The Indiana Review, the literary journal of the Indiana University MFA Program, just released its much anticipated Funk music and culture issue. Its editor emeritus, Abdel Shakur, came in on The One and got funky with us for some insights.
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KYLE DARGAN: Where did the idea for the focus on Funk come from?
ABDEL SHAKUR: I can’t say exactly where it came from, but when I came on as editor a lot of people asked me whether or not I was going to do a special issue like Indiana Review had done in the past. I basically told everyone, “Hell no,” because I saw former IR editor Grady Jaynes putting together the Latina/Latino issue a couple years before, and it seemed like a logistical nightmare trying to fill an entire issue with work from just one particular community of writers (and you know a brother was self-conscious about being “the Black editor” with “the Black issue.”) On top of that, another former IR editor, Shannon Gibney, had set such a high bar with her Writers of Color issue that I was afraid that mine would end up just being whack.
Besides my life-long obsession with all things funky, I guess the idea for the issue started when Thomas Sayers Ellis read in Bloomington a few years ago. I wasn’t familiar with his work, but I remember my heart pounding that night—listening to the interplay of Funk rhythms and themes in his work. I asked him for some work later and he said he didn’t have anything new but that he did have some photographs he’d taken at the James Brown memorial. Looking over those photos, something clicked and I started to wonder what it would look like if we just tried to make our issue as explicitly funky as possible.
DARGAN: In your editor’s note, where you discuss the process and criteria for this Indiana Review Funk feature, you write that it was necessary to “develop a criteria to distinguish that which is funky from that which is not funky,” but also that “we [the editors] didn’t fool ourselves into thinking we could be arbiters of funk.” While this feature is not a decree of what is Funk, it is an interpretation. And the interpretation is what I am interested in because, as I thumb through the poems, stories, and artwork, I see “Funk” as a subject and “funky” as an aesthetic. But how do you discern when something that is about Funk is also funky in its aesthetic? (The photography really makes me think about that.)
SHAKUR: I guess before I directly answer that, it’s probably best to give a little background as to how the magazine works. The magazine is run entirely by the graduate students in the Indiana University Creative Writing and English departments. IR makes its selections on the basis of a committee vote. Majority rules and there are no ties. Everyone on staff has different aesthetics, but we try to come to every poem and story with an open mind and give them a just deliberation.
The “special care” that I mentioned in the editor’s note was especially important because I realized we would be making some kind of statement with our interpretation, so I wanted to make I sure we had some appropriate reference points to contextualize Funk historically and aesthetically. For example, if you weren’t familiar with George Clinton’s Funk cosmology, then the significance of the title of Terrence Hayes’ poem, “Psyhoalphadiscobetabioaquadolipic Warning,” might be lost on you, or if you don’t know Sly and the Family Stone, than you’re not going to get the full effect of Aracelis Girmay’s poem, “Orpheus, When Your Voice is Dressed in Jackal.”
With this in mind, I gave the staff some excerpts from Rickey Vincent’s authoritative text on Funk, Funk: The Music, the People, and The Rhythm of The One and made up a mix CD with James Brown, Ike and Tina, Funkadelic, Sly, and a bunch of others. Although some of the staff was not as familiar with Funk, I think it helped supplement our typical deliberations about the merits of a piece by adding an essential question: “Is this piece on The One?” We received many poems and stories that had Funk as a subject, but we were most interested in work that made some kind of statement about Funk in the piece’s execution, not just in its subject matter. In the foreword to your newest book, I like what you say about not letting ourselves get tripped up arguing over what black is, but that we should instead consider what black does. Similarly, I think Funk does a lot of things: it simulates, it titillates, it subverts, it eludes, it catalyzes, it moves and re-moves. When we were shaping our interpretation, that’s the type of work we were looking for.
In terms of Thomas’ work, I’m glad you asked because you gave me an excuse to go back and look at those photos again. That’s good because I end up finding something new every time I see them. There’s a lot of funky stuff going on in that series, but the thing that strikes me most is the sense of movement in the photos. The scenes are all packed with the movement of people or words (which further reinforces Funk’s obsession with mixing the visual and lyrical). All the photos also have a tinge of humor and melancholy and poignancy, which has a lot to do with the Funk aesthetic. Also, every one of the photos has a duality in both the focal points and the embedded moods in the images. To me, the effect is very funky.
DARGAN: How would you say Terrance Hayes’ poem “Light Head’s Guide to Addiction” fits into your conception of Funk?
SHAKUR: First off, Terrance was one of the first writers we thought of when we were putting together the issue, and he didn’t disappoint. There’s so much I like about his poem, but in terms of Funk, his piece is so dynamic and funny and surprising and beautiful that Funk practically drips off the page. Parliament’s got this song called “If You Don’t Like the Effects, Don’t Produce the Cause,” and I think Terrance is playing with that concept in both the theme and structure of this poem.
DARGAN: I lived in Bloomington for three years. It’s a well-meaning place, but it ain’t funky by my standards. What does it mean for Indiana Review and Indiana’s MFA program to do a feature like this?
SHAKUR: Well, besides some notable exceptions (the Jacksons are from Gary) I would agree that Indiana is not the funkiest place in the world. There were a lot of things I liked about living in Bloomington, but there’s a rigidness to the culture there that makes it not so Funk-friendly. Besides, up until the late 1800s, there were laws on the books that banned black people from actually entering the state. Yes, the whole daggone state—which means a lot considering Indiana shares a border with a slave state like Kentucky. But as far as what it means for IR and the MFA program to do something like this, I hope it means something good. When I suggested the idea, I expected people to be kind of lukewarm to it, but everyone, from the staff to the school administration, was really excited about it. It’s also worth mentioning that although the undergraduate student body is around eighty percent white, the MFA program is one of the most diverse in the country. The issue definitely wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the diversity of race, gender, and aesthetic in the program.
DARGAN: Now that the issue is finished and out there in the world, what would you say are the disastrous and the gratifying aspects of assembling a special issue of a journal, especially one on a subject that is simultaneously specific and far-reaching in its influence?
SHAKUR: I can’t think of any “disastrous” aspects of assembling the issue. Honestly, the people I was working with were so on-point and brilliant that it made much of the hard work really fun. Early on, I decided that we wouldn’t try to fill a whole issue with Funk because we didn’t want to have to add anything that we weren’t one-hundred percent behind in order to fill space.
Now that it’s finished, one of the most gratifying aspects is that it really has pushed me to expand my definition and understanding of Funk. I don’t think I realized the degree to which I have been affected by the Funk and how much it influences the things that I love and appreciate.
Abdel Shakur is a writer, editor, and public school teacher. He lives in Chicago, Illinois with his cat Sally and his lovely wife Candice. He blogs at misstraknowitall.blogspot.com.