Sunday, October 5, 2014

Feature on Poet Willie James King and "Autumn's Only Blood"

Christal Cooper  - 4,113 Words

The Poetic Deaths of Willie James King

The first complete memory of poet and educator Willie James King was when he was five years old: he, along with his dog he called My Puppy, was standing on a rock, waiting for his brother and sister to return from school.
“My Puppy ran out in front of the bus and all I heard was one squeal.  I cried that night.  My Puppy and I were buddies and that was all I had left to play with during the day.  Dad came the next day and he had another dog.  We named him Busy because he was so busy.  It took a long time to actually accept that dog because I learned what death was.” 
         Death has always been and still is a prevalent Being in his life, especially with the Michael Brown shooting, joining other black men and women that have touched King’s life in some way:  Maya Angelou, Michael Brown, Troy Davis, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Trayvon Martin, and Emmett Till.

         King – born in April 5, 1953 in Orrville, Alabama, a small town southwest of Selma, - remembers listening to Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio as a little boy.  Reverend King, along with his bodyguards, would travel from Selma to Montgomery and deliver radio sermons, which he and his family listened to with both ears wide open.
But there were two people he listened to more than anyone else – his parents, Robert Lee King born in 1923, and Lula Mae, born in 1925.  King, the youngest son, described them as having different temperaments toward their eight children.
         “My father had such wisdom.  With his fifth grade education there are people in 2014 with high school diplomas who can and would not compete with that man.”
         Robert Lee King accepted his fate at the Miller Lumber Company where he worked hard every day, accepting his position in life, but refused to allow his children to settle for his lot in life:  his children would have more.

“The other boys would go work at the mercantile stores – community stores owned by whites who were not very kind.   And a lot of them got trapped.  A lot of them lost their self-esteem and ended up working for those folks for life.  And they grew fat and they grew old fast.   And they started looking like their parents.  But my father said, “You are my responsibility until you graduate from high school and then you can work.”   I didn’t know (then) what I know now.”

         And Now I Know

         You just don’t do that!  my daddy would say,
         defining the line between father, son.
         No new learning could change or make him sway
         from using words like Yisstidy and Yurn,

         as long as he knew I knew what he meant.
         Slop the hogs; walk the dogs; get the wood in.
         You got sistas, fool; don’t bring home no frien’!
         Strict for sure, but his ways were never bent

         He wanted to live the separation
         that set me apart from him, as if he
         were an emblem of a generation:
         not of the things to come, but those that be.

         And now I know:  someone taught him that talk,
         who closed the school, and set aside the chalk.
“And Now I Know” from Autumn’s Only 
                           Page 5
                           Copyright by Willie James King

         “My mom had an 11th grade education and somewhere she acquired a love for language.  She would constantly ask:  Is that right (and) did you say that correctly?   It made one cognizant to language.   It’s a given trait in my family.  Some of my nieces and nephews have PhDs and are very articulate and we came from rural Alabama.”
 “My mother was the opposite of my father.  She was more lenient in a way.  My father did not fuss.  On Monday if you couldn’t get away with something you don’t try it on Friday.  Don’t try it next year – because you will get the same consequences.  He was very strict.  My father did not fuss.  He would tell her:  “You don’t fuss at my children.  You whip them and leave them alone.”   When he said something you were silent.  We could talk back to her and she would try to whip us but she would be crying more than we were.  It was a good balance.  We could play her all day and as soon it became time for my father to come home we got on her side because we knew she’d tell.  We’d try to charm her.”
King’s first brush with death was when he was two years old, in August of 1955, when Emmett Till was brutally murdered by Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam.  The two brothers kidnapped Till from his great-uncle’s home, and beat him severely, gouging out one of his eyes, shot him through the head, wrapped a 70-pound cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, and then disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie. River.  Till’s body was retrieved from the river three days later.  

Till’s mother insisted on having an open casket viewing and funeral service for her son so they could see what injustice had been done to him. 

The King family learned of Till’s murder on the radio.  Sometime later, King viewed the image of his body laid in the casket.
“It was like a peach on the sill.  The peach was on the window sill for so long that it had withered.  When I saw the picture of him, his head was like that.  It didn’t look like a human head.  It had taken that many blows. 

And I read about his mom and I sympathized with her because she was a teacher trying to help other children in Chicago.  She sent her son south who had not been rigidly educated according to the rules of the south.  She may have given him tips on surviving.

Who is to say he did what he did (making a flirtatious remark to Roy Bryant’s wife).  He was like a child, like the children who were marching.”

         The Students Rose
         (In Memory of Emmett till)

         Keith High, southwest of Selma,
         teeing with teens ready to erase
         the old for a new history.  I was in
         8th grade when the Freedom Riders
         first stood before our school asking
         all students to follow them as they
         spoke through megaphones.  And,
         cunningly, teachers stepped aside,
         in assurance, not having to say in worlds:
         It’s okay.  One by one, the students rose
         and formed a beautiful, huge black wall
         before our principal who was calling:
         Stay here!  You must not leave school!
         his eyes winking, Walk!  Walk on!  Get
         the hell out there!  He had to feign
         authority, opposition, known an
         army of poor whites stood protesting.
         He knew his people, like him, were
         ready for long, overdue pie while
         on earth, not just metaphorically in the sky,
         even if a few cherished children had to die.

                           “The Students Rose” from Autumn’s Only 
                           Page 6
                           Copyright granted by Willie James King               

Just like the Martin Luther King Jr. family, the King family were reared in the Baptist church where Christianity was the most important thing in one’s life.  His parents were both devout Christians with strong biblical principles and ethics.  Most of the religious upbringing was left to his mom, while his father was working laboriously hard at the Miller Lumber Company. 

“My mother taught us prayers and she would chasten our tongues and remind us:  “You don’t say that.”  I think we had to do those Easter speeches in church and we had to interpret and actually tell what those little poems meant.  And we had to get up and project.”

 At the age of 9, in 1962, King accepted Jesus Christ as his Personal Lord and Savior and was saved.   Even still, he liked to read the dark side of literature, such as Edgar Allen Poe, and would constantly scribble deep, dark and desperate passages in his journal.    

Some of these dark passages he scribbled were not only from the influences of Edgar Allen Poe but the witnessing of his sister Viola’s struggles as an active participant in the Freedom Riders, where she endured verbal insults from whites, being chased by whites’ horses and dogs, and running through barbed wire fences and through riverbanks.

“They had to do it – they had to usher in the new.  The parents had t work to keep their jobs and have a roof when those kids were tired.  Viola died of Rheumatic Heart Fever two days after her son was born in 1973.  

Her son is now a principal and almost done with his PhD. “

Our Father’s Field
         for Viola    

         Oftentimes it seemed
         the worm we called the
         saddle-back knew which
         of us feared it the most
         and a whole clan would
         be there just clinging to
         my scared sister’s sack
         as if they enjoyed their
         efforts as much as we
         when she ran screaming
         through those lacerating
         rows of cotton stalks.  I
would often hold one up
         to her in my palm of my
         bare hand for her to see
         how harmless it was, but
         still, she hated it for it’s a-
         moral actions so much
         that she’d spend hours
         observing a boll to be
         sure that, once snatched,
         there’s only be what a boll
         needs to offer in her grasp.
         She could be female and
         fidgety as she wanted, it
         was her father’s field
         in which she labored.

                           “Our Father’s Field” from Autumn’s Only 
                           Page 57
                           Copyright by Willie James King

King always knew had had the propensity for poetry and that it would ultimately be something he would do.  His appreciation for poetry only grew hen he heard Maya Angelou speak for the first time when he was in the ninth grade.

“Her voice captivated me.  Who is this lady?  She talked about her favorite sonnet, “29th Sonnet” by William Shakespeare.  I listened to that and I rushed in and got my anthology and I sat and wrote that poem and I know what she meant.  It’s like he wrote this poem for me.   That hunger!  I read the whole anthology after that.  And I listened to the sounds and how the poets made their assonances and consonance.  How could you do that?   It was just awesome.  Then (I read) William Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Walt Whitman taught me how more alike we are than different.  Walt Whitman had a rebellious spirit and so did Christ.”

         “I would always scribble something and I wanted to write like Edger Allen Poe and I would write things that would scare my sisters and they would lock themselves in the house until somebody came over.”

         King remembers listening to Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, when he would give inspiring speeches and sermons that he and his family would listen to every chance they could.
“We never knew when he would come to Selma.  He had to be careful how he got there.  He could be in a car.  It was said sometimes he could come in a coffin.  He had bodyguards.  I listened to him like a surrogate father and I heard him talk about injustice. I never met him and I wished I had and so many people ask , “Are you related to him?” and I refuse to answer that.”
One day before his fifteenth birthday, on April 4, 1968, the family was listening to the radio and it was announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

 “The neighbors gathered and started singing church hymns and crying.  It was a sad time.  That’s when I saw my mom’s broken heart for the very first time.  There was something about the magnitude of this man that really made her just cry those animalistic tears.  Why this man?  What could he have done?  Well, why did they crucify Christ?  And Christ had done no wrong.”

         It Amazed Them That No Matter How Hard

                  It amazed them that no matter how hard
                  they tried, they couldn’t keep King out of Selma.
                  God knows the sheriff strove with all his heart,
                  by bribing Tom, Dick, Harry, or Thelma.

                  No one knew King would come in a coffin;
                  or guised, knowing all black men look alike.
                  He came in tattered clothes, common-looking
                  as a battered string from a broken kite.
         They tried all prevention one could employ,
         searching every bus, tractor, truck or car
         in Selma, but King would be in Beloit,
         baffling them as to how he’d gone so far.

         None ever gave thought than an ambulance
         driver would have taken that deadly chance. 
“It Amazed Them That No Matter How Hard” from  Autumn’s Only Blood
                                    Page 24
                                             Copyright by Willie James King
While in high school, King played the trumpet and was dubbed the greatest trumpet player on this side of the Mississippi, and was considered a high school celebrity because he played so well. 
         “Being a musician helps me be to be a better poet and I think every child should have that start.   Most fabulous writers have that background because music is a language.  It was easy for me to hear music and put the music on the page.  Music is the only thing that uses all parts of the brain at the same time.”
In 1971, King graduated from high school and immediately enlisted in the army for one reason:  to go to college.   There was a high chance he would be sent overseas to serve in Vietnam, but college was a dream that he had to make come true- rather he lived or died.
And there was a part of him that died the first day he took his vaccine shots, which he believes is the reason he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he continues to fight on a daily basis.

“The day after I took all of those shots I felt something die in me – that shiny thing that I had inside.  I felt it – the day after I took them – I sat on the grass and everybody had to sit.  We had one particular place on the arm that bled.    Some of them passed out and some of them didn’t.  I have never been the same since then.  A certain shadow of sadness came over me.  And it wouldn’t go.  It wouldn’t leave me.”
He was visiting doctors and in Fort Hood, Texas, he was walking from his doctor’s office when he heard the Second Armor Band play for the first time.  He was tempted to stop and venture into the building where they were playing but for some reason decided not to, until sometime later he heard them singing again and decided to venture inside.
Iggy Big, Elvis Presley’s band manager, asked me, “Do you play?”  I told him I played the trumpet.  He said, “Bring him a horn and a sheet of music!”  He put it on the chair and I took the trumpet and looked at the music and I wanted to say, “Thank You Jesus!”  It was John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post March” and I knew this.  I could play it backwards.  And I said, “this is so difficult and I’ll try it.”  And I tore that song up and in two weeks I had orders out on me.  They were getting ready to send me to Germany but I ended up in the band!”  

As a result, King was never sent overseas to serve in Vietnam and remained stateside as the band’s trumpet player.  He continued to experience PSTD spells and started missing numerous days from his army job, to the point where the doctor wanted to send him to a psychiatrist.
“I said no because I didn’t want to be labeled.  He didn’t send me to a psychiatrist and I got out of the army and I realized I was shut down, I was shut down, I was shut down.  But I wanted to teach and I think I did a fabulous job.”         

         He earned his bachelor’s in English with a minor in French, a Master’s in English from Alabama State University, and a Master’s in Education.  He was the first French teacher for the magnet school Booker T Washington Magnet School in Montgomery, Alabama.  He also taught drama at Sydney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Alabama and was an English adjunct teacher at Auburn University in Montgomery.

         “I taught my students to “appreciate” each of their classes.  They tell me, “I took French.”  Yes, but we all know you did but you sat in class a whole semester and you didn’t learn anything.  Maybe that wasn’t your major but you might need something from that class someday.”

         Amidst the early stages of his teaching career his mother went in for gall bladder surgery in November of 1978, only to discover that her body was riddled with cancer and she had only six months to live.       
 If we hurt our finger we went to the doctor.  She was working then and she would always procrastinate taking care of herself the way she should have.   She never let us see her cry.  She was very stoic   She wanted to cook for us.  We had to let her because it disappointed her if she didn’t do it.  She wanted to do more for us.
My imagination can be very vivid and I imagine her waking up in the morning and it hits her:  “You are dying.”   Nobody could tell me what I needed to hear and I had to talk to someone and maybe I didn’t want anyone to talk back to me.  I got dialogue with God.  I wrote five poems pertaining to her and I kept those and I started writing more right after her death.  She died on Mother’s Day 1979.  She also made me what I am – she made me a poet. 


                  Cold, late-winter days I sat
                  alone, bent above slack lines
                  knowing a stopper often bobs
                  before it suddenly goes down,
                  sinks beneath the brown floe
                  of Dusty Branch.  I sat in deep
                  quiet peace, contemplating
                  what death is, needing departure,
                  somewhat daunted by all
                  those taken by its grim grasp.
                  That was before it took You,
                  Dad; there had been many
                  others.  So, I took those quiet
                  moments needed to be tough,
                  not really caring if I caught
                  a fish, eel, turtle, or trunk.
                  See, no matter whatever else
                  I was doing, at any given time
                  supposedly mine, there had
                  almost always been an umber
                  of icy musings, not only of me.        

                                    “Mother” from Autumn’s Only Blood
                                    Page 19
                                    Copyright by Willie James King

         King taught for nineteen years, the whole time fighting his PSTD, and by this time, a severe case of diabetes.  In addition, he was dealing with a principal who was overbearing, which only added the stress.
         “The principal prior was nice., and  had a drawer in his office dedicated to all kinds of diabetic goods.  He had diabetes so he understood.  I didn’t realize I had diabetes at the time.   And diabetes has a way that can make one look really mean and not humane because it’s what the body is going through.  It’s like going on a Ferris wheel you are going up and down your blood sugar is running up and down.  It’s not a good feeling.  I just decided I would leave and I told her to get a sub and she though that I would come back in a couple of weeks and I said I’ll either live or I’ll die.  What could have turned out to be something bad seemed like a set up by God.  It became a blessing.”
         The blessing was that he had time to write, and, in 2005,  moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where he was finally able to find the time to earn his Masters in Creative Writing with a focus on poetry from Queen’s University. 
         “I didn’t realize how advanced I was.  There was a magic that occurred in those classes and I’m glad I got to experience that.  I was the first black to go into the poetry section and to come out.  I made so many friends and they are still my friends.”
         He was also able to seek and find help for his health issues with PTSD and Diabetes at the Veteran’s Clinic.  Despite these medications it still proved to be a struggle and he found himself at the clinic waiting for his meds feeling isolated and depressed on June 25, 2009.   During his wait, he heard the news that Michael Jackson had died.          

 “The young people who had followed him just all sobbed and I don’t think it was so much that he was dead as much as they thought about their own mortality, because this wasn’t supposed to happen to Michael, and it scared them.  And I looked out and it was a good day but it looked like a dreary day.  It looked like the world was weeping.  And it dawned on me, you could not afford a doctor but you bought Christ into your home and that made the difference and that’s why you are still here. “

         This Is Grief

         Ah, Michael, as a poet
         I suspect I am supposed
         to pen something about
                  you this morning.  Here
                  in Montgomery, it’s rain-
                  ing; the win had lost its
                  will; there are no yellow
                  bolts of lightning, or any
                  loud thunder-claps, like
                  a brassy cymbal crash to
                  announce your absence.
                  That is for grandeur, this is grief.
                  Yet, you left all of these
                  heartfelt songs that almost on-
                  sole us, now that you’ve gone.
                  I can’t help but look back
                  on a fall day much like
                  this;  it was on a Friday
                  friends goaded me toward
                  our gym’s auditorium, all
                  trying to prepare me for
                  what I was about to hear,
                  a boy’s voice soulful as
                  an angel’s wailing who’s
                  sad, sassy in the same,
                  all that ease with which you
                  hit those high notes, even
                  our teachers peered at those
                  squealers, nervous talkers
                  to her lips to kindly urge us
                  Please!  Michael, yours was
                  the magic we needed man,
                  having just months before
                  been deprived of our good
                  prophet, Martin Luther King. 
                  I was also young, and I both
                  heard and knew at once, it
                  was tragic being black and
                  gifted, enormously packed
                  and rapt with ethereal talent
                  as so often you share with
                  all, on stage and in life; you
                  Tried to warn us in each song.

                                    “This Is Grief” From Autumn’s Only Blood
                           Page 23 – 24
                           Copyright by Willie James King

“And I started reading fervently the Bible and that helped to stabilize me, because it was something I would procrastinate.  I would listen to pastor and would say, “I’ll read it.”  But I never did.  In order to have that personal relationship I had to ingest the word literally.  I had to eat God’s word and that’s what I did. “
Today King tends to his garden, helps his friends and family, and finally has time to write.  He has thus far published two books of poetry, At The Forest’s Edge and his most recent Autumn’s Only Rain.

During the final stages of Autumn’s Only Rain, King learned from television the case of Troy Davis, an African American who was sent to death row for the August 1999 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. 

“I don’t know if he was innocent because at the time I was dealing with something very heartfelt.   I was hoping he would at least be allowed to live.  Because if the death penalty we are killing people but we are not giving them a chance of salvation.” 

         Autumn’s Only Blood
                  the spider lilies
                  are spring up
                  all over now

                  as if they ought to be
                  this autumn’s
                  only blood.

                  for Troy Davis
                    1968 - 2011

“Autumn’s Only Blood” from Autumn’s
Only Blood
Copyright by Willie James King         

Presently, King resides in his home in Montgomery, Alabama and is enjoying the time he has to garden, to write, to live joyfully with family and friends, and to appreciate all of life’s gifts, which he insists are God’s blessings.

I felt all my teaching years behind me and I knew something new was coming into my life and I prayed all the years that I taught that God would give me time before I left this life to write. 

And he has given me plenty of time to write, the resources in which to do it, a home in which to do it in, and I am so pleased.”

Photo Description And Copyright Information

Willie James King
Copyright granted by Willie James King

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Maya Angelou reciting her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.
Public Domain

Michael Brown’s graduating picture.
Public Domain

Troy Davis
Georgia Department of Corrections Mug Shot

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson 2nd June 1988. "Wiener Stadion" venue in Vienna, Austria.
Zoran Veselinovic

Martin Luther King Jr
Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer
Public Domian

Trayvon Martin in an undated photo.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Emmett Till
Public Domain

Open landscape with tree stumps remaining on land cleared of virgin longleaf pine.

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam at trial
Public Domain

Emmett Till’s mother during his funeral
Public Domain

Three peaches on a windowsill.
Copyright by Christal Rice Cooper

Emmitt Till’s body in the open casket during his funeral service.
Public Domain

Emmitt Till and his mother
Public Domain

Roy Bryant and his wife after the acquittal.
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Open landscape with tree stumps remaining on land cleared of virgin longleaf pine.

Painting of Jesus Christ by Hoffman
Public Domain

Edgar Allen Poe
Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the "Annie" Daguerreotype.
Public Domain

1960s image of the Freedom Riders
Public Domain

Photomicrograph of Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, 900x Mag. A pus specimen, viewed using Pappenheim's stain. Last century, infections by S. pyogenes claimed many lives especially since the organism was the most important cause of puerperal fever and scarlet fever. Streptococci
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

James Baldwin and Maya Angelou in the 1960s
Public Domian

William Shakespeare
Public domain

William Taylor Coleridge
Public Domain

Walt Whitman
Public Domain

Edgar Allen Poe in 1845
Portrait by Samuel Osgood
Public Domain

Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Public Domain

Jesus on the cross
Public Domain

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Head art image symbolizing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Elmer Chickering
Photo of John Phillip Susa
Attributed to Elmer Chickering
Public Domain

Willie James King, left, in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
Copyright granted by Willie James King

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson 2nd June 1988. "Wiener Stadion" venue in Vienna, Austria.
Zoran Veselinovic

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Jacket covers of The House In The Heart and At The Forest Edge

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Troy Davis
Georgia Department of Corrections Mug Shot

Jacket cover of Autumn’s Only Blood

Willie James King
Copyright granted by Willie James King

Jacket covers of The House In The Heart and At The Forest Edge

Willie James King’s Montgomery home.
Copyright granted by Willie James King 

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