Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Notes toward a history of 21st-century black poetry

Let's say we're writing a history of 21st-century black poetry. What would it look like--what trends to address, what poets to include, what else?  Maybe Black History Month is a good moment to consider these issues.

In terms of writers, we'd certainly mention some of the major award-winners like Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Nikky Finney, and others. We can and should think of many talented non-award winners, as the awards do not necessarily mean a poet is somehow better. However, winning awards, in our society, do serve as megaphones and amplify the presence of poets.

Our 21st-century history of poetry would need to highlight the rise of award-winning and prominent black women poets. Have we ever had so many at any point in history?

As far as trends, we'd need to mention the large number of poets who writing persona verse. We'd need to write about the rise of sonnet sequences, and we'd need to address the fact that so many contemporary black poets have written about slavery.    

There's certainly commentary we'd need to do about publishers, magazines and journals, and anthologies that have served as key platforms for poets. We'd need to address the important roles of Cave Canem, academic appointments, and poetry conferences and festivals. 

It wouldn't be enough to only focus on "new" poets, as so many elder, established poets have assisted in shaping the field over the last several years. I'm thinking of people like the late Lucille Clifton, Ai, Jayne Cortez, and Amiri Baraka to name just a few who have passed on but who were central forces in the first decade of the 21s century. Then, there is the continuing presence and popularity of well-known figures like Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou.

Of course a challenge would be writing about the many, many poets who've emerged and adequately addressing their various works. Consider prolific poets like Allison Joseph, Kevin Young, and Frank X. Walker. A history would have to cover their many writings and others?

So writing that history, those histories would be tall orders. But I'm hoping writers, poets, readers, and scholars take it on. In the meantime, I plan to do my part by continuing to chart aspects of what's going on with poetry in bits and pieces here on this site.

An Introduction to 208 volumes of poetry by African American poets, 2000-2013  

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