Have you ever noticed that some poets who know their poems by memory but still tend to read their poems from a book? On the other hand, there are poets who might actually prefer to read their poems from the printed page yet feel inclined, if not pressured in particular contexts such as the spoken word venues, to perform their poems by memory.
What's up with all that?
In many ways, there are some longstanding, though largely under-discussed tensions among black poets and black poets, among those poets who read their poems from the pages of published books and poets who perform their pieces from memory. Sometimes, the tensions are less apparent, especially when poets such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Treasure Williams, and Patricia Smith present their works because they have mastered the art of reading & performing. But those and and other exceptional talents stand out because they are, well, exceptional.
There's often a bit of separation between the different cultures of black poetry that I follow. I gain access to new pieces from one culture of African American poetry primarily through literary journals, anthologies, publications produced by university and mainstream presses, and from recommendations from people, mostly poets, associated with English departments and creative writing programs.
There's another culture of poetry that I gain access to primarily through spoken word events and small cyphas, youtube videos, and from recommendations from people, primarily students and artists--none associated with English departments and creative writing programs.
[Side-notes: I do belong to communities associated with universities that pay attention to older, established poetry. These communities are less aware of or interested in contemporary "literary" poetry and spoken word. I also work regularly with Eugene Redmond and members of the EBR Writers Club--a group that spends balanced amounts of time concentrating on reading, writing, and performance.]
The tensions between those different cultures of black poetry are not always overt, and it isn't even always controlled by poets themselves, but rather by some larger factors and issues associated with conflicts between elite and folk culture, modes of print and orality, academic and popular, and perceptions about white and black cultural forms.
There's relatively little public, extensive discussion about the tensions and compatibilities between the cultures of poetry. It's rare, that is, to hear poets from those different realms discussing Natasha Trethewey and Saul Williams or Jessica Care Moore and Tracy Smith or Tyehimba Jess and Tyehimba Jess (if you can get to that).
Maybe the cross cultural discussions concerning these different modes of black poetry are less pronounced because the intra-cultural issues are so prevalent. For the most part, large numbers of "literary" poets are inclined to spend their energies getting published in literary journals, gaining contracts with formal or reputable publishing institutions, attaining tenure at a university, and winning prestigious literary awards and fellowships.
Slam and spoken word poets, on the other hand, must spend considerable amounts of time developing their talents to produce engaging and inspiring performances. Often, they must be willing to participate in night life, since many of the spoken word events, at least, take place at night. If they are part of a slam team that participates in competitions, they must also devote considerable amounts of practice time to working with a group of poets on a regular basis.
The results of poetry in one culture - again notwithstanding exceptions - reveal that much thought goes into how the words come across on the page. The results of poetry in another culture reveal that much thought goes into how the words come across on the stage. For the most part, as mentioned, the cultures tend to treat each other indifferently. For the most part.
I do occasionally hear about the tensions between the modes or cultures of poetry when I am talking to friends who are transitioning from, for example, spoken word poetry to "literary' poetry. A black poet who reads her poems by memory in a certain kind of literary space is often labeled or categorized in a particular box--the box leans toward the negative, even though the box can come in nice packaging (i.e. "ohhh, you're such a great performer.") Conversely, a poet who reads from a book in a spoken word venue is often viewed in not so favorable ways.
I clearly have more to think about and listen to and read and view and ask questions about before really coming to some solid conclusions about things related to this expansive body of work known as black poetry. For now though, these differences and overlaps between poets who perform and poets who read is worthwhile to consider.
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