Sunday, October 7, 2012

Poets, not literary critics, are the key judges of contemporary African American poetry

The last 25 years have seen an increase in the significance of awards and high profile recognition for African American poets. Beginning with Rita Dove's receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987 to Tracy K. Smith earning the prize in 2012, more and more African American poets have had their works validated through prestigious honors. Although there is considerable debate about the nature of reviews and literary criticism, poets, not literary critics, are the key judges of contemporary African American poetry.

Most notably, poets serve as judges on selection committees for prestigious awards and thus make decisions about who will become finalists and who goes on to win. These days, winning a major award can be a career changer, ensuring future publishing deals, speaking deals, inclusion in anthologies, and other perks. Award-winning poets are also more likely to be called on to select future winners of awards.   

Poets are more likely than literature professors, critics, and reviewers to serve as editors of anthologies of contemporary poetry and thus they serve in the important positions of deciding or at least assisting in deciding what poets and poems will receive attention and gain broader circulation. To their credit, poets who work in MFA programs are often the only faculty in English departments who regularly assign contemporary volumes of poetry. In this way, poetry faculty are major players in facilitating the consumption of poetry. 

It's perhaps worth noting that the numbers of poets who are in positions to make these important judgements about poetry are a far smaller number than the poets who "just" write poems. Still, it's worth noting that the numbers of African American poets who make decisions and become taste-makers in the field have been growing over the last couple of decades.

1 comment:

jward said...

Apparently little has changed in the world of printed poetry. It, like Mississippi, is a "closed society."