Wednesday, June 4, 2014

When did contemporary black poetry begin?

An article in last week's The New York Times about black poetry set off a round of conversation among artistic and scholarly communities interested in African American verse. Some people celebrated the attention given to black poetry, but many more complained about shortcomings concerning the article's oversights and neglect of important historical matters and figures.

What that article doesn't treat and really what scholars and anthologies have yet to provide a definitive answer on is the following: when did contemporary black poetry begin?

Relatively few scholars of African American literature produce research projects and articles on literary art produced over the last 20 years. And even fewer concentrate on black poetry. Indeed, in the scholarly discourse on African American literature, historical and prose matters rule the day.

As a result, commentators struggle to establish a definitive start date for contemporary black poetry. Accordingly, people discussing African American poetry are inclined to juxtapose contemporary poets with the Black Arts era, a cultural moment that apparently declined during the mid-1970s. So does that mean the contemporary era began during the late 1970s or early 1980s? If so, then we are talking about an era that has now persisted for over 30 years.
In the second edition of The Norton Anthology of African American (2003), the editors present the final historical section as "Literature Since 1975," and for the third edition of The Norton (2014), they refer to that section as "The Contemporary Period." By that measure, the contemporary era begins nearly 40 years ago.  But the shifts in poetry over time suggest that we do need a designation for the newest, most up-to-date contemporary moment in black poetry.

The general scholarly discourse on African American literature might, at the moment, be largely disinterested in adequately pinpointing when contemporary black poetry begins. And whereas several poets might have clear senses on important initial markers for shifts in contemporary poetry, they are less likely to publish essays and scholarly articles on the subject.

As for my own perspective? Well, I'm tempted to hone in on dates around the late 1990s or in 2000. Around that time, we begin to see a few developing patterns among poets, publishers, groups, and award-granting institutions. One pattern, for instance, was the rise of those novel-like volumes of poetry on a single subject, such as works by Marilyn Nelson and Cornelius Eady. In addition, although persona poems have appeared throughout the history of African American poetry, we began to see an increased number and extensive persona poem project over the course of the early 21st century.

Publishers like Graywolf, W. W. Norton, and Knopf began to provide extended support for some select poets during the last decade or so, which made it possible for those poets to become and remain largely known. And there has been a continuous line of black poets earning fellowships, winning major awards, or becoming finalists for major awards. One reason that we'll continue to see black poets (beyond the quality of their work) win awards is because there are now more black poets asked to serve on selection committees. I suppose it's also true that we now have a larger number of literary awards than we did, say, 25 years ago, which also raises the chances of poets winning. 

We'll need to do more research to really pinpoint when contemporary black poetry began, but figuring out some potential time periods is important. For one, we will enhance our understanding of the activities, trends, and interests associated with black poetry that took place between the decline of the Black Arts era and this contemporary moment. Without that, commentators will continue to only juxtapose the 1960s and the contemporary era.  Second, developing a sense of the contemporary era will allow us to figure out how historical and modern-day circumstances produced this contemporary moment.

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