Thursday, March 23, 2017

NEA and presses that publish African American poets

Selection of books published by Graywolf

In 2013, Graywolf Press applied for and received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). For years now, the press has received funding to support some of its publishing endeavors. The 2013 funding, however, set in motion what would become one of the most popular poetry books by an African American poet in the 21st century. In their NEA application,  Graywolf mentioned that they would publish several poets, including Claudia Rankine.

The next year, in 2014, Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric was published to considerable fanfare and acclaim. The book was awarded a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Citizen earned a PEN/Open Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. In 2016, Rankine was bestowed a MacArthur Fellowship based largely on the strength and reception of Citizen

The story doesn't end there. Rankine has decided to donate her entire stipend from the MacArthur ($625,000) to fund what is known as the Racial Imaginary Institute. Rankine envisions the Institute as a kind of gallery and think tank. As she informed a reporter, she plans for the space, which she's developing with fellow artists, to allow "us to show art, to curate dialogues, have readings, and talk about the ways in which the structure of white supremacy in American society influences our culture.”

Relatively few books turn a profit, and hardly any of those books are volumes of poetry. The success of Rankine's Citizen was a big news story in part because of its rarity: a book of poetry that gained widespread attention. I would contend that her book did so well, by the way, because it blends and in fact foregrounds essay and prose forms in ways that are less common in a poetry book.

Rather than go on and on about Rankine's prize money, for now, let's note what it means that poetry, a field that rarely earns a profit, is made possible because of support from a federal agency, NEA. Several presses that publish black poets among their roster of authors regularly receive support. Over the last few years, some of those presses include Wesleyan, Four Way Books, Red Hen Press, Tupelo Press, Alice James Books,Coffee House Press, BOA Editions, Copper Canyon Press, and Kore Press.

If you've read even a small sampling of contemporary African American poetry volumes, there's a strong chance that you've been reading poets whose books were produced with support from NEA. The agency has a large footprint in the world of poetry. The field of poetry, as noted, doesn't bring in much money, so outside support is crucial. 
The majority of our tax dollars go toward Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and the Department of Defense. The New York Times reports that NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receive "less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending."

Individual fellowships for poets and funds for presses to publish volumes of poetry constitute only a small portion of the NEA overall budget. The majority of NEA's funds go to state arts councils and nonprofit arts organizations that coordinate public programming in  areas such as dance, jazz, opera, theater, and visual arts. Admirably, as NEA reports, 40% of the activities the agency support "take place in high-poverty neighborhoods."

Could the presses that received funding publish even more African American poets? Maybe so. Poetry is one of our most populous art forms, so artists in the field can always use even more opportunities than the ones currently available. But then -- and obviously I'm biased -- I wish there was more support for people willing to write about African American poetry and other art forms. Just saying...

As it stands, published and aspiring poets far outnumber those interested in writing about poetry. Without the the development of a critical class to research and write about poetry, we'll continue to have few opportunities to consider the implications of the creativity, the reception of works, and the sources of artist support like NEA.

What NEA has meant to African American poets 
Roundup of coverage concerning potential arts and humanities budget cuts 
African American literary studies, public programming & the Age of Trump

Friday, March 17, 2017

What NEA has meant to African American poets

Yesterday on Facebook, poet Tyehimba Jess mentioned that he received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 2005, during a time in his career when he was “barely afloat in a sea of aspirations.” Jess offered a succinct, powerful note about why NEA funding was so crucial to him and other artists. I decided to take a closer look and consider how African American poets benefited from the agency. The NEA has been a crucial source of support for a large number of black poets over the decades.

The recent, troubling news that President Donald Trump plans to cut the NEA and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEH) threatens the possibility that African American artists, scholars, and students will receive the funding that has sustained so many invaluable individual and collective projects for half a century now. Scholars in our field typically concentrate on individual authors and artistic products, not the networks of support responsible for advancing the careers of writers and facilitating the production of their works. Why not shift or expand our focus?

The number of African American NEA recipients pale in comparison to the more than 3,000 mostly white recipients. The funding for African American writers is nonetheless significant. In particular, those recipients have gone on to have an outsized influence on the production of African American poetry.

In 1966, the NEA began providing financial support to creative writers, and in 1968, Julia Fields and Jay Wright were among the first poets to receive support. By 1977, Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Marvin X (then known as Marvin Jackmon), Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn Rodgers, and Sonia Sanchez were just some of the poets who received NEA funding.

Lucille Clifton received support from the agency in 1970 and 1973. She was not the only poet to receive support in multiple years. Etheridge Knight was a 1972 and 1981 recipient. Alice Walker was a 1970 and 1978 recipient. Alvin Aubert received funding in 1973 and 1981. Dudley Randall received support in 1982 and 1986. Ai received funding in 1979 and 1985, and Toi Derricotte received support in 1985 and 1990.

There were more. Rita Dove was a recipient in 1977 and 1989. Yusef Komunyakaa received support in 1981 and 1988. Marilyn Nelson was a recipient in 1982 and 1990. Cyrus Cassells received funding in 1986 and 2005.

Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Wanda Coleman, Bob Kaufman, June Jordan, Essex Hemphill, Cornelius Eady, and Calvin Forbes were some of the poets who received NEA funding during the 1980s. Margaret Walker Alexander, Patricia Spears Jones, Michael Warr, Elizabeth Alexander, Thylias Moss, and Natasha Trethewey were among the recipients during the 1990s.

Poets have continued receiving NEA support during the 21st century. Jess noted that he was a 2005 recipient, so were Cassells, Terrance Hayes, and Kevin Young. Later, Aracelis Girmay, Reginald Flood, Major Jackson, and francine harris were among the recipients. In 2017, Joshua Bennett, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Morgan Parker, Camille Rankine, Danez Smith , and Patricia Smith were announced as recipients.

Ok, so here’s the thing: if you remove NEA support from the lives and careers of black poets over the last 49 years, then you significantly change the field of African American poetry.

African American literary studies, public programming & the Age of Trump

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tracie Morris's extraordinary poetry reading pace

Tracie Morris reading poetry as William Harris listens

You gotta hold on, because sometimes when you're listening to Tracie Morris reading poetry, it's like some kind of locomotive, the way she's hitting full-steam ahead at a quick pace, not breaking, not pausing, just forward-charging, pressing quickly across space and time, leaving you behind if you don't keep up, compelling you to push yourself just to catch up, as she's rolling and pulling you along, prompting you to try to catch your breath, reminding you just how fast things are going now, making you forget or remember how slowly most poems are read, while this one, the one she's presenting right now laps you one time, two times, and near the third lap, just decides to carry you along, without missing a beat or slowing down, cause among other things, these upbeat moves, this force to get you all-aboard, this movement here at this moment is what her poetry reading is.   

William Harris's birthday party was the first time I was so closeup at a Tracie Morris reading. In the past, I've seen her read, she was on a stage in crowded auditoriums.

She read a few poems, selecting pieces from her various collections. The poems resonated in all kinds of ways with me and the audience. At some point, I realized, though, that not enough has been said about Morris's pace, and perhaps the implications of reading pace in American and African American poetry in general.

I've been attending poetry readings now for more than 20 years. By and large, most poets read somewhat slowly and deliberately. They want you to absorb each word and select phrasings.  They sometimes insert dramatic pauses.

Granted, the spoken word sets I attended more regularly as an undergraduate did include poet-performers reading a little faster. Whether they were reading slower or faster almost always depended on them reading from memory or on the page. Reading from the page was done a little slower.

Morris is of a different order. She's not always reading at a fast pace, but when she does, when she wants to, she really accelerates. It's like nothing you've ever heard from  most poets. She can persist with that quick pace for long stretches, and as a result, give you a sound and listening experience that is uncommon. There are moments on Amiri Baraka's It's Nation Time, where he reads at an accelerated pace, but he was reading with musicians, which may have shaped that decision.

During some of the poems Morris read last week, she includes sections with Spanish. She also included excerpts of songs. Her readings are in short a mixed media verbal affair. The slower pace of the songs she sang made me appreciate and recognize just how fast she was moving as she read poetry.     

 But even when she wasn't reading particularly fast, she had adjusted her audience to the sense that there was motion with her poems. Her pacing suggested she was taking us some place. The flow of the words seemed to keep us moving.

You know, there's something in literary history known as the New Negro Movement. There's something known as the Black Arts Movement. There's a poet named Tracie Morris, and her process of reading poetry is a movement.   

The Poet (Tracie Morris) vs. the Rappers (of East St. Louis)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Cornelius Eady, the poet as storyteller

When he's not fulfilling duties as part of the Cave Canem Foundation, which he co-founded with Toi Derricotte in 1996, when he's not tirelessly providing blurbs for volumes of poetry, when he's not working with students at the University of Missouri, then Cornelius Eady might have some time to write a few poems.

I've read and written about Eady's poetry for years now. Given some of my projects, I've been especially haunted by his book Brutal Imagination. I've caught Eady reading works at a few different gatherings, but I was especially pleased to catch him reading at William and Susan Harris's home in Brooklyn on the evening of March 11.

Eady read three poems, "The White Couch," "Poetry," "I'm a Fool to Love You." Taken together, his style of delivery on those works reminded me about his talents as a storyteller. You might gather that he's a storyteller by reading the poems on the page, but it's what he does live, during a reading that really confirms his gifts for telling stories.  

As Eady reads, he modulates his voice. He takes on and sheds the voices of different people/characters. He describes people's actions and movements. His pace changes. His tone shifts. His volume shifts. He even whispers various words and passages, prompting the audience to lean in to listen.

We could say that all poets are storytellers. Sort of. Perhaps. But I'm not sure many of them talk about their pieces as stories the way Eady does. I'm not sure they envision themselves as storytellers the way he does.

He introduces the poem "I'm a Fool to Love You" by noting that it's a story that his mother shared with him. He presents "The White Couch" and "Poetry" as stories or recollections about something that happened. It's worth viewing Eady as a storyteller too because of the lessons being presented in the pieces.

The close of "I'm a Fool to Love You" is especially powerful:
This is the way the blues works
Its sorry wonders,
Makes trouble look like
A feather bed,
Makes the wrong man's kisses
A healing.
Hold up. The blues, he says, makes trouble look like a feather bed. Whew. I want you to know that he took his time when he said those words. By the the time he reaches those lines, you know that everything before was leading to this moment. The story and the poem are about explaining exploring the blues. At the same time, the story and the poem are about understanding why this woman chose this "strange and sometimes cruel man."

Opening with that mystery of why that woman or any woman would choose that kind of man is what makes that poem a captivating story. It also works because of how Eady sets it up, I'm passing along a story that my mother told to me when I asked her why she was with my father. So many of us know about that, right? A story your mother told you. It's no small coincidence that one of the most popular all-time African American poems involves precisely that, a mother talking to her son by way of Langston Hughes.

Eady's "I'm a Fool to Love You" extends Hughes's "Mother to Son." Where Hughes takes on the persona of a black woman telling a story to her son, Eady blurs the lines in some ways. Early on, he goes "My Mother would tell you, if she could," and then he proceeds to tell us what "she would tell."

It's a poem, no doubt, but it's something else. It's Eady passing a story along, passing something he's heard that worth remembering. He's passing along something to us to pass along to someone else.

William J. Harris poetry reading
10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 5: Eady, Jess, and Matejka

Monday, March 13, 2017

William J. Harris poetry reading

For his 75th birthday party on Saturday night (a day before his birthday), William J. Harris organized a poetry reading. He read, along with Cornelius Eady and Tracie Morris.

Harris read several poems including pieces about race in South Africa and in the U.S. In the poem about the U..S, he talked about the implications of being a light skin black man. He has been (mis)identified as Mexican, as Italian, and as Arab.

He read a poem about his cat. In the poem, the cat expresses its distaste for free jazz--a mode of music that Harris himself really enjoys. Most of the poems he read were short. However, he read a longer piece dedicated to his friend, the late poet Kenneth Irby.

It was a poem, but as Harris noted before reading, the piece on Irby included what might be viewed as prose poetry. Some of the sections, that is to say, read like prose, as Harris recounted being in the hospital with friends and Irby during the poets last days and hours.

Harris had noted that many poets these days drop prose into their poems. That's a good point. Most notably perhaps, Claudine Rankine's award-winning and widely read book Citizen: An American Lyric is an extended prose poem or a series of prose poems. While listening to poets read, especially poets who are storytelling- or essayist-poets, aren't we regularly encountering prose? For that matter, how often during readings are we unaware of line breaks?

Harris was being typical Harris by noting  what he's witnessing other poets doing. It's rare to hear that kind of comment during a reading, as poets -- too often I think -- tune out what's being done by various other poets. But Harris is always sharing what he's been reading and listening to and noticing among artists. 

The Irby poem was somber. Harris decided that he wanted to end on a lighter note, so he closed by reading his poem "Modern Romance" about a robot that disrupts a marriage. The poem contains three sections: first, we hear the perspective of a wife who is jealous of the robot, then the perspective of a husband, who likely murdered his wife to start a relationship with the robot, and finally the perspective of the robot. It's an amusing poem, one I wrote about some years back.

Harris's poems are much shorter than poems by poets I've encountered at many readings I've attended over the years. He'll present a humorous or even philosophical insight from an everyday occurrence. Accordingly, his reading style is conversational. You could imagine hearing the content of his poems as you're walking with a friend down the street. Or over dinner. Or at a birthday party right before or after a poetry reading.  

Given the many dramatic reading styles I've witnessed, Harris's conversational approach really stands out as distinctive to me. He's not entirely alone, as I've sensed those kinds of poems somewhere else perhaps, but not much. 

A Notebook on William Harris   

Photo-journal from William J. Harris birthday party

William Harris prepares to read poetry. Photo courtesy of Kenton Rambsy

Photos by Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II

During William J. Harris's 75th birthday party, which included a poetry reading, we took snapshots. Here's a selection of images.

Ken McClane reads reflection for Harris. Photo courtesy of Kenton Rambsy

Cornelius Eady speaks at reading.  Photo courtesy of Kenton Rambsy

 Rufus Hallmark offers opening remarks at the reading. Photo courtesy of Kenton Rambsy

Well-wishers toast William Harris. Photo courtesy of Kenton Rambsy

Sunday, March 12, 2017

William J. Harris @ 75

William Harris

How does one celebrate his 75th birthday? By organizing a poetry reading of course. Well, that was the thinking of William J. Harris. He turns 75 today, so last night we -- a wide range of people he's encountered throughout his life and career -- joined him for a celebration and poetry reading in Brooklyn, New York.

For the poetry reading, we heard from Cornelius Eady, Tracie Morris, and Harris. And for the celebration? We heard from more than two dozen well-wishers.

[Related: Photo-journal from William J. Harris birthday party]

Folks far and wide know that Harris and his wife Susan Harris throw wonderful parties. They hosted gigs in the 1970s in Ithaca. They hosted get-togethers when one Harris was at Stony Brook and the other at Queens College. They hosted gatherings at their home in State College, Pennsylvania University in the 1990s. They continued bringing folks together for merriment into the 21st century when they were professors at the University of Kansas. Last night's celebration could have easily been a celebration of their more than 40 decades of hosting. Not this time. For this one, we celebrated William J. Harris at 75.

The audience at the Susan and William Harris's home

Well, we thought of it as a celebration for Harris. But you could tell that he was using his 75th as an excuse to bring a range of folks together. Family and relatives. Former colleagues. Neighbors. Former students. Poets. Friends. Friends of friends.

William and Susan Harris insisted that no one bring gifts. Our attendance was the gift, they said. Susan Harris did organize a surprise though. She requested that three students from different phases of Professor Harris's career say a few words. Poet and essayist Ken McClane, who has now retired after more than 30 years as a professor at Cornell University, was one of Harris's first students in 1971. I was Professor Harris's student at Pennsylvania State University from 1999 - 2002, before at headed to Lawrence. From 2010 - 2015, my younger brother Kenton was one of Harris's last students at the University of Kansas, prior to Harris's retirement.

Howard Rambsy II, Ken McClane, William J. Harris, and Kenton Rambsy

McClane, Kenton, and I gave a few remarks on our experiences as Harris's students. It was really something for me to think of myself as part of this continuum. Then, it was even more to recognize our small trio as tiny elements in a broader continuum. And more than that, all of us at the gathering were part of this continuum of recipients of Harris's generosity.

Note: photos courtesy of Kenton Rambsy

A Notebook on William Harris
An Anti-War march, Amiri and Amina Baraka, and me

A Notebook on William J. Harris

• March 13: William J. Harris poetry reading 
• March 13: Photo-journal from William J. Harris birthday party
• March 12: William J. Harris @ 75
• January 27: An Anti-War march, Amiri and Amina Baraka, and me 

• August 17: William J. Harris, black arts discourse, and Broadside Press 
• June 1: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.'s & William J. Harris's serious commitments

• October 16: William J. Harris's Robot Poem   
• September 30: Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment