Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Radical Typography of Sonia Sanchez's Coltrane Poem

Sonia Sanchez's "a/coltrane/poem" is a radical departure from conventional poems that exist quietly on the left side of the page. The use of all caps at multiple points in the piece as well as the spacing of words across entire lines of the page give Sanchez's poem an exuberance and perhaps rebelliousness different in many ways from the conventional standards of poetry.

[Related: Evie Shockley's Radical Typography]

In an effort to emulate John Coltrane's signature wails and screeches on saxophone, Sanchez writes at one point:


She has similar presentations of Coltrane's playing throughout the piece and projects the idea that some of her message must be screamed or shouted when she writes the words in all caps. For instance, she expresses disdain at "ALL THE MILLIONARIES/BANKERS" who "HAVE KILLED/ WILL CONTINUE TO / KILL US WITH / THEY CAPITALISM."

Sanchez's poem appeared in Stephen Henderson's anthology Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (1973). The anthology contained several other poems celebrating black music and musicians, including Haki Madhubuti's "Don't Cry, Scream," a poem that was also infused with Trane-inflected tyopgraphy. 

The presence of such fierce anger and curse words may help to explain why Sanchez's poem may have become lost to history over the last decades, absent from contemporary anthologies of African American literature. But those who've encountered the piece in Henderson's book certainly remember it, at least its visual aesthetics. The radical typography of Sanchez's poem make it difficult to forget.    

A Notebook on the Black Arts Era

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