Mixed Media

Never Too Far

Literary maverick Ishmael Reed, on coming home again

Ishmael Reed.

Photo: © Mark Costantini/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“Life was tough, in many respects, but the people here, they’re good people who made me who I am. ”
Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., raised in Buffalo, N.Y., and has resided in Oakland, Calif., for the past 40 years. His work is similarly collage-like: a colorful clash of poetry, humor and dead-serious revolt.

One of America’s most controversial writers and pot-stirrers, Reed is admired for his ability to slip into different creative personas without compromising his principles. Over a career that spans more than five decades, including 35 years teaching at UC Berkeley, he has launched underground newspapers, written music lyrics, appeared in films, and authored several dozen books of poems, prose, essays and plays—many under his own imprints that champion authors from the world’s underrepresented corners. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and was twice a National Book Awards finalist.

At 76, Reed also remains stubbornly unapologetic about his dual roles as both insider and critic of black culture, going back to his complicated relationship with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and his tumultuous friendship with the late—and even more controversial—Amiri Baraka.

Today, Reed is best-known for his polemical storytelling (his latest book, “Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown,” critiques the conservative backlash following Barack Obama’s election) and for his later accomplishments in theater, poetry and jazz (including writing lyrics for Taj Mahal and Macy Gray). But his creative roots go back further than most people realize, all the way to his schoolboy days in Buffalo. On a visit to his hometown in April to headline a National Poetry Month festival, Reed sat down with At Buffalo and talked about those early days, starting with his discovery of writing in Buffalo’s public schools.

First, Reed recalled, there were the hard-line female teachers, the “secular nuns,” who drilled him with grammar lessons. At East High, especially, a “right-wing” teacher named Annette Lancaster pushed him to write political essays and study theater. Later, he attended night school at UB’s Millard Fillmore College, where one of his professors saw his talent for writing and encouraged him to enroll full time. He did, but never graduated, dropping out for financial reasons. “I was young, in a struggling marriage; it was a tough time financially,” he admits, but adds that if it weren’t for his literature courses at UB, “I’d never have learned the tradition … the modernist poets who shaped us all then, like Pound, Joyce and Eliot.” UB awarded him an honorary degree in 1995.

During and after college, Reed became immersed in Buffalo’s growing literary and theater scene. He wrote a jazz column for a local African-American newspaper, co-hosted a local radio show (it was canceled after Reed conducted an on-air interview with Malcolm X) and played trombone in the clubs along Michigan Avenue, back when Buffalo was in its bebop heyday. “I remember seeing Miles Davis get out of a car on Michigan one evening,” he says. “We worshipped him.” His affinity for music has led to several collaborations, including the Ishmael Reed Quintet.

Despite having moved decades ago, so far away from those East Side neighborhoods, Reed looks back on his Buffalo years with bittersweet fondness. “Life was tough, in many respects, but the people here, they’re good people who made me who I am,” he says. In fact, regular visits East over the years have become a family affair. On his trip this spring, for example, he was accompanied by his daughter, Tennessee, a poet and memoirist.

“I am of Buffalo,” Reed says. “It doesn’t ever leave you.”