Sunday, January 8, 2012

African American Poets & The Poetry Establishment

One of the many topics that came up in the Helen Vendler and Rita Dove disagreement was the issue of "the poetry establishment." Vendler critiqued Dove for making vague descriptions of a presumably white poetry establishment. Later in an interview for the Best American Poetry blog, Jericho Brown asks Dove about the poetry establishment, and she responds:
Of course there’s an establishment -- and there are subgroups and counter-groups. Occasionally subgroups and counter-groups can even become part of the establishment, or subdue the old guard. I’d still have to say, though, that -- in very broad terms -- East Coasters continue to hold sway as the core poetry establishment in the United States; the connections and resources are centered there, with the major commercial publishing houses and Ivy League schools orbiting Boston and New York. But the consortium of creative writers and creative writing programs at universities all over the nation -- AWP -- poses an ever stronger counter-pull, with eager students buying books, reviewing, posting blogs, attending poetry readings, eventually becoming teachers and/or writers themselves. You’ve also got the wonderfully mastered poetry books published by many university and a number of other independent presses; many if not most serious contemporary poets publish or began their publishing lives in academia.
Dove goes on to note that "I don’t deny that I have access to all the perks commonly associated with the establishment. But I’ve never felt particularly “establishment”, because I don't operate by pulling strings in good-old-boy/girl networks; I won’t agree to do something in exchange for future favors, and I haven’t cultivated a posse."

It's interesting to consider that for more than 25 years now we have had a select and growing group of African American poets who "have access to all the perks commonly associated with the establishment." Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, both recipients of Pulitzer Prizes in poetry, along with Elizabeth Alexander, are among the more established African American poets in the country. Another Pulitzer Prize, Natasha Trethewey, who holds an endowed chair at Emory University, is also viewed by many as widely known in the poetry world. Trethewey's works are regularly reprinted in anthologies, and she is frequently linked to other established poets.   

Figures associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s/70s often addressed the extents to which black poets were excluded from what might be considered the mainstream or establishment of poetry. In fact, considerable effort was made among black arts poets to create their own publishing venues and systems of valuation since the official channels were so exclusive and apparently anti-black. For some reason, although leading figures of the black arts era, including Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Haki Madhubuti, resist easy membership into what we might refer to as the establishment of American poetry.

Certainly those four poets are quite established and widely known well beyond the realms of poetry. However, their critiques of and tenuous relationships with or some formal institutions and literary practices, regularly place them at odds with what we tend to refer to as the establishment.

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