other homeless people and workers leaving out in the wee hours to do manual labor made me even smellier. Invariably, I was often sick at that school whose name I will not mention. Malnourishment was a constant problem even while, maddeningly, I was attending a supposedly elite private school.
And yes, my physical state became a problem for a few of the school’s authorities, but the rest of that story is for another time. Suffice to say that this incredibly wealthy school did not compassionately come to my aid and create a program whereby my family received housing and fiscal aid while I attended the school. Apparently, they considered it enough that they offered me a scholarship. On the contrary, one teacher (who just happened to be one of the most favored, beloved educators at the school during my era) made it her personal campaign to remove me from her class (she could not stand the sight of me, the smell of me, and when I finally told her my family was homeless, she could not stand the very thought of me), and her campaign to get rid of me was waged on the grounds that, obviously, my home life and my very manner of being was not commensurate with study at such an august establishment.
And this teacher knew that she was wrong because, towards the end of my time at the school, she half-apologized and let me take two books as my own from her collection on the voluminous bookshelves of her well-appointed, spacious classroom, the same room from which she campaigned to banish me. In the end, she only let me take books for which there were multiple copies. Purely because I was interested in their titles, I chose two books that just happened to have been published around the same time in the 1940s, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph and The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry by Cleanth Brooks. That I was reading those books as a black middle schooler should tell you what kind of strange, radical child I was. I learned even then that some (though not all) seemingly progressive elite liberal arts schools fester with a hypocrisy within their souls whereby they do not always practice the lofty tenets that they claim to espouse as selling points when the time comes to value the most marginalized within their midst.
The combination of poverty, violence, yet intensive schooling (either by my own herculean, voracious efforts or intermittently within private institutions like that middle school or at the wonderful Levine School where I studied music theory, Solfeggi, and voice) created its own radical thoughtfulness within me. I was the kind of child who had read George Herbert Palmer’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey and Samuel Butler’s translation of the Iliad by the time I was six along with memorizing scores of poems and devouring my mother’s novels like Pearl S. Buck’s Imperial Woman. I would sneak and watch movie revivals from the back at the nearby Kennedy Street theater to the point where I already had a terrific knowledge of film by the time I was a middle schooler. I learned rudimentary music theory and both Benesh and Beauchamp-Feuillet movement notation during the same period and I was already performing professionally on the stage to make money for my mother as she fought to support her family.
But when I learned the blues, I truly began to understand the world in forms. The blues were my gateway to the highest form of intelligence as a critically aware black person in a vicious, unforgiving world so bereft of racial, economic, and gender justice.