By Cindy Lyles
My thesis project addresses the ways that poets write about cities. An examination of poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Evie Shockley among others, reveals different ends to which they participate in highlighting raced and gendered ideas about people and places in urban contexts. Moving from scholarly commentary to creative practice, my project culminates with a small series of artistic compositions focusing on East St. Louis.
A combination of elements culminated to situate my current research. For one, as a black woman poet, I’m drawn to the poetry of my foremothers because I identify it as a part of my artistic and cultural heritage. How they write about black city life grabs my attention since I am from East St. Louis, an urban locale primarily occupied by black people. Also, East St. Louis is often depicted by outsiders as a desolate dump void of life as seen in a 2012 Saturday Night Live sketch that called the city “a hell hole.” Based on what the themes and tropes of black women’s poetry reveal about people and places in the city, I will poetically portray East St. Louis from an insider’s perspective.
Research like this will add to scholarship on African American literature by providing more criticism on black women’s poetry. As it stands, the body of knowledge lacks extensive, criticism on black women’s poetry. Still, the work of Meta Duewa-Jones, Evie Shockley, Gloria Akasha Hull, and Joanne Gabbin all show that black women’s verse is worth discussing. My work adds to their contributions by studying the critical voice of black women poets as they contextualize, historicize, and imagine urban life through verse; a topic with room for exploration.
Others have also written about East St. Louis. Jennifer Hamer, Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, Eugene B. Redmond, and Andrew Theising have all focused on the city in critical and creative ways. The topic has remained under-explored in poetry. Like the concerted focus of Gwendolyn Brooks in her work on Chicago, the original poems my project produces will offer a concentrated look at urban life in East St. Louis.
Cindy Lyles is a program coordinator and contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.
Research Projects on African American Women