Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Toward a history of the warrior voice in black women's poetry

Above: Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, Porsha O., Patricia Smith. Below: Mahogany L. Browne,  Airea D. Matthews 

In the mid-1990s, during my first year of undergrad, I would attend poetry sets around Jackson, Mississippi, and sometimes catch presentations by this sister Jolivette Anderson, whose stage name is "The Poet Warrior." That was more than 20 years ago, so I can't recall the details of Anderson's words, but I do have clearer memories concerning the how of her delivery style. She was fierce--raising her voice and projecting a defiant tone and demeanor. As a high school student, poetry had been presented as something quiet, subdued, and flowery. Anderson was offering a powerful alternative.

At those same poetry sets, I was also catching readings by C. Liegh McInnis. Similar to Anderson, he would read what we would've defined as "political" and "deep" poetry. Among other things, for McInnis, poetry was a medium for expressing critiques of oppressive systems. I've reflected on his work from time to time here on the site. I likened McInnis to the poet version of the Malcolm X speeches I had on cassette tapes, and it turns out McInnis was a primer for my later research into a variety of militant black men poets, most notably Amiri Baraka.

I didn't however have a frame for Anderson. We could say Sonia Sanchez. Or June Jordan. But Sanchez and Jordan, while unquestionably militant in poems, have somewhat different sounds than the strand of poetry I was witnessing with Anderson and some other poets. Too, Anderson and those poets were reciting their works, which placed them somewhere else when viewing their presentations.

Fast forward to today, and consider a poet like Porsha O., on pieces like "Capitalism" and "Angry Black Woman." When I first saw recordings of Porsha O's readings, I immediately thought of Jolivette Anderson. Beyond the content, they project a similar fierceness. They both have powerful, even commanding reading styles. It's not like what some refer to as "poet voice." Instead, Anderson and Porsha O. offer what we'd call, for lack of more precise terms, warrior (poet) voice.

I'm not saying Anderson created this style, but she was the first warrior voice poet I encountered early in my processes of thinking about poetry performance among black women. Maybe her style was in conversation with what folks were witnessing from jessica Care moore and Patricia Smith. And they were anticipating aspects of the styles of Mahogany L. Browne, Porsha O., Airea D. Matthews, and others.

I don't think it's a coincidence that I've come across far more poet voice poets than warrior voice poets in the academy over the years. Poets with MFA degrees or PhDs tend to have more institutional support, including academic appointments, over a longer period of time. They receive far more mainstream news coverage as well as attention from scholars.    

But there are other poetry histories out there, right? Poets who presented in primarily black spaces or multi-racial performance spaces, sometimes worlds apart from "mainly white reading rooms." If we're interesting in thinking about the rich diversity of of sounds among black women poetry, it's worth thinking about poet voice and warrior voice, among many other styles of delivery.

A notebook on the sound of black women poets

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