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Will Alexander's Diary as Sin

Powerful second novel from a surrealist poet

Posted: June 1, 2011

By Darrell Jónsson - For the Post | Comments (2) | Post comment

Will Alexander's Diary as Sin

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Branded as surrealist, Los Angeles poet Will Alexander's books have a reputation of pulling readers into altered states of consciousness with the wrenching power of words.

In the force of his mental torque, Alexander is not entirely unlike another Southern California literary figure, the late Philip K. Dick, who once stated as his goal to "set off a chain reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the reader, so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create." While Dick's chosen medium was the sort of sci-fi that eventually resulted in the big-screen hits Blade Runner and Terminator, Alexander's style has been surrealism from the African Francophile Diaspora mixed with free-jazz driven synergies. Alexander's second novel, Diary as Sin, proves the poet's talents are as varied as they are raw.

Born in Los Angeles in 1948, Alexander rode the city's mercurial waves in his early life: postwar optimism, mid-'60s violence and late 60s utopian moments. While hippies and beatniks dominated most of what was considered cultural and press-worthy during much of the era in Southern California as elsewhere, transcontinental cultural visions met with entrepreneurial craft in certain sectors of Los Angeles' predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

It was during these years Alexander came into contact with a twin stream of proactive cultural communities, including a tribe of writers based around the K. Curtis Lyle's Watts Towers writer's workshop, and a crew of jazz musicians who supported themselves selling sticks of homemade incense with the brand name of "Love Supreme."

Diary as Sin
By Will Alexander
Skylight Press
176 pages

Encouraged by mentors such as Afro-Choctaw-American Lyle and Italian-American surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, Alexander took multicultural cues from the writings of Martinique surrealist poet-statesman Aimé Cesaire in forging his own literary quest. Over the decades, Alexander's commitment to poetry has led to ongoing music collaborations with the late California jazz drummer Sonship Theus and jazz activist Ghasem Batamuntu as well as numerous books. Today, Alexander's work has not only been critically acclaimed in the English-speaking world but has also found a positive reception in German, Romanian and Hungarian translations.

Alexander's first novel, Sunrise in Armageddon, in 2007 was a recipient of the PEN Oakland National Book Award. And while according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Sunrise in Armageddon "was a whop over the head that only the most Joycean among us could dare to hold with a steady grip," it also demonstrated a visionary poet mutating book-length prose with the passion of a drummer slicing time into atomic nanoseconds.

Alexander's second novel, Diary as Sin, arrives with a similar oracular energy in the depiction of a metizo New Mexican family posing as Castilian landed gentry. While on the surface the theme may sound like the motif for a dynastic television series, the way the story unfolds, via the confessions of a blind victim of incestuous rape, elucidates the cataclysm of the Pan-American self that is far from the thematic stuff of prime-time television.  

Even while employing such a shockingly dramatic plot, Alexander can hardly be accused of sensationalism. While the blind ingénue Rosanna is held prisoner on a hacienda funded by her family's copper wealth, she is used by her mother Zomaya for the sexual manipulation and control of her brothers "as if she controlled a ring of lessened circus beasts." Under this pressure, Rosanna erupts into confessions like a prophet in the Abrahamic tradition of Ezekiel exiled in Babylon, stating "the rulers are stricken vis a vis eternity. From this follows the emblems, the code words the killings. Which results in ownership of metals and lands."

This also ultimately results in the ownership of Rosanna's body, which endures repetitive physical violations yet is sustained by a rich inner life that contains moments of grandeur, such as when she describes, "I've heard the Sun of the Sun in my schisms taking on the character of the vertical ratios of polyphony."

In 1947, the Marseillais actor Antonin Artaud recorded a radio play, To Have Done With the Judgment of God, delivered with all the tonality one might expect from a survivor of decades of mental illness, electroshock therapy and drug abuse. Attempting to express himself, Artaud often lapsed into passionate unintelligible noise. It was speculated Artaud's madness may have been a byproduct of attempting to reconcile the peaceful time he spent among the Taramara Indians in the 1930s with the home he returned to in Europe torn with the throes of World War II. Diary as Sin's setting, combined with Rosanna's Indian heritage, makes it hard not to think of Artaud's tortured psyche as Rosanna's battles being a sex slave inharmoniously suspended between European and Mesoamerican realms.  

That such impulses are given a lucid voice in Alexander's novel does not need to be seen as dangerous unless the reader finds it salacious that the protagonist's confessions reflect a buoyant state of being. It's a feeling best described by Rosanna when she says, "This is why I play with parsecs, this is why the realia of zones is always something other than persistence through reasoned abstraction. This is the spur to new discovery and view. This is why Kepler kept the Sun a secret. He had unwrought consensus perception."

Diary as Sin shows that after decades as a respected poet, Alexander has blossomed into a powerful and affective novelist.


Author Interview: Will Alexander

Between his busy schedule of reading at San Francisco's City Lights Books, putting final edits on his new novel and sitting in on music sessions at Berkeley's Subterranean Arthouse, Will Alexander responded to The Prague Post by e-mail.

TPP: In the late '60s, under the shadows of Simon Rodia's Gaudi-like backyard sculpture garden, Watts Towers became a gathering place for what has been called South Central L.A.'s New Afrikan cultural community. From your point of view, how did that scene fit into the welt-model of international African culture?

WA: True, I heard and met Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Horace Tapscott, among others at the Towers; it has been the spirit of its presence that has been most positive for me. The Watts Towers is and was a clarion call, though I must say that my inspiration has flowed from other directions.

TPP: Do you see yourself working in the legacy of surrealism or any other literary movement?

WA: Surrealism has never been a doctrinaire or didactic engagement. It confirms the feelings I had when I was ... 5 years old.What has been interesting for me has been the African tendencies in people like Artaud, Leiris and Lamantia. The latter being unlike what I consider to be the underlying segregation which seems to presently persist in North American poetry.

For me, poetry must be initially nourished in isolation. One must grow to seed in private until it burns its way into the world on its own. Then it can begin to absorb elements from all disciplines of knowledge without shattering or breaking its stems. Instead, the stems become telepathic receivers, working with languages from botany, to law, to astronomy. But the key is to always live with oneself, one's failures, one's doubts, one's weaknesses, slowly transmuting them into strengths for oneself.

Darrell Jónsson can be reached at

Tags: new books, literature, literary news, book review, will alexander, diary of sin, fiction.

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