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2005 Writers Forum
Steve Hernandez Effingham
~ with curator John Mifsud

Steve Hernandez Effingman photo
Steve Hernandez Effingham was born in Queens, New York in 1953. He moved to Los Angeles in 1975, determined to pursue a career as a Jazz journalist. After accidentally discovering the writing of Henry Miller (he thought he was purchasing a book by Arthur) and becoming a fixture at several Venice, CA jazz clubs where he befriended the musicians playing there, Steve decided to take the same creative risks as the musicians he watched perform each night. Thus began his pursuit of creative writing. He soon published poetry in the Free Venice Beachhead, and performed with local Jazz players such as John Carter, Vinny Golia, and Nels Cline. He was editor of Griot, A Journal of Native Consciousness, for more than ten years and has published poetry in a variety of journals. Steve currently resides in Seattle and is working on an historical novel about Jazz musicians in turn of the century New Orleans.
photo credit:
dean wong
Click on the ears below to listen to excerpts from this conversation. (Real Audio) Read and listen to writings by Steve Hernandez-Effingham
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Personal Background Conflict Why write Process/Writing Habits
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JM



I'm sitting here in the Jack Straw studios with Steve Hernandez Effingham. I'm very curious about so much of what you've done and some of your background. Would you tell our listening audience a little bit about that? Where did it all start for you?
SE


























Well, I was born in Queens, New York City. Very early on I was interested in putting words down on paper, always sort of had the ability to do so, and was able to fake my way through a lot of school with being able to turn a phrase. I've been a writer since I was in high school. I wrote for the school paper and so forth. And actually, I think it was music that turned me on to writing as an art form. I moved to California in 1975, and started hanging out at a little jazz club in Venice. And it was a little hole in the wall club, and they had really wonderful musicians who would come in and play. And I remember one evening watching these guys perform, and at the end of the evening -these were world class musicians who'd played with very famous people-they'd split the hat up, sixteen dollars apiece. And I figured that I needed to be taking the same type of risks that they were taking. They were artists, and at the time I actually wanted to be a jazz journalist. That's how I channeled, trying to figure out what to do with my life: "Well, I could write," and I loved jazz. So I figured I could try and be a jazz journalist. But watching these guys putting themselves on the line made me realize that I needed to take more risks with writing, and perhaps be more creative. And also, it was listening to John Coltrane's music, and jazz music, that, as a working class kid, made me come to understand that art existed. I didn't really know that there was any type of activity that included a kind of going past oneself, and Coltrane's music was a whole new world for me, and that's why I discovered that art existed at all. No one had ever told me before that. And so that's how I got into the creative end of writing. That happened in my early twenties.
JM


So it's very curious that, typically in the context of writing it's maybe the world of ideas that inspires people, but actually for you it was music. It was jazz music.
SE Yes.
JM Can you say more about your connection there?
SE



















Well, it relates to how I began this project. Eight years or so ago I was watching a documentary, it was "A Great Day in Harlem," and it was a movie about a photograph taken and put in Esquire with all these 52 jazz musicians. And I began reading the biographies after seeing this documentary and being so turned on by it. And the fact that white players always played with white players, and black players always played with black players, intrigued me, it was very interesting, and I began to study jazz in the context of race relations. And so I think that my approach to writing has always involved the world of ideas, even as a school kid I was very interested in current events and history-I was always a history buff-and at a certain point my love of jazz and real important issues in life kind of converged, and I began to study jazz again from the perspective of race relations in America. And that evolved into this current work. At the time I was writing a lot of poems, and it began as a long poem. A long narrative poem a la Charles Olsen was my vision. And it was just too much information, I just couldn't get it all in that little skinny poetic line, and had to begin to learn about what prose was, and that's where I am today. Seven years later on this project.
Music

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JM So tell us more about the project specifically. What is the project?
SE





























Well, actually it's, at this point, a historical novel, an offshoot of a larger piece, centered around an event that took place in New Orleans in the year 1900, the so-called Robert Charles Riot. And I discovered that the Robert Charles Riot's not spoken of much. Even when you see lists of racial incidents in American history, often the New Orleans riot is left off the list. It was a terribly cataclysmic and horrible event in New Orleans. At the time that this took place, jazz was forming. So, I realized that many musicians that today we revere, lived and worked in New Orleans during this particular week in July, when the white population rose up into a pogrom, and began to kill as many black people as they could. And that's where my interests in the racial aspects of jazz music sort of came into play. So I began to study this event. And the project originally had about twenty musicians, and I follow their lives through this week. At a certain point it got so unbelievably big it would take me another twenty years to finish. So I lopped off the story of Jean Auger, who's a Creole trombonist. And, as you know, when you're writing fiction, it often has a life of its own and doesn't care about your schedule particularly, and some of the corollary characters began to expand. So today, the story is about the life of Jean Auger, he's being pursued by a young German journalist who's name is Val Nieting, who's in America writing an article. He's researching it and he needs to speak to Jean Auger and he has strange personal reasons also for pursuing Auger. And this part of the story takes place in Los Angeles in 1965, concurrent with the Watts Riot, and a whole bunch of circumstances cause Auger to flash back to his experience in New Orleans. So in a way I'm juxtaposing the two terrible racial incidents, contrasting them. There's some similarities and some differences. And, we will see what type of decisions these people make, in terms of the reality of American racism.
JM



It's a very interesting exploration that you're embarking on, and I can see why the subject matter has called up some inspiration for you. So in responding to that inspiration, what is your creative process? What does it look like?
SE














I get up every morning, and I actually go to a coffee house, because it's actually hard to concentrate at home. My cat can be a terror. And I work two hours every day. And it's labor. And I go in and I make pages. And when I complete a section there are some times when you have to do some exploratory writing for a couple of days to try and figure out what it is you're going to be doing next-but really I grind it out, and I spent several years researching. You take several years researching and then you take several years understanding what you researched and kind of assimilating it, 'cause you can't spit back history book renditions, you have to have a historical vision yourself. But the process really entails sitting down, sometimes being frightened, very often being tired, and staying until you're suddenly in the piece. I work for two hours, and then usually I go to work. On the weekends I don't have to stop arbitrarily for that reason, but that's the process at this point.
JM



Is there some personal connection for you with the subject matter? You certainly said it was interesting to you, but I'm wondering, how does it connect, 'cause you've got fire about it, and… where's the spark?
SE

























Well, one simple answer to that is that America was born as a slave nation, a white supremacist nation. Our history began with white supremacy, and to this day that experience colors our language, the way we talk about race. The terminology we use was invented in the late Nineteenth Century, by racists. So the heritage of white supremacy is very much with us today, and yet in spite of Roots-the movie was all over the world, and the book sold millions, [and] there's a lot of other works as well, literary work-there's still a very large gap in terms of understanding the reality of what happened. And Americans, who have no understanding of themselves in this way, need to understand the reality, the real truth. And one of the things I've tried to do is show the pervasiveness of the violence; I'm graphic at times, but the violence was pervasive throughout society, and most Americans would be shocked. And I think that everybody needs to know these things, because you can't talk about race unless you know how we got to where we are today. So that's the driving force behind it. My background, I'm Puerto Rican, my mother was born in Puerto Rico. I think it gave me a little bit of insight into, particularly, the concept of the Creole, and the notion of certain people trying to pass, and the gradations of skin color, et cetera. I felt a certain affinity with the subject matter as I explored it. But my main impetus is that Americans talk about themselves without being informed, and I think that race needs to be fully explored. And I think that this work is pushing the envelope, as far as how we talk about it, and how we understand ourselves.
JM


It requires some courage, it seems like, this territory that you're forging here. It certainly comes out in your writing. I wonder if you might share a little bit of that with us at this time.
SE






Sure. Just to set it up, Jean Auger, who at this point is a young boy, ten years old, he's run away to the city and he's in pursuit of Buddy Bolden. He's trying to find the great trumpet player Buddy Bolden. He wants to join up with him and begin his career as a musician. And [in] his first moments in New Orleans he stumbles across a brass band parading through the streets, and he begins to follow the brass band, the Excelsior Brass Band.





<reading>
JM



It's so exciting. I hear the music even as you're speaking with the words that you've chosen to describe it. Another thing that I find very exciting is that you performed at the Nuyorican Poet's Café. Tell us about that.
SE






Oh yeah, this place was a lot of fun. It was wonderful to see a Puerto Rican place like that-the Lower East Side is like the capitol of Puerto Rican culture-it was lovely and wonderful to be there. And I read in poetry slams. I've done a few slams there. But also my favorite time, I read at three in the morning on the bandstand, it was like being a jazz player, and it was just a lot of fun, great crowds. The people are really appreciative, and yeah, it was a ball.
JM

That's a very famous place to be. So, do you have some sort of intention for the outcome for this experience for you?
SE







I think that meeting the other writers is really where it's at for me, and kind of talking shop and forming those relationships. You know, I've read a lot in my day and had a good time-I haven't read for several years now because I've been indoors writing a piece of prose. But for many years I did poetry primarily, and I was out playing with all the musicians. But this is a nice opportunity to talk to other writers, and to get to know them. That's been the key for me, and that's what excited me about the whole idea actually.
JM

So I'm curious, are you a musician? Did you have an instrument other than this choice of words and ink on paper?
SE



No, it's funny 'cause I'm extraordinarily uneducated in terms of basic music. The sound has always been important to me, and I've been able to extrapolate my own worldview through the sound, through listening to the sound. So, no, I'm not a musician.
JM

I know that you're in this body of work now, but do you have any inkling what the next project might be for you?
SE





















You know, this is such a massive job. It's interesting: in Earshot Magazine one time in Seattle I saw a quote from a fellow named Steve Lacey who was a saxophone player, and he talked about playing with the great Cecil Taylor (who is a piano player) in the '50's. And he said, "I was always playing above my head, I was always trying to catch up, I could never understand what was going on." And his point was that that's the best circumstance to be in for a creative artist. So, this piece is way beyond my powers, and sometimes I can't imagine surviving it, I'm telling you. However, after this I'd love to go back and finish the rest of the story, really, the Robert Charles story. And beyond that, I'd like to do a story someday on Alexander Berkman and Henry Frick. Berkman was the anarchist who went to Pennsylvania and tried to assassinate Frick. Frick was a crony of Carnegie and this idea came to me one time walking around the Frick Museum, I imagined Berkman there hiding behind the curtains, and that's something I'd like to explore. Several years ago I studied the Ranters, Sixteenth Century English schismatics, who, during the English Revolution, had a sect that believed that one must sin to be forgiven, therefore they embraced sin. But if you study them, it's a very interesting study of libertarianism or individual freedom. That would be a wonderful project that someday I'd like to write about those folks.
Future Writing




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JM



There's a wide range of things that ignite your curiosity and yet you're still working on this one and I can appreciate that, it requires the discipline to stay focused, so that you can get one job done before you get on to the next one.
SE And I'd like to get rid of old Jean Auger, I've known him for a while…
JM So, is there anything left unsaid?
SE








Well, I think that today, all artists of all different mediums need to begin to take responsibility and to discuss in some manner the issues of our lives today. I believe that change is inevitable, and that the only way it can come without a cataclysm is a cultural change, and that's the area where artists are in the drivers' seat. I think that we need to start dialog, we need to talk about the taboo subjects, we need to take responsibility. We always have fun and we need to get serious. And I think that's the only worthwhile work… that's the only thing I can get excited about, actually.
Read and listen to writings by Steve Hernandez-Effingham
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