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The Sweet Flypaper of Life

“The old folks used to say, when you enter a room, speak to the people who are already there…”

– Kalamu ya Salaam, Cosmic Deputy: Poetry & Context, 1968-2019

By Chelsey Shannon, editor

Whenever his name comes up, Kalamu ya Salaam regularly claims Langston Hughes as his patron saint of writing. From a young age, Hughes’ influence on Salaam was foundational and varied. Though he is most often remembered as a poet, Salaam is quick to point out that Hughes’ work spanned genres from verse to journalism to translation. And, in 1958, he broke new formal ground.

Salaam writes in his book Cosmic Deputy (2019, UNO Press) that, in addition to Hughes’ autobiographies and poetry, “Another very influential Hughes book was The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a photo/text collaboration with photographer Roy DeCarava. Flypaper set a photo essay standard…”

The original 1957 paperback edition.

First Print Press’s 2018 reissue of Flypaper offers unprecedented clarity and quality of DeCarava’s images, allowing Hughes’ words to shine all the more brilliant. After checking out this book, which I had not previously heard of, from the public library, I understood why it has made a lasting impression on Kalamu—enough of one to reach from the young poet’s first encounter with it fifty years into the future. It’s the type of book I wish my father had given and read to me as a young person, his inscription preserved on my shelf for years to come; a book that makes me wish I wanted kids.

Of course, there are many ways of honoring and passing on our artistic lineages. Nowadays, Salaam is at work on a project called Seeing Black, a celebration of Black photography in the Crescent City today and yesterday, in collaboration with photographer Eric Waters and scholar Shana M. griffin. While Flypaper chooses Harlem for its loving testimonial of language and portraiture, Seeing Black will focus on New Orleans’ pivotal role in the development of the scientific art of photography. 

Learn more about Salaam’s reverence of Hughes in Cosmic Deputy and at “What Langston Did: Kalamu ya Salaam on His Patron Saint of Writing,” a free virtual event taking place Thursday, April 29 from 6-7pm.

The University of New Orleans Press and Earl K. Long Library are proud to offer this talk as part of Lift Every Voice: Why African American Poetry Matters, a national public humanities initiative of Library of America presented in partnership with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with generous support from The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Emerson Collective.

More information about the Lift Every Voice initiative, including African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, a definitive new anthology edited by Kevin Young, can be found online.

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