Thursday, January 19, 2017

The shifting places of (black student) audiences for poetry

Nikki Giovanni reads at SIUE in 2012. Photograph courtesy of SIUE.

In discussions about the histories and developments in black poetry, we might also take into account the shifting places of black student audiences. College and university campuses have always been central to the rise and preservation of African American poetry over the last 5 or so decades.  And quiet as it's kept, black students as active audiences helped energize the work and sustain the visibility of many poets.

During the mid to late 1960s, colleges and universities experienced unprecedented growth in enrollment overall and among black students in particular. Not coincidentally, that growth coincided with the development of Black Studies programs and the emergence of the Black Arts Movement. When culturally active and militant-minded black students sought speakers on campus, black poets like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Haki Madhubuti were among the top picks. (Even white students interested in Black Power messages would include black poets in the line-up of potential guest speakers).

Take Nikki Giovanni. As Virginia Fowler has noted in Nikki Giovanni: A Literary Biography, Giovanni "made her living as an independent artist until 1987, when she accepted a position at Virginia Tech." Before then, she most consistently supported herself by giving lectures and readings. Colleges and universities were vital audiences, where she appeared before large groups of black students, many aligned with Black Studies and African American cultural affirmations, not just creative writing programs. Giving readings wasn't just something that Giovanni occasionally did; it was how she earned her living.

University cultural centers and Black Studies programs hosted Madhubuti. They hosted Sanchez. They hosted Baraka. They hosted large numbers of other poets. Those "new" black poets of the 1960s remained in high demand for decades (Giovanni is still one of our most frequently called upon poets). Nonetheless, things with black student audiences began to shift.

Spoken word artists -- a different kind or at least new generation of black poets -- were increasingly called on to read/perform in the context of Black Studies Program and for conscious cultural gatherings. When MFA programs invited African American poets, they were more likely to host poets with MFA degrees and books from literary presses. Sizable numbers of black student audiences attend spoken word sets, and those "sets" often include rap music and various kinds of performances. By comparison, the MFA gatherings have far less participation among black students.

Faculty members run MFA programs. By contrast, students typically run the Spoken Word groups. I was the faculty advisor for One Mic, the spoken word group on my campus for several years. The tensions within the group were never about performance poetry vs. print-based; more often, the students debated about how much attention and resources they should devote to rap vs. spoken word. In retrospect, their debates reflected important shifts among black student audiences.   

Black Arts era
The shifting places of jazz poetry

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A visual recap of blog entries on Tyehimba Jess's Olio

Tyehimba Jess's wonderful book Olio is a finalist for a National Book Critics Award and for the Kingsley Poetry Award and for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. You know I'm excited. Here's a recap of blog entries I produced on Olio some months back when it was released. Click on the links to go to the posts.   

• August 10: Coverage of Tyehimba Jess's Olio  

• April 11: Poets as Researchers: Tyehimba Jess and Robin Coste Lewis

• April 3: Amiri Baraka and Tyehimba Jess: on the Music and Musicians 

The shifting places of jazz poetry

Image source

People waste spend a lot of time talking about whether poetry is dead or jazz is dead. It might be better to talk about when genres or modes of expression rise and fall, or just shift in general. I was recently thinking about jazz poetry and considering its prominence in the histories of black poetry.

Although we could reasonably make the case that jazz poetry emerged way, way back with someone like Langston Hughes, we'd have to admit that it became most pronounced during the Black Arts era of the 1960s and 1970s. That's when we had the largest grouping of poets regularly publishing poems about the music and musicians.

Between 1968 and 1975 alone, a short list of just 20 poets who contributed to the realm of jazz poetry would include: Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Henry Dumas, Sarah Webster Fabio, Michael S. Harper, David Henderson, Bob Kaufman, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Etheridge Knight, Ted Joans, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Eugene B. Redmond, Carolyn Rodgers, Sonia Sanchez, Gil Scott-Heron, A. B. Spellman, Lorenzo Thomas, Askia Toure, and Quincy Troupe.

(Let me tell you, there are jazz poetry scholars out there who'd name many others).

For decades after the 1970s, Baraka, Cortez, Sanchez, and others continually produced work situated firmly within the domains of jazz poetry. Over the years, we've also witnessed a  range of new contributors. At the same time, we've witnessed shifts; jazz poetry doesn't hold the same prominent role in African American poetry, at least not among contemporary poets born after, say, 1960. 

In the 1970s, jazz musicians were among the most written about figures by black poets. That's no longer the case. At some point over the last over the last decade or two decades, black poets began writing about other figures like ex-slaves and many non-musician cultural and historical figures.

There are obviously some exceptions, but if you've been tracking the publishing and performance histories of African American poetry, the shifts in jazz poetry likely stand out to you.

Black Arts era

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Memorable black poetry collection: Arnold Adoff's I Am the Darker Brother

The other day, William J. Harris was mentioning Arnold Adoff's important anthology  The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century (1973). It was a work that was really useful for the research and writing that I did on anthologies of the Black Arts era.

Harris's mention prompted me to think on Adoff's collection I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans (1968). I stumbled across the book many, many  years ago as a child. It was one of the many works that my parents had in their collection of books. (I've written about Adoff's book a few years back).

I Am the Darker Brother was more than the first anthology by Adoff that I came across; it was in fact the first anthology of black poetry I ever encountered. Back then, I had no idea clear conception of an anthology, of Black Arts poetry, and the like.  

How Arnold Adoff helped nurture an early interest in black poetry (2013)
I am the Darker Brother (anthology) (2012)
30 Anthologies featuring Black Poetry, 1968-1975 
Black Arts era

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Locating Patricia Smith in histories of contemporary poetry

In between the thises and thats, I've been returning to the poetry of Patricia Smith. She's produced a really wonderful collection of works over the years:
Shoulda been Jimi Savannah (2012)
Blood Dazzler (2008)
Teahouse of the Almighty (2006)
Close to Death (1993)
Big Towns, Big Talk (1992)
Life According to Motown (1991)
It's not uncommon to hear her grouped together with poets like Saul Williams, jessica care moore, and Tracie Morris, given Smith's talents as a performer of her verses. On the other hand, in the anthology, Angels of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (2013), Charles Rowell places Patricia Smith in the "Second Wave, Post-1960s" section, which includes Elizabeth Alexander, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, Carl Phillips, and Sharan Strange, among others.  

By generation, she is a contemporary of  Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, Thylias Moss, and Harryette Mullen.
However,  during a stretch in the 1990s, Smith was establishing herself as a journalist, not necessarily a literary or print-based poet, which might explain the 13-year gap between Close to Death and Teahouse of the Almighty. Whatever the case, Smith has been really productive over the last 10 years. She has a new book -- Incendiary Art -- coming out in February.

Along with Tyehimba Jess, Smith is one of a relatively small number of poets well-known for performance who have also earned prestigious literary awards for her verse on the page. That's rare.

All of this is to say that it's both difficult and exciting trying to situate Patricia Smith's work in the histories of contemporary African American poetry.     

Blog entries about black women poets 

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Vijay Iyer Trio, African American literature & that "free" thing

“The new music began by calling itself 'free.'" --Amiri Baraka

At the end of Vijay Iyer's opening show in St. Louis on November 30, a group of audience members approached the pianist to thank him for a wonderful show and to ask questions. One man noted that he enjoyed the music, but he was confused about aspects of what he heard.

 "I liked the show," he said to Iyer, "but, some of the songs were hard to follow."

"What do you mean?" asked Iyer, trying to get clarification.

 "There were no chord progressions and melodies to follow, you know, like in regular music," said the man, and then quickly adding, "I mean, I enjoyed it, but didn't seem like the music on the radio, you know?"

Iyer patiently asked more questions, and began discussing aspects of the music. He noted that the group had in fact played a couple of more familiar or conventional tunes, such as covers of Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother" and Heatwave's "Star of a Story." 
"Ok, yeah, but....," the man said before cutting himself off, as he tried to articulate more about his confusion.  As he was trying to gather his thoughts, others moved forward and began conversing with Iyer.


I'm no expert in jazz. Not at all. But I realized that I was far less confused than that listener about some of what the Vijay Iyer Trio was up to in part because I was familiar with the sounds and histories of what was known in some quarters as "free jazz."  And my lack of confusion wasn't born of any inherent, high listening I.Q. on my part. Instead, I was the beneficiary of an African American literature course, of all things, on free jazz many years ago when I was a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University.     

The course was co-taught by literature professors William J. Harris and Paul Youngquist. We read literary works, essays, a biography on Sun Ra, and more. We watched Space is the Place. And of course, we listened to and discussed the music. Trane, Albert Ayler, Miles. Cecil Taylor. Ornette Coleman. And more. There wasn't nearly enough time to fit in everything we needed.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Recognizing the political struggles behind black poets as award winners and finalists

The other day, I was re-reading  Greg Tate's 1989  article "Nobody Loves a Genius Child: Jean Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk." The article resonates with me now as I noticed a the finalists for the 2017 Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards.

Before getting to that, let's take a look at the relevant segment from Tate's article. Toward the end of the essay, he highlights how two white art critics misunderstand the fundamental reasons why African American artist Martin Puryear apparently came out of nowhere and won the São Paulo Bienal. Tate concludes that,
The cold fax is this: the reason that Puryear's work came before the judges in São because Kellie Jones, the first Black female curator with the unprecedented clout to nominate a Puryear and have it mean something to the art world's powers that be. Before we can even begin to appraise Puryear's exceptional talents we need to recognize the political struggles that positioned Jones in her exceptional historical position.
(Jones, by the way, is the daughter of the late Amiri Baraka, a figure whose words are quoted throughout Tate's essay on Basquiat).

Tate reminds us that black visual artists, among others, never lacked talent. Instead, what often eluded them was a level playing field and the connections that white artists were constantly benefiting from. He was talking that back in 1989.  

Fast forward  to this 2017 announcement. 3 of the 5 Kingsley Poetry Award finalists are black poets. Also this: 3 of the 5 Kate Tufts Poetry Award finalists are black poets. African American poets were awarded Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards in 2016 and 2014. 

I've previously studied the remarkable works of some of the 2017 finalists--Tyehimba Jess, Vievee, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams, and Jamaal May. In light of Tate's 1989 article and in relation to my ongoing work on prizes and awards though, I realize that beyond celebrating the exceptional talents of poets, "we need to recognize the political struggles that positioned" the nominations and elevations of black poetry in all these competitions

Prizes and awards in African American poetry

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

From Jack Johnson to the Stars: Charting Adrian Matejka's next moves

Adrian Matejka's newest book Map to the Stars is scheduled for release at the end of March. I really enjoyed his previous book The Big Smoke on Jack Johnson. So I'm interested in the new directions he'll go in this upcoming volume.

His publisher Penguin Books sent me an advance copy, and I've been reading the poems over the break. This volume covers a variety of moments from the poet's childhood and teenage years, many from the 1980s. Varied takes on astronomy -- from stars and solar systems to Sun Ra -- serve as the main connecting thread throughout the book.

Aah, but my quick summary here ain't doing the poems justice. His wordplay and especially his use of similes to connect reflections on the past to the stars are where the work really takes off. In one poem, a friend's front door opens "like a newly discovered planet." And then in another poem this: "The moon is still out, eyeballing the quiet street like Sun Ra did his Arkestra." References like are scattered all across the volume, you know, like stars on a clear night.

There are poems about basketball, beat boxing, Prince, Basquiat, and more. The plan, in the lead up to the book's publication, is for me to squeeze in time to write about some of the select poems or topics that I keep returning to after the initial reads.  

Adrian Matejka