Friday, August 28, 2015

Bad Men and Black Poetry

 This semester in one of my classes, we'll spend time on a recurring topic for me with poetry: bad men. The students and I will take a look at poems showcasing figures such as Shine, Stagolee, and a whole host of other related bad and difficult men.

[Related: Bad, Phenomenal Women and Black Poetry]

We'll open with poems about ex-slaves, including a few different pieces paying tribute to Frederick Douglass. We'll cover poems by Amiri Baraka, Margaret Walker, and Etheridge Knight. We'll also cover Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly and Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke

Here's a list of some of the poems, we'll cover:

• Opal Palmer Adisa – "Peeling Off the Skin"
• Elizabeth Alexander – "Nat Turner Dreams of Insurrection"
• Amiri Baraka – "Monday in B-Flat," “Geobolical,” “Culture,” "In the Funk World," “Dope," “Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test,” “Incident
• Gwendolyn Brooks – "We Real Cool"
• Lucille Clifton – "slaveship," "wishes for sons"
• Cornelius Eady – “How I Got Born," "My Heart," "What the Sheriff Suspects"
• Vievee Francis – “White Glove Test,” “Drummer Boy”
• Robert Hayden – "Frederick Douglass,” "The Whipping"
• Langston Hughes – “Bad Man,” “Frederick Douglass: 1817-1895”
• Tyehimba Jess – “When the police stop you”
• Helene Johnson – "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem"
• Etheridge Knight – “I Sing of Shine,” “Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital for the Criminal Insane”
• Gary Copeland Lilley – “Let the Devil First Ask One Question,” “Report from Marcus, the Hearse Driver For Wilson’s Funeral Home”
• Tony Medina “Questions on the Police Officer's Exam"
• Larry Neal – "Poppa Stoppa Speaks from His Grave"
• Dudley Randall – “Frederick Douglass and the Slave Breaker”
• Ishmael Reed – “Flight to Canada”
• Patricia Smith – "Skinhead"
• Margaret Walker – "Bad-Man Stagolee"
• Kevin Young – "Black Cat Blues," "Bling Bling Blues," "Black Jack: b. 31 March 1878"

Bad man poetry

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Poets make Basquiat, Leadbelly & Jack Johnson Legible

One cool irony of Looking for Leroy, which focuses on illegible black masculinities, is that Mark Anthony Neal ends up enhancing the legibility of several black men, including Gene Anthony Ray, Avery Brooks, Luther Vandross, Jay Z, Stringer Bell, and others. I read those men more clearly now. I couldn't help but think that Neal's efforts concerning legibility as analogous in some ways to what we've seen with several full-length volumes of poetry concentrating on historical figures.   

Kevin Young's To Repel Ghosts (2001) provides all kinds of takes on the life and mind of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005) traces the life of the legendary folk musician Huddie Ledbetter, and Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke (2013) offers a history in verse of the legendary boxing champion Jack Johnson. Although each of those men were highly visible, aspects of their lives and who they were remained illegible for many years.  Making Basquiat, Leadbelly & Jack Johnson legible were apparently driving creative imperatives for the poets. 
Tyehimba Jess
Adrian Matejka  
Kevin Young   

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cultural geo-tagging

By Kenton Rambsy

Cultural geo-tagging (which I've sometimes referred to as literary geo-tagging) refers to authors identifying specific locations or utilizing region-specific words in their works. Cultural geo-tagging illuminates what we are witnessing regarding positioning, location, mapping, and geographic matters in the works of black writers who sometimes rely on specific cities, streets, neighborhoods, city landmarks, and regional expressions.


Bad, Phenomenal Women and Black Poetry

This semester in one of my classes, we'll take a look at "bad" and "phenomenal" women in poetry. We'll discuss how and why difficult  women on the one hand and remarkable women on the other hand serve as such inspiring figures for poets. We'll try to build a framework (or, list of questions and key points) for thinking about bad and phenomenal women over the course of the semester.

We'll begin by taking a look poems about slavery--poems that feature women ex-slaves or poems about ex-slaves by women poets. Next, we'll cover a variety poems about tough and extraordinary women. During the latter part of the semester, we'll take a look at Evie Shockley's volume the new black.

Here's a list of some of the poems, we'll cover:

• Opal Palmer Adisa - "Peeling Off the Skin"
• Elizabeth Alexander - "Nat Turner Dreams of Insurrection"
• Maya Angelou – "Still I Rise," "Phenomenal Woman"
• Gwendolyn Brooks – "kitchenette building," "a song in the front yard," "We Real Cool"
• Lucille Clifton – "slaveship," "Harriet," "homage to my hips," "wishes for sons," "won't you celebrate with me"
• Jayne Cortez – "I am New York City"
• Kelly Norman Ellis – "Raised by Women"
• Mari Evans – "I am a Black Woman"
• Nikki Giovanni – "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)," "Revolutionary Dreams"
• Frances E. W. Harper – "Bury me in a Free Land"
• Robert Hayden - "Runagate Runagate" 
• Langston Hughes – "Down and Out," "Madam and the Census Man," "Madam and the Phone Bill," "Madam and the Rent Man," and "Madam’s Past History"
• Allison Joseph – "Thirty Lines about the Fro," "Sonnet for a Good Mood"
• jessica Care moore – "The Black Statue of Liberty"
• Tracie Morris – "Project Princess"
• Carolyn Rodgers – "The Last M.F."
• Sonia Sanchez – "Summer Words of a Sustuh Addict," "a/needed/poem for my salvation"
• Patricia Smith – "Hip-Hop Ghazal," "Skinhead"
• Margaret Walker – "“My Truth and My Flame," "Kissie Lee," "Molly Means," "Bad-Man Stagolee"
• Phillis Wheatley – "On Being Brought From Africa to America"
• Kevin Young – "Femme Fatale"  

I've covered some of these poems and poets in previous years, but not in the context of bad and phenomenal women. I'm motivated to address this topic in part based on what young black women have expressed interest in over the years. They value Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. They express admiration for Michelle Obama; they express disdain for "ghetto girls" and certain reality television stars. They have strong feelings about a range of women.

But poetry in and of itself? Not so much. They value and in fact are on the cutting edges of language though. So what if we switch the frame and situate poetry in relation to something we all really care about like bad and phenomenal women?

Poetry & the politics of "black woman" metaphors
Maya Angelou, Kelly Norman Ellis, poetry & collegiate black women

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Poetry and the Wonder Room

My colleague Allison Funk's book Wonder Rooms (2015) had me thinking, among other things, about the idea of large collections of various objects or curiosities. It's one thing to think of my library as a large wonder room, and then too, I can think of my volumes of poetry that way.

This summer, I've had the opportunity to cover a few different volumes of poetry, and some of the volumes or groups of books in a category constituted a kind of wonder room unto itself. The poems told a story and created spaces. And there were many unanswered questions that the books raised, which is to say, even more space.

I was pleased to add Celeste Doaks's book Cornrows and Cornfields (2015) to my collection. She writes about a range of cultural signifers, father-daughter relationships, and other topics that caught my interest.

Major Jackson's Roll Deep (2015) was another important work to add to the mix. I enjoyed the book for multiple reasons, and I was particularly moved by the way Jackson diversified the 'bad man' figure in a series of poems. Jackson is in the W. W. Norton mix, so I took some time to think through his works in relation to books by other Norton poets like Ai, Rita Dove, and A. Van Jordan.  

The surrealist moments throughout Rachel Griffiths's poetry in Lighting the Shadow (2015) gave me all kinds of rewarding challenges. I was pleased to add her book to my collection, in part because her work stretched my views of poetic practice and possibility.

I discovered Christopher Gilbert's poetry this summer. He's a Graywolf Press poet, and I was able to read his volume Turning into Dwelling (2015) and connect that to several other works by  Graywolf poets like Elizabeth Alexander, Carl Phillips, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Tracy K. Smith, Harryette Mullen, and Claudia Rankine.

So much poetry, so much room to wonder.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Re-reading Smarter Than You Think

 Last spring, I read and enjoyed Clive Thompson's  Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For the Better (2013) with a group of students. Thompson makes a strong case for the ways that technologies actually enhance our cognitive capabilities. His lively and thorough writing style made his book a rewarding reading experience for us.  

I'll re-read the book with students this semester. Last semester, we covered Smarter Than You Think in just one class, and this semester, we'll read it in three different courses. I'm looking forward to considering how different groups of students engage the book, and what they are inclined to focus on while reading.

In addition to reading the book for the insights about technology, in at least one of the courses, we'll think through the idea of nonfiction writers as literary artists, studying Thompson as a case in point. In another course, we'll speculate about Thompson's research methods and see if we can apply some of those methods to our own investigations of technology.

Poetry conversations and tummeling
Poetry blogging is more productive and smarter than you think 
The many characters in Smarter Than You Think
Reading Smarter Than You Think

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Slave Mistress" and Language Matters

In the Sunday obituary in the Times for Julian Bond, there was a sentence that got a lot of us going (angrily) on Twitter. The offending sentence went: "Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.”

The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, addressed the problematic phrase "slave mistress" this morning in an article entitled "Times Regrets ‘Slave Mistress’ in Julian Bond’s Obituary."  Sullivan wrote that "Many readers wrote to me to protest the phrase, on the grounds that a slave, by definition, can’t be in the kind of consensual or romantic relationship that the word “mistress” suggests."

Sullivan wrote to Dean Baquet, who is now serving as the first African-American editor of the Times. He said he regretted the use of the term and added, "It is an archaic phrase, and even though Julian Bond himself may have used it in the past, we should not have.” Bond had referred to his great-grandmother as a "mistress" to her owner in a 2013 interview.

Sullivan closes her article:
There’s no question that Times editors heard readers’ voices loud and clear. Retiring this phrase and expressing regret about using it has nothing to do with political correctness. It’s about recognizing the history of slavery in America, at a time when race is at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Language matters. This is the right call.
I hope to cover this topic during one of my "language matters" exercises in at least one of my classes this semester.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Tyehimba Jess readings in 2005 and 2015

Tyehimba Jess reading at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in November 2005

Tyehimba Jess reading at the University of Kansas in 2015

I first saw Tyehimba Jess give a reading in 2005. I was two years into my teaching gig at SIUE, and Jess was right up the street teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I invited him to give a reading; his book Leadbelly had just come out.

Before the reading, I had studied  and began teaching Jess's work. But that hadn't fully prepared me for what he was like "live." He's a skilled formalist and immersed in black vernacular delivery styles. And...he was utilizing an overhead projector to present some of his poems in ways that were original and notable.

This summer, ten years later, I had called on Jess again. I got to choose a poet to present as part of my teaching duties for an NEH-funded summer institute "Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement" at the University of Kansas. Tyehimba Jess is Black Arts Movement2.0, so yes, we had to give him a call. He made it.   

He read from Leadbelly, providing background on the composition of the book. One point, among many, that caught my attention was Jess's explanation that he was, in the poems, really trying to work through the meanings of Leadbelly's life (1888 - 1949) as a black man artist during that time period.

Then, Jess took us to his new work. He gave a reading of a ghazal, no, a double-jointed ghazal in the voices of the vaudeville performers George Walker and Bert Williams. His "reading" consisted of utilizing a large screen, which made it possible for us -- the audience -- to witness what he was doing on the page, the stage, and screen. He was bending and blending poetic form and technology. That was Tyehimba Jess in 2005, and here was Tyehimba Jess doing even more of that in 2015.  

Tyehimba Jess