Friday, August 5, 2011

C. Liegh McInnis's 1990s Groundwork in Mississippi

There are really way too many "beginnings" or opening developments during the 1990s to keep track of, but given my interest in certain poets, I am inclined to look in a few choice directions.

C. Liegh McInnis, a Mississippi poet, essayist, publisher, editor, and cultural activist that I have written about from time to time here has been especially productive over the last 10 years or so. But like so many literary and cultural artists who have excelled during the 1990s such as Jessica Care Moore, Terrance Hayes, Treasure Williams, and Kevin Young, to name just a few, C. Liegh began laying important groundwork as a poet during the 1990s.

He graduated from Jackson State University in 1992. A few years later, he had earned his Master's degree in English and started working as an instructor at Jackson State. Around 1996, he started performing regularly with poets Jolivette Anderson and David Brian Williams in Jackson.

They were not a formal slam team like those that compete in the national slam competition. But, at the same time, Jolivette Anderson, David Brian Williams, and C. Liegh were a team.

I was a student at Tougaloo College in Mississippi during this time, and when I ventured around town to off-campus poetry sets, C. Liegh was almost always one of the featured poets or organizers. In retrospect, he was the first literary artist I encountered who really utilized the city as a kind of base of operation for the regular and continuous display of poetry, among other productions. (Later, I met Eugene B. Redmond who had transformed East St. Louis into an artistic platform a decade or so before C. Liegh and I were born).

During those later years of the 1990s, C. Liegh was writing, organizing, performing, and developing a style of poetry that was indebted to previous generations, no doubt. Yet, his style and the styles of his peers were new in their own ways.

In terms of pace, delivery modes, subject-matter (to an extent), and sites of presentation, yes, what C. Liegh was doing could be defined as a version of spoken word poetry. The black Southern features of his poetry, however, gave it a different sound or flavor than, say, Jessica Care Moore, Tracie Morris, and Saul Williams.

More so than those and other artists who gained visibility in New York and Chicago and on the national poetry slam competitions and performance scenes, C. Liegh's work was informed by the oratory and performance styles of Mississippi black church communities merged with the secular militancy of "conscious" folks..from the South.

I was recently reading an essay by Preselfannie McDaniels on C. Liegh's poetry in the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. McDaniels mentioned that C. Liegh often situates himself as "unforgivably southern." That phrasing is a play on a famous reference to boxer Jack Johnson's "unforgivable blackness." The nod to C. Liegh's southern-ness is also useful for considering the distinct modes and place of his poetry.

As C. Liegh continued presenting his work at more and more events in Jackson, he was continually approached by people in the audiences who wanted copies of the poems that he was reading. Their requests and nudges led him to self-publish his first volume of poetry Matters of Reality: Body Mind and Soul.

Fortunately for audiences, C. Liegh ignored one of the rules from the "professional" or "literary" poetry playbooks that states: thou shalt not publish volumes of poetry unless it is sanctioned by a high profile press.

In all seriousness though, C. Liegh's early forays into publishing would lead him to establish an important platform for writers in 2001, when he co-founded Black Magnolias, a literary magazine. Over the last decade, he's moved in all kinds of directions as a writer, organizer, performer, presenter, editor, and publisher. Of course, he laid important groundwork for all his recent movements during the 1990s.

Related content: 
The Word Heard Round the World: Jessica Care Moore at the Apollo during the 1990s
Some Volumes of Poetry Published During the 1990s
 Books of Collected Works by African American Poets from the 1990s
Notable African American Anthologies Feat. Poetry from the 1990s
African American Poetry During the 1990s: Some notable occurrences

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