|Students listen to audio recordings of poems|
Often, when I mention that several of my students, the majority of whom are black women, find African American poetry covered in school boring, people tend to critique the students. "Maybe, they need to read more." "They need to work harder to understand subjects that are unfamiliar." "They are probably waste too much time on social media." And so forth. Some of the points might be legitimate. But I wonder: does poetry as a field deserve more blame?
I obviously enjoy reading, listening to, and of course blogging about poetry and poets. Still, or, rather, because of my experiences, I've come to consider some of the things that we don't talk about when we talk about poetry. We're regularly silent about the increasing class divides and barriers concerning black poetry--the way gaining sustained professional success in the field depends on considerable middle and upper middle class backing, and how the price of earning an MFA means substantial debt for large numbers of poets.
Perhaps those issues are extra-literary though, and don't explain the distance between working-class black students and (middle-class?) contemporary African American poetry.What if the dynamic black women orators, skilled performers, everyday speakers, and spoken word artists that the students encounter outside of and prior to formal classrooms shape and elevate their expectations of what extraordinary uses of language look and sound like? What if the language and concerns of formal poetry, even when presented by award-winning African American poets, are too sanitized and polite for some?
So much of contemporary American poetry, it's worth keeping in mind, has moved through and ultimately been shaped by "mainly white rooms," to invoke phrasing by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young. That is to say, the MFA programs, magazines, publishers, award and fellowship granting agencies, and reading series that sustain poetry production are primarily led by and comprised of white people. Thankfully, several of those institutions "support diversity" and have made substantial progress over the last 15 years in particular with respect to expanding inclusiveness.
Support for African American poetry and poets in mainly white, middle-class reading rooms, however, at times looks different than support in mainly black, working-class spaces. I'm not naive about the many reasons why the young sisters in my course must acquaint themselves with the values and interests of mainly white rooms. Despite their self-professed boredom at times, black students here have learned and displayed knowledge about a diverse range of poets.
I can't, with as much confidence, say the exchange is reciprocal. I simply don't encounter enough people and writings that display considerable curiosity and knowledge about the complexity of, say, these working-class black women students. I suppose many of the people who have regular access to publishing institutions have relatively little contact with large numbers of black men and women college students, and those who have regular contact with the students have limited access to publishing institutions.
Related entries on poetry readers:
• A Notebook on Readers