Thursday, March 23, 2017

NEA and presses that publish African American poets

Selection of books published by Graywolf

In 2013, Graywolf Press applied for and received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). For years now, the press has received funding to support some of its publishing endeavors. The 2013 funding, however, set in motion what would become one of the most popular poetry books by an African American poet in the 21st century. In their NEA application,  Graywolf mentioned that they would publish several poets, including Claudia Rankine.

The next year, in 2014, Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric was published to considerable fanfare and acclaim. The book was awarded a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Citizen earned a PEN/Open Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. In 2016, Rankine was bestowed a MacArthur Fellowship based largely on the strength and reception of Citizen

The story doesn't end there. Rankine has decided to donate her entire stipend from the MacArthur ($625,000) to fund what is known as the Racial Imaginary Institute. Rankine envisions the Institute as a kind of gallery and think tank. As she informed a reporter, she plans for the space, which she's developing with fellow artists, to allow "us to show art, to curate dialogues, have readings, and talk about the ways in which the structure of white supremacy in American society influences our culture.”

Relatively few books turn a profit, and hardly any of those books are volumes of poetry. The success of Rankine's Citizen was a big news story in part because of its rarity: a book of poetry that gained widespread attention. I would contend that her book did so well, by the way, because it blends and in fact foregrounds essay and prose forms in ways that are less common in a poetry book.

Rather than go on and on about Rankine's prize money, for now, let's note what it means that poetry, a field that rarely earns a profit, is made possible because of support from a federal agency, NEA. Several presses that publish black poets among their roster of authors regularly receive support. Over the last few years, some of those presses include Wesleyan, Four Way Books, Red Hen Press, Tupelo Press, Alice James Books,Coffee House Press, BOA Editions, Copper Canyon Press, and Kore Press.

If you've read even a small sampling of contemporary African American poetry volumes, there's a strong chance that you've been reading poets whose books were produced with support from NEA. The agency has a large footprint in the world of poetry. The field of poetry, as noted, doesn't bring in much money, so outside support is crucial. 
The majority of our tax dollars go toward Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and the Department of Defense. The New York Times reports that NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receive "less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending."

Individual fellowships for poets and funds for presses to publish volumes of poetry constitute only a small portion of the NEA overall budget. The majority of NEA's funds go to state arts councils and nonprofit arts organizations that coordinate public programming in  areas such as dance, jazz, opera, theater, and visual arts. Admirably, as NEA reports, 40% of the activities the agency support "take place in high-poverty neighborhoods."

Could the presses that received funding publish even more African American poets? Maybe so. Poetry is one of our most populous art forms, so artists in the field can always use even more opportunities than the ones currently available. But then -- and obviously I'm biased -- I wish there was more support for people willing to write about African American poetry and other art forms. Just saying...

As it stands, published and aspiring poets far outnumber those interested in writing about poetry. Without the the development of a critical class to research and write about poetry, we'll continue to have few opportunities to consider the implications of the creativity, the reception of works, and the sources of artist support like NEA.

What NEA has meant to African American poets 
Roundup of coverage concerning potential arts and humanities budget cuts 
African American literary studies, public programming & the Age of Trump

No comments: