Thomas, Lorenzo 1944-2005
THOMAS, Lorenzo 1944-2005
PERSONAL: Born August 31, 1944, in the Republic of Panama; immigrated to the United States in 1948; died from emphysema, July 4, 2005, in Houston, TX; son of Herbert Hamilton (a pharmacist and chemist) and Luzmilda (a community organizer; maiden name, Gilling) Thomas; companion of Karen Luik. Ethnicity: "Black." Education: Queens College (now of the City University of New York), B.A., 1967; graduate study at Pratt Institute.
CAREER: Poet and writer. Pratt Institute, New York, NY, assistant reference librarian, 1967–68; Texas Southern University, Houston, writer-in-residence, 1973; Black Arts Center, Houston, TX, creative writing teacher, 1973–75; Living Blues, Chicago, IL, correspondent, 1976–2005; University of Houston—Downtown, Houston, professor of English. Worked with the Poetry-in-the-Schools program in New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia. Organizer of Juneteenth Blues Festivals in Houston and other Texas cities. Member of advisory board, KPFT-FM, Houston, 1973–2005; member of literature advisory panel, Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 1975–2005. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1968–72; served in Vietnam.
MEMBER: Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (member of board of directors).
AWARDS, HONORS: Dwight Durling Prize in poetry, 1963; Poets Foundation award, 1966 and 1974; Committee on Poetry grant, 1973; Lucille Medwick Award, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow, 1983; Houston Festival Foundation Arts award, 1984.
A Visible Island, Adlib Press (New York, NY), 1967.
Fit Music: California Songs, Angel Hair Books (New York, NY), 1972.
Dracula, Angel Hair Books (New York, NY), 1973.
(Editor) ANKH: Getting It Together, Hope Development, 1974.
(Contributor) Steve Cannon, editor, Jambalaya, Reed, Cannon & Johnson (Berkeley, CA), 1975.
Framing the Sunrise, Sun Be/Am Associates, 1975.
(Editor) I Luv It!: A Selection of Poems by Children in Grade 4-6, Artists-in-Residence Program (Beaumont, TX), 1977.
Sound Science, Sun Be/Am Associates, 1978.
The Bathers: Selected Poems, Reed, Cannon & Johnson (Berkeley, CA), 1978.
Chances Are Few, Blue Wind Press (Berkeley, CA), 1979.
Dancing on Main Street: Poems, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2004.
(With Louis Guida and Cheryl Cohen) Blues Music in Arkansas, Portfolio Associates (Philadelphia, PA), 1982.
(Editor) Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African-American Literature, Teachers & Writers Collaborative (New York, NY), 1998.
Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2000.
Also translator of Tho Tu Viet-Nam (poetry). Contributor to anthologies, including Black Fire: An Anthology of Black American Writing, Morrow (New York, NY), 1968; The Poetry of Black America, edited by Arnold Adoff, Harper (New York, NY), 1972; New Black Voices, edited by Abraham Chapman, New American Library (New York, NY), 1972; and None of the Above, edited by Michael Lally, Crossing Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1976. Contributor to periodicals, including Angel Hair, Art & Literature, C, Massachusetts Review, Umbra, Yardbird, and Yardbird Reader. Editor, Roots; advisory editor, Nimrod; contributing editor, Black Focus.
SIDELIGHTS: Beginning with his early work among the avant-garde poetry movements in New York City during the 1960s, Lorenzo Thomas offered a unique literary perspective, drawing on his Central American and African heritage, as well as his experiences in New York and in the American Southwest. Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, an essayist called Thomas "one of the most broadly based and multifaceted writers of African descent in America today" and praised Thomas's poetry as "noteworthy for its extraordinary, imaginative depiction of popular American culture and for his unique intermixture of apparently unrelated frames of reference."
Thomas's family moved from Panama to New York City in 1948. The Spanish-speaking youth was teased by other children, and he resolved to improve his language skills to prevent further humiliation. His early career coincided with the growing civil rights movement and the rediscovery by Black writers of their African heritage. Reflecting Thomas's interest in African history and folk culture as well as expressing social criticism, his early writings employ strong visual imagery, song, and allusion, while centering on such subjects as civil rights and American pop culture. The cinematic imagery of Thomas's work is exemplified by the title poem of his collection, The Bathers: Selected Poems, which Dent described as "a series of refractions off the indelible photographic image of black demonstrators being attacked with police fire hoses during the Birmingham demonstrations." Reviewing Thomas's collection Chances Are Few in the American Book Review, Fielding Dawson called the volume a "profound key to poetry and prose of the future," adding: "To think this writing is being done for black audiences and being written by black writers, is to live in an inverted hypocrisy. These poems are guidelines for us all." In the Library Journal, Maurice Kenny called the poems "sharp, urbane, caustic social criticism."
Extraordinary Measures, published in 2000, offers a critical overview of African-American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to modern poetry slams, including considerations of the works of such writers as Amiri Baraka, William Stanley Braithwaite, Fenton Johnson, Harryette Mullen, Kalamu ya Salaam, Melvin B. Tolson, Askia M. Toure, and Margaret Walker. Recommending the book in the Library Journal, Louis J. Parascandola called Thomas's writing "perceptive" and "jargon-free," and concluded that "Thomas makes a convincing case for a continuum within the African American poetic tradition."
Dancing on Main Street: Poems came out the year before Thomas's death in 2005. In this volume, Thomas broaches a wide range of topics from an ode about the real-life death of an unarmed street vendor named Amadou Diallo, who was killed by New York City police, to the television game show "The Price is Right."Other subjects that Thomas addresses through his poetry are the Vietnam War, in which he served, and the history of the blues. Overall, the book's sixty-one poems are broken up into five loose sections with the themes of "movement and travel, musicality, surrealism, black masculinity, [and] the interior life," as noted by Holly Bass in Black Issues Book Review. Bass also noted in her review that the "new collection showcases his agility—from rangy surrealism to the sparest blues to elegies of Vietnam that could only come from lived experience." Fritz Lanham, writing in the Houston Chronicle, called Thomas "a poet of both weight and wit" He also wrote that "taken together, the poems in this collection exhibit that equipoise that comes with age and experience. Sorrow and joy find their balance." A Publishers Weekly contributor concluded: "This caustically modern, enticingly various and ironically titled collection is a very welcome major release."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets since 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
American Book Review, May, 1982, Fielding Dawson, review of Chances Are Few.
Black Issues Book Review, September-October, 2004, Holly Bass, review of Dancing on Main Street: Poems, p. 55.
Black Scholar, May, 1980; March, 1981.
Choice, July-August, 2001, B. Taylor-Thompson, review of Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry, p. 1964.
English Journal, May, 2000, Louann Reid, review of Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African-American Literature, pp. 151-152.
Houston Chronicle, July 9, 2004, Fritz Lanham, review of Dancing on Main Street.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, November, 1998, review of Sing the Sun Up, p. 247; May, 1999, Jeanne McGlinn, review of Sing the Sun Up, pp. 683-685.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, November, 1998, review of Sing the Sun Up, p. 29.
Library Journal, April 1, 1980, Maurice Kenny, review of Chances Are Few; October 15, 2000, Louis J. Parascandola, review of Extraordinary Measures, pp. 71-72.
Publishers Weekly, April 26, 2004, reviw of Dancing on Main Street, p. 57.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1998, review of Sing the Sun Up, p. 233.
Alabama Journalist Online, http://www.ccom.ua.edu/ (October 6, 2000), Les Drennen, "Lorenzo Thomas Breathes Life into Poetry with Anecdote, Banter."
New Journal, http://www.thenewjournal.com/ (November 1, 2001), "Talking to Lorenzo Thomas."
University of Alabama Press, http://www.uapress.ua.edu/ (January, 2001).
Houston Chronicle, July 9, 2004, Fritz Lanham.