Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Poetry Report: Richard Wright's Haiku

Click to enlarge

The Poetry Report: a series

The Poetry Report: a series

The Poetry Report is a comic strip-like series that combines short narratives about poetry with photographic images. The series is designed to provide an alternative take on commentary about poetry. Basically, it's an experiment combining the telling of literary criticism with the showing of visual art.

• July 31: Richard Wright haiku 

Monday, July 30, 2012

When & Where We Enter: Black Studies Scholars & (Cap)Ability

Audre Lorde (credit: poetryfoundation)

By Therí A. Pickens

Lamonda H. Stallings recently reminded me that one cannot divorce Audre Lorde’s politics and theory from her sexual history. (Lorde usually had omeone “on the side.”) Her understanding of the erotic cannot be divorced from her erotic practices. The charge that undergirds this idea is that we think through embodied experience as part of our scholastic understanding of our Yoda-like figures. Now, let’s not get hit, carjacked, or otherwise trampled at the intersection of dis/ability and blackness.

As Grace Hong notes in her article “The Future of Our Worlds: Black Feminism and the Politics of Knowledge in the University Under Globalization,” too many black feminists have died from cancer for us to not notice or not, in the words of James Baldwin, “bring out our dead.” I would add that many of our black male academics have had their experiences with testicular or prostate cancer. But, it isn’t just cancer. It is lupus, myasthenia gravis, dyslexia, fibromyalgia, depression and more. Our scholarly figures are constantly at the intersections of race, gender, class, and disability.

"New" African American poets & the Canon

When you think about it, relatively few African American poets who came of age during the late 1980s through the 1990s and present have entered into what some folks refer to as "the canon." Sure, you and I could easily name a dozen or more talented and accomplished African American poets who've published important and even award-winning work over the last two decades. But how many "new" poems are regularly taught in American and African American literature courses; how many black poets under the age of, say 50, have works that are viewed as required reading by large numbers of literature professors  and high school English teachers?

It often takes considerable resources from publishing institutions and advocacy from several scholars and teachers for poets and their works to become widely known beyond the immediate realms of poetry. Just about any publishing poet will tell you that it's a struggle simply to gain and maintain recognition in their fields. So gaining notice and a solid place within the broader discourse of American literature requires even more assistance.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

105 African American Volumes of Poetry by Publisher, 2000 - 2012

Our program has been collecting volumes of poetry published between 2000 - 2012. Below, we've provided a list by publisher.

Here's a list by year: 105 volumes of poetry by year, 2000-2012

105 African American Volumes of Poetry by Publisher, 2000-2011

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Toward a Sociology of African American Readers & Their Relationships to Poetry

Student at SIUE/East St. Louis Charter School reading Kevin Young's jelly roll.
On February 18, 1983, literary scholar Jerry W. Ward, Jr., delivered an essay "Retreat into Possibility: A Literary View of the Eighties" at a program at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. At one point, Ward mentions "the transformation of literature of the Black Aesthetic into literature concerned with black aesthetics" and then informs his audience that
We do need a sociology of African-American literature to account for changes in mode of production (writing and publishing) and in reading patterns (why do Black readers read what they read when they read?) Unless we begin to ask and seek answers to so-called extraliterary questions, we shall fail to see that Black literature is an integral part of our culture not a superstructure of the culture.
In a future post, I'll return to Ward's keen observation about Black Aesthetic to black aesthetics, but for now, I want to concentrate on the issue of a sociology of African American readers and reading habits. Among other things, addressing issues concerning why African American readers what they read when they read would assist us in understanding the connections and disconnections between some readers and contemporary poetry.

I was recently highlighting the point that potential and inexperienced African American poetry readers need more advocates. They need knowledgeable guides and positive gateway experiences. They need support systems similar to the ones that have greatly expanded for leading and award-winning writers over the last 20 years.

In January 1988, 48 black writers and critics performed a powerful and highly visible display of African American advocacy when they made a passionate and militant collective assertion that Toni Morrison should receive more accolades. Morrison, no doubt, benefited greatly from their support. How might potential African American poetry readers and readers of various genres and modes of writing benefit from more advocacy on their behalf?

As a better way of addressing that question, we might take up Ward's call for greater attention to African American reading patterns. Note that such a position differs from the deficit model of considering black illiteracy. Instead, a productive focus on strengths and active habits (why folks read what they read when they do) might get us moving.

Why potential poetry readers need advocates 
How 48 Black Writers and Critics Greatly Assisted Toni Morrison
Toward a sociology of conversations about creativity & intellectualism among black men

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why potential poetry readers need advocates

Students at the East St. Louis Charter School checking out Nikki Giovanni's poems

Poets, all writers in fact, would benefit from more advocates, from more people willing to attest to the value of their works. There's no doubt about that. But what about readers, especially potential new poetry readers who happen to be African American? Wouldn't they too benefit if they had more advocates?

For years now, I've written a considerable amount about my enjoyment reading and thinking about dozens of poets. I will continue to do so. At the same time though, I'm thinking that I'll start turning my attention to readers as well and highlight the steps we've taken and are taking to address their needs and struggles and experiences.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Presidential Politics & African American Poetry

Hughes's Let America Be America with preface by Senator John Kerry and Alexander's Praise Song for the Day

Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown (R) and his campaign recently released a video that "channeled African-American poet Langston Hughes in a two-and-a-half minute long campaign video entitled 'Let America Be America Again.'" It's not the first time that Hughes's poem has been invoked. Interestingly, African American poets have had a few different tie-ins to major political activities over the years.

Several months ago, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's campaign initially used "Let America be American Again" before abandoning it after they learned more about Hughes. In 2004, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry adopted Hughes's poem as a campaign slogan.

Maya Angelou gained unprecedented exposure as a poet when she was selected to read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993. Elizabeth Alexander also received unprecedented worldwide attention when she read "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. Are there other, less visible connections between presidential politics and African American poetry?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Poetry, Slavery & Creativity

Kevin Young's Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels and Thylias Moss's Slave Moth
 Strange as it may seem to some, slavery has served as one of the most important muses for modern and contemporary African American poets. In fact, black poets have regularly returned to the subject for over a century now. There has perhaps never been a time when enslavement, ex-slaves, and struggles for liberation have not appeared in writings by African American poets.

Historically significant poets such as Frances Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Margaret Walker have written about the circumstances of slavery. And in the contemporary era, Elizabeth Alexander, Thylias Moss, Evie Shockley, Natasha Trethewey, Frank X. Walker, Kevin Young, and many, many other poets have produced works concentrating on notable enslaved people, insurrectionists, and runaways. Has a focus on seemingly distant historical moment lessened the possibility that audiences might appreciate the creativity of contemporary African American poets? 

150+ Years of Antislavery Poems by Black Poets 

Monday, July 23, 2012

How 48 Black Writers and Critics Greatly Assisted Toni Morrison

In what would become a key moment in her professional career, Toni Morrison received a tremendous show of support from a large group of black writers and literary critics. On January 24, 1988, the New York Times published a letter attributed to 48 black writers and critics expressing frustration that Morrison had not yet received a major award from the apparent literary establishment. The writers included Maya Angelou, Houston Baker, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., June Jordan, Eleanor Traylor, Quincy Troupe, Alice Walker, Mary Helen Washington, Eugene B. Redmond, and 36 other writers and critics.

At one point, their letter states:
Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy.

105 volumes of poetry by year, 2000-2012

Our Black Studies Program has been collecting volumes of poetry by African Americans published between 2000 – 2012. The current list displays the 105 volumes in our collection by year of publication.

Related: 105 African American Volumes of Poetry by Publisher, 2000 - 2012

2000 [3 books]
• Clifton, Lucille. Blessing the Boats
• Derricote, Toi. Natural Birth
• Trethewey, Natasha. Domestic Work

2001 [6 books]
• Alexander, Elizabeth. Antebellum Dream Book
• Eady, Cornelius. Brutal Imagination
• Jordan, A. Van. Rise
• Komunyakaa, Yusef . Pleasure Dome
• Nelson, Marilyn. Carver
• Young, Kevin. To Repel Ghosts

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Listening to Amiri Baraka, Reading Vijay Iyer

Poet Amiri Baraka is one of the relatively few major literary artists who has produced an expansive body of audio recordings. Pianist Vijay Iyer is one of the relatively few major jazz musicians who has produced several writings on music. It's possible on many occasions to listen to Baraka and read Iyer.

Baraka has been regularly producing audio recordings of his work since the mid 1960s. His poem "Black Art" appeared on a jazz album before it appeared in print during the late 1960s. Throughout the 1970s and up until the present, Baraka continues to produce work as a solo reader/performer and as a collaborator with groups of instrumentalists. He even appeared on an album by the Philadelphia-rap group The Roots.

Afrofuturism & the collectively-authored annotated bibliography

The folks at the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature at Pennsylvania State University showed considerable interest in afrofuturism (AF), raising questions and offering suggestions. In some ways, I couldn't help but think of them as a kind of AF group themselves, especially with the annotated bibliography that they have created and are constantly expanding using Google Docs.

In brief, AF refers to approaches for thinking about the intersections of race/culture and technology, or race and speculative narratives. For years, folks interested in afrofuturism have concentrated on breakthroughs and innovations in music and science fiction, on the past-future visions associated with distinct historical moments, or on black people's engagements with machines and electronics. But what about the ways that scholars of African American literature and culture utilize new media and technologies?

Friday, July 20, 2012

More on Rob Guillory's Visual Signifying

Yesterday, I got the chance to give a presentation at the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature at Pennsylvania State University on comic books, and I decided to give extended attention to one of my favorite artists, Rob Guillory--the artist for the popular comic book Chew. For my presentation, I discussed Guillory's "Easter Eggs" (those hidden visual jokes), which I wrote about here as well. However, even beyond the background, subtle jokes, you see Guillory doing a lot of playful allusions and signifying up front on the covers.

For the Chew #13 cover, Guillory did a spoof on a scene from Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. What makes the cover especially funny is that Guillory's design of Chew character Caesar Valenzano is already a nod to Jules Winnfield (Samuel Jackson). Guillory slightly changed the hair of character Mason Savoy to make him look closer to Vincent Vega (John Travolta).

Reading with Their Eyes Closed: Poets & Performance

Patricia Smith
Earlier this week, at the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature at Pennsylvania State University, I was talking to the folks about poetry and someone mentioned the visual significance of experiencing a poetry reading or performance in addition to only reading and hearing the poem. We decided to pull up a youtube video of Patricia Smith reading her popular poem "Skinhead."

Looking at the video again reminded me how often Smith, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Tyehimba Jess, and various other poets close their eyes when they are reading. The poets I have in mind do not close their eyes simply to concentrate on remembering particular lines of their poems. Instead, they close their eyes as a way of channeling and displaying intense emotions and distinct sounds.

Monday, July 16, 2012

African American poets

Despite the fondness for lists among bloggers and others who produce online materials, I realized that there are few available lists of African American poets. For now, I've provided a list of poets -- alphabetized by author last name -- whom I have mentioned here on the site or in my literature courses.

Eventually, I'll create alternative lists based on author birth dates another categories.

[Related: A Timeline of African American Poetry]

List of poets

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Where you stay: Colson Whitehead & the Matter of Where Novelists Live

Colson Whitehead books
Despite the prevalent theme of migration in the histories of African American life and literature, it's worth noting that one of our leading contemporary writers, Colson Whitehead, has stayed put for much of his career. Whitehead was born and raised in New York, and when you read his works, it's evident that he was and remains a New York writer.

[Related: Where You Stay -- Amiri Baraka & the Matter of Where Poets Live]

Whitehead's recent New Yorker article "A Psychotronic Childhood" details his experience watching horror movies, but the piece also offers notes on the writer's moves to different locations in Manhattan. As an adult, Whitehead has lived, for the most part, in Brooklyn.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hunting for Easter Eggs; or Understanding the Visual Signifying of Rob Guillory

If you read online commentary and interviews about artist Rob Guillory's work on the award-winning comic book Chew, you'll notice recurring mentions of "Easter Eggs," which are visual inside or somewhat hidden jokes that an artist usually places somewhere in the background of an individual page. Discovering Easter eggs in comic books requires a bit of close (visual) reading and knowledge of pop culture or the various discourses that artists draw from and allude to in the works.

The inclusion of Easter eggs can make the experience of reading comics closely or multiple times rewarding. As Guillory noted in one interview, "I want the readers to be able to pick up Chew ten years from now, and still find something funny that they'd never noticed before. It's another way to give the reader the most enjoyment possible for their buck."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Black Poetry & the War on Drugs

Touré's "How America and hip-hop failed each other" in The Washington Post is a solid, important article for beginning to think about how hip hop culture initially touched on and then moved away from serious engagements with the War on Drugs. Touré's piece is a useful complement to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. After reading Alexander's book a little while ago, I had been thinking about  black poetry and the War on Drugs.

During the late 1970s, Amiri Baraka had published and began performing a powerful satirical poem entitled "Dope," which parodied preachers and others as using religion as a drug that encouraged black folks to overlook or misunderstand the extents of their troubled living conditions. What's notable about Baraka and his poem in retrospect is that there was not a rise of "new" major poets and poems highlighting the contemporary struggles of black folks in urban contexts.

Lil sisters, homegirls & the language of affirmation

Homegirls, Cindy, Kacee,  and Aiesha at the Strand in NYC
A few years ago, I reconnected, on facebook, with a friend I hadn't talked to since undergrad. Early in the conversation, she asked, "You still calling folks 'sister'?" I laughed, thought on it for a second, then responded, "Well homegirl, now that I'm getting older, I do call a few of the young black women students 'lil sister.'"

Over the years, I've tended to refer to several of the young black women associated with our black studies programs I work with as "lil sister," and there's a smaller core group of black women whom I refer to as "homegirls." On a larger level, the phrases 'lil sisters' and 'lil brothers' allow me to establish connections with the African American students, many of whom often express feelings of alienation at the larger (white) university.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flash Drives for the Novel Category Machine

I was pleased to receive a batch of flash drives like those pictured above for a project that I'm doing related to The Novel Category Machine. I've found flash drives to be useful and convenient for passing along large bodies of visual, audio, and video files to various audiences.

I somehow found this company flashbay a few years ago, and I've been greatly satisfied by the results. Our first flash drives were for the Malcolm X Mixtape. They were a hit for our folks. You'll still see those drives floating around campus on folks' key chains and such. 

The increased aesthetic appeal of poetry book covers

Crowded fields of literature and pervasive visual stimulants in our culture have placed greater demands on publishers to produce aesthetically appealing book cover illustrations. Accordingly, over the last 25 years, the book designs and cover illustrations of African American volumes of poetry have become quite notable, especially in comparison to poetry volumes by black poets published 30 and 40 years ago.
These days, volumes of poetry by poets include compelling artwork and photographs by professional artists. The covers are designed to draw audiences well before reading. The publishers are hoping that readers will at least in part judge the books by their covers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kevin Young's Big Books & Extraordinary Publishing Career

If you ever have the opportunity to glance at Kevin Young's volumes of poetry in relation to more than 100 other volumes by African American poets published since 2000, you'll immediately notice Young's books are typically longer than most. In fact, his works are, on average, more than twice as long as the majority.

Most volumes of poetry are slightly under 100 pages. However, Young's jelly roll is 208 pages; To Repel Ghosts is 320 pages; Black Maria  is 216 pages;  For the Confederate Dead is 176 pages; and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels is 272 pages.  Only his first volume, Most Way Home was a more modest affair at 112 pages. But for the most part,  he publishes relatively big books.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Does the success of a few obscure the plight of many other black poets?

Let me say first that I've been pleased by and frequently blogged about the award-winning accomplishments of African American poets over the years. No question, the wins have been important and often hard-earned. Full stop.

Having said that, I sometimes wonder: do the successes of a relatively small number of black poets obscure the plight of the larger body of black poets out there? And what difference does it make that relatively few award-granting, and perhaps more importantly, credential-granting institutions are African American?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why a history of unpublished poetry & poets is worth considering

At funerals, at weddings, at family reunions, at church programs, and at other events in communities, I've long been accustomed to hearing people reading poems at various cultural gatherings. Sometimes, they read well-known inspirational pieces, but often the poets read original pieces that they composed for the special occasion that they are reading.

Professional poets might cringe at the many clichés, the many derivative lines, and the many rhymes in the poems. Editors of literary publications would likely reject the pieces. Yet in the context of the events, the poems I've heard are almost always well received, the poets almost always praised.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Toward a sociology of conversations about creativity & intellectualism among black men

Last spring semester, each day after my African American literature course, small groups of the black men in the class would linger around to talk to me about different subjects. Some days, they wanted to talk about rap; some days, it was basketball; some days, it was fashion; some days, it was movies; and on a few occasions, it was comic books. Oh yeah, we managed to squeeze discussions of black literature in there from time to time as well.

The discussions I was having with those guys were the results of larger, more extended conversations that I've been having with young brothers on campus since I arrived at the university in 2003, and those conversations were outgrowths of much larger exchanges that were going on long before in various other places. Sometimes, I feel like we need a sociology of the conversations about creativity and intellectualism among black men in specific sites. That is, we might benefit from quantitative and qualitative studies concerning discussions that black men have about a range of artistic and thinking activities that involve black men.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

25 Poems We've Already Read

In the spirit of and slight divergence from a list of 50 Books That Every African American Should Read that I recently came across online, I started thinking about 25 poems that many of the students in my courses have already read by the time they take my class or at least by the time we've completed a semester together.  

25 Poems
• “The Venus Hottentot” By Elizabeth Alexander
• "Digging Max (At Seventy Five, All the Way Live!)" By Amiri Baraka
• "Dope" By Amiri Baraka
• "In the Funk World" By Amiri Baraka
• "kitchenette building" By Gwendolyn Brooks
• "a song in the front yard" By Gwendolyn Brooks
• "We Real Cool" By Gwendolyn Brooks
• "wishes for sons" By Lucille Clifton
• "won't you celebrate with me" By Lucille Clifton 
• "We Wear the Mask" By Paul Laurence Dunbar
• "Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)" By Nikki Giovanni
• "Bury Me in a Free Land" By Frances E. W. Harper
• "Frederick Douglass" By Robert Hayden
• "Those Winter Sundays" By Robert Hayden
• "I, Too" By Langston Hughes
• "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" By Langston Hughes
• "The Weary Blues"  By Langston Hughes
• "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem" By Helene Johnson
• "If We Must Die" By Claude McKay
• "For My People" By Margaret Walker
• "Molly Means"  By Margaret Walker
• "Kissie Lee"  By Margaret Walker
• "On Being Brought From Africa to America" By Phillis Wheatley
• "Black Cat Blues" By Kevin Young
• "Bereavement" By Kevin Young

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Funny poets: Amiri Baraka & Kevin Young

There are many funny poets out there, but over the years, my students have commented on the humor of Amiri Baraka and Kevin Young most consistently. Poems by those two have given us some good laughs. Relatively few students come to the classes expecting poetry to be entertaining so they are often pleasantly surprised by the humor that they discover in works by Baraka and Young.

For Baraka, political satire is a driving force of the humor in his poems. His series of low coup poems, for instance, are short, "dagger-like" pieces that address issues in amusing ways. His poem "In the Funk World" poses the question, "If Elvis Presley is King, who is James Brown, God?" His poem "Memo to Bush 2" goes "The main thing wrong with you is, you ain't in jail." In "Geobolical," Baraka says that "According to the Devil, when he was 1st throwed outta of heaven, He landed in England. I believe Him." Baraka's willingness to mock politicians and ridicule seemingly sacred ideas somehow entertains the students.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Catching up on Reginald Hudlin's Black Panther

Over the next week or so, I'll complete the entire Reginald Hudlin authored-run of Marvel's Black Panther. I am, relatively speaking, a lightweight comic book/graphic novel reader, so it's been difficult for me finding a way into the expansive universe(s) of various works out there. I've followed folks like Kyle Baker, Keith Knight, Aaron McGruder, and Darrin Bell for some years, but I wanted to read more and in various directions.

One option that came to me was work by director and producer Hudlin, in part because of my connections to East St. Louis and my knowledge that he's from the area.  I decided to catch up on issues of The Black Panther, which Hudlin wrote story-lines for between 2005 - 2008.

Lucille Clifton's "wishes for sons" & the trouble male students have saying "gynecologists"

For the last three or four years, when my students and I get to Lucille Clifton's poem "wishes for sons," I select one of the young men in the class to read. It's a strategic selection designed to prompt a now recurring sequence of events that often leads to some useful considerations.

Early on, the reading by the selected guy appears to go well. He breezes through the first stanzas and arrives at the last. "..let them think they have accepted /arrogance in the universe," he reads approaching that defining line: "then bring them to....." He pauses and repeats. "then bring them to...gyn...gy-ne..." He pauses again.

Monday, July 2, 2012

When African American Poetry Anthologies Disappear

Between 1965 and 1976 -- often referred to as the black arts era -- more than 75 anthologies featuring African American poetry were published. Between 1977 and 1990, however, far fewer collections appeared. In fact, beyond Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967-1987)- An OBAC Anthology (1987) and The Anthology of Black Mississippi Poets (1988), I've had a hard time identifying African American poetry anthologies that gained much attention. That could explain one aspect of the silence associated with black poetry during that time period.

Without anthologies, it is harder for "new" poets to become widely known, as collections often circulate to larger, diverse audiences in ways that small print-runs of individual volumes of poetry do not. Anthologies also function to place individual poets in conversation with various other poets. The absence of several anthologies produced during the 1980s diminished the likelihood that emergent poets would become associated with canons or the ongoing histories of African American poetry.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

When Black Bookstores Disappear

I was disappointed to hear this morning that Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem is set to close on July 31. I've visited the store several times over the last few years, taking groups of students with me along the way. I was pleased to catch a talk by Randall Kennedy at Hue-Man in May, and I was there again with the Fellows from the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute in June.  

I could go on and on about what I've gained by visiting various new and used bookstores over the years and how black bookstores, for example, have contributed to my intellectual growth. What I will have a harder time quantifying is what I think is loss when black bookstores disappear in particular areas.  It's an important loss, but how will people who come along without black bookstore options understand what they are missing?

Blogging about Poetry in June 2012

I spent the month of June in Texas, working with the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Although I was busy working with students, I did find some time to read, re-read, and blog about poetry.  As always, I had a good time thinking through the histories of the work and some of the journeys that the poets have made. 

[Related content: Blogging about Poetry]

A list of links: