Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Trouble with Histories of Black Poetry

The other day, I was talking to one of our black studies crew Danielle Hall about the spoken word scene or perhaps scenes in St. Louis. She was mentioning changes with venues and poets over the last few years.

I recalled the poetry scenes I viewed when I first arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 2003. There were distinct venues, poets, and certain kinds of poems here and there. I had been involved in similar scenes at Pennsylvania State University when I was in grad school, and similar ones in Jackson, Mississippi, when I was in college.

I eventually grew out of those various spoken word scenes. Danielle might be growing out of the scenes here.

It’s too bad, I was thinking recently, that there seem to be no extensive documented histories about all the small groupings of poets and their supporters. No public record of the venues, the poets, the kinds of poems and performance styles, the flyers, the self-published books.

So, the stories we tell about live poetry are forgetful. Always incomplete. It’s a shame too, because I imagine that “new” groups of poets in an area could learn from previous groups. In fact, without an awareness of what the previous groups were doing, the present groups can’t even adequately point out how new they really are.

But documenting local artistic and cultural histories is not so easy. Participating members of the artistic communities move from the area or grow out of the scene. It’s one thing for some of the “old heads” to know the key players, the most popular venues and types of poems; it’s something else to have that knowledge recorded and packaged in a format widely available over long periods of time. And perhaps before these issues, there would have to be a desire and willingness among enough folks to even get things documented.

The conversation that Danielle and I were having was perhaps a reminder to me about the value of developing local intellectual and artistic histories as well as the trouble with histories of black poetry that are under-documented.

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