Nationality: American (emigrated from Panama in 1948). Born: Republic of Panama, 31 August 1944. Education: Queens College (now City University of New York), B.A. 1967; graduate study at Pratt Institute. Military Service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1968–72; served in Vietnam. Career: Assistant reference librarian, Pratt Institute, New York, 1967–68; writer-in-residence, Texas Southern University, Houston, 1973; creative writing teacher, Black Arts Center, Houston, 1973–75. Since 1976 correspondent, Living Blues, Chicago. Has worked with the Poetry-in-the-Schools program in New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia. Awards: Dwight Durling prize in poetry, 1963; Poets Foundation award, 1966, 1974; Committee on Poetry grant, 1973; Lucille Medwick award, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1983; Houston Festival Foundation Arts award, 1984. Address: P.O. Box 14645, Houston, Texas 77021, U.S.A.
A Visible Island. N.p., Adlib Press, 1967.
Fit Music: California Songs. New York, Angel Hair Books, 1972.
Dracula. New York, Angel Hair Books, 1973.
Framing the Sunrise. N.p., Sun Be/Am Associates, 1975.
Sound Science. N.p., Sun Be/Am Associates, 1978.
The Bathers: Selected Poems. New York, Reed, 1978.
Chances Are Few. Berkeley, California, Blue Wind Press, 1979.
Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Editor, ANKH: Getting It Together. N.p., Hope Development, 1974.
Editor, Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African American Literature. New York, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1998.*
Critical Studies: Interview with Charles H. Rowell, in Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 4(1–3), 1981, and with Hermine Pinson, in Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 22(2), spring 1999.* * *
Beginning with his first published collection, A Visible Island, Lorenzo Thomas has dealt with a range of important contemporary issues in a variety of poetics. His Panamanian past as well as his identity as a politicized African-American writer, coupled with an intense interest in how poetry is connected to everyday language, have led to Thomas's production of an important body of writing. His work as a teenager in the Umbra workshop on the Lower East Side of New York involved him from an early age in an intense aesthetic and political environment. Other writers such as Brenda Walcott and Lennox Raphael helped create a vibrant dialogue in a community that was formative for the young Thomas's work. The civil rights movement, the ethnically diverse city of New York, and the development of African identity, as well as various avant-garde artistic groups, shaped Thomas's early poetics and have continued to influence him. It is important also to note Thomas's service in Vietnam, which had a profound influence on his attitude about the marginalized and their involvement in the nation.
Thomas's interest in the early work of Amiri Baraka as well as in the French surrealist André Breton and the Martinican were important to his early collections. Magical realist textures, a strong sense of African identity, and an intense interest in folk cultures are also significant in the early books. Of course, important to an exploration of any of these issues for a displaced Panamanian is the concept of diasporic exile, a theme that Thomas explores with particular effectiveness in the early poem "The Unnatural Life." Other poems grapple with African identity and the ways in which it is frequently "masked" in contemporary American social life, how the African exile deals with his lot in a country that again and again marginalizes him.
A later poem shows how Thomas has attempted to continue the exploration of the themes of his earlier work while embracing contemporary culture and its impact on forming attitudes and perspectives on important subjects. Consider, for example, these lines:
Watch who ends up in contestant's row
I like it when the colored people win
It always was all women years ago
Once in a while maybe a young Marine
Lcpl in dress uniform
Every other word he said was "sir"
Probably a newlywed on top of that
The poem builds to end with the refrain "I like it when the colored people win." Besides the thematic issue of the marginalization of African-Americans, the poem also illustrates Thomas's formal range. Like Gwendolyn Brooks, he is a poet who is comfortable writing about highly polemical subjects in a variety of poetic styles. Sometimes he uses rhyme and sometimes free verse, but his work is always propelled by an attention to the possibilities of the vernacular.
Whatever the poetics that are prominent in any given poem, Thomas is a clear example of a contemporary African-American poet who has managed to keep political concerns alive without compromising his devotion to craft. As he has commented, "Poetry is an often effective remedy for the sometimes life-threatening ailment of spontaneous speech. Poetry is formulaic language, a cure for blurting." Thomas's work enacts just such a cure, aspiring toward natural-sounding language, incorporating the vernacular, yet always aware of its aesthetic effects. That Thomas's work frequently succeeds—while dealing with some of the most divisive of political topics—speaks to his great abilities.