Monday, July 2, 2012

When African American Poetry Anthologies Disappear

Between 1965 and 1976 -- often referred to as the black arts era -- more than 75 anthologies featuring African American poetry were published. Between 1977 and 1990, however, far fewer collections appeared. In fact, beyond Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967-1987)- An OBAC Anthology (1987) and The Anthology of Black Mississippi Poets (1988), I've had a hard time identifying African American poetry anthologies that gained much attention. That could explain one aspect of the silence associated with black poetry during that time period.

Without anthologies, it is harder for "new" poets to become widely known, as collections often circulate to larger, diverse audiences in ways that small print-runs of individual volumes of poetry do not. Anthologies also function to place individual poets in conversation with various other poets. The absence of several anthologies produced during the 1980s diminished the likelihood that emergent poets would become associated with canons or the ongoing histories of African American poetry.

Given the large numbers of anthologies published during the black arts era, it seems even more notable that so few collections appeared during the 1980s. The unprecedented and expansive production activities of poets during the 1960s and 70s elevated black poetry to uncommonly high levels of visibility. Apparently, the demand for anthologies featuring poetry had dramatically decreased by the 1980s.

By the 1990s, African American poetry anthologies began to appear again with more regularly and widespread attention. In some ways, the attention that poetry has received from the 1990s onward makes the inattention to poetry during the 1980s even more pronounced, at least for those interested in the poets and poetry that emerged during that time. Then again, it's possible that many observers are unaware how little we know about African American poetry during the 1980s.

When African American poetry anthologies disappear, that is, when they stop appearing regularly, the continuity and presence of poets and their work at particular moments are lost to history.

A Notebook on the Black Arts Era

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