Tuesday, February 3, 2009

An Interview with Author and Poet Aberjhani

A native of Savannah, Georgia (USA) Aberjhani is a winner of the Thomas Jefferson Award for his journalism, the Choice Academic Title and Best History Book Awards for his historical writings, the Creative Loafing Critic’s Pick Best Savannah Author Award for general authorship, and the Connect Savannah 2006 Poet and Spoken Word Artist of the Year Award for his poetry. As a former military journalist, Aberjhani served two overseas tours of duty with the U.S. Air Force at Eielson AFB in Fairbanks, Alaska, and at RAF Lakenheath in England.

He served an additional two years as an EOE counselor with the USAF Reserves at Charleston AFB, South Carolina. In 1997, the writer made his national debut as an author with a cover story titled “This Mother’s Son” published in ESSENCE Magazine. Following that initial introduction to the famous magazine, he went on for the next ten years to become one its most frequently published poets. In addition to editing the Savannah Literary Journal for some seven years, he also served as chairman of the critics committee for the Poetry Society of Georgia and has written freelance articles and poetry for Connect Savannah, Creative Loafing, and the Georgia Guardian.

His books include: ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love (2008, with artist Luther E. Vann); The American Poet Who Went Home Again (2008); The Bridge of Silver Wings (2007); Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World (2007/2008); Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black (2006); Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (2003, Facts On File); The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois (2003, Kensington Books);and I Made My Boy Out of Poetry (1997, Washington Publications/iUniverse). He has also edited a number of titles for both independent authors and academic institutions. ESSENCE Magazine listed his Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance among its recommended gift items, and Black Issues Book Review listed it among their “Recommended Titles for the Home Library.” Grits.com selected his ELEMENTAL book of art and poetry as one its featured book club titles. Aberjhani is also the founder of the popular Creative Thinkers International website and maintains profiles on a variety of other websites, including the Ecademy, Link’dIn, MySpace, Amazon Connect, and Squidoo, where he utilizes lenses to donate to diverse charities.

Richardson: Hello Poet. Thank you for agreeing to talk and share yourself with us. Could you tell reader about yourself?

Aberjhani: I’m an old schooler born and bred in Savannah, Georgia, USA. I studied journalism at several colleges and universities before becoming an Air Force journalist and then later a bookstore manager and professional writer. At this point I have eight books out and I’m currently working on the next eight. My work actually covers the spectrum of literary genres from fiction and poetry to creative nonfiction and history.

Richardson: When did you “become” a poet? Aberjhani: I first started writing poetry when I was in high school but I would say I became a poet––which is a very important distinction, so thank you for making it––during the 1990s when I began to utilize poetry as a tool to spiritually heal the various wounds in my life at that time. The more I used poetry to address my personal human condition, the more other people would tell me it also seemed to describe their individual human condition. That was actually a shock to me because I was so deep in my own personal pain that I really wasn’t looking to connect with other people. But one of the great powers of poetry is that it does connect human hearts and minds and souls with other human hearts and minds and souls across both time and space.

Richardson: And what are some of your published works?

Aberjhani: I love it when I can answer that question by referring to something brand new and in this case I can. Setting aside my books for the moment (all of which I might add are listed on GoodReads and LibraryThing) I’m joyfully humbled to say that the Savannah Tribune newspaper in my hometown published “There upon a Bough of Hope and Audacity,” which is my inauguration tribute poem to President Barack Obama, as well as one of the new poems included in my forthcoming collection, The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009. And an e-zine called Poets’ Picturebook, based in the Philippines, just published the poem “Star People,” taken from my book ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love, which features my poetry and essays with art by Luther E. Vann. ELEMENTAL and The American Poet Who Went Home Again are my most recently published books, and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts On File) is probably my best known published book to date.

In addition to The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009, I also hope to obtain a publisher very soon for a volume of my collected poems entitled Collected Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. That’s going to be an important title because it contains all of the poems (as controversial as some of them are) from my first book, I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, as well as from the second book, Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black, and the third, which was the first edition of The Bridge of Silver Wings.

Richardson: Do you believe poets are born or created?

Aberjhani: Yes and yes, poets are born and poets are created. There are those people who come into the world with an apparent natural affinity for the conception and expression of language in poetic terms. Some of them are fortunate enough to grow up within environments where something or someone reinforces that affinity––with books, music, or the kind of cultural oral traditions we have in the African-American community––so that it develops into a creative skill and gift. Others may not be born with such a natural aptitude but possess an appreciation for what they experience as poetry either by discovering it through their own readings or by being introduced to it in some manner whether on the page, at the mic, or however. They might then become motivated by that appreciation and begin to study the elements and forms of poetry, learning first how to deal with the various structures of the literary art form and then develop their individual voice as they grow into a deeper interior sense of poetry’s possibilities and purposes.

Richardson: Many authors usually face obstacles that influence them to write. What is your story behind the glory?

Aberjhani: I don’t know if I can lay claim to any “glory” (smile please) at this time in my career but there have been a number of definitive chapters in my overall story. One major chapter was the struggle to complete Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois while simultaneously serving as a caregiver for my mother, who passed several years ago. I had quit my job as a bookstore manager to do whatever I could as a fulltime caregiver for her and that meant being challenged by financial restrictions and a great deal of stress. Ironically, it was researching and writing about the lives of Harlem Renaissance writers, learning about their battles to live with integrity––creative and otherwise––while having to deal with the racism of Jim Crow America that inspired and empowered me to keep pushing until we (my co-author was Sandra L. West) completed that monumental task.

I share quite a bit about that challenge in The American Poet Who Went Home Again. Working on the Encyclopedia put me into such a state of overdrive that some of my colleagues thought I was heading for a big mental crash after completing it, kind of like what some women experience after giving birth. But I was able to redirect my energies into the completion of my first novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World. Dealing with fiction relieved a lot of the stress that had built up from the intense scrutiny of provable facts researched and arranged for the encyclopedia.

Richardson: What style of poetry do you write––rhyme verse or free verse?

Aberjhani: I do employ some rhyme in my poetry, following the blues modes of poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, and sometimes more formal styles, but most of my work might be described as lyrical free verse. The one major exception to that general rule would have to the angel poems in The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009. Those poems are variations on the classic haiku and readers can find quite a few of them still posted on my AuthorsDen site(http://www.authorsden.com/Aberjhani). When reading The Bridge of Silver Wings the contrast between the angel poems and the more earthbound poems, if you will, is very sharp with the strings of haikus in neat elegant rows and the blocked stanzas of free verse sitting very solidly on the page.

Richardson: Do you perform at slam jams?

Aberjhani: Once upon a time, yes, but these days,
no. Which makes me curious about what the future might bring.

Richardson: Who are your poetic influences, favorite poets, and writers?

Aberjhani: Different poets and writers have influenced me in different ways at different times throughout my life. The poets of the Harlem Renaissance and the 1960s Black Arts Movements were the ones who inspired and almost compelled me to begin writing poetry as a teenager, especially Langston Hughes, Henry Dumas/Eugene Redmond, and Amiri Baraka. Then in college it was Nikki Giovanni, Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda. Some years later when I was managing bookstores I came across the works of Jalaluddin Rumi and read everything I could find by him in English. And more recently, during the composition of The Bridge of Silver Wings, I didn’t feel so much influenced by the Prague poet Rainer Maria Rilke as I felt a kind of kinship with what he experienced while writing his Duino Elegies.

I don’t want to sound like an overboard geek by going into Rilke’s sense of the angelic presence in comparison to mine so I’ll leave it at that. But I should point out that after hearing inauguration poet Elizabeth Alexander’s Praise Song for the Day, I became curious about her work overall and find myself more and more impressed with her books, so impressed in fact that I recently wrote a review of her extraordinary collection, Body of Life. Pretty much everything I just said about poets is also true in regard to prose writers, but rather than list them all here readers might enjoy checking out my reviews on Amazon.com.

Richardson: Where do you write? Do you have a certain routine when you write?

Aberjhani: Where I write generally depends on what I’m writing. If I’m working on a prose book project and I already have a general outline for it then I basically get up every morning, meditate for maybe twenty minutes, have a cup of coffee, then sit down at the computer and write until my creative steam runs out. Some days I write in shifts, going back and forth to the computer as ideas or scenes pop into my head. It tends to be very different where poetry is concerned because I mostly write poetry by longhand whenever and wherever it comes to me. That means the first drafts for some of my better known poems are on the backs of envelopes, in different colored legal pads, on scraps of notebook paper, pieces of cardboard, etc. In the short essay at the end of The Bridge of Silver Wings, I described the experience of writing the poems like this: “Sometimes the words came like ecstatic utterances, sometimes like songs whispered from another time, like actual angelic possessions, or like mental files that had been downloaded while I slept and then printed via my pen as soon as I got up.” That kind of spiritually charged creativity has been one of the greatest rewards of my attempts to produce poetry of some merit and relevance.

Richardson: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Aberjhani: I would encourage aspiring writers to treat the craft itself with respect by reading as widely as possible, by challenging themselves to write beyond their literary comfort zones in terms of both genres and subject matter, and to take as many lessons as they can from the lives of those accomplished writers who have achieved before us. I learned a great deal about writing just by reading novels by Toni Morrison (and others such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ralph Ellison) most of my adult life and I'm currently reading a collection of nonfiction by Morrison called What Moves at the Margin and continuing to learn even more. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance are beautiful examples of literary artists committed to social, spiritual, and political ideals, so I would suggest taking a look at profiles of them.

My Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance is a good source for that because it can be found in most libraries and is often on sale at Amazon and B&N. And any aspiring writer who has not read Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father truly should both because it will become one of the most referenced texts in our lifetimes and because this new president just happens to be one of the more exceptional writers in the country. Lastly, I would recommend cultivating and maintaining sources of inspiration in your life because ultimately that inspiration--whether its spirituality, history, romance, politics, or a passion for philosophy--will feed your will to create and more greatly empower your ability to produce lasting works that satisfy both the writer and his or her reading audience.

Richardson: Thank you so much for sharing your story, Aberjhani. I am looking forward to seeing some great things from you in the near future and please continue to inspire as you aspire. Blessings.

Aberjhani: And thank you for inviting me to share some of my story with readers. I also look forward to enjoying more of your inspired writings.

Author and Poet: Poet-I-Am Aberjhani



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