Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Trouble with Anthologies and the Series Trend in Contemporary Black Poetry

Earlier today, I was writing about Elizabeth Alexander's powerful series "Amitad" and began to wonder why more people haven't discussed or even heard about the piece. Alexander's series is as impressive, in some ways, as her well-known poem "The Venus Hottentot." Maybe, I figured, the nature of a series of poems makes it more difficult for the work to circulate.  

In general, the most popular poems by African American writers are fairly short, stand-alone pieces. Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask," Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Gwendolyn Brooks's We Real Cool," and even Margaret Walker's "For My People" have moved relatively easily from anthology to anthology to dozens of anthologies over the years. The poems are memorized or jotted down on sheets of paper, recited at cultural programs, and thus passed along formal and informal networks of readers and listeners.

But what happens when a poet has a longer, more extensive story to tell? What happens when an Elizabeth Alexander has a series of 24 poems on the Amistad or Kevin Young has a full book of poems on the Amistad?  Anthologies, which necessarily include bite-size portions of poets' bodies of works, are ill-equipped to capture the more expansive multifaceted compositions that so many contemporary poets have produced.

Several poets, including Amiri Baraka, Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, Nikky Finney, Tyehimba Jess, Allison Joseph, Thylias Moss, Marilyn Nelson, Natasha Trehtewey, and Frank X. Walker, to name a few, have produced extended series over the years that editors would have a hard time fitting within the small amount of space usually allotted to poets in collections.  Consequently, the composition of extended series of poems or full-length volumes on a single subject have become increasingly popular among African American poets, especially during the course of the last 15 or so years.

Usually, poets present series in their poetry volumes. And that's fine for those of us (relatively few?) who purchase and read individual books of poetry. However, I suspect large numbers of readers who would fine the series and extended poetry projects rewarding are unaware that such series and projects exist. The trouble with anthologies and the series trend in black poetry is that they are often incompatible.

As a result, the "best" black poetry is thought to only have been produced years and decades ago, and readers are given the impression that really good poetry appears as self-contained pieces and not in series. These issues could create problems for appreciating contemporary poetry.
Elizabeth Alexander Week

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