Tuesday, May 29, 2012

More on the Histories, Shifting Differences among Black Poets

A follow up to Noting differences between black poets, black poets & black poets

An important though under-discussed shift in black poetry began taking place during the mid to late 1970s, as  publishers became less interested in anthologies featuring poetry and Black World magazine, the major national venue for black artistic writing, ceased publication. Anthologies and Black World had -- for better and worse -- created interrelated, centralized sites in black poetry. 

Moving into the 1980s, there were less African American venues and institutions that could support the production of "new black poets." A major moment in the histories of African American poetry occurred in 1987 when Rita Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Dove's poetry signaled that achieving recognition and prestige in the world of poetry might mean producing more overtly formal poems--poems that was less politically charged than say works by Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. Of course, works by Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, who won a Pulitzer in 1994, contain all kinds of politics, and there are many formal qualities in works by Baraka and Sanchez.

Nonetheless, for aspiring poets who sought employment in universities, it became increasingly necessary to earn academic credentials, namely an MFA, and book deals with reputable publishing companies. Large numbers of poets interested in the kinds of poetry that Dove and Komunyakaa wrote entered graduate programs during the mid to late 1990s. Funding opportunities for more recognizable formal styles of poetry increased and/or were institutionalized while long-term funding for spoken word poetry, which was more directly tied to the politics of black arts, remained small or non-existent.

Spoken word poetry grew on the popular level, but not as much institutionally. Select poets such as Jessica care Moore, Saul Williams, Patricia Smith, and Tracie Morris, for instance, were widely known and valued, but there was no nation-wide training and reward systems on the level of MFA programs, major fellowships, publishing contracts, prestigious awards, and university jobs available for spoken word artists as there was for so-called formal poets.

Despite differences between the mediums, on the ground level, MFA poets are more likely to (quietly) compete against each other for jobs, awards, and fellowships while spoken word artists (quietly) compete against each other for invitations to speaking engagements or in slam competitions.

There's more. Putting spoken word poetry aside for just a minute, contemporary poets more attuned to print culture and the academy still receive relatively little attention in American and African American literature classes and scholarly discourses. Professors and scholars tend to concentrate on historical works and canonical authors as opposed to contemporary poets. The works of contemporary African American poets do find favor among fellow contemporary poets with academic appointments. Whatever the case, large numbers of contemporary poets will let you know that there's lives and careers as poets are hardly easy just because they have an MFA; they still face several intra-field obstacles, not to mention the wider challenge of reaching broad non-poetry audiences.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The nationwide training system for a slam poet is watching and entering slams!

The rewards are winning audiences -- and surely Jessica Moore or Saul Williams or Paul Beatty (another slam winner) had a far greater audience for their poetry than a Carl Philips.

It's true that spoken word poets are less likely to be teaching creative writing in universities -- and not coincidentally they are also far more likely to reach people other than academics or MFA students!