Sunday, July 26, 2015

Paratexts and the Race for History Among Contemporary Black Poets

To really get a sense of the distinctive ways that contemporary volumes of poetry by African Americans are intensifying the focus on history, you might check out some of the paratexts associated with the books. Paratexts refer to the surrounding materials beyond the apparent main content of works by writers such as:
Book covers
Table of contents
Book blurbs
Works cited
Photographs and illustrations
Timelines and chronologies
Marilyn Nelson's book Carver: a life in poems (2001), which focuses on George Washington Carver, includes historical photographs and even reproductions of 1943 and 1998 stamps featuring the famous scientist.  Those documents accentuate the degrees to which the volume is an official document charting the history of Carver's life. Toward the end of the book (after and beyond the last poem), the "photography credits" page lists sources of the book's images: Tuskegee University Archives, National Park Service, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, George Washington Carver National Monument, Iowa State University, National Archives, and the Library of Congress.

The cover and title page of Kevin Young's Ardency

The paratexts and "bibliographic codes" (elements such as typography and type size) of Kevin Young's Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (2011) draw attention to the idea that the volume of poetry  is also a distinct work of history. The cover of the book, for instance, reproduces the silhouettes of the Amistad captives/rebels from John W. Barber's A History of the Amistad Captives (1840). In addition, the title page of Young's book is based on the title page from Barber's book, and illustrations from A History of the Amistad Captives appear throughout Ardency.

Young is one of several contemporary poets -- Nelson, Tyehimba Jess, Adrian Matejka, Frank X. Walker, A. Van Jordan, Rita Dove -- to include extensive glossaries, "notes," and other paratexts that signal that their poetry volumes are the results, among other things, of research activities. The close of Dove's Sonata Mulattica (2009) about the life of  George Bridgetower includes a 9-page chronology comprised of over 100 line items. The presence of such an extensive paratext at the close of a volume of poetry is designed to serve as evidence for readers that the preceding poems are derived from history and the facts, not merely the poet's imagination.   

Overall, we can see that paratexts have become increasingly important for how poets demonstrate their devotion to presenting the facts; at the same time, paratexts assist poets getting ahead in the race for history.

A Notebook on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement

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