Sunday, July 26, 2015

Kent Foreman, Tyehimba Jess, and the histories of spoken poetry

"I am a spoken poet, that is, my poetry was written to be heard as opposed to being read. It is the oldest literary tradition there is."  --Kent Foreman
One of the most important poetry lessons for me at the NEH Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement Institute did not occur during the day-time sessions. Instead, it was far into the night on Thursday when Tyehimba Jess insisted that I take a look at readings on YouTube by the late Kent Foreman.  

It had been a long day. I was tired. But Jess felt it was important, essential even for me to consider Foreman's work and think through some of the challenges or questions his poetry and style of presentation or performance pose.

Foreman has this conversational or speakerly, for lack of better words, performance style. You can listen to him and know that he's performing a poem, but at the same time, how he's speaking comes off as if he's some cat on the streets kicking knowledge. That effect is heightened by the fact that Foreman reads recites many his works.

Since rhymed words lend themselves to song and remembrance, it's not surprising that we encounter rhymes throughout Foreman's poems. Also, those rhymes correspond to a sense of playfulness -- check out, for instance, his haiku "Epiphany" and "Raison D’Etre" -- and his versions of word play correspond to short poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Henry Dumas, as well as Amiri Baraka's low coup.  Foreman delves into folk, persona, and bad man figures in his John Henry poem "Hammer Song" and also in his poem "From Jonathan to David,"  where he takes on the first-person perspective of Jonathan talking to David.

The way Foreman has us listening in on a conversation between these "soul brothers" Jonathan and David reminded me of one of my all-time favorite poems "1912: Blind Lemon Jefferson Explaining to Leadbelly" by Jess. In both poems, Foreman and Jess position us to overhear one brother sharing with another. The transference of the knowledge is plainly spoken and poetic.  

A Notebook on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement
Tyehimba Jess

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