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Ishmael Reed


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 from 1956 to 1959.

He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues: Poems 2007–2020 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2020), New and Collected Poems 1964–2007 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007), which won the Gold Medal in poetry at the California Book Awards, New and Collected Poems (Atheneum, 1988), Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963–1970 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church (Paul Brennan, 1970).

Reed has also written numerous novels, including Juice! (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011); Mumbo Jumbo (Doubleday, 1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award; and The Free-Lance Pallbearers (Doubleday, 1967). Also a playwright and essayist, he has published a collection of his drama, The Plays (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009), as well as several books of nonfiction, including The Complete Muhammed Ali (Baraka Books, 2015).

Reed has founded and cofounded several small presses, journals, and organizations, including the Before Columbus Foundation, Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, PEN Oakland, Quilt magazine, and Yardbird Publishing Company. He has edited a number of anthologies, including From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2002 (Da Capo Press, 2002).

According to the New York Times, “Among American writers, Ishmael Reed is probably the one whose sensibility is closest to jazz.” In fact, Reed is also well known for his contributions in the jazz and blues music scenes, both as a lyricist and a pianist. In 2012, he was named the first SF JAZZ Poet Laureate, and in 2008, he was honored as the Blues Songwriter of the Year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame. He has released numerous CDs of jazz and spoken word.

Reed received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. His numerous other honors and awards include the first International Alberto Dubito Award, an American Civil Liberties Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Award, and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Until his retirement in 2005, he taught creative writing at the University of California at Berkeley for over thirty years. He lives in Oakland, California.

Selected Bibliography

New and Collected Poems 1964–2007 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007)
New and Collected Poems 1964–2006 (Carrol & Graf, 2006)
The Reed Reader (Basic Books, 2001)
New and Collected Poems (Atheneum, 1988)
A Secretary to the Spirits (NOK, 1978)
Chattanooga (Random House, 1973)
Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963–1970 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1972)
Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church (Paul Brennan, 1970)

Juice! (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
Japanese by Spring (Atheneum, 1993)
The Terrible Threes (Atheneum, 1989)
Reckless Eyeballing (St. Martin’s Press, 1986)
The Terrible Twos (St. Martin’s Press, 1982)
Flight to Canada (Random House, 1976)
The Last Days of Louisiana Red (Random House, 1974)
Mumbo Jumbo (Doubleday, 1972)
Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (Doubleday, 1969)
The Free-Lance Pallbearers (Doubleday, 1967)

The Complete Muhammed Ali (Baraka Books, 2015)
Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown (Baraka Books, 2012)
Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (Baraka Books, 2010)
Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections (Da Capo Press, 2008)
Blues City: A Walk in Oakland (Crown Journeys, 2003)
Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War (Basic Books, 2003)
Airing Dirty Laundry (Addison-Wesley, 1993)
Writin’ is Fightin’: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (Atheneum, 1988)
God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (Garland, 1982)
Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Doubleday, 1978)

The Plays (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009)

Ishmael Reed
Photo credit: Michael Simon

By This Poet


I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra

'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

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