Black Automaton Poetics

POETICS: The Black Automaton Series
(Installment 1)

The Black Automaton poems started as an exercise in my journal.

Every now and then, when I’m feeling a bit stuck, I think up 30 titles for poems I may not write. “The Black Automaton” kept popping up. I logged it in the back of my mind somewhere.

Later on, I began to think of certain processes I was growing obsessed with; I was locked into a kind of repetition, an idea that if one repeats a phrase enough, the reader (and as writer, I’m the first reader) will stop thinking of the individual words in the phrase. They will become a unit. A sort of plastic complex of words. At some other point, I’ll talk about how this relates to my “theory” of sampling, but it’s 1:00 a.m. now, so this is all I can do. Through repetition, I wanted the reader to pay attention to the fact that on the page, repetition is as much visual as it is cognitive. The visuality of it gets at my desire for a “performative page.”

In the summer of 2005, I was staring at blank pages in my journal. I had just finished teaching clustering exercises to high school kids and I remembered how these processes looked—it was like a word exploded/flowered into new words, some clearly, others more idiosyncratically, associated with each other. I decided to try the exercise, but to somehow represent the process of the exercise in the poem’s final form.

The first draft (or, perhaps, “sketch”) looked a great deal like what you’ll find in the developed “Black Automaton” poems. These poems give me the opportunity to toy with visual poetics, a loose family of ideas I’ve been nursing about how to, say, represent rhyme visually–even when the words used don’t rhyme. Is there a “spatial” rhyme? How can one create simultaneity in a written document? That is to say, can I accompany myself in a poem, as a pianist might play and sing at the same time.

For me, the most exciting element of the Black Automaton poems is that I compose them directly in a design program, so the typographic procedures are not imposed on a “regular” poem, but elements such as layering, kerning, alignment, etc. play as important a role to the meaning of the poem as the diction—even as the poem is in its first draft. It’s a whole new kind of “poetic attention” (how I refer to the particular relationship between poets and language—not narrative or information) to experience.

So, the design becomes a kind of procedure. The “Black Automaton” or the poems’ elastic “it” (in small capitals) becomes at once a joke on the “black folks as monolithic” misperception and me as a poet following a particular set of constraints.

These poems are also my way of trying to synthesize hip hop production styles (sampling, chopping, layering) into a composition process and aesthetic. The approach to language is drawn from De La Soul’s Dave and Harryette Mullen. The overall texture of the texts seems to hover around Prince Paul covered by Madlib. Visually, the poems are like flowcharts or wildstyles (although to truly tap into the power of a wildstyle, they need to cover something up).

When she first saw one of the poems, my wife said they were like maps of a hip hop mind. Works for me.

The Black Automaton In De Despair Ub Existence #1

mw intro

Right now, you’re probably asking, “What is MuckWorks?”

Answer: Poets Yona Harvey and Douglas Kearney with a trunk full of lab coats.

We believe that writers should get the opportunity to muck around a bit. To try new things, but with the alibi: “MuckWorks made me do it!” And “it,” here, denotes one of a variety of secret poetic experiments.

MuckWorks will produce a series of chapbooks, pamphlets and more in which some of our favorite writers will be invited to experiment with different projects and constraints. The results will then be made available as free pdfs or mp3s downloadable from this site.

MuckWorks One features eight poets writing covers of Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Ladders,” from her first collection, The Venus Hottentot. Check out new work from: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Brian Gilmore, Yona Harvey, Terrance Hayes, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Douglas Kearney, Bao Phi and Crystal Williams!

Click below to download:

Curriculum Vitae


For full CV, please download the PDF on the previous page

California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA
MFA Writing 2004, School of Critical Studies
MFA Thesis in Writing, School of Critical Studies: Jungaeyé, an opera libretto written in a language invented from a fusion of African-diaspora-based vernaculars, dialects, pidgins and syntactic constructions.

Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Major: B.A. English 1996, College of Arts and Sciences, Summa Cum Laude

—Coat Hanger Award, poem: “Swimchant of Nigger Mer-folk,” awarded by (2007)
—Mapfund Grant, lyrics “Sucktion” with Anne LeBaron, composer (2007)
—New American Poet, awarded by Poetry Society of America (2007)
—Phi Beta Kappa (inducted 1995)
—Golden Key Honors Society (inducted 1994)
—Dean’s List, Howard University (1992–1996)

—First returning fellow for Idyllwild Summer Arts Poetry Fellowship (2007)

—Idyllwild Summer Arts Poetry Fellowship (2006) a week-long writing conference/workshop. Fellowships are offered through nomination.
—Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Waiter’s Scholarship: “awarded to applicants whose writing shows exceptional promise.” (middlebury college, vt 2004)
—Callaloo Creative Writer’s Workshop Fellowship: a two-week workshop sponsored by Callaloo, an internationally-distributed literary journal. (texas a&m university, tx 2004 & 2005)
—Donn Tatum Scholarship (2003)
—Cave Canem Fellow: Cave Canem hosts a week-long workshop/retreat for emerging African American poets. A fellowship lasts for three workshop/retreats, after which, you graduate. (cranbrook institute, mi 2000–2002)
—National Merit Scholarship (1992)

Faculty, California Institute of the Arts, valencia, ca Current
Teaching three courses per semester in African American Studies, through the Critical Studies department.
Current courses (syllabi available upon request):

—“Eating Uncle Ben: Using ‘Blackness’ For Fun And Profit”

—“Wet Black Ink: Contemporary African American Poets”

—“The Crazy Negro(es): An Investigation of the Stagolee Tradition”

—“Boom Bap Boom: The Sociocultural Impact of Hip Hop”

—“Mutating Blues: An Interdisciplinary Laboratory”

—“Remixing Jemima: Aesthetics and Contemporary Mythmaking”

Adjunct Faculty, California Institute of the Arts, valencia, ca Fall 2004­–Spring 2006
Taught two courses to upper-level bfa students. “Bones, Meat & Skin” a poetry writing workshop and “Remixing Jemima” an investigation of poetics and contemporary mythmaking. For Fall 2005, “Remixing Jemima” was a “Foundation-level” course (one of a few courses bfa-1s can choose to satisfy a Humanities requirement). Teaching a Foundation-level course in contemporary Black poetry and a course on poetic recitation for the Theater School for Spring 2006.

Faculty, Community Arts Partnership Summer Academy, eagle rock, ca 2005
Taught high-school students poetry, fiction and non fiction at a two-week program. The class met for six hours a day.

Teaching Assistant, California Institute of the Arts, valencia, ca 2002–2004
Assisted in “Poetry Today,” a survey course focused on American poetry from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Workshop Leader, Eastside Saint Paul Boys and Girls Club, saint paul, mn 2000
Led poetry workshop for children, ages 5–16.

Fear, Some Red Hen Press, Granada Hills, CA

—“Big Thicket: Pastoral” —The Ringing Ear, University of Georgia Press, 2007
—“Sprung Flung” (collaboration with Harryette Mullen)—Saints of Hysteria, Soft Skull Press, 2007
—“Anansi Meets Peter Parker at the Taco Bell on Lexington”—Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, Aspect Books, 2003 —(This anthology won the 2005 World Fantasy Award for anthologies.)
—“Halfaman Considers What He Borrowed”—Cave Canem VII, Cave Canem, 2002
—“Babaloo”—City Works 2002, San Diego City College, 2002
—“rep/resent”—Bum Rush the Page, Three Rivers Press, 2001
—“Pasadena City Hall, April 29, 1992”—Role Call, Third World Press, 2001
—“Skin&bones Seeks a New River”—Cave Canem VI, Cave Canem, 2001

—excerpts from Jungaeyé: A Libretto—Performance Research (forthcoming 2007)
—“The Black Automaton in Coalition-Building A Better Mousetrap,” “The American Troubador” and “Being An (A)Merican(Merkin) Chapter 2: ess you vee”—Askew #4 Fall/Winter 2007
—“City of Searchlights and Dead Cats” and “Floodsong #6: Bullfrog’s Liturgy of the Eucharist”—Gulf Coast, 2007
—“Report on the Transformation…”, “When the Rain is Piss #4”, “When the Rain is Piss #5”, “Breaking Tallboys Open #1”—Trepan 5 October 2006
—”The Poet As Setting” and “Discount Ritual in 4 Parts: Bag of Afro”—jubilat Eleven, 2006
—“Thicket. 02: Book of the Dead: Immortality”—Callaloo Vol. 28, Number 4, 2006
—“Poem with Some Sand and All at Once—Shaitan!”—Mangrove—Number 14, 2005
—“Him”, “The Blue Songs of Whales” and “The Chitlin Circuit”—nocturnes, 3, 2004
—“Fakir Floats Above Street Level”—Callaloo ,Vol. 26, Number 2, 2003
—“Jimiattabucket(O Blood)”—Sunk, Vol. I. i, 2003
—“The Crossroads of Convenience Stores”—Ache, Winter 02, Vol. 002, 2002
—“Black Market Jam”—The Ethiop’s Ear, Winter/Spring, Vol. 1, 1999
—“Scene” and “5 and 1 Coffee Sugar Girl”—The Publication, Vol. IV: v,1999
—“money: the pick-up game”—The Amistad Vol. 1, 1996

—“Tallahatchie LullaBye, Baby,” “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” and “The Cruel, Cruel City”——February 2007
—“Auto,” “The Orange Alert,” “At the Pink Teacup” and “Shadowboxer on the Lookout”—”—February 2006
—“Beautiful/Useful,” “Thicket. 05: Book of the Dead: The Bleeding Place” and “Thicket. 04: Scene From a River of Dust”——January 2005
—“[see line 19]” and “Messiah Dies For Their Sins”——Fall 2004

—“Bring the Noise”: A review and interview with Public Enemy’s Chuck D—Entertainment Today, Vol. 37, No. 27
—“What Doomed Enterprise?: A Digital Interview with Willie Perdomo”—View From the Loft, April/May, 2004
—“Under the Influence of Breath: Exploring the Roots of the Spoken Word Resurgence”—Speakeasy, Vol. II: i, 2003
—An Interview with Toi Derricotte—View From the Loft, January/February 2001
—“Loni Berry: Through the Briar Patch”—The Publication Vol. IV: vi, 1999
—“Becky Cohen: Evolution and the Art of Staring”—The Publication, Vol. IV: iv, 1999
—“Erika Torri: The Athenaeum Stands at the Threshold of its 100th Year”—The Publication, Vol. IV: iii, 1999
—“Harry Sternberg: Words and Pictures”—The Publication, Vol. III: vii, 1998
—“Double Vision: Wu Han and David Finckel’s Plans for San Diego”—The Publication, Vol. III vi, 1998
—“William Glen Crooks: Talking in Pictures”—The Publication, Vol. III: iii, 1998

—Dramaturg for “Echo::system­–The Desert,” by Grisha Coleman. Premiered September 2007 in Pittsburgh, PA
—Librettist for Mordake: A Triptych, with score by Erling Wold. Upcoming.
—Lyricist for Sucktion, with score by Anne LeBaron. Premiered May 2006.
—Served as assistant director for Wet, with libretto by Terese Svoboda and score by Anne LeBaron. The production mounted at REDCAT in Los Angeles, CA—December 2005.
—Wrote/performed text for “Tetraodontiformalism” a dance piece selected for the 2005 Cal Arts Spring Dance Concert. Choreographed by Katiana Rush.—April 2005.
—Wrote the “battle” libretto for Six Minutes, a play by Eisa Davis, commissioned by the Hip Hop Theatre Festival and presented at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem, NY–November 2004.
—Co-wrote the libretto for Le Point Vierge a collaborative opera with Melissa Weaver and John Duykers; performed at California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA—April 2004

—“2nd Corner” and “Bumper Blister”—Gettin’ To It, Done Been, 2006
—“CalArts 35th Anniversary” video (text and voiceover)—Carol Anne Klonarides, producer 2005
—“Crossroads of Convenience Stores” and “Hip Hop Haiku”—Refugeography, Thien-bao Thuc Phi 2005
—“PB&J”—Nazirah’s Playhouse, Nazirah P. Mickey, Speakeasy Records, 2002
—“Monkey on My Back,” “Kasper” and “rep/resent”—Test Type Trio, Test Type Trio, 2002

—Poets in the Schools: workshop leader, Camino Nuevo Charter High School,
Los Angeles, CA—February–March 2007

The Talking Page: lecturer, Germantown Poetry Festival, Philadelphia, PA—April 2007

The Talking Page: lecturer, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA—March 2007
—”Poets in the Schools”: workshop leader, Camino Nuevo Charter High School, Los Angeles, CA—November–December 2005
—”Applying Poetic Terms”: lecturer, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA—November 2003
—”Concrete Poetry”: lecturer, San Jose City College, San Jose, CA—February 2003
—”Dyamsay Writing Workshop”: co-leader, Santa Monica, CA—2002–2003
—“Collaborative Poetry” Workshop: leader, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA—November 2002
—“Collaborative Poetry” Workshop: leader, Cave Canem 2002, Cranbrook, MI—June 2002
—”Persona Poetry/The Dramatic Monologue:”: lecturer, Chula Vista High School, Chula Vista, CA —May 2002
—”The Bop Form:”: lecturer, San Diego City College, San Diego, CA—March 2002
—”Persona Poetry/The Dramatic Monologue:”: lecturer, Pittsburgh High School of Creative and Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA—February 2002
—”WriterzBlock Workshop”: co-leader, San Diego, CA—1998–1999

—“The Other in Contemporary Art Discourse: Owning, Speaking and Being “The Other” (panelist) California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA—September 2007
—“Outer Workings” (panelist) Cave Canem Tenth Anniversary, New York, NY—October 2006
—“Writers and War” (panelist) San Diego City College, San Diego, CA—May 2006
—“Literary Citizens” (panelist) AWP, Austin, TX—March 2006
—”Making Art in War Time” (panelist) Betalevel, Los Angeles, CA—January 2006
—“Lover and the Beloved in Sufi Poetry” (moderator) California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA—October 2005
—“Letters and Numbers” (moderator) noulipo: Experimental Writers Series, Los Angeles, CA—October 2005
—“More Than Little Green Men: People of Color in Speculative Fiction” (panelist) San Diego Comic-Con International, San Diego, CA—July 2004

—Last Call, Valencia, CA—September 2007

—Moonday, Pacific Palisades, CA—September 2007

—The Ugly Mugg, Orange, CA—September 2007

—Metropolis Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA—August 2007

—Skylight Books, Los Angeles, CA—July 2007

—Café Aroma, Idyllwild, CA—July 2007

—Bowery Poetry Club, New York, NY—May 2007

—Cornelia Street Café, New York, NY—May 2007

—LA Times Festival of Books, Los Angeles, CA—April 2007

—Germantown Poetry Festival, Philadelphia, PA—April 2007

—Moles (Not Molar), Philadelphia, PA—April 2007

—New American Poets, The New School, New York, NY—April 2007

—Shadow Lounge, Pittsburgh, PA—March 2007

—Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA—March 2007

—University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA—March 2007

—Poetry at the Ruskin, Los Angeles, CA—November 2006
—Small Press Traffic, San Francisco, CA—November 2006
—San Diego City College, San Diego, CA—May 2006
—CalArts MFA Writing Alumni Showcase, High Energy Constructs, Los Angeles, CA—May 2006
—University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI—April 2006
—”Deep Like the Rivers: African-American Poets of Los Angeles,” The Clark Library, Los Angeles, CA—March 2006
—Poetry @ SMH: Frequency, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY—February 2006
—“Half Hour from Home” California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, CA—October 2005
—BSU Poetry Slam, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD—February 2005
—3Wheeze beeze likes the Remix2, The Bowery Poetry Club, New York, NY—November 2004
—Equilibrium, The Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, MN—September 2004
—Pomona College, Pomona, CA—April 2004
—Exhale, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL—November 2003
—A Taste of Art Gallery, New York, NY—November 2003
—The World Stage, Los Angeles, CA—October 2003
—Blue/Print, California Institute of the Arts, CA—September 2003
—San Jose City College, San Jose, CA—February 2003
—College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA November 2002
—Fluid Movements, The Public Theatre, New York, NY—August 2002
—Slam Nationals, Minneapolis, MN—August 2002
—Sa-I-Gu, Locus Performance Space, San Francisco, CA—April 2002
—Dos Mil Espacios, San Diego City College, San Diego, CA—April 2002
—Sun Crumbs Poetry Series, Pittsburgh, PA—February 2002
—Singers at Daybreak, First Ave., Minneapolis, MN—August 2001
—Rhapsody In Color—an exhibition of art from the Russian Avant Garde Movement of the Early 20th Century. I co-wrote and performed in a multi-media, performance poetry sequence. Commissioned by and mounted at the Weisman Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis, MN—February, 2001

—“Beautiful Struggle” KPFK (radio): guest, Los Angeles, CA—September 2007
—“Prosody” (podcast): guest, Pittsburgh, PA—feed://—May 2007
—“LA Lit” (podcast): guest, Los Angeles, CA—<a href=””—October 2005
—“Brazos Writer’s Talk” KEOS (radio): guest, Bryant, TX—May 2005
—“Conversations with Al McFarlane” KFAI (radio): guest, Minneapolis, MN—September 2004
—“Illfonix” KSDS (radio): guest, San Diego, CA—October 2002



“The Black Automaton in Tag” poems


“The City Vs. John Henry” #1–#4


“Tallahatchie LullaBye, Baby”
“The Cruel, Cruel City”
“Swimchant For Nigger Mer-Folk”

“Atomic Buckdance”
“Alameda Street”
“Eric Visits His Father”
“Show It!!!”
“Divination Procedure for the Modern Day Sucker MC: Answers for Four”
“Divination Procedure for the Modern Day Sucker MC: Answers for Nine”
“The City Vs. John Henry”


“The Chitlin Circuit” @ Spelman College, 2007
Selections from The Germantown Poetry Festival, 2007
“The Chitlin Circuit,” “Family Room” and “Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby” @ Pharmaka in Downtown L.A.


Booking Packet (2.5 mb PDF)