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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Oríkì, Maze, King!

Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Detail, jacket for Maze of Blood.
Or, an answer to that frequent question, "What are you working on now?"

Oríkì-inspired poems

Well, I have a rather large quantity of long poems, all written in the past few months. I love it when work comes in a great rush! The poems were inspired by the form and nature of Yoruban oríkì, or oral praise chants. Traditional elements that appear in one, more, or all of the poems are: parallelism, repetition, lists, naming and re-naming, copia or profusion, quotation, disjunction and seeming randomness, contrasting elements, sequences of parallel cases (sometimes concluding in the key case), wide-ranging comparisons (as, say, linking a man with a plant and a river), and concern for lineage. Certain attitudes linked to oríkì appear: the idea that every thing (object or living thing) has its own special qualities that fit and suit, and the related idea of certain tools and techniques as belonging to each mode of work. The idea that birds and animals and fish show evidence of distinguishing cultural acts (like dying the feathers or fur or scales a specific color, for example) and familial lineages like people leads to the conclusion that the whole of Creation is composed of cultural artifacts. Even the idea of what oríkì scholar Karin Barber calls “vertical social inequality” applies to the hierarchies of things and creatures, as well as people. The poems do not attempt to be oríkì, but were inspired and colored by Yoruban praise chant. Many differences appear, and women play a more acknowledged role as figures in story. The poems are much more governed by narrative and by an overarching unity than oríkì.

Maze of Blood

Forthcoming in September, Maze of Blood was inspired by the life of pulp writer Robert E. Howard. I like to do something different each time I write a novel, and I had never used a life as a template. I drafted the book at Yaddo (back in 2007) but sat on the novel a long time, knowing something was not quite right. Recently I re-worked the order of the book and added new passages as a kind of frame for the whole story. This gave the book more tightness and also a trajectory that moved toward joy and creation rather than following the pattern of a life toward death. (For those interested in the sources of the book, the accounts that influenced me most were: One Who Walked Alone, by Novalyne Price Ellis; Blood and Thunder, by Mark Finn; and Two-Gun Con: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard.) Childhood summer weeks spent on a deep-South sharecropper's farm have been a real gift to me. I know something of the dusty, hardscrabble Southern places in the world, their challenges and culture. And I felt that I knew and had sympathy with a lot of Howard's difficulties as well; he could have been a wayward figure in my own family tree. My protagonist is called Conall Weaver--I certainly did not want any confusion with biography--and the book plays with and embroiders episodes that are often based on incidents in Howard's life. If a book is a kind of sub-creation of the Creation, well, Maze of Blood contains a character who makes characters, and those characters occasionally appear as actors in the story. Here's a page for the book. Gorgeous art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins adorns the cover and acts as section separators. Right now I'd love to make contact with people who want to host some sort of blog feature in support of the book--I'm open to mini-interviews, short essays, etc. I'll be at SIBA (Raleigh) and City Lights (Sylva, North Carolina) in September.

Other plans and books "in the works"

I have a lot of uncollected poems and stories, as well as a novel I wrote for my youngest son, all of which I have been promising for ages to set into order and give a final tweak or two. In addition, The Book of the Red King needs a last spit and polish and will have art by Clive. We're just waiting until he has the free time to do the work.


  1. I'm looking forward to all these things!

    1. Oh, Dale, you are a sweetie! I need to come by and see what you've been doing... Will, when I get over the little mountain of To Do.

  2. Read an interview with Marly Youmans here:

  3. Good to hear you are still in full creative flood!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.