Looking back on the past semester, young black women in my various literature courses were among the most engaged readers of poetry. Students in the courses looked forward to hearing some of the sisters read works out loud. Although hardly any of those talented readers and performers considered themselves poets, their abilities lead me to wonder about slightly redefining the term poet to also include those with skills covering poems.
We often refer to singers as singers even if they do not write the songs that they perform. Jazz musicians always include "covers" or tunes composed by others in their repertoire of set pieces. John Coltrane, in fact, became more widely known in part based on his performances of "My Favorite Things."
In 1997, I had the opportunity to attend a poetry reading by Margaret Walker. Toward the end of her reading, she reluctantly decided to read her most famous poem "For My People." Before reading the piece, she explained how she had been to church programs and various community gatherings on multiple occasions and witnessed young people capable of reading her poem far better than she ever could.
Although there is value and interest in hearing poets read their own works, I've definitely benefited by hearing students, such as the talented groups of black women in my courses this semester, offer their renditions of poets' works. In many cases, major poets might say what Margaret Walker said: a number of these young readers can perform the poems better than the authors.
Some of the young sisters had developed their reading/performance skills in church environments, observing pastors, singers, and folks giving stirring testimonies. Some of the sisters had followed soulful R & B singers, big talkers at family gatherings and beauty shops, and dramatists at school plays. Over the years, they absorbed what they saw and heard and began crafting their own distinct reading and performance styles. Even beyond the most talented readers, a number of the sisters have extensive mental catalogs stored in their heads of good performances.
When some of those sisters with high performance IQs encounter works by Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and others in my courses, they are already well-prepared to transform those words on the page into a resonating listening experience. If our discourse on literary art were better equipped to take account of the significance of people who skillfully cover poems, we'd be inclined to refer to some of those black women as poets, those they've been previously known as non-poets.