Friday, May 18, 2018

Listening to 100 black women poets reading 200 poems

As part of a research project that I'm currently working on, I spent the last couple of weeks listening to more than 200 recordings of poems by slightly more than 100 black women poets. In addition to thinking and writing more about the sounds of poets reading, I've been expanding my approaches to utilizing audio recordings in my classes. Based on my experiences listening to the poems, I'd definitely encourage teachers to incorporate more black women poets reading their works into class sessions.

[Related30 black women poets reading their works]

Over the years, my students, especially my black women students, would suggest spoken word artists as alternatives and complements to the poetry we covered in class. Their suggestions were gentle nudges and critiques of the limits of print-based poetry. They were rightly questioning why the print-based poetry was privileged and why readings by several of those poets were less interesting than the dynamic, poetic black speech that they were encountering in their everyday lives.

Listening to 100 black women poets -- from Margaret Walker (1915-1998) to Amanda Gorman (b. 1998) -- offers an understanding of poetry that is not always evident when and if you read or listen to just one kind of poetry, even one kind of black poetry. You hear different tones, pitches, intensity, pronunciations, accents, paces, and on and on. You come across poets who read softly and timidly, others who read loudly, boldly, and others in between.

You notice that poets who read from the page sound differently than poets who recite their words from memory. They sometimes have different paces and rhythms. Generally, I noticed a wider variety of reading styles among those reciting their works--with some taking on a conversational tone, some enacting the personas of others, some imagining a specific recipient, and some interspersing jokes.

There's also the matter of audience. Some poetry contexts have listeners who sit calmly and clap after poets finish reading. Then, there are other audiences offering affirmations ("Go girl!" "Come on!" "Yes!") for the poets throughout the readings.

Throughout the summer, I plan to produce periodic entries about discoveries I make as I continue to analyze the recordings. From what I've heard so far though and combined with my thoughts about working with students, I'd recommend teachers and professors making the sounds of black women reading out loud more of a priority in classes.

30 black women poets reading their works: From M. Walker, G. Brooks to A. Matthews, A. Gorman
• Dynamic black women speakers vs. flat sounding poets
• Why some black poetry sounds boring to black students (abstract)
• Understanding the favorite poets of black women students
• Notes on "Beyond Poet Voice"

30 black women poets reading their works: From Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks to Airea D. Matthews, Amanda Gorman

In 1997, a year before her death, I attended a reading where Margaret Walker presented her poems. Before reading her most famous poem "For My People," she noted that over the years she had witnessed younger people performing her poem in more interesting and dynamic ways than she could herself. What she did not say directly but was signaling at were the multiple and evolving poetry performance styles.  

[Related: Listening to 100 black women poets reading 200 poems]

One of my goals in my upcoming literature courses is to make my students aware of the rich diversity of sounds among black women poets and conversational speakers. A recent study of audio recordings of poets reading their works suggests that the reading and performance styles of black women are especially pronounced. At the moment, I'm building a dataset of audio recordings of more than 100 black women poets, from Walker (b. 1915) to poets Airea D. Matthews, Amanda Gorman, and beyond.

Walker won the Yale Younger Poet Award in 1942, and Matthews won the award in 2016 for her volume of poetry Simulacra. Gorman, born in 1998, is the first National Youth Poet Laureate and one of the youngest black women poets among the group I'm studying.

What follows are 30 different poets, their birth year, and a link to them reading one their poems:
• Margaret Walker (b. 1915) - "For My People"
• Gwendolyn Brooks (1917) - "Song in the Front Yard"
• Maya Angelou (1928) - "Phenomenal Woman"
• Sonia Sanchez (1934) - "Poem at Thirty"
• Lucille Clifton (1936) - "Homage to My Hips"
• June Jordan (1936) - "Poem about My Rights"
• Nikki Giovanni (1943) - "Ego-Tripping"
• Wanda Coleman (1946) - "Wanda, Why Aren't You Dead?"
• Rita Dove (1952) - "American Smooth"
• Patricia Smith (1955) - "Skinhead"
• Nikky Finney (1957) - "Left"
• Elizabeth Alexander (1962) - "Praise Song for the Day"
• Claudia Rankine (1963) - "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Part 2"
• Evie Shockley (1965) - "question marks"
• Natasha Trethewey (1966) - "Monument"

• LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (1970) - "the originator"
• jessica Care moore (1971) - "Black Statue of Liberty"
• Tracy K. Smith (1972) - "One Man at a Time"
• Mahogany L. Browne (1976) - "Black Girl Magic"
• Eve L. Ewing (1986) - "Arrival Day"
• Aja Monet (1987) - "What I've Learned"
• Warsan Shire (1988) - "For Women Who Are Difficult to Love"
• Jamila Woods (1989) - "Pigeon Man"
• Tonya Ingram (1991) - "Thirteen"
• Jasmine Nicole Mans (1991) - "Footnotes for Kanye"
• Amanda Gorman (1998) - "In this place: An American Lyric"
• Airea D. Matthews (b. ????) - "Wisdom"
• Porsha O. (b. ????) - "Angry Black Woman"
• Ebony Stewart (b. ????) - "Happy Father's Day"
• Tiana Clark (b. ????) - "The Ayes Have It"

Why some black poetry sounds boring to black students (abstract)
Dynamic black women speakers vs. flat sounding poets

Monday, May 14, 2018

Digital Humanities, side-by-side learning environments for black boys

Undergraduate team leader, Tiara Perkins sitting side-by-side East St. Louis DH club members

This semester, one significant takeaway for me while working with the East St. Louis Digital Humanities Club was the value of creating side-by-side learning environments. So often, students sit in rows as teachers stand up front and impart information and instructions. For our club though, the undergraduates and I spent the majority of our time sitting side-by-side with the high school participants.

About ten years ago, I was at a discussion session with a group of black men, some of whom were fathers. At one point in the discussion, those fathers talked about a realization that they had. Although people frequently point out the importance of "looking people in the eye" when you talk to them, experiences with their sons had made them aware of additional approaches.

Team leader Gaige Crowell and DH club member discuss project

As it turns out, their sons were often most revealing while sitting "side-by-side" with their fathers as they rode together in the car, as they sat together at an event, or as they walked somewhere together. Sitting side-by-side opened modes of communication for those sons -- those black boys -- that were not available to them otherwise. There are, I'm definitely aware, reasons when direct eye contact and face-to-face communication are appropriate and imperative. That conversation with that group of black men, and especially those fathers, however, was an important reminder of the need for multiple kinds of setups.

Before and after that conversation, I had thought about ways to incorporate side-by-side moments in my classes. After all, throughout my career, I've coordinated a number of exhibits each semester and developed other activities that allow me to stand or sit side-by-side with students in classroom settings. Still, hearing those fathers was a vital confirmation of what works particularly well for black boys and young black men.

DH Club member works on design project beside team leader

When you think about it, many students spend a considerable amount of classroom time being talked at by teachers, other school officials, and guests at the school. A break from that typical routine, I suppose, is part of what made our DH club enjoyable for the participants. We were regularly working with computers, and always sitting side-by-side with the guys.

There's been considerable coverage and commentary on the struggles of black boys and collegiate black men in schools. My experiences with the DH club this semester had me wondering about whether increased side-by-side activities and more one-on-one guidance from slightly older students might assist in alleviating some of the problems. I certainly think we should give more thought to creating alternative learning setups and environments.

The East St. Louis Digital Humanities Club Spring 2018

Friday, May 11, 2018

Black Power! exhibit at the Schomburg

During our time in New York City with a group of students, we spent some time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture checking out the exhibit "Black Power!," which included artifacts and descriptions from the Black Power era of the 1960s as well as materials related to the Black Arts Movement. The students were really intrigued with the information and presentation of ideas and history.

A few images from the students touring the exhibit.

NYC 2018

NYC 2018

May 6 - 9, my colleagues Tisha Brooks, Elizabeth Cali, Shavonda Mitchom, and Tori Walters coordinated trip to New York City with SIUE students. We've organized this kind of project for years now. During our time in the city, we visited the Museum of New York City, Harlem, the African Burial Ground, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Strand Bookstore, in addition to various other places.

[Related: Black Power! exhibit at the Schomburg]

Here are a few images from the trip.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Editorial & Institutional Power of African American Poets

Mellon Foundation president, Elizabeth Alexander, Schomburg director Kevin Young, and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith 
"Is this what we've wanted
& waited for?" --Kevin Young

We're witnessing an important moment in the history of select African American poets taking on powerful, influential positions. Kevin Young is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and he's the poetry editor for The New Yorker. Terrance Hayes is the poetry editor for The New York Times Magazine, and last week, it was announced that Rita Dove would take on that editor's position in June.

A recent announcement signaled the considerable cultural capital of another African American poet: "Princeton University has named Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and current U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, Director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing, as the new chair of the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts."

In March, Elizabeth Alexander assumed the presidency of the Mellon Foundation, and, since 2016, she served on the Pulitzer Prize Board.

It's a remarkable time for African American literary poets, and we might have predicted some of their growing institutional power. After all, their academic appointments at a variety of colleges and universities and the increased numbers of African American poets earning prestigious prizes and awards over the last two decades indicated crucial developments and shifts.

Nonetheless, there's still work to do. So far, the most high-profile appointments go to African American poets from fairly privileged backgrounds. Alexander, for instance, went to Yale for undergrad, and Smith and Young graduated from Harvard. If we assess the state of African American poets based on only the many who earn prestigious awards and attain leadership positions at prominent institutions, we might miss the ways that large numbers of poets struggle.     

Black poets and other literary artists, however, primarily make the news when they have achieved some notable successes. Last month, The New York Times, for instance, produced repeated coverage on Smith and Young. We'll find hardly any coverage, however, on the many African American poets who are represented by small presses, or those poets who were continually unsuccessful in their efforts to earn  academic appointments, fellowships, and other accolades.

These are the varied things you might encounter as you study the journeys of contemporary African American poets. You'll witness poets achieving a level of success and notice that seemed unimaginable just a few decades ago, and, if you look closely, you'll realize many barriers confronting a fairly large number of poets of lesser means.

Elizabeth Alexander
Kevin Young

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Black Graduation Celebration Spring 2018

On May 1, my colleagues Kelly Jo Karnes, Earleen Patterson, and I (with help from a variety of people) and with funding fro the Office of Student Affairs organized the black graduation celebration for upcoming graduates at SIUE. I thought the event really well.

Undergraduate Taylor Robinson and graduate student Yvonne Akinyi gave remarks. Courtney Boddie, Director of Counseling Services, gave the keynote address.

The photos are by SIUE university photographer Howard Ash.