Alexs D. Pate
Novelist and Poet

Givens Collection
Givens Foundation


The following is an excerpt of an interview for the documentary "Literature & Life: The Givens Collection." This excerpt features Alexs D. Pate (University of Minnesota) discussing the Black Arts Movement and his writing.


I want to ask about your memories of Philadelphia and what it was like to hear the artists that were passing through during the period of the late 60s and 70s. What were some of the most vivid things out of that period?

Well, I mean, yeah, I was coming of age during the Black Arts movement, the, Black Nationalists, the cultural activists, that whole period of time. It was, like, really charged. I was a young writer, and I really was seeking, searching for, role models and people who were sort of breaking the mold. I mean, they had, you know, the Black Arts movement, the whole mid-60s/early 70s period, sort of, it, was a sound in a, in a, in a world that had been quiet, you know? There was this silence that had existed.

And suddenly, you know, you have poets like Nikki Giovanni, Don L. Lean, who later became Hakim Ad Abooti, Askeed Mohammed Turay, Quincy Troop, Sonya Sanchez, I mean it was just, they were just coming out of everywhere. And they were being published, and there are all these magazines, literary journals, circulating throughout the community. There were poetry readings. There was all this energy.

In the early 70s I went to the Black Writers' Conference at Howard, for, like, three years in a row. And it would be like war, you know, we'd all get charged up and you'd hang out with your favorite writer's camp, and there'd be all these arguments about what was the appropriate image for the Black person. What was the role of the Black writer. How do you create these, you know, this whole notion of the Black aesthetic. What Black writers and artists had to do for the Black community. I mean, all of this was sort of tied in together.

And so, it's just the vibrancy of that time. It shaped me as a writer. It, it caused me to sort of, accept the responsibility for my art, and for my work. To not be ashamed of, of--one of the big controversies was, you know, are you a writer who's Black, or are you a Black writer? Well, for me, that question became, you know, totally and completely dealt with during that period of time. I was a Black writer. I would always be proud to be a Black writer. And I am, you know.

And that meant that I had a connection to community, and a connection to the history of the writers who came before me. And a sense of responsibility to them. So the images, you know, that I remember are arguments and late night talks that went on and on and on, about issues of art and culture and race and racism.

It's like, this is what was going on. You know. How militant are you? How strong against the system are you going to be? You know. And that stratification became really clear. There were people who were willing to write poems and pick up guns. There were people who were willing to write poems and march. There were people who were willing to just write poems.

And that distinction became the way in which people were stratified. Collected together. You know. How active and aggressive are you willing to be? As a artist, what is your job? In the Academy, or on the street? And so you have street poets who, you know, were strong, forceful people who believed that poetry and art was an active thing. You know. And when there was a march or, you know, a protest, or an action, they were there.

And you had to learn from, you know, as a writer I learned from that. You know. And you come to just decide, who are you? I think those kind of, that kind of clarity doesn't exist now.

And I think when, in the, in the late 60s, early 70s, you had people being creative, doing their art, and saying things that you were thinking. I think, this is, the language, you know, language is a very interesting thing. You know. If you, if you hear Nikki Giovanni read, or if you read her poem, "Nigger, Can You Kill?" you know, which to me was like a litmus test during that period of time. Can you kill? Can you kill your nigger mind?

I mean, it was like a big test for everybody who heard that poem. And so the language wasn't special. You know. It's not, we're not talking about T.S. Elliot or some elaborate new form of language. But rather, a kind of directness. A kind of clarity, of specificity.

I mean, remember, the 50s, this quiet period, wasn't quiet entirely. I mean, the late 50s or early 60s, Black people were getting their heads beat in. They were trying to integrate coffee shops and cafeterias. There was this whole struggle that was going on. And it bloomed into a place where Black was beautiful. Suddenly, James Brown says Black is Beautiful. And everybody knew that already.

It did turn against people, when they pushed. And so you had, you know, the Black Panthers, the Black Power movement, you had, Baraka with artists in Newark, you had all kinds of political-artistic interminglings that said, you know, this is a time to fight. You know, when I teach the Black Arts movement, I tell my students, "This was a time when people actually believed there would be a revolution in this country, that would be led by Black artists and Black people." People believed that.

Again, I was so young that I only was watching. I wasn't really active. And again, in my watching, I was plotting my own course, where I belong.

But the absence of the Black active artists' voice, I think, existed. It was a calculated thing. I mean, no, not many novels have been published. You know. I, I can, again, I can say, you know, in the 60s and the 70s, you thought, oh God, we're going to have all these great artists, all these great poets. And then I would challenge people to say, "Name me," you know, "five new Black male poets that were published by mainstream press in the last ten years." Male. "Name me ten new African American male novelists." You can't do it.

I mean, not that they don't exist, but people just don't, that information is not as popularly known, as commonly known, as you thought it would be in 1972, '73. You thought that by 1996, I mean, the participation in the literary-artistic system would be strong.

I think rap music carries a lot of it forward, carried a lot of it forward, but really, there aren't a whole lot of other places to go looking for it. You can't find it in the classroom very often. A lot of students, a lot of young people don't know it very well. It all has sort of, It's all, it's all sort of wrapped up in Malcolm X, you know, now, and not really as diverse and as wide-ranging as it once was.

I think it's community, you know? It was just, there was a period of time in, in the mid-70s where I got together every Saturday with a group of artists, Black artists. And most Saturdays we would start off with a writers' workshop in the middle of the day. Do that for, like three or four hours, every Saturday. Go have dinner. Meet at somebody else's house. You know. Listen to music, play instruments, read more poetry. And it was, that was the way I spent my Saturdays, for, like, three or four years.

And it was, like, that is what I remember most. That shaped me. That made me what I am, in a way. That's where I learned about what good writing was. That's where I learned about what my responsibilities, what I would take on for myself as purpose as a Black writer.

My writing is driven by this desire to clarify myself, and to clarify, the existence, or to clarify, the idea and the purpose of my own humanity. To try to help people understand the complexity of the Black male mind. And to understand, in that complexity is a human being, a really sensitive, warm, loving, sweet, nurturing, diplomatic, accessible, intellectual feeling person. As opposed to the brute, heathen, angry, mean, violent, irresponsible character that is most often exemplified on television. And so, I mean, for me, that has been my purpose, with my work.


And when did you know that you were, in fact, a writer.

I've been a writer for a long, long time. I mean, probably since when I was hanging out on the corner in, you know, when I was 13, 12, making up poems, you know. Being chased by guys because they thought, "Well, what are you talking about?" teased by them. Because, you know, words have always been important to me.

So I've been doing this, I mean, in my mind I've been doing this for a long time. I think I became a professional writer, the day I realized I couldn't do anything else. I mean, that, this is about all I can do (laughs). So I just better get good at it, or I better keep working at it. Because, it's the thing I love to do. And it's like, I think you become a writer when you love it. When you really understand it, you love it.


Can I ask you some specifics about how you write? What do you do? What's your process? Do you have to turn all the noise off? Go into a special room?

Oh, yeah, well I, you know, I have my own little rituals, but I think essentially I'm a late night person. I start working, usually, around midnight or 1:00. I work, I usually work between that period of time and five or six in the morning. I truly understand the middle of the night, I mean, when it is absolutely quiet outside. I know the exact moment the last bus goes by my house. I know the exact moment the first bus, bus of the morning comes by. I know when the newspaper guy changes the old papers out of the newspaper box across the street. I know precisely when the truck comes to put the new papers in, for the, for that day.

Generally, during most of the year, I have NBA basketball on tape and, I put that in the VCR. And I write with that going on in the background. I, it's, it's just sort of my way of, I, you know, it's sorta, it's like I like, for some people it's like listening to the ocean, you know. For me, listening to men run up and down the court and that sound of the crowd in the background and the pauses and the squeak of the sneakers on the court, and the basketball pounding, you know, all of that sort of becomes my, meditative state by which I let myself go into whatever subject I'm dealing with, as a writer.


I mean, that's sort of the atmosphere that I work in, and, my subject matter generally pulls me in a certain-- Like, for example my new book, Finding Makeba, is, a story about a father and a daughter who reunite after about ten or, about ten years' of, absence of separation. And that was a very difficult story to write. And I spend a lot of time, you know, meditating before I would sit down to write. And so, my process often leads me into long periods of isolation, and then the production of the work, and then another long period of isolation as I sort of get out of that space.


How do the characters come? How do write about a daughter and a father separated?

I think that for me it is a combination of what is--who are people that I have known, situations that I have experienced, feeling that I have had. all my characters have a part of me in them. And all of my characters are based on real people. And yet, by the time they are completely formed, they are fictional. Unreal people, who are now, feel real. But totally made up, a new persona. But the, but if you took those characters apart, they have pieces of all kinds of people, including myself, in them.

stories haunt me. Situations haunt me. Circumstances haunt me. And those are the things that find their way into my fiction. What I say is that a lot of my fiction is based on my, on my life. a lot of the, my work is a kind of autobiographical documentation of the ideas that I've had. Feelings that I've had. But the situations are totally made up.

It so it's like, it's a really fine line between what is real and what is made up. You, it's almost impossible at times. For example, in Losing Absalom, there's a scene where Absalom meets his wife-to-be, Gwen, on a bus. Now, nobody has ever told me that my father and mother met on a bus, or at least, I don't think anybody ever told me. But I must have heard that story somewhere, because, I went home for a reunion and I heard people talking about this moment when my father and mother met on a bus.

And it was like, "Oh." Then I felt guilty, like, "You mean, somebody told me that?" You know. I didn't make that up? I thought I had made up this great scene. I don't know the truth, I mean, I didn't stop to say, well, what is the truth here? Did I know that ahead of time? I think, I like that, not being sure about what I know, what is my experience and what do I intuit, and what do I make up, and what's magical. I, you know, that's all open for interpretation.


Is it hard to write from a woman's point of view?

It’s really funny, because in Finding Makeba, half of the book is written, or not half, but every chapter is alternated from a, by a journal entry by the daughter. So it's really like a dialogue. And in Absalom, yes, there are moments when I know that I'm slipping into a woman's point of view. And when I teach class I, you know, I try to get my students not to do that, because I don't think most people are capable of doing that. Not just from gender, but from race as well.

It's what you call "empathetic imagination." The whole idea of being able to empathize with another person who's not like you. But not, but to go beyond empathy but into sort of build imagination, to be able to imagine someone else's life and their thoughts. You know. And to have empathy for that in such a way, within being so different, that a gender might separate you. That you could actually feel and understand what a woman might think at a precise moment. I think that's very challenging task for a writer.

Why do you teach, and what do you think that you're giving and they're taking, in these classes?

At first I mostly have taught writing classes. I love working with young writers. I love that process, of helping someone who is struggling to find voice to get closer to that discovery. I love that. There is nothing greater than that. If somebody did that for me, I mean, you know, every writing teacher I ever had, pushed me along that line. I want to just help other writers do that. And I think it's really hard for young writers to learn how to write. I mean, to be good at it. The temperament, energy, the, the focus that it takes to do that. So I, I really enjoy that.

But I've also discovered that I love teaching literature classes. I mean, teaching the Harlem Renaissance or teaching the Black Arts movement, helps me as a writer to go back and revisit the material that I love so much. And to put it into perspective. And I teach from a writer's point of view. So I, you know, I'm not a scholar. I'm a writer. And I don't profess to be a critic and a scholar. so my perspective about what is going on in a particular text is more from a writerly point of view. rather than a deeply analytical or scholarly point of view.