About this poet

Poet, essayist, playwright, and novelist Ishmael Reed was born in 1938 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was raised in Buffalo, New York, and attended the University of New York at Buffalo.

He is the author of several collections of poetry, including: New and Collected Poems 1964-2007 (Da Capo Press, 2007), which won the Gold Medal in poetry at the California Book Awards; New and Collected Poems (Atheneum, 1988); A Secretary to the Spirits (NOK, 1978); Chattanooga (Random House, 1973); Conjure (1972); and Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church (Paul Brennan, 1970).

Reed has also written numerous novels, including: Juice! (2011); Japanese by Spring (1993); The Terrible Twos (1982); Flight to Canada (1976); The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974); Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969); and The Free-Lance Pallbearers.

Among his plays are The Final Version (2013), Mother Hubbard (1982), and The Ace Boons (1980). He is also the author of collections of essays: Airing Dirty Laundry (1993); Writin' is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (1988); God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (1982), and Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978).

Reed was a cofounder of Yardbird Publishing Co. in 1971 and also founded Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications in 1973. With Al Young, he co founded Quilt magazine. Reed has also edited a number of anthologies.

Among his honors and awards are the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Award, the Lewis Michaux Award, an American Civil Liberties award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the California Arts Council. In 1998, Reed became a MacArthur Fellow. He is a two-time National Book Award nominee, and his book Conjure was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Reed has lectured at numerous colleges and universities. He served as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley for thirty-five years. Ishmael Reed lives in Oakland, California.

I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra

Ishmael Reed, 1938
'The devil must be forced to reveal any such physical evil
(potions, charms, fetishes, etc.) still outside the body 
and these must be burned.' (Rituale Romanum, published 
1947, endorsed by the coat-of-arms and introductory 
letter from Francis cardinal Spellman) 


I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra,
sidewinders in the saloons of fools
bit my forehead   like   O
the untrustworthiness of Egyptologists
who do not know their trips. Who was that
dog-faced man? they asked, the day I rode
from town.

School marms with halitosis cannot see
the Nefertiti fake chipped on the run by slick
germans, the hawk behind Sonny Rollins' head or
the ritual beard of his axe; a longhorn winding
its bells thru the Field of Reeds.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. I bedded
down with Isis, Lady of the Boogaloo, dove
deep down in her horny, stuck up her Wells-Far-ago
in daring midday getaway. 'Start grabbing the
blue,' I said from top of my double crown.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Ezzard Charles
of the Chisholm Trail. Took up the bass but they
blew off my thumb. Alchemist in ringmanship but a
sucker for the right cross.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Vamoosed from
the temple i bide my time. The price on the wanted
poster was a-going down, outlaw alias copped my stance
and moody greenhorns were making me dance; 
   while my mouth's
shooting iron got its chambers jammed.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Boning-up in
the ol' West i bide my time. You should see
me pick off these tin cans whippersnappers. I
write the motown long plays for the comeback of
Osiris. Make them up when stars stare at sleeping
steer out here near the campfire. Women arrive
on the backs of goats and throw themselves on
my Bowie.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Lord of the lash,
the Loup Garou Kid. Half breed son of Pisces and
Aquarius. I hold the souls of men in my pot. I do
the dirty boogie with scorpions. I make the bulls
keep still and was the first swinger to grape the taste.

I am a cowboy in his boat. Pope Joan of the
Ptah Ra. C/mere a minute willya doll?
Be a good girl and
bring me my Buffalo horn of black powder
bring me my headdress of black feathers
bring me my bones of Ju-Ju snake
go get my eyelids of red paint.
Hand me my shadow

I'm going into town after Set

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra

look out Set   here i come Set
to get Set     to sunset Set
to unseat Set  to Set down Set

               usurper of the Royal couch
               imposter RAdio of Moses' bush
               party pooper O hater of dance
               vampire outlaw of the milky way

From New and Collected Poems by Ishmael Reed, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1989 by Ishmael Reed. Reprinted by permission of Ishmael Reed. All rights reserved.

From New and Collected Poems by Ishmael Reed, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1989 by Ishmael Reed. Reprinted by permission of Ishmael Reed. All rights reserved.

Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed

Born in 1938, Ishmael Reed is the author of many collections of poems and essays as well as novels.