Saturday, September 3, 2011

How Different Audiences Create Different Kinds of Black Poetry

This past week in my "Malcolm X" course, my students and I spent some time talking about Malcolm's "Message to the Grassroots" speech and the strong presence of his "militant black audience." As Malcolm speaks, you can hear them saying things like "Tell'em Malcolm" and "preach." That audience was a crucial element in what and how Malcolm spoke.

I've been wondering what different audiences mean to the production of black or African American poetry. Apparently, even audience interests and demands lead us to shift in labeling it "African American" and "black" poetry depending on what we want to convey about the pieces. 

The core audience for local spoken word poetry in my city clearly shapes what poets write and how they present. Poet-performers are often encouraged to memorize their works. They tend to include rhymes and certain rhythms, and they are less likely to compose and present sonnets and villanelles.  

Literary poets typically do not include rhyme. They do not present from memory. They often read from their published volumes at events. They regularly present particular forms such as sonnets, haiku, ghazals, and other techniques, which are taught, assigned, or studied in university settings.

Spoken word poets compete with each other in slam competitions or in a subtler way through winning favor from their live audiences. The prevalent black nationalist impulse among audiences means that it matters for a poet to present ideas that are deep or conscious or at least thoughtful about race or the conditions of black people. 

Literary poets compete with other literary poets by submitting their manuscripts to various literary awards contests and book prizes. Literary poets who are seeking employment at universities are also in a kind of competition with various other literary poets seeking to gain employment at the same universities.  To succeed in winning the prizes (awards or employment), literary poets must meet expectations of audiences that have, in general, deep commitments to cultures of print and formal literature.

We can easily think of exceptionally talented spoken word poets who could hardly meet the standards to get a job in MFA programs. Just as easily, we know of widely published and respected literary poets who would have a difficult time meeting the standards of the audience at the local spoken word venue.

The different audiences for spoken word poets and literary poets are important to the different kinds of works that they produce. The audiences don't, necessarily, dictate what any poet writes. But the audiences can shape the reception of works, and the audiences' levels of enthusiasm or indifference for particular poems can, I imagine, affect large numbers of writers and aspiring writers in a field.

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