Monday, July 27, 2020

Returning to C. Liegh McInnis's critical work on poetry

A few of the many poetry books C. Liegh McInnis read in 2018

I recently returned to this piece, "Thoughts after Reading Twenty-Five Collections of Black Poetry in Twenty-Five Days" by C. Liegh McInnis. It's nearly fifty pages, and he offers thoughts and reflections on over two dozen volumes of poetry published since 2000.

McInnis published the piece on his site on December 21, 2018. I read it back then when he published it, but I somehow neglected to comment on it here until now. Lately, I've been thinking and frustrated about the idea that we do not adequately acknowledge critical work on black literary art, especially poetry. But beyond that frustration, I'm intrigued when a writer takes a big overview of a field. McInnis does that here.

In the article, he provides notes and conclusions concerning his experience reading twenty-five volumes of poetry by African American writers. All but one of the books was published in 2018. He mentions the poetry of Aaron Coleman, Tracy K. Smith, Yolanda J. Franklin, Alice Walker, Cyrus Cassells, Kevin Young, Allison Joseph, Tiana Clark, and several others. It's rare to see a single stand-alone essay covering so many different contemporary black poets. I'd go further and say that there are not many books that cover so many contemporary (twenty-first century) African American poets.

It's also uncommon to see the kinds of critiques McInnis offered in the article. Now, I want to be clear that McInnis presents abundant praise for the poets and poetry he covers. But he also includes things that he dislikes. It's somewhat unusual to see a black poet publicly expressing what he finds displeasing about black poetry, as there is something of an unwritten rule these days that one is not supposed to review/assess poetry negatively.

I know, you can likely find negative appraisals of African American poetry, but what I'm saying is that it is not common to come across a black poet publicly putting out those critiques. Over the years, several poets have directly told me that it can cause trouble in your professional career if you criticize poets or even offer negative appraisals publicly. The world of contemporary African American poetry is relatively small, so you can draw retribution from the friends of poets you might offend. McInnis stands at a distance from some of those professional circles, so he feels free to speak his mind on things where many others would feel constrained. 

(You might also recall that in 2013, Amiri Baraka offered an outstanding critique of a prominent black editor and some leading black poets. It was a critique that few others would have dared make). 

Back in 2009, I followed a wide-ranging discussion about whether it was worth it to write negative reviews of poetry, which was covered herehere, and here, to name a few instances, and carried over into 2010 here and here among other places. I did not notice any African Americans participating in the discussion on the topic. At the time, I had a few off-the-record conversations with white poetry reviewers and scholars who informed me that they avoided ever speaking critically of African American poetry in public, as it could damage the already fragile relationships between black and white people in contemporary poetry. 

It's my sense that far more than offering negative reviews of volumes of poetry by black writers, most people simply ignore the books. I think people like and even love the idea of poetry. But volumes of poetry? Not as much. Some of that contributed to my interest in McInnis's article. 

Hey, and there's more. McInnis was having some email exchanges with Maryemma Graham, Jerry W. Ward, Jr., and me as he was preparing the article, and he includes brief excerpts from some of our email messages as we addressed topics with him. Not surprisingly, I am more critical of aspects of the field of poetry in those email exchanges than I am in my typical blog entries. That's not a surprise, because like most folks, I suppose I'm freer in private than in public writing. Reading McInnis's article gave me a chance to consider my different approaches and opinions on things in varied contexts.

But really, McInnis is the star in this article. I realized when re-reading his article that I don't get to hear enough people offer extended comments on what they've been thinking as they engaged a body of black art. We usually hear one-at-a-time treatments (i.e. a book review). Here, though, we get some extended thoughts. 

Here's more in my series on his article


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