I find in a strip of damp sand
footprints and marks of hands,
and torn pieces of flesh.
Night is a beast.
The tide moves, gushing
back and forth.
Sunlight touches our faces,
turning us, turning us, turning us
in our morning sleep.
-- Clarence Major
(from ‘Sand, Flesh and Sky’)
If I feel as if I’ve always known and welcomed Clarence Major—his work, his play, his prose, his poetry, his painting – that’s because his ever-rising moon-like, sun-like presence on late 20th century and early 21st century U.S. writing scene shines and glimmers.
We met on paper and in good old snail mail way back in the mid-1960s, when he was editing THE NEW BLACK POETRY for International Publishers. He then contributed short stories, novel extracts and poems to Love (Incorporating Hate) and to Loveletter, no-budget little magazines that I and my wife Arline Young edited and published -- first from Berkeley, then from Palo Alto. After DANCING, my first book of poems, came out from Corinth/Totem Books, publisher Ted Wilentz invited me to read in New York, where I met Clarence and his then-partner Sharyn Skeeter. With this, our literary friendship began.
Clarence and I shared background similarities. He was born in Georgia and grew up in Chicago; I was born in Mississippi and grew up in Detroit. We loved writing, editing, and their visual and musical counterparts. A talented child artist, I first wanted to become a cartoonist; graphic artist in the lingo of now. Clarence started out as an artist who loved to draw and paint, enduring gifts for which he was eventually recognized and rewarded. His Wikipedia entry alone rocks the bio and résumé charts. His interests, imaginative and scholarly, are diffuse.
ALL-NIGHT VISITORS, an erotic novel commissioned by Maurice Girodias’s Paris-to-New York Olympia Press, counts still as one of my favorite Clarence Major fictions. Picture an American Vietnam War veteran for whom sex serves as recovery therapy. Picture just the title. Picture the dozens of books and articles that follow. Picture JUBA TO JIVE: A Dictionary of African American Slang. Picture the prizes, the fellowships, the teaching posts, the many books and articles and paintings, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Clarence Major’s staggering list of contributions to the fine arts.
Clarence Major is a joy to read; his paintings and drawings complete my pictures of what it feels like to explore the mind and travel to the heart of an unsung hero of American culture. Unsung? Not sung enough, until now.