Sunday, November 8, 2015

10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 6: Jess, Shockley, and Lewis

Beyond thinking about the significance of leading characters and content in poetry volumes, I've also been giving some thought to matters of design. The arrangement of words on the page, the distinct ordering of various poems, the uses of paratexts, book cover images, and sizes of volumes all contribute to the overall experience of reading.    

Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005), Evie Shockley's the new black (2011), and  now Robin Coste Lewis's Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015) incorporate a variety of elements within and beyond the poems that highlights matters of design. For Lewis, it was about the management and arrangement of a vast body of materials concerning representations of black female figures in Western art dating from 38,000 BCE. As I've noted, among other things, the expansive historical coverage of Lewis's "Voyage of the Sable Venus" makes the poem particularly ambitious and important.     

Shockley's the new black contains several poems with words arranged across the page and in unconventional ways. The designs of some of the poems demonstrate Shockley's willingness to play with and shape the look of pieces. She makes the reading experience distinctly visual. Even the sizes and shapes of her volumes facilitate the display of her poems.

In some respects, Jess's poetry prepared me for what I would experience with Shockley's and Lewis's books. The design of his double-jointed or contrapuntal poems, for example, correspond to the visual experience of reading Shockley's poetry. Jess's reworkings or representation of archival materials speak, to some degree, to the extensive engagements with historical documents that we witness in Lewis's works.

Those and various other works provided me with guides on better understanding Jess. And Leadbelly has, over the last ten years, served as a blueprint for covering a wide range of poetry.  

10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 7: discoveries with students  
A crown of blog entries for Leadbelly: project overview 
10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 5: Eady, Jess, and Matejka

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