Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Black poetry vs. black poetry

[Note: what follows mentions conflicting aesthetics, not so much conflicts between poets themselves.]

Although we've always been aware of the tensions and distances between strands of black poetry, the poets and poetry at the funeral for Amiri Baraka was yet another reminder. Tony Medina, jessica Care moore, and Saul Williams read powerful pieces and were received well by the audience, but there were no readings by any of the accomplished poets who have been primarily sanctioned by the academy and award-granting institutions.

In some respects, Medina, Moore, and Williams have nurtured strong ties to black communities in the tradition of  Baraka. Medina, in ways different than Moore and Williams, has had a publishing career that corresponds to poets such as Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Terrance Hayes, and others. Moore and Williams developed popular followings through their talents and successes as spoken word artists.

Spoken word and performance are not typically the fortes of many award-winning African American poets, certainly not the perceived prestigious ones. Sure, there are exceptions here and there with poets like Tyehimba Jess and Patricia Smith. But by and large, no. The reading aesthetics for poets associated with MFA programs and those associated with community and spoken word circles differ.

Elder poets such as Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, and Eugene B. Redmond read at Baraka's funeral as well. Redmond's poetry in particular exists somewhere in between and outside the whole spoken word- and MFA- styles. Redmond earned a creative writing degree at Washington University in the mid-1960s, but as the Black Arts Movement began picking up steam, Redmond deliberately abandoned and merged aspects of his formal training with the aesthetics of black folk culture and community organizing.

But those elder poets fared better in the academy, at least in terms of resources and institutional support, than poets who came of age in recent decades. Over the last 20 years, poets associated with "formal" so-called "literary" poetry have been more likely than spoken word or related poets to receive prestigious awards, academic appointments at well-resourced universities, and invitations (and thus honorariums) for speaking engagements at writing programs, workshops, and retreats. 

I think that Medina, Trethewey, Moore, Kevin Young, Saul Williams, and many more are all indebted to Amiri Baraka in various ways. But, there's something going on with the economics of literary art and prestige and the politics of aesthetics and African American communities, not to mention their relationships to funding organizations (almost all white run) and those organizations' standards and preferences. Those things help to explain this under-discussed tension between black poetry and black poetry.          
The economies of spoken word poetry and print-based poetry (on college campuses)

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