In December 1969, the Chicago police killed Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The shootings sparked outrage among large numbers of activists, commentators, and various observers. Poets also addressed the shooting, as the January 1970 issue of Negro Digest published Haki Madhubuti's poem "One-Sided Shoot," which was "for brothers fred hampton and mark clark, murdered 12/4/69 by chicago police at 4:30 AM while they slept."
In retrospect, the speed at which the poem appeared in a major publication seems remarkable. These days, it seems unlikely to view a poem by a black poet in a highly popular publishing venue about a recent event. The major periodicals that run news items almost never publish African American poets, and the publications that feature black poets do not present timely news.
The relative quick pace of news and the slow pace of literary publishing means that contemporary poets are less likely to be viewed as prominent contributors to conversations about notable present-day events. I thought about the absence of poets as I was thinking about the coverage on the killing of Trayvon Martin. What if, I wondered, poets had been called on to contribute to the developing discourse?
I imagine several poets have some thoughts on the incident and perhaps some have even started writing. At spoken word poets sets, you'll probably hear poems on the subject, but it's unlikely that we'll read any print-based poems dedicated to about a Trayvon Martin in the next few weeks, months, or year in major publications. Magazines tend to have their poetry selections chosen months and sometimes over a year in advance.
The pace of literary publishing probably inclines poets to write more about historical subjects as opposed to popular culture and the news. That's understandable. But, given that we have so many good thinking poets, it's unfortunate that the publishing landscape has not nurtured more environments where they are encouraged or have the opportunity to address issues of the right now.
• A Notebook on the Trayvon Martin Case