Monday, July 4, 2011

Keeping Poetry Alive in Mississippi: C. Liegh McInnis

One headline that got my attention over on twitter this morning went as follows: "Is poetry in Jackson, MS dead?" There was a link that leads to an article where a writer laments the loss of open mic venues in Jackson, Mississippi.

I lived in Jackson from 1995 through the summer of 1999, while I was an undergraduate at Tougaloo College. During my time in the state, the poetry scenes -- some related, some not -- had ups and downs, like many of the other groupings of literary artists in placed that I have lived and visited.

One major contributor to the open mics back then was C. Liegh McInnis. He still remains as one of the vital forces in black literary culture in Jackson. One reason that younger or newer artists in Jackson might be unaware of C. Liegh is because he, like many of us, likely became less active in the typical night-time performance circles and concentrated on other venues, including print publications, as we got older. 

But then again, a quick glance through the images on C. Liegh's web site reveals that he as remained quite active in print and performance mediums over the years.

By the time I arrived to Jackson in the late 90s, C. Liegh appeared to have already been a known figure in those local venues. He was not alone; there were several others. In fact, I first met the poet Treasure Williams in Jackson at a poetry reading that she was hosting in fact.

I saw C. Liegh perform at quite a few different events in various venues across the city. Toward the end of my time in Mississippi, I became aware that C. Liegh and I shared a common mentor, the professor and literary scholar Jerry W. Ward, Jr.  

In 2001, C. Liegh and his partner Monica Taylor-McInnis co-founded a magazine Black Magnolias Literary Journal. Running the publication necessarily had to take up time and energy and personal resources. Black Magnolias "is a quarterly that uses poetry, fiction, and prose to examine and celebrate the social, political, and aesthetic accomplishments of African Americans with an emphasis on Afro-Mississippians and Afro-Southerners."

As an editor, C. Liegh has ushered dozens of aspiring poets into print, and he has provided a venue for many established writers. What he's been doing now for more than 10 years with the publication is impressive, admirable and akin to that remarkable Amiri Baraka-like ingenuity.

During the 90s when C. Liegh was especially active on the spoken word or open mic scene, he was perhaps more engaged in contributing to black poetic and artistic cultures as opposed to writing about cultural history. That's quite understandable. Taking the time to research and write about what was happening would have slowed the processes.

Still...imagine if C. Liegh and other poets or dedicated attendees across the country had been writing histories of the open mic gatherings and activities of literary artists while they were a part of them.

What if C. Liegh, for instance, gave us names of all the venues he and others performed at during the 90s? What if we had lists of poets (stage and birth names); signature poems; key organizers; regular non-poet attendees; collections of self-published books and CDs; recordings; newspaper clippings, flyers, etc.? Our understanding of local ingenuity and artistic cultures would be more complex, right? 

Typically, during the time that many of us were most active with the open mics, we did not have the kind of training or inclination to document what we were witnessing or organizing. So as one group gets older and moves on, another group of young artists comes along and has to reinvent some of the proverbial wheels.

In addition, many memories and materials related to local cultures of performance, print, and poetry in a place like Jackson, Mississippi, for instance, remain under-documented. 

Returning to the question that got me started on this entry, I'm not exactly sure about the life or lives of (open mic) poetry in Jackson, Mississippi, today. I do know that it's unfortunate that for all kinds of reasons we have not found better ways to document and promote the many ways that poetry finds ways to keep on living.

I'm also aware that C. Liegh has been an important lifeline for African American poetry in Jackson, MS.

Related Content:
Grassroots Arts Organizing: C. Liegh McInnis and Black Magnolias

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