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Ishmael Reed


Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in working class neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York. He attended Buffalo public schools, and from 1956 to 1959 was enrolled at the University of Buffalo, which awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1995. In 1998 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Johnson C. Smith University at Charlotte, North Carolina. For over thirty years, he taught creative writing courses in the English Department at the University of California, at Berkeley, retiring as of January, 2005. Currently Visiting Scholar at California College of the Arts, teaching poetry writing or fiction during the Spring semester, during the 2005 Spring semester, he was a Visiting Artist/Scholar at San Jose State University, holding the Lurie Chair in Creative Writing. He has also taught at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and the University of the Antilles in Martinique, among other appointments.  In 1989 he received a University of California Humanities Fellowship to complete his novel, Japanese By Spring, and received two fellowships from the African Studies Center to continue his studies of the Yoruba language. In 1991, he received an American Cultures Fellowship from U.C., Berkeley to produce an original television drama.

Author of thirty published books to date, Ishmael Reed is a novelist, poet, playwright, lyricist and essayist. His most recent publication, The Complete Muhammad Ali, was published July 15, 2015 by Baraka Books of Montreal. He has been the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, has been a Pulitzer finalist, and he has been nominated twice for the National Book Award. He is also a publisher, editor of fourteen anthologies and numerous magazines, television producer, public media commentator, teacher and lecturer. The most recent anthology he has edited, Black Hollywood Unchained, includes an introduction by Reed; it was published by Third World Press in 2015. His tenth novel, Juice!, published by Dalkey Archive Press in April, 2011, includes over twenty of his cartoons. From 2012-2016, Reed served as the poet laureate of SF JAZZ, the leading nonprofit jazz organization on the West Coast. His poem, When I Die I Will Go to Jazz, is installed on the Linden Street north gate of their SF Jazz Center, which celebrated its official opening in January 2013. LitQuake, the yearly San Francisco Literary Festival, honored Ishmael Reed with their 2011 Barbary Coast Award. His online literary magazine, Konch, featuring poetry, essays and fiction, can be found at His San Francisco Chronicle blog is located at

Reed's tenth essay collection, Going Too Far: Essays About Americas Nervous Breakdown was published in 2012 by Baraka Press, which also published his ninth essay collection, Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media, Or The Return of the Nigger Breakers in 2010. His 2009 publications include Ishmael Reed, the plays, a collection of his six plays (Dalkey Archive Press), and Powwow, Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience: Short Fiction From Then to Now (Da Capo Press), an anthology edited by Reed with Carla Blank. The 2013 New American Library's latest Signet Classic edition of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn features an Afterword by Ishmael Reed.Reed is currently at work on a new poetry collection, a play, an autobiography, Taking an Ell, and two novels: Conjugating Hindi and The Terrible Fours, a continuation of his "Terrible" novel series.

In December 2013, Ishmael Reed premiered his seventh play, "The Final Version," at the Nuyorican Poets Café. In 2012, A Sampler of the Theater of Ishmael Reed, was performed at the San Francisco and Oakland campuses of California College of the Arts, directed by Carla Blank. These performances were inspired by the New York retrospective, in November 2010 at the Nuyorican Poets Café, of excerpts from Ishmael Reed's plays, directed by Rome Neal. Backstage called Reeds two act drama Body Parts genius when it premiered at the Nuyorican as a revised version of Tough Love, which premiered at Berkeleys Black Repertory Theater. His video projects include a soap opera, Personal Problems, directed by Bill Gunn; A Word In Edgewise, a conversation with writer, Al Young; The Only Language She Knows, a collaboration with writer/actor Genny Lim; and Savage Wilds, a play by Reed originally mounted in an Oakland production at Ed Bullins BMT theater, directed by Vern Henderson and later produced by Miguel Algarin and directed by Rome Neal at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Four other Reed plays, including Hubba City, The Preacher and the Rapper, C Above C Above High C, and a musical version of Mother Hubbard have also received productions at the Nuyorican, under Rome Neals direction. A gospera, Gethsemane Park, with libretto by Reed and music composed by Carman Moore, was premiered April 1, 1998 at Berkeleys Black Repertory Theater, and restaged in April, 1999 by San Franciscos Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, under the direction of the late Stanley Williams, and in July, 2000 at the Nuyorican Poets Café, with Rome Neal directing. Besides the Dalkey Archive collection, 3 Reed plays appear in ACTION, Plays from the Nuyorican Theater Festival.  

Ishmael Reeds texts and lyrics have been performed, composed or set to music by Albert Ayler, David Murray, Allan Touissant, Carman Moore, Taj Mahal, Olu Dara, Lester Bowie, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Ravi Coltrane, Leo Nocentelli, Eddie Harris, Billy Bang, Bobby Womack, Milton Cardonna, Omar Sosa, Jack Bruce, Little Jimmy Scott, Robert Jason, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Cassandra Wilson, Mary Wilson of the Supremes and others. In 2008, he was honored as Blues Songwriter of the Year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame Awards. He has been the central participant in the longest ongoing music/poetry collaboration, known as Conjure projects, produced by Kip Hanrahan on American Clavé: Conjure I (1984) and Conjure II (1988), which were reissued by Rounder Records in 1995; and Conjure Bad Mouth (2005), whose compositions were developed in live Conjure band performances, from 2003 to 2004, including engagements at Paris Banlieues Bleues, Londons Barbican, and the Blue Note Café in Tokyo. The Village Voice ranked the most recent Conjure CD one of four best spoken word albums released in 2006. During Esprits DAfrique, a Paris festival presented by 3D Family and the Dapper Museum in April 2002, Reed debuted as a composer, when David Murray performed his composition, 9/11. Sacred Ground, a 2007 independent film with a score by David Murray, includes Reeds lyrics for the title track and Prophet of Doom, with vocals by Cassandra Wilson, and was selected for Sundance Film Festival and PBS television station airings. Two of the films pieces were first performed by Ishmael Reed on his privately produced CD, "For All We Know" (2007), along with nine jazz standards and one other original collaboration with David Murray, who appears as guest artist in the Ishmael Reed Quintet, which includes Reed on piano, Roger Glenn on flute, Chris Planas on guitar, and Carla Blank on violin. A David Murray CD released in 2009, The Devil Tried to Kill Me, includes two songs with lyrics by Reed: Afrika, sung by Taj Mahal, and the title song performed by San Francisco based rapper, Sista Kee. On September 11, 2011 at a Jazz à la Villette concert at the Grande Halle in Paris, the Red Bull Music Academy World Tour featured Macy Gray, Tony Allen, members of the Roots, David Murray and his Big Band, Amp Fiddler and Fela! singer/dancers in premieres of 3 new songs with lyrics by Ishmael Reed. David Murrays album, Be My Monster Love (2013), features Macy Gray and Gregory Porter on 3 additional new songs with lyrics by Ishmael Reed: Army of the Faithful,  Hope is a Thing with Feathers, and the title track, Be My Monster Love. Yosvany Terry's latest CD New Throned Kings (SPassion 2014) includes lyrics by Ishmael Reed on "Mase Nadodo." 

Simultaneously to Reed receiving the first Alberto Dubito International award, essays by Italian scholars and translations of Reed's poetry were published in il grande incantatore per Ishmael Reed, edited by Giorgio Rimondi (Agenzia X, 2016). Reeds novels, poetry and essays have also been translated into French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Hebrew, Korean, Chinese, Hungarian, Dutch, and Czech. His poems, articles, interviews and book reviews have appeared in The Yale Review, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Amsterdam News, the Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, Life, Spin, Connoisseur, Scholastic Magazine, Le Monde, The Japan Times Weekly, The Village Voice, Artbyte, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker, The Paris Review,Time, Playboy, Black Renaissance Noire, Amerikastudien (American Studies), and online at Salon, Slate, Truthdig and Counter Punch besides many other print and online news media and scholarly sources in the U.S. and abroad.

Since the early 1970s, Ishmael Reed has championed the work of other writers, founding and serving as editor and publisher of various small presses and journals. His current publishing imprint, Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, published two anthologies of Nigerian writing: 25 New Nigerian Poets (2000) edited by Toyin Adewale, and Short Stories by 16 Nigerian Women (2005) edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, which were published in Arabic in 2012, by The National Center for Translation in Egypt. Other titles include Black Girl from Tannery Flats (2003), the memoirs of his mother, Thelma V. Reed; New and Collected Poems by Kathryn Takara (2003); Un Poco Low Coup by Amiri Baraka (2004); poetry collections from four women poets based in northern California: Under Burning White Sky by Boadiba (2005), Swallowing Watermelons by Karla Brundage (2006), City Beautiful by Tennessee Reed (2006), and After Altamira by Neli Moody (2006); and Maggie 3, a novel by Alison Mills Newman (2007). In 2011 the press published New and Selected Yuri, a collection of poetry and fiction by Japan based writer Yuri Kageyama; in 2013, Paper Gods and Rebels, a new collection of poetry by San Francisco based writer Genny Lim;and in 2015, Courtesans of Flounder Hill, the first published collection of poetry by Alaska-based Tlingit/Iñupiaq poet Ishmael Hope. Forthcoming is a formerly unpublished novel, King Comus, by the late William Demby. 

Ishmael Reed is a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, which celebrated their 40th anniversary with presentations of the 2016 American Book Awards in October at SF Jazz Center in San Francisco. Sponsored by the foundation since 1980, its American Book Awards have been called The American League to the National Book Awards National League. He also founded PEN Oakland which issues the Josephine Miles literary awards. PEN Oakland has been called The Blue Collar Pen. Currently he also serves on the boards of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Berkeley Black Repertory Group and was formerly on the board of the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where he conducted a masters residency in writing during summer, 2002, and debuted as a jazz pianist on their INside/OUT performance, collaborating with Carla Blank on violin and choreographer/ dancer Doug Elkins. He is also a fellow of Harvards Signet Society and Yales Calhoun House.
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Ishmael Reed recommends
The Sound of Blue (2004)
Holly Payne
"Here is a courageous, compassionate new voice filled with elegant and assured prose. Payne is a masterful storyteller who proves again to tackle ambitious subject matter with great delicacy."

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