Monday, January 9, 2012

Credentialed & Accomplished, Poets Still Receive Little Popular Attention

There are more black poets credentialed, published, and accomplished than ever before. But somehow, in general, poets are not as widely and popularly known, especially not "new" black poets. I've often wondered why.

In order to earn a living as a poet these days, it's usually necessary to get a job at a university. To secure that job, one typically needs an MFA degree and a book or two published by a "reputable" press. Oh, and it increases a poet's cultural capital and chances for advancement if he or she wins a notable literary award and publishes poems in prestigious journals along the way.

The processes, if not requirements, for employment and publication have helped create and sustain an extensive system in poetry that has led to a rather large number of African American poets with MFAs. Further, the extensive training that poets undergo now, added with their own individual talents, has led to the production of high-quality volumes of poetry and even more poems. So why are black poets still not widely known beyond the world of poetry?

There are actually many factors that lead to writers gaining widespread attention and just as many for why poets remain known in a particular field while gaining little popular appeal. For one, the specialized nature of poetry, although helping to ensure higher quality poems, also raises the chances that readers unfamiliar with distinct forms (i.e. ghazals, sonnets, and sestinas) might appreciate the work of poets much less.     

There's also the matter of competition. In literature departments and in the literary publishing field, both of which are presumably filled with highly capable readers, the majority of the attention is placed on novelists and novels, not poets and volumes of poetry. Accordingly, there are more resources put into novels as opposed to poetry volumes. Back in November 2011 after the National Book Award winners were announced, Nikky Finney's publisher reprinted 5,000 copies of her award-winning volume Head Off & Split while Jesmyn Ward's publisher reprinted 50,000 copies of her book Salvage the Bones, which won in the novel category.

The lack of sustained media attention in the popular press also decreases the chances that African American poets will become widely known beyond the specialized field of poetry. When was the last time a leading black poet was the featured subject of a profile article in Ebony, The New Yorker, Essence, The New York Times, Newsweek, or any other major national publication? Rappers are the most likely subjects who are skilled at wordplay to receive substantial media coverage.

It's too bad that there are not more formal, direct links between (academic-based) poets and general, popular (black) audiences. Don't they have much to offer each other?  

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