The Ted Joans I know is unforgettable. He was a jazz poet, wanderer, and one of the Beat Generation. After marrying a woman named Joan, he changed his name from Jones to Joans. At one time he had a home in Timbuktu. Ted invited me to visit him there; alas, I couldn’t make it. I never heard a better reader of poetry—especially his own.
Ted was born in Cairo, Illinois, in 1943, during the race riots. His parents had worked on Mississippi river runs. (His father was pulled off a streetcar and killed by white workers during the Detroit race riots.) Despite a difficult childhood, Ted went on to earn a B.A. in fine arts from Indiana University. Later, with scant funds, he traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa. He was a traveler at home.
According to the Kirkus review of Black Pow-Wow (Hill and Wang, 1969), “Ted Joans’ first book for a major publisher is an exciting and energetic collection of black poetry. A remarkable person emerges from these pages.”
The following poem illustrates Ted Joans’s hard, drumming beat, his aggressive, sensual mastery of language:
And she was brown
And she always dressed and wore brown
And she had a fine brown body
And she would sit in the Beat Cafe
On her brown behind on a hard brown bench
and listen to brown sounds entertain her brown thoughts
And she would often double cross her big brown legs
And reveal her beautiful brown pleasing knees
And as she sat in the Beat Cafe on her brown behind
on the hard brown bench
And listening to brown sounds coming from brown entertainers
of brown bohemia
I saw a young white girl throw away her brand new
jar of suntan lotion and sigh: WHY TRY?