Wednesday, August 5, 2020

C. Liegh McInnis's concentrated cultural catalog on black poetry

Some of the volumes included in C. Liegh McInnis's catalog

By and large, you read reviews of African American volumes of poetry one-at-a-time. Scholarly articles might deal with a few poetry books. But coverage of more than two dozen contemporary volumes by black poets published in one year? Nah, rarely happens.

For that reason, I was drawn to the amount and range of C. Liegh McInnis's coverage in his article, "Thoughts after Reading Twenty-Five Collections of Black Poetry in Twenty-Five Days." His attention to so many poets and poems in a single article represents what I refer to as as "concentrated cultural cataloging," which refers to writers presenting and referencing a large number of historical figures, concepts, and sites in a single composition. As a result, they produce an extended record or catalog. 

It's perhaps true that scholars are inevitably always creating cultural catalogs of some sort when they go about citing various works and scholarship. I'm particularly fascinated, though, when folks who don't primarily define themselves as scholars present us with abundant artistic references. This is what McInnis does in his poetry article. 

Over the years, I've noticed McInnis producing cultural catalogs in his poetry. Or put another way, he'll have a poem with multiple black cultural references. In his poem, "The Bridge (for Medgar at the Crossroads)," for example, he references a variety of subjects related to Mississippi, Civil Rights, and his subject Medgar Evers. 

In a way, such references and allusions are typical for poetry, right? Yes, but it's been useful for me to think of black creators composing cultural catalogs as I consider their common practices across genres and modes of presentation. I enjoy thinking about the realms that are familiar to various composters.  

McInnis demonstrates his interests as a reader in the catalog that emerges in his article on those twenty-five books of poetry. The article extends to works well beyond those focal texts. Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frantz Fanon, Larry Neal, and many others make appearances here. As noted, it's not surprising to see so many citations in a scholarly text. It is, however, somewhat rare to see scholarly writing that foregrounds so many volumes by African American poets published in the late 2010s.

Moreover, McInnis does not privilege his identity as a scholar. Instead, he often opens his byline with the note that he is "a poet, short story writer, instructor of English at Jackson State University." Unlike many conventional scholars, he has been committed to self-publishing, though over a long career of writing, he has published in traditional journals as well. 

Still, his interest in self-publishing was important for what he produced with this article. He read and wrote about two dozen volumes released in 2018 and published his thoughts on the writing in the same year. The comparatively slow processes of scholarly journals mean that you are unlikely to encounter articles that appear in the same year as the books they examine. Of course, it's not unusual for magazines and newspapers to publish timely reviews of poetry volumes, but again, they typically focus on one book at a time, and sometimes two or three, but never twenty-five.  

What I'm trying to say is that McInnis's work is unique in important ways. I wonder what the critical discourse on black writing would look like if more poets and scholars were inclined to share their extended thoughts, as McInnis does, on a large body of contemporary compositions that they covered. To do so would require an engaged interest in a creative domain and an ability to produce the work outside of conventional scholarly venues.    
This article, "Thoughts after Reading Twenty-Five Collections of Black Poetry in Twenty-Five Days," represents an expanded record of a couple dozen poetry books that McInnis read during a concentrated stretch of time in 2018. Reading what he wrote had me thinking about all kinds of possibilities for producing similar kinds of compositions. Among other things, I guess concentrated cultural catalogs are also inspirational.  


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