Saturday, April 17, 2021

Blogging: a missed opportunity for black poetry, African American literary studies

I still view blogging as an important missed opportunity in black poetry studies and African American literary studies. Just so we're clear, there are all kinds of things that folks in our field can be proud of. Full stop. I'm just noting right now, though, that the inability to develop a blogging community may have stagnated our overall growth and prevented us us from establishing and solidifying a variety of connections. 

For some reason, when blogging was enjoying tremendous popularity from the early to mid-2000s up to the early 2010s, relatively few scholars of African American literature became actively involved in this mode of writing and publishing. There are perhaps legit reasons why. For one, I suspect a substantial number of scholars are encouraged to devote their writing time publishing endeavors that lead to tenure and professional advancement.    

In addition, when it comes to approaches to presenting ideas, scholars tend to follow patterns set forth in their training, and few English graduate school programs were providing guidance on setting up and running blogs. If the successful literature professors you knew were not running blogs, then why would you? 

Finally, blogging requires some facility and comfort with technology, and so that could've been a barrier to many as well. I understand and respect all those reasons. 

I'm nonetheless inclined to view blogging as a missed opportunity because again, as a field in general, we did get the chance to gain some of the benefits that would've likely arose if we did have even a dozen or so even somewhat known figures produce blogs. A small network of bloggers writing about black poetry would've given us a chance to share ideas beyond the limited number of people who attend conferences or who read articles in scholarly journals. 

We would've been inclined to link to each other's blogs and thus establish some sense of community across space and time. We could've shared notes on poetry readings we attended, materials we came across in special collections and used bookstores, experiences we had in our classrooms. We would have been sharing writings that were interesting or important to us, though not the subject of our next article or book. 

Consider this: between 2010 and 2020, I produced more than 1,400 blog entries about African American poetry. I blogged quite a bit about folks like Evie Shockley, Allison Joseph, Tony Medina, Nikky Finney, and many others, and devoted extended attention to teaching, poems on YouTube, Book History, and contemporary poetry news items. But those topics were not comparatively represented in my published articles. If I was not a blogger, so many of my thoughts about black verse would've remained hidden from view. 

I used my site as a kind of repository of ideas. But it also served some practical purposes for organizing materials. Checklists. Timelines. Rounds and coverage on authors and special topics. Award-winning poets from 1987 - 2020.

Hey, the blog even gave me opportunities to think about audiences for my work well beyond the academy, something that would have been less likely to develop as it did if my only modes of writing had been scholarly writing for conferences, scholarly journals, and publications for academic presses. 

I viewed the history blog The Public Archive as an important model and mantra for me. That is, produce a public archive of thoughts and records concerning black poetry. What if there had been two dozen or even just ten black poetry-based Public Archive-like blogs out there? That is, what if I had multiple models instead of just a few? What if others had more models?  Again, a missed opportunity. 

If those hypothetical bloggers and I had been in touch, we would've had opportunities to build important senses of community. We could've assisted each other in filling in gaps. We could've highlighted our different reading lists and trained our eyes on common poems and books. 

It's good to identify missed opportunities like this one, because it gives us a framework for considering the kinds of plans we might make for the future...right now. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Haley Reading (Group 2) Nafissa Thompson-Spires's "Wash Clean the Bones"

By Lakenzie Walls and Howard Rambsy II

In Nafissa Thompson-Spires's final story, “Wash Clean the Bones,” we meet Alma who's is struggling with endometriosis. Moonlighting as a funeral singer, Alma uses the money to fund her fertility treatments. Soon after her son is born, it sometimes felt “like another adhesion, a growth on her future happiness” (195).

Alma usually finds herself at the graveside of several young Black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence. This causes her to reflect on her brother's passing, whose femur she keeps wrapped and stored in her closet.

What's one way that this story led you to reconsider something, or how did the story prompt you to give more thought to an idea that you previously glossed over?

Saturday, April 10, 2021

"Talking to me like a friend": Nafissa Thompson-Spires as Storyteller

The students in the reading group this semester have been enjoying stories from Nafissa Thompson-Spires's collection Heads of the Colored People, and some of their recent responses confirmed the importance of highlighting the style, not just the content of a writer's work. 

I had previously worried a little that we only considered the content of the stories and neglected to adequately acknowledge the artfulness of stories that Thompson-Spires composed. Of course, it's understandable why students were distracted by the plot of a story with two black mothers lobbing insults at each other through letter writing or a young girl determined "to become black, full black, baa baa black sheep black." 

The title story, "Heads of the Colored People," offered us an opportunity to recognize a literary artist at work. She presents a "black network narrative," where she introduces a variety of interconnected characters in a brief tale. I asked students about their thoughts concerning the art of Thompson-Spires's storytelling. 

"I love this writing style," said Deja. "It's casual in a way that it's talking to me like a friend would, but still professional enough that I take it seriously." Devin enjoyed the writing style as well "because it changes the perspective that we are used to of stereotyping, while also, checking how we think about these ideas, in our mind."

Kalonji brought up aspects of the network narrative: "The way Nafissa Thompson-Spires was able to intertwine these four individual characters' stories demonstrated her foresight, preparation, and ability to project fine details/characteristics onto each character."

According to Jalen, the approach in the story was "profound" as it "does a great job of creating stand-alone characters with their own conflicts, while also adding some sort of through line to connect them to the black experience."

Adejoke noted that the direct address to readers was notable: "I thought that the most interesting thing about the author's writing was that he would call out the reader for having preconceived judgments about the characters." 

Several students admitted that they were initially confused by the story until they thought on it a little more. "I was a little confused by the organizational pattern at first," observed Alexis, "but by the time I reached [the character] Paris' point of view it clicked." 

Mark had a similar response: "My first thought was that it was more confusing than it needed to be. However, after thinking about it some more, I see now that the narrative order was to set up the scene and characters in a way that would cause us to understand their place in the world before they were taken out of it." 


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Haley Reading (Group 1) Nafissa Thompson-Spires's "Wash Clean the Bones"

[Haley Reading groups Spring 2021]

By Lakenzie Walls and Howard Rambsy II

In Nafissa Thompson-Spires's final story, “Wash Clean the Bones,” we meet Alma who's is struggling with endometriosis. Moonlighting as a funeral singer, Alma uses the money to fund her fertility treatments. Soon after her son is born, it sometimes felt “like another adhesion, a growth on her future happiness” (195).

Alma usually finds herself at the graveside of several young Black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence. This causes her to reflect on her brother's passing, whose femur she keeps wrapped and stored in her closet.

What’s one issue or question that this story prompted you to consider that you had not previously thought about as much before?

Monday, April 5, 2021

Working with a DH Center on an African American Poetry Project

Here's a brief narrative about the value of working with a DH Center on an African American poetry project. I'm documenting this positive experience as an alternative to a previous article I wrote about how scholars of African American literature are often on the margins of DH

In February, I met with the co-directors of our university DH Center Kristine Hildebrandt and Jessica DeSpain as well as the center's new research professor, Margaret (Meg) Smith. The meeting was a chance for me to give them a heads up on the projects that I would need their assistance on for the coming semester. 

Prior to the meeting, I sent them a short document listing five upcoming projects with two to three bullet points describing each project. During the one-hour meeting, we moved through the five projects with me talking about what I vaguely had in mind, and they posed follow-up questions.

It was a good and rare experience to have a meeting where my projects, mostly in early stages, were the center of an extended conversation. Often in our field, you work on projects in isolation and perhaps produce a fifteen-minute conference presentation on a panel with two to three other presenters.

What if the approach to project development was different, however? What if you met with scholars and technicians at the outset, when your idea was not fully formed, and what if you had the chance to talk through what you might have in mind? What was happening at that meeting with our DH Center is perhaps a process that should occur with more scholars and graduate students in African American literary studies even beyond the realm of DH.     

One of the subjects on my list, in fact the priority on my list,  was a digital project on African American poetry. Since February, this poetry project is what Meg and I have worked on the most, among those items on my list. We're building toward a mini-prototype and a proposal for a funding agency based on the project. I've been building some extensive bibliographies and producing writings about the research and where it's headed. 

Meg -- bless her -- has been working to transform some my notes and ideas into a functional digital resource. We have meetings for updates and to sharpen our focus. Receiving her updates and seeing what she has been doing on her end made it possible for me to clarify my ideas for the first major draft of the proposal, which I recently completed. 

I was fortunate to get early input from Meg, Jessica, and Kristine. Of course, it took me a while to get to this point. By the time I sent them my list of projects in February, I had been talking for years, for instance, with Jessica about American and African American literary studies. Too, Jessica and Kristine co-founded the DH Center in 2009, so they were well-versed in talking with professors like me about projects in the early stages.

Still documenting processes like these are worthwhile for pinpointing what works.  

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Haley Reading (Group 2) Nafissa Thompson-Spires's "Heads of the Colored People"

[Haley Reading groups Spring 2021]

By Lakenzie Walls and Howard Rambsy II

In Nafissa Thompson-Spires's story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology," we are introduced to four characters whose individual stories intersect on a day that two of them are shot by police. The narrator takes the time to give us brief, in-depth takes on the movements, choices, and thoughts of four characters.

One of the characters, a young Black man named Riley wears colored contacts and bleached hair, and, as we're informed by the narrator, "this wasn’t any kind of self-hatred thing” (1). Another Black man, referred to as Brother Man, "was burly but not violent and rather liked to regard himself as an intellectual in a misleading package" (4).

Then, there is a visual artist Kevan, who is hundreds of miles away from the main action in the story, but would later draw images of Black men, like Riley and Brother Man, killed by police (8). Another is Paris Larkin, who longs for a superpower to "make herself visible" (10). Like her boyfriend Riley, she is devoted to cosplay.

What does this "black network narrative" lead you to consider about Thompson-Spires as a storyteller? That is to say, what's one thought you had about the creativity, style of writing, organizational approach, or artistic capabilities of a writer who composes a story that connects a variety of African American characters?

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

When Patricia Smith reads, what do we hear?

Patricia Smith, source: Chris Rolinson

Back in February, I was viewed an online conversation between Tyehimba Jess and Patricia Smith. At one point, Smith read her poem "Hey, who you got in here?" -- a conversation between women who are at a prison to visiting their sons who are serving time. 

When she read the poem, I was immediately annoyed with my own initial reading of the poem on the page. I had not given the different voices and personas the richness that Smith did. Listening to her gave me a fuller sense of two black women in a prison waiting areas conversing before meeting with their incarcerated sons.   

But perhaps we can stop right there and consider that while listening Smith, I began to imagine hearing two other black women. This idea of considering where my mind goes when I hear Smith came back to me recently after reading this article, "When Podcast Hosts Speak, What Do We Hear?"

The article focuses primarily on white people, who, the author notes, make up about 80% podcast hosts. There's some attention to the fact that black podcasts sound different or don't have the freedom "to let aurally loose" the way many white hosts sound. Legit points.

For almost two decades now, however, I have taught African American literature courses, and I have increasingly included audio recordings of poets reading. My students and I realize that there are white-black differences, but given our focus in the course, we end up thinking about the variety among black poets. 

Students view Smith's reading of her poem "Skinhead" as the most haunting. It's one thing to watch her reading the poem on Def Poetry Jam. But for years, I played only an older audio version, where there are no applause and visual. We'd just listen. 

I'm not fully sure why but the experience of listening to only her audio gives an eerie feeling. Not seeing the reader perhaps raises the image of the white supremacist in the minds of my students. Too, many of the them are not previously aware of Smith, and their introduction to her is reading in the persona of a skinhead. 

I started actively reading and listening to Smith's readings at the beginning of my career as a professor in the fall of 2003. I had completed a major project on the Black Arts Movement, and I was trying to acquaint myself with contemporary African American poets. I first came across works by Tyehimba Jess, and I noticed in interviews, he almost always mentioned Smith as an important influence and model. So I began "following" both of them long before that practice became associated with social media.

Smith is routed to slam and spoken word. But it's worth noting that she emerged from Chicago and the Green Mill Lounge, so her sound is not the same of someone who came up in, say, New York or California. 

In terms of age, Smith is a contemporary of Rita Dove, Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt, Nikky Finney, Cornelis Eady, and Carl Phillips. Her background as a spoken word artist, however, means she projects and performs her in ways much different than them. Or put another way, she likely was inclined to think about poetry audience (at the Green Mill Lounge and at National Poetry Slam competitions) in ways that those other poets did not.     

So when Smith reads, you, or at least I, have to give thought to that background to the trajectory of poetry on page and stage.  

It's possible of course to situate Smith among various spoken word artists, including Jae Nichelle, Porsha O, Jasmine Mans, Amanda Gorman, and others. Alright. But then, what Smith does with persona stands out. In addition to mothers with incarcerated sons and a skinhead, Smith has also written/read in the voice of Hurricane Katrina and the cartoon character Olive Oyl. 

As I considered Smith's poem "Hey, who you got in here?," I thought about the poet as listener. You get the sense from that poem that Smith has spent some time pay attention to quite conversations between black women. So among other things, when Smith is reading, what you end up hearing is a production of someone who's a close listener.