Saturday, August 13, 2011

When Black Poetry Isn't Written & Published, Does It Count?

Earlier this week, I came across an article "When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count?" about Wikipedia, "the world’s most used, and perhaps least understood, online reference work."

The article notes that "lately Wikipedia has been criticized from without and within for reflecting a Western, male-dominated mindset similar to the perspective behind the encyclopedias it has replaced." In particular, concerns have been raised about what to do about forms of knowledge that can not be easily cited. As it stands, English wikipedia at least does not accept entries that can not be cited, drawn from printed or published sources.

At one point in the article, Achal Prabhala, who made a short film about the limits of Wikipedia's "text-focused" format was quoted as saying that "Publishing is a system of power" that inevitably "leaves out people."

The questions raised about Wikipedia had me thinking about developments in African American verse, and especially tensions between cultures of print and orality such as literary poetry and spoken word poetry, or literary poetry and rap.

In the academy and in the world of professional poetry, there is certainly a privileging of written and published poetry. Not any kind of publishing will do; instead, getting publishing deals with respected and well-financed publishing imprints gives poets special advantages over poets, for instance, who publish with presses that have less cultural capital.

Last week, I was writing about Jessica Care Moore's performance at the Apollo during the 1990s. Her poem was recited and broadcast, not published and widely distributed. As a result, her brand of poetry (at least the "live" versions of her work) tend to receive support in cultures and from communities that privilege the performance of poetry more so than cultures of literary poetry and the most prominent sectors of the professional world of print.

I was also recently mentioning Elizabeth Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot." Her poem and career have benefited from close ties to the mechanisms of the academy and formal channels of publishing.

I enjoy and appreciate the poetry of both Alexander and Moore, but to the extent that "publishing is a system of power," a pervasive system of power and support that tends to outpace other modes and "leave out people," then it seems that non-published writers and works face all kinds of exclusion.

Of course, non-published poets/artists count and are counted all the time. But it is worth considering how often they are left out or have their legitimacy questioned.

Late last year when Jay-Z was promoting his book De-Coded, I was intrigued and sometimes confused that he went out of his way to link rap to poetry. His comments were often deployed to strengthen rap's credibility. Teachers and cultural workers regularly celebrate the idea that they are teaching young people, invariably young "minority" people, to appreciate literature and Shakespeare, for instance, by utilizing rap.

I do believe that the moves to link rap to poetry are sincere and well-intentioned. My concern, though, is that the moves rarely acknowledge the extents to which the printed-ness of formal poetry is being privileged over the apparent non-printed-ness of other artistic modes such as rap and spoken word.

I think we have to work harder to identify the forms and processes of production that lead us to privilege and perhaps unknowingly neglect different approaches to presenting verse and thus distributing knowledge in particular ways.

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