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Ahmos Zu-Bolton's Poetry of Invention

by Grace Cavalieri

photo: Afaa Michael Weaver


Ahmos Zu Bolton’s poems are moral arguments fueled by purpose. He had faith in a language  driven by character, situation and story.
I knew him during the 1970’s in Washington DC mostly when he was working with Alan Austin and Anne Becker on Black Box Magazine. Ahmos was a poet and a playwright. You could tell his sense of theater and timing in everything he wrote. Hear the dialogue in "Taxicab Blues": A white cabbie says there “ain’t never been no/great/colored/poets.” The speaker in the poem answers:

and I think to myself
man this cat is hip/ smooth,
there’s truth in his meter,
so I sez to him I say, hey man,
how come a professor like you is
driving a cab?

What a curtain line. What a grasp of dialogue, phraseology, impact, humor.  How Ahmos uses irony. And it occurs to me how few people can use such a double edged sword as irony— It takes someone who has a good grip on the handle. He kept his language subdued using original idiomatic English to suppress his own speech and show an alternative, and more persuasive, language. Critics talk about the “communal language” whenever poets use lower case letters. I like that because Ahmos wanted to break down the true nature of things, and in doing this he offered a magnificent example of himself, his culture, and his self reason.

Pain is an affirmation, if it’s changed to something that can ease our passage. That’s the way I feel about the way Ahmos Zu Bolton made poems. His work is his version of history. He knew his life and experience were too important to leave to other people. He created worlds and populated them with people to act out the blood and pulse of being black in America.

What choices did Ahmos make to become a major force in the Black Arts Movement in our country? In 1965 he was one of the students who integrated LSU at Baton Rouge. He chose to serve in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He founded Hoodoo, an activist arts magazine in Louisiana. He wrote, published, distributed other poets and he chose friendship over divisiveness.

What connections did Ahmos have because of the choices he made?  In Washington DC he made connections that would last beyond his lifetime. E. Ethelbert Miller became his historian, He was co-director to Ethelbert’s Directorship of the Afro American Resource Center at Howard University; and, there still exists in DC a community of poets who will always revere and love him. He teamed up with artists in New Orleans, Galveston, Austin and Houston to produce his HooDoo Festivals. He touched lives as a “poet” in the classrooms of Virginia, Georgia and Texas. He was instrumental to college campuses adding new bodies of thought about poetry and color.

While living in New Orleans he taught English, African American Studies and Creative Writing at Xavier University, Tulane University and Delgado Community College. He was Visiting Writer in Residence at University of Missouri. When Ahmos Zu Bolton died in 2005, that college held a candlelight vigil. And, he connected with the old as well as the young: he and his wife, poet Harryette Mullen, worked with senior citizens in 1978, teaching and encouraging their life stories.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton ll expanded the audience in the south for books by establishing Energy Black South Press and a sales network.  What a thankless job distribution is. Holy work in the dust. In 1977 he (imagine this) took my first full-length poetry book Body Fluids for distribution and sent me the first check I ever received for poetry. I think it was $7.00 or $8.00. He reached across race to include me. Connections. Interconnectedness is more like it. Ahmos was most of all deeply connected to his own family in De Ridder, LA and spoke often of a father who thought he could do anything and let his son think the same.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton ll, inarguably is one of America’s artists who broke ground without hurting the earth.  He wrote with intelligence, purpose and style and he knew he had a mission. And of course Ahmos felt the loneliness of the world and wrote of the netherland during the height of racial discord. From his poem “Homeless” (1972, California) we hear this in the end stanza:

I linger here for the mountains
the waters, and the shadows only

… this tribe ain’t mine.

Zu-Bolton's A Niggered Amen (what a title!) came out from California’s Solo Press in the mid-1970’s. This tracks Ahmos’s inner life perfectly. The book’s cover shows a drawing or silkscreen of a Black man hiding within an enclosure, peeking from a window, wary and vigilant. Out of this place, the poems surface about the lies we’ve been told. It seems to me the book is all about finding a good name for God, while wrestling with His angels.

The poem "the seeker" begins with Blackjack Moses returning from war. The poem ends: "he has no weapon/ (he threw away his gun/ when he threw away/ his bible." In "spacedream struggle" he writes, "I fought the Christians today. / Me and my man Jesus, who is/ on this mission with me,/ and who would have me/ turn the other cheek/ nigger."   The words "Me" and "Jesus," the only capitalizations, show who the contenders are.

His poem "the fool (an excerpt from the diary of blackjack moses)" is a six-page poem that is spectacle, chant, political expose and theater of the soul: "the fool/ you know him/ he once told you the secrets/ of his life/ there’s a file on him/ at the pentagon/ he ain’t no myth/ him for-real baby…"

And once again, a deep belief in religion that the poet cannot shake and yet is no longer of use: "the fool lies down/ with these ancient ones./…they teach him/ the holy song & dance,/ they give him cups/ of his own blood/ to drink// they teach him to eat/ of his own flesh…"

Notice the syntax in the above line. Zu-Bolton does not say "Eat his own flesh," he says "eat of his own flesh." The dramatist knows how to keep the rhetoric precise, intoning the sound of Christianity.

This slender book contains four sections: The Books of X, Y, Z and A (the alpha and omega?). Zu-Bolton’s meta characters are Blackjack Moses and Livewire Davis. Each poem is a tiny incident of Zu-Bolton’s experience, with sharp minimal poems flickering with rage. Book of A harks back to slavedom. And threaded and rethreaded throughout all the poems is a sweet love that cannot be extinguished. From the poem "blackjack told me…":  "blackjack told me/ for the 7th time/ this week—// bout being in the lost/ & found cell (the bars/ were made of love// and he couldn’t get out.”  The end line then shows a characteristic Ahmos wryness: “he told me not to tell.”

There’s a wonderful photo of Ahmos on the back cover in his denim overalls, signature clothing that I remember so well. I love this picture of him giving a reading before a microphone. Seated, he appears in a typically modest pose. He never postured for the spotlight. He didn’t need to. He was authentically Ahmos and there will never be another man like him.

The book Ain’t No Spring Chicken is a selection of poems published by the Voice Foundation in 1998.   It truly compiles his best work. Bowillie (another of his artful dodgers) is featured in this poem below. But before reading it, think of the metaphysical poets and how they used “love” one way when they meant it another. Zu-Bolton has this ability. Remember what I said earlier about his having a good grip on the handle of the double edged sword:


he fell for
the way she wore
her hat

orgasms wrote her poetry
on their first date he
fell for her walk

he fell for she got ways
he could love, she got ways
he could tell his mother about

he gave her a gun
to protect herself with,
she went out of her way
to use it

he fell for
the quiet dying
her bullets made.

There’s a prose piece in Ain’t No Spring Chicken that is "A Memoir," titled "Thru Daddy’s eyes." By this we get to see Ahmos Zu-Bolton as a young boy and learn the lineage that would enable him in life. His great grandfather Papa Len is the hero in the story. One description of him—not a church going man—says "he could do his praying while waiting for the catfish to bite."  Papa Len won his sweet bride by fighting off her twelve brothers. The folkloric tradition honored here employs the tall tale in American mythology, but it’s a story Ahmos Zu-Bolton disputes saying "even though I always enjoyed the story of the fight, I never believed it. Nobody with any sense would ever fight my Papa Len unless they had a lot more than 12 men."

I learned of Ahmos’ death from Ethelbert Miller. I was sad to realize he lived in Washington DC.at the end of his days. And to think I never visited him. But in a way I don’t think I’d want to know him when we were "of an age."  I like to remember instead being young together in Washington, DC.

From my book of poems, Swan Research (The Word Works, 1979):

    for Ahmos Zu-Bolton

Just when I thought
I lived in a land where there was
One kind
Of every person
Who didn’t know where else to go
I found a good luck charm:
A flat rock wrapped in
Plain cloth
Hidden in a place where
No one else could see
And I couldn’t say where I was hidden
Because I was afraid
I kept it there for nine nights
And on the tenth I drew a sun sign
And pounding the bark on
The ground with my rock
I wrote A H M O S
Then I made the paper to send this poem
And that’s how I meet most of my friends
When I am lonely
I write A H M O S with a blue light inside me
Floating it on the pool which is blue
Inside the clear door at the end of my dream
That’s how you know it is good luck
If it spells a name the color of sky
If it opens a door which makes you free to go.

And what were Ahmos Zu-Bolton’s poetic “intentions?” He wrote to tell a story. He wrote to know himself, and change his mind. He wrote to change other people. He wrote about the effect of the century on his people. He wrote to tell every good thing he could find and everything bad that threatened it. He taught us to give up control about outmoded ways of seeing the narrative poem. He brought folktales to modernity. He fought the wars that are inside of all of us. This warrior, Ahmos, achieved great victories in battle and literature without hurting anyone. What a lesson.

For Further Reading
Ahmos Zu-Bolton II,  a niggered amen: poems,  Solo Press, 1975.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton II and E. Ethelbert Miller, eds., Synergy DC Anthology, Energy Black South Press, 1975.

Quincy Troupe, ed., Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings, Vintage Books, 1975.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton II, ed.,  Hoo-Doo, Energy Black South Press, 1972 - 1978.

Turdier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, eds., Afro-American Poets Since 1955, University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth, Vol. III: Poetry, University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

John Oliver Killens and Jerry W. Ward, eds., Black Southern Voices: An Anthology, Plume, 1992.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton II, Ain't No Spring Chicken, Voice Fdn., 1998.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton II, 1946: A Poem, Ishmael Reed Publishing Co., 2002.

Rudy Lewis, "Ahmos Zu Bolton, HooDoo Poet, Opened a Channel to the Ancestors," ChickenBones JournalMarch 2005.

E. Ethelbert Miller, "In Search of the Hoo-Doo Man: Reconstructing Ahmos Zu-Bolton," Drumvoices Review, Volume 14, Issue 1/2,  Spring-Fall 2006.

Kim Roberts and Dan Vera, eds., DC Writers' Homes, "Ahmos Zu-Bolton II," 2011.

Other Resources
Audio tapes of Ahmos Zu-Bolton can be found in the Grace Cavalieri Papers, George Washington University, Melvin Gelman Library, Special Collections, Coordinates: 3:97; 5:156-7; 7:2.


Grace Cavalieri's newest publication is a chapbook, Gotta Go Now (Casa Menendez, 2012).  She’s the author of 16 books and chapbooks of poetry; and 28 produced plays, short-form and full-length. Her recent books Millie’s Tiki Villas, Sounds Like Something I Would Say and Anna Nicole: Poems are available on Kindle’s free lending library.  Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem” on public radio, celebrating 35 years on-air in 2012—recorded at the Library of Congress and transmitted nationally via NPR and Pacifica. She is poetry columnist for The Washington Independent Review of Books. Her play “Anna Nicole: Blonde Glory” opened in New York City in 2011. Her play “Quilting the Sun” opened in South Carolina in 2011.

To read more by this author:
Grace Cavalieri
Grace Cavalieri's Intro to Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2004)
Grace Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue
Grace Cavalieri on Louise Glück: Profiles Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Evolving City Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Split This Rock Issue
Grace Cavalieri on Ann Darr: Forebears Issue
Grace Cavalieri on Joseph Brodsky: US Poets Laureate Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Tenth Anniversary Issue
Grace Cavalieri on "The Poet & The Poem": Literary Organizations Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Poets in Federal Government Issue



Published in Volume 13:4, Fall 2012.