What if there was more funding for African American poetry programming?
Over the past two decades at least, there's been no shortage of award recipients for poets. Even though white poets, by a wide margin, constitute the largest number of recipients, African American poets, we still must admit, have done exceptionally well. That hasn't been the case for programming related to African American poetry.
For the benefit of anyone new to this site, I acknowledge my bias off the top. I regularly coordinate arts and humanities programming, including many projects that concentrate on African American poetry. I'm hardly objective when it comes to pointing out what I view as limited support for programming. And then, perhaps one has to be in programming and into studying poetry to adequately see the discrepancy.
Funding agencies devote considerable resources to supporting individual artists. For example,
the Whiting Writers' Award, which 13 black poets have won since 1991, is $50,000. The Guggenheim, which is somewhere around $40,000 in many cases, has been awarded to 19 black poets since 1990. So we're talking about $1.4 million in awards for African American poets. Not bad. I wonder what that much, or even just a little of that, would look like in support for African American poetry programming.
After participating in literature conferences and other projects related to the field of literary studies over the last decade, I have noticed relatively few attempts among professors, including creative writers, to design programs that utilize African American poetry to engage students. The absence of such programming coincides with, if not explains, the growing disinterest in black poetry, excluding rap music, among students. Of course, professors have relatively little incentive and support to design arts and humanities programs related to African American poetry.
Last year, I applied for and received a grant for $500 from the Student Affairs Office at my university in order to run a poetry program for collegiate black men. The full amount was used to purchase books. Overall, I think the project went fairly well and provided the participants with a special arts and humanities opportunity. But the project was likely only possible because I was inclined to coordinate programs anyway. And I was already immersed in a community of black men.
But why would I or any other professor be so inclined to do a similar project, especially since doing so doesn't "count" for that much toward tenure or promotion? There is, by contrast, a large incentive to produce good poems or a good volume of poetry. The payoff is a major, profitable award, which can lead to various other rewards. There's also incentive for scholars to publish articles in academic journals, even though hardly anyone reads what they write. The payoff is that publishing in a scholarly journal counts toward tenure and promotion or a better job.
So far, the payoff for programming related to African American poetry is not so big. And maybe I got ahead of myself by opening with the question about what if there was more funding. Perhaps we should start by asking: how might we develop a stronger support system for programming involving African American poetry?
• A Notebook on prizes, awards & fellowships