Monday, February 6, 2012

Evie Shockley's Radical Typography

Shockley's poem "x marks the spot" might remind some readers of a popular black nationalist figure

Evie Shcokley probably doesn't consider herself a radical or militant, at least not in the traditional sense of those terms. However, a case can be made that in certain contexts her poetry does represent a radical departure from the conventional sense of what many people think poetry should look like. The very design of one of her poems even alludes to our most revered black nationalist militant. 

Several of the poems in Shockley's the new black (2011) resist the typical setup of poems, which are usually situated along the left margin of the page. Shockley decides instead to take more liberties with her arrangements, using words to present different shapes while still managing to convey coherent messages. At times, the arrangements correspond to the messages that she is relaying.  

There's something radical about a black woman poet deciding to resist the typical look and conventions of her genre. Sure, we probably won't confuse her for an Angela Davis yet there's still something poetically rebellious in Evie Shockley's work. A volume with so many poems that resist the standard setup could hardly be produced by a timid, passive literary mind.   

By the way, Shockley is certainly not the only poet to pursue unusual or radical approaches to typography in poetry. She is, however, one of the relatively few visible contemporary African American poets to do so. Shockley would be the first to say, as she does in her scholarly work Renegade Poetics, that there is a long, though perhaps overlooked tradition, of poets who practice a range of formal innovations in their works.   

I predict that many of my students, a large number of whom are new to the study of black poetry, will be taken aback and also intrigued by the uncommon arrangements of words on the page that they encounter in the new black. For them, Evie Shockley's radical typography will represent a strange and exciting possibility.

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