Friday, December 19, 2014

The Redmonds as gateways to poets

Treasure Redmond and her dad Eugene Redmond after a reading in St. Louis, February 2011

Hang out with Eugene B. Redmond or Treasure Shields Redmond for more than a few seconds, and they'll start introducing you to poets. The elder Redmond will introduce you to histories of poets you hadn't heard enough about, and the younger Redmond introduces you to emergent poets who haven't become fully established yet.

I first met Treasure Redmond, let's see, about 18 years ago. I was a first-year student at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. I traveled across town to attend a poetry reading at Jackson State University (JSU); the event was hosted/organized by a sister-poet named "Treasure." The "reading" included poets, rappers, singers, and instrumentalists. There was a dj and a band.

DJ Needles of St. Louis provides music at one of Treasure's poetry reading, April 2013.
At the end of the show, someone introduced a group of my Tougaloo classmates and me to the lead organizer. "Hi, I'm Treasure," she said. She started talking to us, and soon she was introducing us to various JSU poets.

Back then, as an undergrad, I didn't make the connection between the poet Treasure and the author of Drumvoices, which I began reading during my time at Tougaloo. In fact, I didn't make the connection until 2003 when I started working at SIUE and Professor Redmond mentioned his daughter, Treasure, just in passing.

"Hold up" I interrupted, "That Treasure, is your daughter?!?"

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tony Medina and the Top 5

Not in rap. Not among NBA players. Not the NFL. But if you're identifying your top 5 blues poets, you have to seriously consider Tony Medina, right? On the strength of his "Broke" poems -- where he's writing in the voice of this everyman homeless man.

I'm aware of Dunbar, Hughes, and Sterling Brown. There's Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. Obviously, Sterling Plumpp. I got you on Kevin Young and Tyehimba Jess. Wanda Coleman, Robert Hayden, and Michael Harper produced blues poems, yes. So did Margaret Walker, Sherley Anne Williams, and Etheridge Knight. All them and more. No doubt.


You gotta consider your guy Medina in any conversation about blues poetry, especially when it comes to the construction of a memorable hard-luck character who narrates his trials and tribulations that have you laughing to keep from crying. Medina's character Broke tells tale after tale about his struggles in poverty, constantly hungry, and perpetually homeless on the streets of New York City.

In "Broke Back on Concrete," Broke observes that he's been down and out so long that he has to "put out / An APB / On the / Sun." In "Broke Job Hunting," he says:

I used to be so pessimistic
I'd read the obituaries
Religiously to see
If I were in them

In addition to the blues-inflected humor of the poems, I make the case for Medina in my top 5 of blues poets because of the quantity of Broke poems. So far, he's produced 3 books in the series: Sermons from the Smell of a Carcass Condemned To Begging (1998), Broke on Ice (2011), and Broke Baroque (2013), totaling approximately 300 poems. We've rarely heard so much from a single character in black poetry. We've rarely witnessed any poet give so much attention to those living in poverty.

"Don't stab me," says Broke to those of us passing him by on the streets, "with those eyes of yours." And:

Don't curse me under your breath
Sucking your teeth and balling up

Your face like a fist wishing I was dead
Or that I would disappear -- or both 

Broke informs us about the hazards of the streets -- being evicted from abandoned buildings, suffering abuse at the hands of police officers, finding food, and so forth. Broke has managed to survive because, as he observes in "Broke Higher Education," he's studied street life and hunger for so long that "I got a / PhD in / Poverty." 

Anyway, all of that is to say, along with other things, when it comes to a top 5 of blues poets, you're obligated to consider Tony Medina and his Broke poems.

Notes on Tony Medina's Sound  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Studying Poetry & Rap with Collegiate Black Men in 2014

Students discuss panels at The Big Smoke exhibit.
This past year, I've had opportunities to cover a wide range of poetry with students. The young black men in my courses have been particularly important for extending the conversations in multiple directions. Those young men, more than others, are inclined to talk to me about poetry and rap, so our discussions possess an elasticity concerning wordplay that stretches from Dunbar and Baraka to Diddy and Big K.R.I.T.

As far as poets, in addition to checking out works by Dunbar and Baraka, we covered poems by Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Tyehimba Jess, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Kevin Young, Cornelius Eady, Gary Copeland Lilley, and Nikki Giovanni, among others. In a couple of my classes over the past year, we also utilized Lit. Genius, the crowd-sourced annotation site, to analyze and notate poems.

I suspect that many of the guys were willing to engage me on the poetry because I was willing to engage them on rap. At best, I suppose, I gave them concepts linked to African American critical discourses that they could utilize to describe what they were hearing in rap. In turn, they assisted me in updating my knowledge of who's new in rap. They also gave me a clearer sense of how young guys (between 18 and 21 years old) respond to black poetry.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The year in African American poetry, 2014

This past year, I charted several news, activities, and publishing items related to African American poetry that caught my attention. Of course, the passing of Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou really stood out in my mind. Still, I noted various other topics. 

January: Amiri Baraka dies on the 9th. His passing was followed by an outpouring of remembrances

January: How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson is published.

February: SOS--Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader edited by John H. Bracey Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst is published.

March: Book of Hours: Poems by Kevin Young is published.

March: Patter by Douglas Kearney is published.

April: The Feel Trio by Fred Moten is published.

May: Mother, Less Child by Jason McCall

May: Maya Angelou dies on the 28th.

JunePrime: Poetry & Conversation by L. Lamar Wilson, Rickey Laurentiis, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, and Phillip B. Williams is published.

September: Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones is published.

September: Zion by TJ Jarrett is published.

September: The New Testament by Jericho Brown is published.

September: Terrance Hayes awarded MacArthur Fellowship award.

September: Adrian Matejka receives Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize for The Big Smoke.

September: Third Furious Flower Poetry conference, organized by Joanne Gabbin, takes place 24 - 27.

October: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is published.

October: Claudia Rankine, Adrian Matejka, and Jamaal May receive Lannan Literary Awards.

November: Mockingbirds at Jerusalem: A Poetic Memoir by Rudolph Lewis is published.

November: Poets use the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and give readings of their work on social media on in solidarity with movements protesting police brutality cases.

December Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry edited by Ja A. Jahannes is published.

The year in African American poetry, 2013
The year in African American poetry, 2012 
The year in African American poetry, 2011

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Acknowledging the tremendous loss of Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou in 2014

We might as well say, one more time, near the end of the year, that the loss of Amiri Baraka on January 9 and then Maya Angelou on May 28 were two tremendous losses for black poetry. We can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that they lived long, wonderful lives, and continually made all kinds of remarkable contributions. Not surprisingly then, we witnessed an abundance of remembrances for Baraka and for Angelou when they passed.

Poets are rarely mourned to the degrees that those two were. Certainly not black poets.

During the tributes and reflections, people rightly celebrated Baraka's and Angelou's extraordinary lives and careers. At some point, however, we might act a little selfishly and assess our losses. What, we could ask, are we now going to miss out on as a result of having lost Baraka and Angelou?

Thinking about what the loss of these two figures is not simply about wallowing in grief and self-pity. Instead, a consideration of what their loss means clarifies the significance of the presence of major black writers--who in this case became prominent cultural figures and not only writers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From Jonterri Gadson to Audre Lorde to Cheryl Clarke and back again

The generational shifts one encounters following #BlackPoetsSpeakOut is particularly important and useful. That's one of the thoughts I had when I came across Cheryl Clarke's recent contribution. Clarke, a well-known black feminist and writer, chose to read Audre Lorde's poem "For Each Of You."

As soon as I saw her contribution, I was reminded of poet Jonterri Gadson's reading of Lorde's poem "Power." As one of the organizers of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, Gadson's contribution was one of the first entries that I came across in the project. I viewed Gadson's contribution and a contribution by poet Amanda Johnston as foundational for how aspects of the project evolved.

The contributions by Johnston and Gadson were at least influential for how I read many of the ongoing additions. The poets both read poems by others, which seemed to offer an early model for how others chose to contribute. As a result, when I saw this senior poet, Cheryl Clarke, reading Audre Lorde, my mind was connecting to younger poets and older poets at the same time.       

A few different poets have presented poems by Lorde to #BlackPoetsSpeakOut:

• "For Each Of You" by Audre Lorde read by Cheryl Clarke
• "Power" by Audre Lorde read by Jonterri Gadson
• "Power" by Audre Lorde read by Ruth Ellen Kocher
• "A Litany for Survival" by Audre Lorde read by Lauren G. Parker

Poets have also presented poems by Lucille Clifton, Henry Dumas, Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman, Robert Hayden, and others.

Clarke's entry to the project also stood out to me because I was aware that she had previously produced scholarly work on Lorde and other black women poets. Clarke is the author of "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (2004), and earlier this year, she published an article "Audre Lorde at 80" that circulated in some circles. Clarke's reading of "For Each of You" was yet another of her many contributions related to Lorde; her participation in the project was part of her longstanding contributions to activist movements. 

Thinking of Gadson, Clarke, and Lorde in conversation with each other is helpful because we have the opportunity to consider different generations of black poetic activism. Lorde offers one possibility, Clarke another, and Gadson another, yet they all converge here with #BlackPoetsSpeakOut.

A Notebook on #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

Amiri Baraka, Rachel Eliza Griffiths & #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

Photographer, videographer , and poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths accomplishes much with her contribution to #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. For one, she reads Amiri Baraka's poem "Incident," a powerful piece that describes a man's murder. Given the circumstances of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, and many others, the poem would resonate on its own. But Griffiths goes further.

She reads the poem and adds a soundtrack of a heartbeat-like, pulsating beat that fluctuates speeds throughout the piece.  In addition to a straight-forward reading, Griffiths adds another track that repeats, in a whisper, the words of that the main speaker delivers. And that's just the audio. 

The visual component includes words, still images, and video footage. Griffiths points out in a note to the video that the words include lines from Allen Ginsberg's "America," Carrie Mae Weems's "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," and Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." There are additional words, including Garner's haunting last statement "I Can't Breathe," the names "Trayvon Martin," "Mike Brown," "Rodney King," "Tamir Rice," and even poet "Henry Dumas," who was killed by a transit police officer in 1968. 

Lines from Baraka's poem appear in the video, including "Pictures of the dead man, are everywhere," a particularly fitting and potent sentiment given the many images we see of black men who have been killed. Griffiths presents the image of the body of Mike Brown lying in the street, Emmett Till's battered face and his mother crying at his casket, George Zimmerman, a police officer holding his middle finger up to the camera, Trayvon Martin in a hoodie, and a recurring image of a lynching, among other images.

The video footage shows several instances of police officers using excessive force against black people, such as the choke hold used to kill Eric Garner. The footage also includes images of Civil Rights activists being sprayed with fire hoses and handled roughly by police officers. We see images of officers dragging and punching black people. Over and over.

The poem and confluence of words, still images, and disturbing video footage come to us quickly within the span of 141 seconds. Multiple viewings are necessary to grasp all that Griffiths presents here. She really stretches the boundaries of poetry, video, and artistic protest. Her contribution is a really distinguishing moment in the production of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and beyond.

A Notebook on #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

Monday, December 8, 2014

Reading Kevin Young in 2014

In some respects, I felt like I discovered Kevin Young late. I came across To Repel Ghosts (2001) in around 2002. I view my arrival to Young's works as late because of his previously published books at the time--his volume Most Way Home (1995) and the anthology he edited Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers (2000).

I really started playing close attention to Young's poetry in 2003 or 2004, right after I completed my major research project on the Black Arts Movement. After spending so much time on 1960s and 1970s writers, I was looking to catch up on contemporary poets, and well, there was Young.  I've tried to keep up with his active book publishing for the last 10 years or so.  

This year, I was on Young's Book of Hours (2014), which was published back in March. I was especially interested in the first sections of the volume where he writes about the loss of his father. I was at the Furious Flower Poetry conference in 2004 when Young gave a reading, and there, he noted the loss of his father in a tragic hunting accident. Since that time, I've noted the publication of his poems about his father.

He dedicates his volume Dear Darkness (2008)  to his father and grandmother, both of whom passed in 2004. At the Furious Flower reading, Young said that his grandmother had died of a broken heart over the loss of her son. In many respects, the many poems about the blues and southern culture in Dear Darkness pay tribute to Young's father and grandmother, even when the poems don't seem to be directly about them.

Back in 2009, I encountered Young's poem "Bereavement" in The New Yorker. I later came across "Charity" in Progressive and "Rosetta" in The New Republic. After reading those individual poems as well as Allison Joseph's my father’s kites: poems (2010), I wondered would Young produce a full-length volume comprised of poems he wrote about his father.

The first two sections of Book of Hours concentrate on his experiences losing his father and making funeral preparations. The next sections in the book focus on the birth of Young and his wife's child. In some respects then, Book of Hours is about losing and gaining--the death of a father, the birth of a son.

Reading Book of Hours took me back to The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (2010), which Young edited. And of course, that led me to taking another look at Dear Darkness and some of his other works. In other words, reading Kevin Young in 2014 meant going back and reading his works from previous years as well. 

Kevin Young