When the starter failed Tuesday in A. Van Jordan’s car, the poet leased a rental and made a deadline dash from Ann Arbor to Cleveland. He arrived in good time to read five poems for “Brews and Prose,” a monthly literary series at Market Garden Brewery that uses beer to try to ease art away from its academic moorings.
Jordan, 48, a University of Michigan professor, won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2005 for “M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A,” which explores the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black child finalist of the National Spelling Bee in 1936. She grew up in Akron, as did Jordan, who infuses his work with history, physics, and music.
A year ago, Jordan told an audience at Arizona State University, “I went to a kind of crappy high school where we didn’t read novels. We were reading out of readers.” But a summer library program widened his vision, as did the coffee shops of Washington, D.C., where Jordan worked as a young environmental reporter and discovered open mic nights.
“A brother who can write is far more threatening to the status quo—and I mean the Negro status quo as well as the white—than a brother with a gun and pants hanging off his butt,” he told an interviewer for Baltimore’s “Spectrum of Poetic Fire.”
Its 25 poems each focus on a film, from “The Great Train Robbery” to “The Red Balloon” (introduced to young Van in that Akron library series) to “Blazing Saddles.” Jordan called the Mel Brooks comedy “one of the most brilliant films on racism in America” and launched into his piece that begins:
What is so funny about racism
is how the racists never get the joke.
In most settings, racists stick out
like Count Basie’s Orchestra in the middle
of a prairie, just as awkward as he is . . .
One of the most moving poems in “The Cineaste” is “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” the title of a 1987 movie by Patricia Rozema about unrequited lesbian longing. It begins, “Often, I find myself in situations/for which there are not adequate epigraphs.” Jordan read it in Phoenix, and in Cleveland. Here is a video clip – the poem begins at 2:45: