Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The good news and the trouble with black poetry

Just six months into 2017, and there's been all kinds of good news with black poets. Vievee Francis was awarded the Tufts Poetry Award. Tyehimba Jess was awarded the Pulitzer. Kevin Young was named poetry editor for The New Yorker, and Terrance Hayes was named poetry editor for The New York Times Magazine. Tracy K. Smith was named U.S. Poet Laureate, and the folks at Poetry magazine, among many others, are doing important work to celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks's centennial.

All good news. But...yes, there's a but...

...can we say that we feel good about all that's happening with African American poetry and American poetry in general? Nah, we can't.

For one, consider a finding from Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young. They revealed that from 2004 - 2015, "24,000 MFAs were awarded for around 900 possible jobs." That's not a good look for the field of poetry. Between 1975 and 2015, universities established 300 creative writing programs. Those programs were not created because those institutions love poetry.  Rather, Spahr and Young observe, universities understood that those writing programs "are cheap to run" and "tuition generating."

When it comes to black poetry, we can count a large number of successes with awards and with academic appointments over the last 20 years in particular. We can't, however, point to as many well-funded black poetry programming projects for young people. It's been more likely for select black poets to receive prizes over $10,000 than for entire communities to receive that support for black literacy or black literary art programs.

 And even though there are many scholars out there doing good work on poetry, we have to say those numbers are small in comparison to various other areas. There are some "special" issues on poetry in scholarly journals, but editors will tell you that they don't receive many articles on poetry with their regular submissions. My general sense is that many scholars aren't necessarily opposed to poetry, but they tend to devote their research and writing energies to other things.

And there's more -- a nagging sense of intra-racial class discrepancies in African American poetry (sure, it's probably in all of poetry). You get a glimpse of the discrepancy when you consider how much funding has come to what some refer to as print-based poets vs. spoken word artists or simply poets who reside outside certain influential networks.

So how do we reconcile the troubles and good news concerning poetry? First, we'll have to do better about accounting for what's happening. So far, we've done better circulating information about the good news. Many people sent me emails about this or that poet winning an award. Folks are silent about the challenges so many aspiring poets face or the absence of adequate programming on the arts in low-income communities. Those of us who study the arts and who live and work in black communities will want to address some of these issues more thoroughly.

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