We like us some music at Belt, so we’re jazzed to announce an intermittent collaboration with Cellar Door Cleveland, an online Cleveland arts and music magazine that thrives to serve as a megaphone for the local arts community. Cellar Door also operates as a record label, event promoter, booking agency, and artist management company.
First up, a profile of Cleveland poet and Guide to Kulchur proprietor R.A. Washington, which recounts the tangled journey of his new book, The System of Mister’s Hell (the best title for anything-we’ve-come-across-so-far-this-year).
RA Washington Celebrates 20 Years As A Writer With A Release 10 Years Overdue
Ten years ago, RA Washington was set to publish The System of Mister’s Hell until he was pressured by editors to make changes he refused, “They wanted to highlight the more street elements, the more stereotypical young black male elements of the book. They wanted a dumber book.” On his 20th anniversary as a writer, he finally regained the rights to Mister’s Hell and put it into print. A decade later, it speaks to a generation now more than ever.
“East 130th and Larchmere, Tremont for a minute, 36th and Payne, at the Plaza, that was a bad idea, I was in love with this lady, she did me in.”
RA Washington flicks a Marlboro ash into a fluorescent plastic container that sits on the counter of the bookstore he opened this year. To his left, handmade shelves house a wall of small presses, among them a black sticker with the words “Eradicate the Patriarchy” in bold white letters stuck to the wood. To his right, a typewriter balances on a small table nearby – Washington has taken to repairing typewriters as hobby and supplemental income – and an oversized Victorian-style chair rests against the small table.
The young owner of a small press who lives a few blocks away, one of many youth who over time seem to gravitate towards the writer as a mentor, sits as Washington deconstructs the question of where he wrote The System of Mister’s Hell. His answer constructs a verbal map of Cleveland in 1999.
“On Hayden Avenue, on Ansel Road, 61st and St. Clair, 79th and St. Clair, at the Hodge school, 74th and St. Clair.”
1999 was the year a copy of Imamu Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) The System of Dante’s Hell found its way to a budding Washington, still early into his career as a writer; just a year after publishing his collection of stories and poems Riot Sketches, a mere seven from his first publication, Cuz Poppa Dop Played Jazz, a collection of poems printed by poet laureate Daniel Thompson to benefit the Homeless Grapevine Press.
Six months would pass as Washington penned a poem inspired by Baraka’s work based on Dante’s Inferno while living on Larchmere, Payne, St. Clair, Hayden, and Ansel. Ten years would pass before Washington regained the rights to publish it.
“So I ended up writing this thing, organizing it into circles, and it was about a young man who was trapped in his father’s crimes essentially. Whatever his father did wrong, he was now living the punishment of it. He was paying for his father’s crimes,” says Washington. “But I didn’t want to just say it like that, so I used Dante’s Inferno cantos as models and then I made this longer poem. And I sold it. To a publisher who I can’t say because of the contract to get the rights back. And we got the prepress back and it was all set to go and all of the sudden it wasn’t coming out. Because I wouldn’t make certain changes.”
A smooth white cardstock lays on the front of an otherwise coverless, loosely-bound and jagged copy of Mister’s Hell passed across the counter. One of only 25, it would be circulated when Washington enlisted a friend who worked at a press at the time to print a short run designed and laid out by Lawrence Daniel Caswell. Washington never spoke with the original publishing house again.
[blocktext align=”left”]They wanted to highlight the more street elements, the more stereotypical young black male elements of the book. They wanted a dumber book.[/blocktext]
Steeped more so in the modernist influence Washington cites, Mister’s Hell challenges the relentless patriarchal cycle in an unnerving, dystopic narration where crime and offense becomes entwined, and sometimes indiscernible, between generations.
“i have seen what men have done / what i have done to us” the narrator dictates early, immediately followed by an excerpt from Baraka: “The whole of lower Hell is surrounded by a great wall, which is defended by rebel angels and immediately within which are punished the arch-heretic and their followers.”
“Being fatherless has been a major theme; I just recently met my father again for the first time. He came to the bookstore a couple weeks ago after not seeing him for 20 years. As a kid you just want to know your dad, and then it becomes an obsession. And then you find out hundreds and thousands and millions of kids don’t know their pops, across race, across gender.” says Washington. “Something goes awry in a relationship and the victims of whatever the fall out may be are the children and whatever they leave behind. And more often than not, you end up with your mother. And being a mother is full of invisible work.”
The poem’s voice may serve as a symbol for the patriarchy system on a greater scale, but the entirety of Mister’s Hell resonates with stark, often desolate, Cleveland imagery.
“i walked the downtown looking for her. went up to 9th and then crossed St. Clair and 18th, keeping a fine map of the possible places.”
“i stayed on 39th and Payne, my first place… it took four paychecks to get it to look right through the thrift store, a green couch, a small stool and table held a line in the big room.”
“the jimmy i knew up around 105th by the one ways, always had a lady.”
[blocktext align=”right”]It’s important to have a sense of place; I wanted to ground it in something. I also wanted to make the illusion Cleveland was like a hell, quite literally and figuratively. [/blocktext]
Whether one writer’s regrets and gratitude or the Mister’s Hell representation of a system still in place today, so much of our lives are based on cycles.
A week later, Guide to Kulchur would hold a 24-hour zine-a-thon. In its basement a young writer plays the music of his friend’s band on an iPhone while he taps at a vintage typewriter. The hallway leads to the Sally Tatnall Black Box, where writers from in and out of town read at a microphone with the words of its namesake “You better stand up and be an ally” scrawled along the white walls in black paint. Dozens of zines were made and filed into the basements shelves marked gender or poetry or personal, among others.
While Washington seems settled and at home with Kulchur, it’s not nearly his first foray into DIY spaces and not likely to be his last. Washington was part of the collective The Church, an old Hispanic church turned venue in Tremont, and founder of the Kilolo Arts Media Lab in a loft space on St. Clair, to name a few examples. Over the span of his 20 years as writer, so much of Washington’s work has been in creating a platform, a haven, for dialogue.
The month Guide to Kulchur opened, Lyz Bly, Washington’s wife and the store’s co-owner, explained the importance of zines: “You could pull out a zine from Columbus and then you would pull one out from Tempe, Arizona and the same themes were showing up over and over across the country. When you start seeing these personal reactions over and over you can start thinking, what’s happening politically on a larger scale?”
In its short time open, Kulchur has become a landmark for civil discourse, welcoming national writers, activists, and community organizers to engage with the city, pushing subjects like the personal narrative of Mister’s Hell patriarchy into the public.
“The personal is political. It’s a patriarch that’s making decisions. For the most part, it’s a bunch of dudes making the decisions. And they make decisions we have to pay for. They make decisions in the home, they make decisions in the board room, they make decisions in the war room. And we have to pay for them at all times. Constantly. And by the time you figure out, wait a minute, I’m paying for all this, you’re already caught up in strictures and norms and that puts you in the position to do the same crimes and it just perpetuates over and over again,” Washington says. “And if you drop out you’re some kind of anti-American, some kind of anarchist. And it’s just not true. My manhood does not have to be defined by how they did it.
“We get all nostalgic about certain periods of time, but there’s nothing more precarious or dangerous than this time we’re living in now. But you won’t see a civic rights or women’s movement come out of it because people are comfortable, our ingenuity has bred convenience and it’s made us complacent and scared.”
In 2012, Washington found a letter at an old P.O. Box from the original publishing house that owned the rights to Mister’s Hell. After ten years since its completion and twenty years as a writer, Washington now once again had full rights to the poem. He enlisted Bree of Green Panda Press to lay out the perfectly bound copies printed this fall.
And a decade later, a work that deals with generational gaps, in this case paternal, and confronting the aftermath of these cycles — as Washington says below these machines – has never felt quite as relevant.
“We’re becoming a more conservative, a more complacent, more scared society on all levels. This demographic, historians talk about it all the time. How the generational divide shrinks as we become more modern and internet-savvy, as the internet has become commonplace. And we’re all sitting there, and some of us are earning and some of us are not, and people have a lot of college debt and they don’t know what they’re going to do,” says Washington. “And we’ve celebrated nihilism, a tongue-in-cheekness; to be urbane and hip is to be not critical. And we’ve developed this habit about ourselves so any time something real happens we don’t know what to do. I still believe that art can make a difference.