Thursday, February 13, 2014

A 1960s/70s Poetry Puzzle: How to make poems black and blacker?

After a poetry reading that Eugene B. Redmond gave in East St. Louis in the mid 1960s, a guy approached the stage and said to Redmond, "Brother, we want to hear some black poetry." The comment unsettled Redmond at the time, because he had not heard "black" said in quite that way. But he began thinking on it. In fact, Redmond recalls that "I remember tossing and turning in my sleep 'What does he mean, what does he mean, ‘black poetry’?"

Redmond was among several poets who were beginning to question what a black or blacker poetry might look like. Amiri Baraka wondered. Larry Neal wondered. Gwendolyn Brooks wondered. Countless poets associated with them wondered as well.

The consideration of black poetry was especially challenging and fascinating for poets born prior to 1940, that is, poets who had become poets before the rise of a category known distinctly as "black poetry." Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti, for instance, who were some years younger than those others, first became poets when the idea of black poets held more weight.

But that wasn't the case for poets like Redmond and Baraka. They were published poets before black poetry had gained as much cultural capital as black poetry.

These days, given the rise of MFA programs, the value of academic appointments, awards, and the overall professionalization of the field of creative writing, African American poets, at least those poets who want to heighten their chances of advancing in the field, must contend with questions of how to navigate those systems.   
But at a key moment during the 1960s, poets like Redmond were pondering the question of how to make their poems black or blacker. This was the era of Black Power, by the way, so activist-minded poets were inclined to consider how they might produce art and arts-based project that served the interests of African Americans.   

The poets as well as editors and commentators came up with many answers. For one, they began referring to the poetry as black poetry with more regularity and intensity. Many chose to make more deliberate efforts to align the poems with music. In addition, poets sought to channel the spirit and ideology of Malcolm X in their works. They chose to look to Africa, celebrating aspects of the people, cultures, and historical events. 

The results were varied. But what's really notable, in retrospect, was just how many poets, editors, and publishers tried to respond to the request from audiences who wanted "some black poetry." 

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