|Danielle Hall, Nikki Giovanni, and Cindy Reed at SIUE, November 2012|
Two weeks ago, the students -- all first-year black women -- in one of my classes listened to poems by Danielle Hall and Cindy Reed, two former graduate students at SIUE. In addition to pursuing academic studies at the school, Danielle and Cindy excelled at presenting their poetry. The content of their poems move the students, but it is also the expressive, diverse styles of delivery that captures attention.
There's something in the wider formal world of poetry known as "poet voice," a pervasive mode of reading, where poets take on a "monotonous incantation" that is characterized by "the repetition of a falling cadence within a narrow range of pitch" and "a flattened affect." The practice of poet voice might not be consciously taken on at this point, as it has become such a normative approach.
In underground conversations, many black folks would describe poet voice as "white." Of course, these days, many award-winning African American women poets enact poet voice during their readings. In part, it has to do with audience and formal training spaces, most of which occur in "mainly white rooms," the phrasing employed by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young to identify such spaces. Over the years, when my black women students were responding with some aversion to audio recordings of Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, and Rita Dove, referring to their poetry reading styles as "boring," they were in fact reacting to poet voice.
By the time many of the young sisters arrive to my college classroom, they have had the privilege of witnessing a range of remarkable speakers and presenters based in black women creative domains. They've been in churches and see dynamic women speakers and singers. They've seen dramatic arts performed at community programs and talent shows. They've watched and studied Beyoncé and countless other performers.
Just as important, they've grown up in homes and communities populated by lively and entertaining black women speakers. In July, I did an informal survey among incoming students asking them to identify the speakers who most captivated their attention. A clear majority of the women described their mothers and aunts, whose emphatic and multi-directional styles of delivery they said they found inspiring.
Thus, when these young black women encountered the powerful emotive sonic energies of Danielle and Cindy reading poems, they recognized that the sounds were routed to mainly black rooms. This wasn't poet voice. Danielle's poem was akin to an extended testimony the students might have heard at church or at a black women's gathering. Cindy's poem allowed us to overhear her talking to a black girl in a tough neighborhood.
When the recordings of Danielle and Cindy reading finished, one of the students raised her hand and asked the question that someone asked a year ago and someone else asked a year before that. "Can we hear those again?" It's possible to listen again in my class, but I fear that these moments are rare or fleeting in the overall context of college.
The infrastructure for literature is far more supportive of poetry and other literary works produced by major publishing companies, as opposed to the kind of audio recordings I was sharing with students. In addition, although we now have a large number of award-winning black poets, they are often required to go through the process of earning MFAs in order to move up the professional later. The process ensures that aspiring poets from economically privileged backgrounds over those from struggling backgrounds are more likely to earn prestige and high recognition.
So what? What should we do?
For now, it's worth recognizing what is going on, taking note of how our conventional approaches to teaching African American literature sometimes erase, for instance, the rich dynamism of black women styles of delivery. At the same time, we might do more to take into account the kinds of creative domains that shape the thought and practices of black girls and collegiate black women.
• A Notebook on Readers
• Why some collegiate black women might find contemporary black poetry boring
• Creativity @ SIUE