Friday, July 16, 2010

From poet to short story writer to novelist to....

This week and next, I'm at the University of Kansas participating in Making the Wright Connection, a program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that "explores Richard Wright and his influence on the American idiom." I'm enjoying talking with folks about one of my favorite writers and building new ideas about how to view and teach Wright's work.

Recently, I was thinking about Wright's transformations as a writer. Some years before he became widely known as a novelist as the author of Native Son, Wright was writing and publishing poetry in various left-wing publications. He had been studying with the John Reed Club and developing his knowledge of politics, history, and sociology through a broad range of readings. Those influences and social interactions shaped the nature of Wright's earliest published verse.

Check out the opening stanza of Wright's poem "We of the Streets,"
Streets are full of the scent of us—odors of onions drifting from doorways, effluvium of baby new-born downstairs, seeping smells of warm soap-suds—the streets as lush with the ferment of our living.
And the closing stanza:
And there is something in the streets that made us feel immortality when we rushed along ten thousand strong, hearing our chant fill the world, wanting to do what none of us would do alone, aching to should the forbidden word, knowing that we of the streets are deathless…
So Wright really began his active publishing career as a poet. He then began publishing as a short story writer then novelist. Soon after, he published a major autobiography, Black Boy. He continued publishing novels as well as travel narratives, and toward the end of his life, he wrote haiku...4,000 haiku.

Last month while I was in San Antonio, Texas, working with the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute, some of the participants were talking about black artists who write in various genres. Wright's career certainly stands as an important model.

And speaking of Wright's career, it seems notable that he sought and had access to all these leftist publications. I wonder where today's emergent, progressive, and future novelists are publishing their poems? What kind of leftist venues are available and welcoming to politically minded black artists?

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