Black poetry is arguably the most densely populated African American art form. There's no doubt that black poets comprise the largest number of literary artists, far outpacing novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and essayists.
Here's the good news: the large numbers of poets out there (past and present) have contributed to the production of one of our country's, if not the world's, most expansive, diverse, and enriching bodies of poems. With so many different contributions, what we refer to as African American or black poetry has all kinds of twists and turns, extended patterns, and, most importantly, good poems.
The not so good news is that in such a crowded and growing field, aspiring poets face tremendous challenges if they seek to gain widespread attention for their work. With hundreds of poets vying for a place at a single institution, for a single prize, or for a contract with a single publisher, the competition is often stiff, and there are hidden advantages and disadvantages at seemingly every turn.
Rap is a notoriously crowded and growing field. But by my count, there are far more poets out there than rappers, for every rappers is a kind of poet though not every poet is a rapper. Even if we stick to conventional definitions of poets, that is, even if we exclude rappers from our tallies of poets, we are still dealing with an enormously large group.
My friends who are professional poets frequently remind me that there are many bad poets and poems out there. On the other hand, when I talk to my students or people who do not read much black poetry, I make the case that there are so many good poets and poems out there. Given the size of the field, my poet friends and I are likely both right.
One question that we may not have addressed enough is exactly how do poets, in such a densely populated field, go about distinguishing themselves?