Interestingly enough, a contemporary history of persona poems by African American poets begins around 1990 with Elizabeth Alexander's piece "The Venus Hottentot." The poem appeared in 1989 in the magazine Callaloo, and was published as the title poem of her volume the following year.
Alexander's The Venus Hottentot was one of the few works by a young black poet to be reviewed in The New York Times; the nature of the poem and the attention the volume received helped make "The Venus Hottentot" one of the most well-known and likely influential single "new" persona poems of the last 30 or so years. (Several older pieces like "We Real Cool," for instance, remain among our most famous persona poems).
In the mid-1990s, a young poet named Jessica care Moore took to the Apollo stage in Harlem, NY, and performed her piece "The Black Statue of Liberty." The poem and Moore's performance raised the visibility of spoken word poetry and the force of a powerful black woman persona in poetry.
There were all kinds of developments in poetry during the 1990s, which I'll get back to in subsequent posts, but for now I want to jet through to 2001 with the publication of Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination. What gave that haunting volume, where the poet assumes the voice of a fictive black criminal, even more visibility was the fact that Eady was the co-founder of the renowned black poetry workshop Cave Canem.
Between 2001 and 2011, no less than 15 volumes by African American poets, including Rita Dove, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Frank X. Walker, and Kevin Young, featuring all or many persona poems appeared in print. That doesn't even include the individual persona poems by poets such as Lucille Clifton, Vivee Francis, Evie Shockley, Tim Seibles, and Adrian Matejka. The appearance of so many persona poems over the last decade has definitely constituted a major trend in black poetry. And maybe, it's more than simply a trend at this point.
Of all the full-length volumes dedicated to persona poems to appear, one that has been especially meaningful to me is Tyehimba Jess's leadbelly (2005). Like those works by Alexander, Moore, and Eady, Jess's volume highlights a sense of injustice. The volume also showcases the mind of its protagonist. Similar to Moore, Jess has roots in spoken word communities, so his poems have a strong performance quality. At the same time, his poems demand a level of reading and exude qualities that ensure we also experience the work as distinctly literary.
In the history I'm envisioning of contemporary black persona poems, Tyehimba Jess's leadbelly holds a special place.
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