Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The popular appeal of black women poets reciting their works

If you ever take the time to look at more than 100 black women poets reading their works, you might notice an important difference. Some of them read from the page, while others recite their works from memory. For a variety of reasons, prominent print or page-based poets have generated far more prestige, awards, and coverage over the last two decades in particular. However, you'll notice that on YouTube, at least, black women poets who recite their works command considerable more attention.

For example, clips by Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, and Rita Dove, to name three of our most notable award-winning poets, receive between 15,000 and 18,000 views for their most watched poems on YouTube. By contrast, Neiel Israel's "When a Black Man Walks" has been viewed over 245,000 times. Jae Nichelle's "Friends With Benefits" has been viewed 300,000 times. Porsha O's signature "Angry Black Woman" poem has been viewed over 463,000 times.

What are we to make of the popular appeal of black women poets who recite their works in comparison to those who read from the page?

By the way, when I blog about the differences between poets who read from the page and poets who recite, I receive agitated, back-channel messages from observers who worry that I'm not giving the page poets enough credit. Interestingly, given my overall body of work here and the most frequent poet focal subjects of scholars, it's in fact supporters of poets who recite, also known as spoken word artists, who should feel under-appreciated.

Some poets who recite their works blur the lines between poetry reading and performance. Airea D. Matthews's delivery of "Wisdom" comes off as a dramatic monologue, more so than a conventional poetry reading. Jae Nichelle's "My Lips" reminds me of a short comedy sketch in some ways. Ebony Stewart's "Happy Father's Day" is a poem, I suppose, but it's also a searing statement to a father.

People collectively view these recitations tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of times for a variety of reasons. For inspiration. For entertainment value. For the knowledge and ideas conveyed. For guidance on how to perform and read.
I'm excited about including more examples of poets who recite their works in my upcoming classes and learning more about why so many of my students are captivated by the works.

Listening to 100 black women poets reading 200 poems
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"

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Eugene B. Redmond hosts Cornel West in East St. Louis

In 1976, city officials appointed Eugene B. Redmond as Poet Laureate of East St. Louis. In retrospect, it's was a really wise decision, as Redmond has spent more than 40 years finding ways to live up to the title, continually coming up with public arts and humanities projects to benefit citizens. Last week, his latest effort involved hosting Cornel West in East St. Louis.

Busy schedules, a lack of connections, and of course the cost of hefty honorariums prevent citizens of East St. Louis from having direct access to cultural figures of Professor West's stature. But part of what was so remarkable about this event was that West was simply paying a visit to Redmond, and Redmond decided to invite the city to tag along.

Redmond designated the day of activities "West Fest," and it involved poetry and "impact statements," arts exhibits, a book signing with West and local authors, and a series of public discussions. I was struck by West's generosity in making himself freely available to so many people, and by Redmond for coordinating the event.

Redmond snapping photos of the crowd

Cornel West, Eugene B. Redmond, and conversations about poetry

Cornel West, Eugene B. Redmond, and conversations about poetry

Cornel West and Eugene B. Redmond in East St. Louis

Last week, on May 17, in East St. Louis, when introducing me to Cornel West, Eugene B. Redmond began by alerting West to my academic pedigree. For many people that means the schools one attended. But Redmond takes a slightly different approach..

[RelatedEugene B. Redmond hosts Cornel West in East St. Louis]

Redmond grabbed my arm, placed his other hand on West's shoulder and began to explain my background. "First," he said to West, "Jerry Ward introduced him to criticism on poetry, including my book. Then, he worked with Keith Gilyard and Bernard Bell."

"All of that?" asked West impressed.

"Unh-hunh," said Redmond and continued to talk through my work. He informed West that I studied Amiri Baraka's poetry with William Harris, and that I had written a book about the Black Arts Movement. Redmond eventually said, "And he was brought here to SIUE three years before I retired as my replacement."

That's when I interrupted. "You can't believe all of this, Professor West," I said, "because there's no way I, or anyone could ever be Professor Redmond's replacement." No one could replace Redmond, which is to say, no one could match what he's done and continues to do here. Like, who else could get Cornel West to spend a whole day, meeting with so man different people in East St. Louis?

This wasn't the first time that Redmond had me talking black poetry with him and one of his guests. Back in 2003, we were in Redmond's office on campus talking poetry with Quincy Troupe. In 2004, we were talking poetry with Sonia Sanchez.

Then, in I recall we were on music and poetry with Amiri Baraka at Redmond's home in October 2005. Later that month, it was more on poetry and culture with Haki Madhubuti and Jayne Cortez. The next year, Redmond hosted Mari Evans, and there we were talking more on poetry and history. And those are all just some of the more known figures.

The Cornel West event in East St. Louis provided Redmond and I yet another opportunity to talk with his guest and others about poetry, music, culture, and history.

Lively conversations about poetry with multigenerations of black men
10 Years of Poets Reading at SIUE

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.