Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer & Performance Poet Arthur Flowers

In art, books, graphic novels, nonfiction, poetry, spoken word, writing on June 4, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Arthur Flowers

Arthur Flowers. Photo courtesy of the author.

An introduction to Arthur Flowers, author of the graphic nonfiction book I See The Promised Land (Tara Books, 2011). Flowers collaborated with Manu Chitrakar, a Patua scroll painter from Bengal, to illustrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. A novelist, essayist, and performance poet, other books by Arthur Flowers include Another Good Loving Blues, De Mojo Blues, Cleveland Lee’s Beale Street Band, and Mojo Rising: Confessions of a 21st Century Conjureman.

Quick Facts on Arthur Flowers

  • Arthur Flowers blogs at Rootsblog
  • Home: Syracuse, New York
  • Comfort food: fresh squeezed orange juice
  • Top reads: Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, The Healing by Gayl Jones
  • Currently reading: Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

What are you working on at the moment?

A novel-in-progress, Rest for the Weary, about a hoodoo sorcerer in Memphis, Tennessee, who aspires to be a prophet. Great sorcerer, failure as a prophet.

Where did the idea for I See The Promised Land come from? What about the decision to make it a graphic novel?

I was in India doing readings at the Jaipur Literary Festival, when Gita of Tara Books approached me about doing a collaboration with a Patua artist on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. I knew nothing of Patua art at the time, but the chance to do a collaboration with an Indian artist spoke to me. And, when Gita mentioned MLK, that spoke to me as a Memphis native who had experienced King and the Civil Rights Movement firsthand. It was a chance to explore a personal icon of mine, and be a part of shaping King’s legacy, which I judge to be an important one.

It was always conceived as a graphic work. That was a major part of its appeal for me, as I believe literature in the 21st century will have to finesse media-based cultural sensibility. Doing graphic work incorporates media in service of the greater good.

“I believe literature in the 21st century

will have to finesse media-based cultural sensibility.”

 What do you hope readers will take away from I See The Promised Land?

Foremost, I guess an appreciation for Martin Luther King, Jr and the Civil Rights Movement. I tried to portray a more complex MLK than commonly depicted. Then, as it was a confluence of storytelling traditions, I tried to incorporate traditional African American storytelling motifs and strategies that I hope will delight and entertain the reader while I’m dropping knowledge.

I hope that they will appreciate the international quality of the work, the fusion inherent in the concept; I hope that the final product is greater than the disparate pieces, and harmonious; that it speaks to various cultures. I was very conscious of its global purview.

I hope that they will find the work aesthetically pleasing and maybe even moving. Transcendental.

I hope that it inspires, empowers, and regenerates them in the struggle for human dignity that is MLK’s legacy.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

For I See The Promised Land, I envisioned an Indian readership. My work is primarily designed for the African American generations, more broadly for all humanity and all its generations.

Aesthetically, I write for the discerning reader who will appreciate my narrative style and what I have to say.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

Every day, with two days a week off. About 2am I start three-hour shifts. I do as many three-hour shifts as I can get into a day, depending on my commitments that day. For every three hours on, I take three hours off. Minimum is one three-hour shift a day—that’s an okay day; a six-hour day is a good day, nine is a great day, twelve is the zone.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Somebody’s ocean. In a turret workspace with big windows and 360 degrees of sea breeze.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

Blues and jazz mostly. I have to have music on while I write. I have three-hour playlists chosen depending on my mood and the day’s narrative challenges. Right now, I’m listening to Dinah Washington. Yesterday, it was Little Axe.

How does your background as a performance artist influence your writing process?

Process not so much as product. Product, infinitely so. I come out of the griotic school of African American literature, that posits itself heir to two literary traditions, the Western written and the African oral, and try in the fusion to contribute to the evolution of both. I try to make the strategies of the oral tradition work on the page, and I try to bring the substance of the page to the performance. Performance gives me much of the material for my current novel because the main character is a storyteller. They are inextricably woven.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

I was trained by Babajohn Killens, the Great Griot Master of Brooklyn, to be a literary visionary. A long-distance runner, he called it. The Long Game, I call it. I write for generations to come, like John O [Babajohn] taught me. I consider literature a sacred calling, and it’s manifested in my work. If I didn’t think literature was one of the great powers of the human condition, I wouldn’t be in the game.

“I consider literature a sacred calling.”

This means I’m very much into the responsibility of the writer to produce works worthy of the calling. Work that means something, works that count. As to if my works make the cut, who knows, who cares. You write the best books you can write, the most serious and sincere work you can produce; you let the generations decide their worth.

I’m reminded of the Joyce quote from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

How do you balance content with form?

For me, content shapes the form. Every novel, every work I’ve ever written has demanded its own voice. I See The Promised Land has a relatively unique voice/shape/structure that was demanded of it by the circumstances of its inception and the goals that I and Tara Books had for it. Because I thought of it as an engagement of two storytelling traditions, I developed an overt African American storyteller voice for it. I kept asking Tara Books if I was stepping over the line, and they kept saying go for it. So I did. I took narrative chances I have been wanting to take for some time now.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

Peter De Vries: ”I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”

John O [Babajohn] Killens: “The more important it is you have to say, the more obligated you are to say it well.”

James Joyce: “O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

“It’s about growing as a writer

for the rest of your life.”

You have to take it seriously, got to structure your life around production; it’s about growing as a writer for the rest of your life; got to write work that’s sincere and significant, pay your dues without whimpering, and never give up. That’s the only thing fatal. Nothing is given but struggle. A buddy of mine once said, “If it was easy, everybody would go down the street and get some.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Buddy of mine, Aishah Rahman—I once told her I wanted to be the greatest novelist who ever lived. She said, “No, Art, that’s not what you want. You want to sing your song the best you can sing it. That way you can appreciate other folks singing theirs.”

That’s not only kept me from being jealous of my peers or other authors, it’s kept me from mimicking other writers. I’m very comfortable singing my own song.

“I’m very comfortable singing my own song.”

Also, advice by my mentor, I don’t remember his exact words but he used to tell us over and over that future generations won’t care about your problems, they won’t care that you were broke, needed tenure, impatient, losing respect—all they will have is the work, so you got to be strongheart. Give it whatever it takes. Strongheart.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

I’m not really into first editions. Maybe a Shakespeare portfolio so I could sell it.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your work?

Craft and narrative strategies. Also, the spiritual component of my work. The literary visionary thing I got going.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Believing in myself. Believing in the value of my work. Ignoring the doubts and anxieties that never go away.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?


About Arthur Flowers

Arthur Flowers is a novelist, essayist, and performance poet. A native of Memphis Tennessee, he is the author of novels, Another Good Loving Blues and De Mojo Blues; a children’s book, Cleveland Lee’s Beale Street Band, a memoir/manifesto, Mojo Rising: Confessions of a 21st Century Conjureman, and a graphic nonfiction book, I See The Promised Land. He has published shorts and articles, and is a blues-based performance poet. He is a founding director of New Renaissance Writers Guild, The Griot Shop, and the Pan African Literary Forum. He has been Executive Director of the Harlem Writers Guild, and has been the recipient of NEA and NYSFA awards in fiction and nonfiction. He is also a blogger at Rootsblog, a Cyberhoodoo Webspace.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer & Performance Poet Arthur Flowers.” Words With Writers (June 4, 2011),

I See The Promised Land

I See The Promised Land by Arthur Flowers (Tara Books, 2011).

  1. […] Day, Lucille Lang (2014) Doyle, Caitlin (2011) Drewes, Steffi (2010) Duggan, Patrick (2012) Flowers, Arthur (2011) Foerster, Jennifer Elise (2013) Harmon, Elliot (2011) Hirshfield, Jane (2011) […]

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