Kenneth Carroll on GASTON NEAL
Trying to write about legendary DC poet and activist Gaston Neal is like trying to paint a picture of the world with an ink pen. Gaston was a multi-hued panorama of mythic stories, deeds, ideas, and great writing. In trying to write even this short celebration of Gaston, I am beset with the difficulties of trying to capture enough of his complex life to explain my fascination and love for him. There were many Gaston Neals; the one I knew was family man, activist, friend, and underrated poet.
I met Gaston Neal in the late 1980s at Woodies Hilltop, a pub on Georgia Avenue across from Howard University. He was hosting a performance of legendary poet Amiri Baraka and his trio called New Ark, featuring trombonist Grachan Moncur. Before Baraka began his set, he pointed at Gaston, next to me at the bar, and proclaimed, "that's the most important unpublished poet in America. Yaw need to get together and put his book out." Gaston, as always, was nattily attired in black beret, black dashiki trimmed in rainbow colors, hands adorned in crafted bracelets, turned to me and laughed. "He always does this shit," said Gaston.
Gaston Neal's importance to theWashington, DC arts community is without question. As a Black Arts adherent in the late 60s, Gaston helped to create institutions like The New School of Afro American Thought and Drum and Spear Bookstore. He was also instrumental in creating what became the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and established one of the earliest poetry residencies in DC public schools. The Black Arts Movement linked black artists and social activism, demanding that art be both beautiful and functional. Gaston Neal's life was art and action.
But I'm not sure that I knew Gaston the legend, rather I knew the cool brother, who ended every sentence with "ya dig" and often sounded as if he were reading poetry, when he was simply ordering take-out. I knew the father, who would come by my office and spend hours regaling me with stories of the accomplishments of his two young daughters, Zindzi and Zola. I knew the arts activist.
As site director of the newly established DC WritersCorps, Gaston gave me invaluable advice on setting up community based programs. Gaston trained writers, wrote letters, and acted as consultant to DC WritersCorps up until a few months before his passing. "In our arrogance, we miss 99 percent of all the poetry around us," said Gaston, warning our writing instructors not to let their formal notions of art keep them from seeing the poetry in the homeless shelters, jails, schools, and rehab centers where DC WritersCorps served.
My relationship with Gaston Neal is framed by two of his best poems. The first poem of his I ever read, "A Personal Jihad," was once described by poet and former Washington Post Book World editor Jabari Asim as one of his ten favorite poems. In the poem, which appeared in the monumental anthology Black Fire, published in 1968 by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Gaston takes an unusually introspective approach to the idea of liberation.
A PERSONAL JIHAD by Gaston Neal
The seed of my day begins
As the tortuous night ends
The common birds gray shrill
Interrupts the flushing of a morning pee
It is the eyes of a dog
The soft eyes
Locked in too long in some cramped yard
With the dirt of his ass
Clutching violently the soft
Of somebody's warm
I regard this day, as every
And I need a God
A Black God, to give me
The insidious strength, the calm
Softness, to waylay fear
As the morning seed grows
The blue of the sky mingles
With the twisted black features
Of winter trees
And silence loses it clutches
On a beginning day
And I sit here aware of
The pain and urgency
Must attain discipline
For brotherhood and unity
Softly, say it now
Say it now-
Down in the soul---------discipline
Say it soul brothers
Say it soul brothers
The second poem, which Gaston first showed to me on yellow legal paper was about fatherhood and his struggle to attain it.
He was the father
Dying and leaving me
In the green of my life
In the pain
In the pain I fathered three boys and one girl
Never seeing their eyes
Never holding them
Never reading them
Never walking them
Never loving them
Never seeing them
Never talking them
Running away from them
At age 53, I became a new father
Finding my father in my two girls and one son
Staying with them
I am the father.
In 1996, three years before he would succumb to cancer, Gaston read that poem with me and Brian Gilmore on Grace Cavalieri's "The Poet and Poem" radio show in celebration of father's day. On the tape there is a prolonged silence when he finishes the poem, testament to its pain, its truth, and its beauty. Gaston was the painful truth and beautiful honesty of life. As we say in DC, Gaston Neal had no cut cards. Whether he was loudly questioning the process of a choosing a DC poet laureate during the induction ceremony in the Folger/Shakespeare Library, or handing out condoms on U street while he read poetry, Gaston was the un-insulated truth. The same scrutiny he gave others, he willingly gave to himself. In a ride to Philadelphia, Gaston told me about his life as addict, thief, and hustler. His narrative was tinged with guilt for what he did and did not do. I reminded him of his importance to me and a whole generation of young writers who were in danger of romanticizing a period that were barely understood. Gaston reminded us that good writing and service was the only appropriate homage to those who we considered heroes.
Though he was constantly being commissioned to read and write his poetry and plays for various organizations, charities and events, and performed often, Gaston was rarely published. This he blamed mostly on his years as an addict who often lost as much poetry as he wrote. But I also think that for Gaston Neal, the poem had to live, to touch, to serve. His widow Jewel Neal and poet A.B. Spellman are compiling his poems to be published. When his collection is published I'll hand them out to school kids, addicts, prisoners, HIV patients, homeless folks, poets, and those who knew a piece of the mural of Gaston Neal. And I'll say it softly, "he was important, ya dig."
Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, eds. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1968.
Gaston Neal's web site: http://www.interchange.org/Gaston/
Thanks to Jewel Neal for permission to reprint poems.