Monday, January 27, 2014

Segregation, Black poets, and American poetry

Last week, I wrote about black poetry vs. black poetry, that is, the ways that African American poets and poetry often have competing interests. The existence of that competition and the consequences of those differences deserve more attention. We also have to contend with what could be referred to as segregation and tokenism in American poetry in general.

When you encounter all those "black" or "African American" anthologies of poetry out there, it's easy to assume that black poets are segregating themselves. But the truth is, only a select few of black poets ever manage or are allowed to cross over and gain regular access to what are largely "white" anthologies.

Poets such as Rita Dove, Natasha Trehewey, and Kevin Young regularly appear in "black" and "white" poetry anthologies. By and large, though, most published black poets are likely to only appear in black anthologies. Editors of collections likely reach out to poets that they know of, so it's not surprising that black editors are more likely to publish black poets while white editors are more likely to publish black poets.

Of course, Kevin Young is exceptional in the sense that his anthologies Blues Poems (2003), Jazz Poems (2006),  The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (2010), and The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink (2012) include a multicultural mix of poets.

Almost 10 years ago, Rita Dove critiqued the omission of black poets in Garrison Keillor's anthology Good Poems (2004). Dove wrote, "let me point out that in Keillor's entire book, all two hundred and ninety-four poems of it, I could find only three Black poets—all of them dead, no less, and the one woman actually a blues singer." A few years ago, Helen Vendler critiqued Dove's The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011) for, among other things, seeking to "shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors." In the case of Dove's selections, writes Vendler with some disdain, "multicultural inclusiveness prevails."

What was hardly, if ever, noted in the Dove vs. Vendler debate and discussions that followed was that by black poetry standards Dove's anthology did not contain that many black poets. Of the black poets born after 1960, Dove published Elizabeth Alexander, Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, and Terrance Hayes. Vendler would have certainly been troubled if Dove had dared to include a well-known spoken word artists or, heaven forbid, the far more popular black poets known as rappers.   

The editorial differences of Dove and Vendler was a public reminder about the boundaries between American poetry and African American poetry. Remember that book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Well, in the case of race and poetry, we might consider why all the white poets are publishing together separately from where and why all the black poets are publishing together?

Poetry vs. Poetry vs. Poetry vs. Poetry  

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