Michael Fraser is a high school teacher and author of two collections of poetry, The Serenity of Stone, and, most recently, To Greet Yourself Arriving. If you attended NOW Magazine’s Battle of the Bards this year at IFOA, then you had the pleasure of seeing his powerful reading of a selection of poems from his latest collection, a portrait series of significant figures in black history, from Harriet Tubman to Oprah to Basquiat. I wanted to ask him about how he picked these individuals and the relationship between poetry and teaching.
James Lindsay: Your previous book, The Serenity of Stone, often dealt with personal themes of childhood and family, while your latest collection, To Greet Yourself Arriving, is a series of mini biographies of important figures in black history. What lead you to write about these individuals?
Michael Fraser: I’ve always written about these figures. I must confess, this project is fairly self-indulgent. While many of the brief biographies are of important figures, there are many more who are lesser-known. I wanted to highlight these less venerated figures. For example, I purposely omitted Muhammed Ali due to his colourist comments against Joe Frazier. Ali’s ad hominem invective included labeling Frazier “a big ugly dumb gorilla” and “an Uncle Tom”. Essentially, Ali insinuated and claimed he was more civilized than the darker-skinned Frazier. As someone with a dark complexion, this infuriates me to no-end. It’s incredible no one questioned Ali’s tactics considering America was immersed in the Black Power movement. Frazier’s psyche was severely crippled by Ali’s words and the public ridicule. More importantly, Joe Frazier’s children endured bullying and taunting at school. Ali overdid it. Frazier was essentially alienated from the black community due to Ali’s words. Talk about facing adversity! This makes Joe Frazier one of my heroes and renders Ali to hypocrite status. There are many other peripheral heroes who rose and persevered against incredible odds and I want to honour them through poetry.
I think you’re aware Austin Clarke kindly penned the introduction to my first book, The Serenity of Stone. After the book launch, he indicated I must write about what we as Black people are experiencing and have experienced. This collection is one method of addressing his sagacious advice. Also, I believe I have a unique perspective on the Black Diaspora. I’ve been fascinated with Brazil since I was thirteen. It began with the great 1982 World Cup Brazilian soccer team and blossomed into performing capoeira, and playing percussion on Brazilian floats during Caribana. I include Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Latino personalities, which I believe is crucial. “Blackness” and the Black experience is often myopically displayed through an American lens. We must remember Brazil received far more African slaves than any other country in the Americas. They received roughly 40% of all slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Brazil was also the last western country to abolish slavery in 1888. I believe by analyzing how racism and white supremacy is expressed in various linguistic, cultural, and national contexts, provides us with an enhanced understanding of its deleterious role and expression within our society.
Many African-Canadians are also showcased. The diverse range of personalities renders the collection didactic to many readers. By the fourth poem, I have people telling me they’ve never heard of The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes” which predates the NHL by 22 years! Also, the slapshot and other hockey innovations emerged from the league. These individuals must be honored in some capacity for their forgotten contributions to Canada. Finally, I am a teacher and I felt the need to educate students, from all ethnic and racial backgrounds, about these great individuals to counter societal and mediated negative portrayals and constructions of Black people. In particular, I want to counter a particular pestilent and demonic urban American culture, which has been constructed to represent Black authenticity. Sadly, this “authentic” Black caricature is basically a modern minstrel show, which anyone can see on BET or websites like WorldStarHipHop. We are far more than these idiotic constructions, and I have a book bursting with tremendous Black historical figures to prove my point! Yes, To Greet Yourself Arriving is expository in nature for readers who are oblivious to these great Black historical figures.
JL: Do you see your roles as teacher and poet as separate, or do they bleed together?
MF: Interesting question. First, we’re all teachers. Children are always observing us. We learn from colleagues, family, friends, etc. My students have taught me plenty, especially with regards to using my cell phone. In terms of formal pedagogy, I feel the teaching role and poet role are essentially different. I feel freer to express myself in the poet role. The poet role is personal and focused on my concerns, experiences, interests, perspectives, insights, and opinions. The teaching role encourages my students to express themselves, assists them in discovering their authentic selves, and helps them become competent, independent, and constructive members of society however they define these attributes for themselves. Teaching is not about me, it’s about them.
JL: At this point in your life as a poet, who are your teachers? Where do you look to learn?
MF: I’ve been fascinated by Brazilian poet Adelia Prado these past two years. I assume Ellen Dore Watson’s translations are accurate. I’d like to read the original Brazilian Portuguese, but I’m much stronger in Spanish. Her lines flow beautifully and she transforms our diurnal menial tasks and observations into stellar poetic insight. She’s possessed with a poetic vision. I also enjoy her notion of a sensual Catholicism and her invention of “Jonathan” who is occasionally Jesus or God, contingent on context. I’m a proud Atheist who left Catholicism in my embryonic adolescence. The fact such a devout Catholic poet can grab and retain my attention is astounding and mind-boggling. I don’t understand it myself, but I love the way she writes!
When I read I focus on textual construction. I’m concerned with how poets construct their lines, stanzas, line breaks, phrases, and word choice. I’ve learned by reading all the greats: Shakespeare, Neruda, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, Octavio Paz, Yusef Komunyakaa, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Macewen, C.D. Wright, etc. In high school, James Deah was my first poetry teacher when he was writer-in-residence for the old City of York. Deahl is a master editor and emphasizes the reduction of lines to their bare essence. I learned a lot from my York U. instructors Libby Scheier and Don Summerhayes. I also had some amazing classmates in Summerhayes’ courses including Sonnet L’Abbe and Ruba Nadda, who, as far as I’m concerned, is Canada’s best film director and is cripplingly underrated. Her film Cairo Time is a masterpiece! Sorry, I’m digressing. Presently, I like Tracy K. Smith and Jericho Brown from the U.S. With regards to Canadians, I think Michael Prior is a singular talent. The way he layers his lines and interweaves common words in different locations within syntax is brilliant! Robin Richardson is another scintillating talent. I love the way she plays with language and infuses humour into her buoyant lines.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.