Michael S. Harper: Communication 101

by Scott Krane

July 4, 2012, an article in The New York Times told the story of an Algerian novelist who was denied prize money by an international Arab panel for taking part in the 2012 Jerusalem International Book Fair. That same day, poet and Brown University Professor, the 75-year-old Michael S. Harper returned an e-mail from me writing in the Subject line:

"I was invited to Israel for the 40th anniversary of its founding (later canceled); see attachment from today's nyt. Ask me about Amos Oz!"

I saw the attachment. A clip from that day's Times.

I had introduced myself to him in a prior email requesting a lesson.

He noticed I had been in Israel.

I tried to get him to tell me his story about Amos Oz, but he did not return my request for a direct response.

Talking to Michael S. Harper is talking to another tribe. His kind does not speak in language the way you and I do. So one must poke with gentle ease to let his words communicate to you their big message.

He talked about hard times in his career. I asked him who rejected him. He responded (again in the Subject line): my first publisher! Wesleyan U Press said 'we already have out black book.' [SWALLOW THE LAKE]"

(Obituary as exegesis, on the death of my first publisher)

You tracked me down to announce my nomination(in poetry)
for the National Book Award (1970)
a book you did not want to publish nor keep in print
the judges Warren Levertov Brooks could not agree
I did not win the contest (Wesleyan had already said
"we have our black book") but Gwendolyn wrote me
on her immaculate peach paper "YOU WERE MY CLEAR WINNER"
so I told my mother who'd put the letter in the freezer
“let's wait a day or two to see if there is more to this story”
and your telegram came from Pittsburgh(I thought of Josh Gibson)
later we changed the title from BLACK SPRING
to "Dear John, Dear Coltrane" a poem I could not publish
anywhere I went back to my classes ending the book for a Biafran
Odinachi Nwasu who had not heard from his family in Nigeria
'another brother gone' was the refrain "Biafra Blues"
Achebe was to ask me later when I was at Providence Plantations
where did I get the idea a student I answered the poem
found its home in Okike while "Dear John...” remained unpublished
a bad omen for a book whose title poem remained unpublished
"too sentimental" then Stephen A. Henderson asked me the query
'was the first line a reference to Sam Hose who fought back
after being assaulted on his master's farm that Du Bois
had returned home to protect his family during the Atlanta riot
his derringer loaded his family hidden in the stairwell

was that the Sam Hose I alluded to his fingers and toes meat
displayed on Peachtree was that the church that answered

each question with the same answer the only answer to violation
"a love supreme"
(I had no telephone during the January thaw in Minnesota but walked by
snowshoe across to the point upwind across
a frozen lake in Kandiyohi County up a path to a country
phone my book was one of nine you were happy after pause
you said "Michael, we're so proud to have published your book”
and I said 'it won't win; but thanks for calling.' Out of Print!

@Michael S. Harper


(Pittsburgh, 1970)
Philip Levine helped me most with DEAR JOHN, DEAR COLTRANE.
He’d recommended journals where I should send poems: Poetry/Southern Review/ Field(Oberlin). Henry Rago took six poems for Poetry; Rago was writing me a response To my query about first books when he died—his wife sent his unfinished letter on
To me. Levine insisted I send my ms. to his publisher, Wesleyan U Press: “We already Have our black book,” Holly Stevens wrote in her rejection letter—“Swallow the Lake” By Clarence Major, a poem about Lake Michigan, was her black book. Philip Levine cautioned-- ‘Don’t put your ms. in a drawer, send it to University of Pittsburgh Press competition;’ the judges were Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov, and Robert Penn Warren—the prize money 2K. I met Levine’s student, Lawson Fusao Inada, at Iowa.
Brooks wrote me a letter on peach paper: “YOU WERE MY CLEAR WINNER!” She fought for my book hard enough so Pittsburgh agreed to publish it despite my not winning; originally the book was entitled BLACK SPRING--it conflicted with Henry Miller’s book about Paris in the thirties. My mother put GB’s letter in freezer to open.
My book was one of nine nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry; then it was reviewed in TIME [April 7th, 1970] with Jesse Jackson on the cover. Ralph Ellison wrote the cover article for TIME Magazine:“What would America Be Without Blacks.”

Michael S. Harper Brown University

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Scott Krane