Innovative African-American Poetries
from American Poetry Review, January / February 2012
I am writing this every-other-issue column to notice patterns or emerging trends in recent contemporary American poetry, as a means of bearing witness to important milestones. To make some constellations visible to the naked eye. And to start, or extend, some conversations. I’ll be discussing recent books, but they won’t be reviewed in the sense that they won’t be evaluated. You can assume that if a book shows up in my column, I think it’s worth consideration: I am interested these days in what I find revelatory and complex more than what I think is “good.” The books I plan to talk about here are the ones I think are better than good: they are the ones I think matter. They matter in and of themselves, and they matter within a larger context.
This is certainly the case for this first bunch of poets I’m talking about: innovative, newer African-American poets. I believe we’re at a watershed moment for their poems, poems that call upon a range of influences, from traditional formal verse to identity politics confessionalism to avant-garde strategies and everything in between, as a way of “search[ing] for an authentic voice as an African American poet,” as Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey, the editors of Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (which came out before most of the younger poets here had published; the editors are currently working on a second volume) put it. And it’s really exciting. It matters. The reasons it matters seem self-evident to me, but in case they are not: 1) because African-Americans have authored and influenced the artistic culture of our nation, but poetry still seems too often a white person’s game; 2) because Americans need more culture that taps into the terrible legacy and lasting impact of slavery and racism on us all; and 3) because there is too much tokenism going on in poetry, and it is to everyone’s benefit to be ever more inclusive and curious in our reading.
Why, then, a column just on African-American innovative poetics? Isn’t race just a construct? “Well, to me it seems so simple. Race is all made up. None of it exists: the language, the voice, the stance, the delivery, the celebration, the connery, the cytoplasm, the coins that have my head on them…” Ronaldo V. Wilson writes. And indeed, I would never suggest that race is the only useful lens through which to view this work, and I don’t want to further any ghettoization. The poets discussed in this column are not a clique (though some know others quite well), and they do not share the same goals, strategies or backgrounds. I hope this column will be considered a telescope whizzing around, searching for patterns in a sky crowded with stars.
Why African-American innovative poetics? Mainstream African-American poets—for the purposes of this essay, let’s reductively say that “mainstream” contemporary poetry is that which adheres to a linear narrative and stable speaker, and that “innovative” poetry is that which pushes an anti-linear, anti-narrative, hybridized aesthetic—are also important. But for African-American poets, this issue of how to write about something—that sticky notion of subject matter—seems particularly fraught, because of course the subject of race itself is particularly fraught. And because, as Nielsen and Ramey note in the introduction to Every Goodbye, “[in] black poetry anthologies [of the 1960s and 70s]…the more adventurous black lyric was all too often silenced”… and the two anthologies published in the 1990s that Nielsen and Ramey cite as more aesthetically inclusive are already out of print.
It also seems to me, from the outside, that African-American poets, more than perhaps any other “group,” have expectations put upon them to produce a particular kind of work that discusses race: “You’ll need a talk, an oral walk, / Something natural and recognizable by your folk, / Something of music something of meaning,” begins Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “Ways to Be Black in a Poem.” A few years ago, I attended a Harryette Mullen reading where an African-American woman rose and asked, during the Q&A, something like, “How dare you write about things other than being an African-American woman in ways that make sense to me? Where’s your loyalty to your community? Where’s your activism?” To which Mullen gracefully replied something like, “I am under no obligation to make any kind of work other than the work I want to make. All my work is about African-American womanhood, because I write it. And activism, direct activism, is what I do when I attend a rally, or write a letter to the newspaper, or give money to a cause, not what I do in my poems.” (Note: Mullen may not have said any of this. But this is what I took away.) And it struck me that no one would ever ask a parallel question of Mr. Straight White Male Poet.
Here’s the thing: subject is the subject of this column. Not exclusively, but intentionally, consciously. Because subject matter itself is at a crossroads right now in American poetry: in Ellis’ poem “The Judges of Craft,” he quotes a literary magazine rejection note, which says in part, “Most of what we get in…regard [to issues of race and racism] is mere subject matter” [my italics]. What then to do with the need to speak plainly, urgently and candidly about one’s experience and identity, about politics, about history, alongside the desire to make work which feels new, reflective in its form and style of our postmodern age? It’s a question I see enacted within many new books by younger poets of all backgrounds, a question that is sometimes wrestled to the ground, so that, in the least successful attempts, the poems themselves seem exhausted by the labor of the struggle, and in the most successful attempts, transcend into a kind of out-of-body experience, flying over the melee of subject matter and aesthetics. For my money, the majority of the successful engagements with this question are those that allow subject matter to remain at the core.
And nowhere is this question more compellingly engaged than in books by newer innovative African-American poets: Shane McCrae’s first book Mule, Wilson’s second book Poems of the Black Object, Harmony Holiday’s first book Negro League Baseball, Duriel E. Harris’ second book Amnesiac, Douglas Kearney’s second book The Black Automaton, Dawn Lundy Martin’s third book Discipline, and Ellis’ second book, Skin, Inc. In each, the poets draw, harmoniously and discordantly, from sources as diverse and diasporic as postcolonial theory, the hyperextended line (a term I use for the opposite from fragmentation), work songs, sprung meter, rap lyrics, philosophy, Modernism, digital culture, the Black Arts Movement, folk vernacular, and beyond. The work is alive with grief, intellect, love, faith, rage, and a heavy, heavy sense of the lessons and textures of the past. “Just looking / at history hurts,” writes Ellis in “The Identity Repairman.”
Writing avant-garde poems about the African-American experience is not exactly a career choice: the genre of poetry itself is marginalized; avant-garde writing is marginal within that margin; and African-American poetry (and poetry by anyone of color) is marginal within the margin within the margin. Even within the recent avant-garde, there is evidence that “forceful articulations of African American identity were a negative example [of aesthetics] for Language writers,” as Timothy Yu writes in his book Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965. Within African-American poetry, space has had to be carved out for work that strays from the culturally accepted identity-politics-driven narratives and lyrics. What’s left is a very small bandwidth.
Which is why I’ve chosen to talk about this poetry, books in which the discussion of race is overt. There are certainly other younger African-American writers taking on all sorts of fascinating subject matter, but I wanted to look at how racial identity is being approached head-on. And head-on is how these poets are writing: “black as the black in the black of black,” as Wilson writes.
One of the key themes in all these books is cohesion, or lack thereof. How can a poem in first-person acknowledge an unstable sense of self? “Nor is my house a house nor is myself a self in the way they mean one occupant of one place called a body,” writes Holiday in “Assembly.” “It is impossible to say who I am,” writes Wilson in “Construction of a Black Poetics Self in Four Narratives.” “Always the I is fissure recklessly yearning for its whole self sense of wholeness like a potato,” writes Martin. “Morphology problems,” Kearney writes in “The Six Cities.” In the use of avant-garde strategies such as syntactic disruption, typographic manipulation, and the incorporation of visual image (pen and ink drawings in Kearney, photographs in Ellis, binary code in Martin, musical notation and reproduced etchings in Harris), one of the shared aesthetics is the way the poems appear to be bursting at their own seams, magnificently and intentionally, in a political refusal to cohere.
The poems move synaptically, surprisingly. Kearney evokes the tragic folk hero John Henry, the steel-driver who beat a train for speed, only to die “with a hammer in his hand,” as the song goes. Fast, and also often furious. Holiday’s “Man at Home” hurls itself forward, starting “It’s probably dark there but the scarcity deep in your voice Whisky shoe shine boy brother boy, sir, is nearly a hurt I can handle and maneuver.” Harris’ book is full of a stylized, almost proselytizing high diction which brings to mind nineteenth century orators like Frederick Douglass: “Come and celebrate with me this triumphant living sin” or “My enemies are as but dust / I wash from my feet.” Harris’ poems in this voice brush up against completely different kinds of poems: word charts, dreams, anthems, political satires, and, most jarringly, a completely straightforward and excruciating narrative about the rape of a young girl, in “Jump Rope.” What are these poems doing together in the same book? The tonal and stylistic shifts are sometimes so dramatic I lost my footing. The blame lies, I believe, not in the author but in the limited, standardized nature of the poetry book manuscript: there needs to be another, more expansive way for a poet who takes aesthetic risks, trying numerous strategies, to present her work.
There is no mistaking work by one of the poets here for work by another: Holiday’s sequence of fragmented prose poems brings to mind Lyn Hejinian in its roiling, Language-inflected reflexivity (“you play the record ever since territory, shall have meant the universe, made yard and dowry readymade and south lipped”), whereas McCrae’s work sometimes occupies a Dickinsonian space, with a metrical opening poem that begins “The cardinal is the marriage bird / And flies a flash of dusk.” There’s a full spectrum between Martin’s internalized, lyric prose poems (“the I is a condensed system”); Ellis’ dizzyingly inventive, funkified formalist (s)creeds (“If negritude, it fits / better than any // metaphor for river, / weary mask, or light-skinned religion”); and Wilson’s loping, daring grotesque (“you know I’se a ho / who’s gonna suck / ram it, fork / tongue, my / back fat smacks”).
Wilson’s poems reminded me of the poems I’ve called Gurlesque: irreverant, darkly playful, brashly subversive poems that are daring updates on what might be called the Serious Feminist Poem of the 1960s and 70s. Just as Third Wave feminist poets have the license, privilege and historical distance to take on the rape culture from within with a sardonic, scatalogical humor, so here we have a next wave of political black poetics, just as pissed off and entrenched in a racist society as their predecessors, but with a newly freaky, no-holds-barred upending of mores. Can you do that in a poem?, these books make me think. Can you, for example, speak explicitly to the racism within the poetry community itself, and the slavish behavior it sometimes evokes? “wanksta-ass poet, them whiteboys made a ape outta,” Kearney mocks himself in “The Cruel, Cruel City,” “next week, I’ll stand, damned hat—rather, manhood in hand / like a cover letter (…do …he do) in those washed offices, declaring: // ‘I should like to publish in your little magazine.’” The white of the office’s wash is implied, inherent. Ellis’ book contains a wrenching sequence on working in the “buttermilk”-white space of the Grolier Bookstore while studying at Harvard, poems so forthright and painful they made me both wince and gasp in admiration.
Another of the striking elements that unites these books is the harrowing visions of the self refracted through a racist culture: a notion of the self as creature, monster, other. In one of several poems by McCrae called “Mulatto,” there is a “half donkey with its star-/tling hair attached,” a creature whose beautiful—but white!—star is transmuted into that which startles. The title of Kearney’s book gives us a robot version of a man, an “IT” who “ain’t from here; IT is here;” the title of Wilson’s book presents a black man as “Object.”
When the self is not monstrous, it is often rendered invisible, eradicated: “That I am I cater annihilation,” the body-speaker says in Harris’ “Unfurled: The Pain-Body Speaks in Repose,” and elsewhere, in a sequence called “speleology” (the study of caves), “amputated in the glare, I am a ghost in my own memory.” In McCrae’s poem “That’s Entertainment,” “the white // half white // The black / half white like stars are white,” whiteness overwhelming blackness even when both exist in equal measure. In Kearney’s terribly moving poem about an African-American student away at college for the first time, “Malik Considers the Winter Semester,” the protagonist “stand[s] in lecture / halls deciding how to disappear / more.”
With erasure comes loss, and elegy looms large among these books, whether elegy for a family member, as in Holiday’s poem for her father, soul singer Jimmy Holiday, “Nine Key Chord” (“crash short, burst slack, repeat as you were reallysomething”) or an elegy not for what is dead but for what is deadened, as in Kearney’s “Ghetto Bird mak[ing] its vulture round,” in “City of Searchlights and Dead Cats,” a poem for his brother. There is also elegy for relationships, as in Mule’s many poems in which “divorce” and “marry” are used interchangeably as states of intimacy and effort. The third section of McCrae’s book contains moving poems about parenting an autistic child, in which the elegy mourns the loss of the boy the child might have been without “the diagnosis”: “beautiful and is he was / Always so beautiful our son our map / Of us and nobody we knew.”
I had a special fondness for McCrae’s book, and in this poem, which references the Rodney King trial and the subsequent L.A. uprising, I hear contemporary poet D.A. Powell’s poignant, layered, referential and personal elegies, and also Dickinson again, as well as Romantic lyricism and negro spirituals:
Dear Once-Incarnate- Silence dear
Lord if I leave Your table full
Who hungers in my place I see
My place is full dear Can’t-We-All
Just-Get-Along dear Every-King
You are the city burning in
Which I am burned Lord if I am
Not who is burning I smell skin
Uprisings, or riots, haunt the books: in Ellis, referencing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” in the lines “toss a trash can, / like a lidless metaphor, / through this poem’s / narrative.” In The Black Automaton, in a love poem titled “City with Fire and a Gray Toyota,” the speaker says he “wanted us / to loot / each other—sweet yellow girl and I,” an act which would result in “our bits / of glass scattered, for neither of us / black-owned.” The weight of meaning here—lovemaking through the metaphor of racial violence—packs an especially powerful punch when we realize that the speaker does not feel that either he or his beloved are “black-owned,” possessed of agency over their own bodies.
The Black Automaton reminds me that we need a new, less whimsical term for that poetic technique known as “wordplay,” because Kearney, like Ellis and Wilson, uses puns and carefully spun internal rhyme in the service of serious political critique, as in the lines, “IT’s a dismemory on an operating table: / awtopsy, auturvy.” In Wilson’s phrase “no-blaxo-blessed-be” I hear a slant rhyme to “noblesse oblige.” The neologisms bring to mind Paul Celan, for one, but also Audre Lorde’s famous aphorism, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”: distinct, free language invented to describe distinct, free experience.
Wilson’s book has a queer sensibility—the black male speaker in several poems has a sexual (and metaphoric?) predilection for “old white men”—and a playful discursiveness, especially in a sequence in which Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is recast as a break dancing battle, and in another sequence in which Caliban and Ariel return in epistolary mash-ups that also incorporate cultural theory, supermodels, modern dance, eating disorders (which shadow the book as a whole), boy bands, and contemporary art. Dawn Lundy Martin, on the other hand, has a book called Discipline, and although the book’s press release mentions sadomasochism and Sappho, and one of the poems itself states “I want to say this plainly: it is only when I am in a woman’s arms that my body is not a threat,” I was hard-pressed to locate the carnal in these taut, short prose poems. “The body drifts off to fuck like a ghost,” Martin writes, and indeed, the body here feels mostly disembodied, even when the language is graphic. The self seems primarily at the mercy of an institutional oppressor, not a personal one. The poems lay bare a specific kind of agony, that of the deep understanding of how the System’s brutalization can warp and mutilate one’s mind. “I want to yell out the window, I am both very alive and very dead!” Martin’s speaker keens. “I am a suspect! Why has no one named me a suspect!”
The books published by Fence—Kearney’s and Holiday’s—come with CDs, and I think many of the books would benefit from something that fully utilizes digital media to illustrate the works’ hybrid nature (Kearney’s CD, more or less a concert album, was fun but did not satisfy my desire for something interdisciplinary). I found the inclusion of musical scores in Harris’ book frustrating: the poem “Wishing Well,” written in searing, stereotypical slave dialect, faces its notation (a “lively march,” we’re told) on the opposite page, but I wanted direct access to the music as Harris hears it. This poem, like many others among these books, deserves to be presented in some form other than the printed page alone. Harris, Kearney, Ellis, and Wilson’s books all highlight the need to move beyond tired notions of “page poetry” and “performance” or “spoken word” poetry, and all the racially-tinged battles therein: what is coming next in innovative poetry, I deeply believe, and which is full in evidence here, is a more truly hybridized work, for which the old terminologies are no longer useful.
It’s important to note that many of these books have come to us via a recent crop of organizations dedicated to African-American poetics: the Dark Room Collective, founded in 1988 by undergraduates at Harvard, first as a reading series and then other endeavors; the wildly successful Cave Canem, founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady as “a safe space” for African-American poets “to take artistic chances,” which is now a national organization whose efforts include workshops, book prizes, retreats and more; and a Cave Canem offshoot, the Black Took Collective (with a moniker out of a Gertrude Stein poem), started in 1999 by a small group of poets dedicated to performative work informed by critical theory and hybrid genre art-making. All three of the members of the Black Took Collective—Martin, Harris and Wilson—are discussed here. Ellis is one of the founders of the Dark Room Collective. Four of the books here include thank-yous to Cave Canem. It’s a historical moment: these poets are both the leaders and benefactors of multiple cooperative efforts to foster African-American poetry. We cannot underestimate the impact of community on aesthetic breakthrough.
Also important to note: Cave Canem and the like were not the first of their kind. As Nielsen and Ramey amply demonstrate with Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone, there is a lineage of avant-garde African-American poetry, and previous generations had their collectives, too. Cleveland’s Free Lance Workshop, begun in the early 1940s, included the poet Russell Atkins, “a black avant-garde poet and theorist who…would play a significant role in editing the [Free Lance] magazine and establishing its particular aesthetic vision,” as scholar Alessandro Porco writes. In 1961, the Society of Umbra was founded in the East Village of New York City by poet Calvin Hernton and others. Hernton, now Professor of Black Studies at Oberlin College, writes “Tom [Dent]’s [then the Publicity Director for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund] idea was that the blacks on the Lower East Side were very few in number—particularly the writers and artists—and we should do something about the isolation and anonymity we felt.” Around the same time, Percy Johnston co-founded an undergraduate poetry group at Howard. In Eugene Redmond’s 1976 book Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History, Redmond writes, “Writing just before the onset of the Black Arts Movement, the Howard Poets remained distinct from th[e] later generation because of their emphasis on aesthetics over nationalism, which was derived in part perhaps from their training in phenomenology, cultural relativism and other philosophical principles.” Johnston went on to publish Dasein, a quarterly journal for African-American artists, known for a distinctively nontraditional aesthetic bent.
I don’t want to end without also mentioning the impact of important mid-career innovative African-American poets such as Claudia Rankine, Terrence Hayes, Harryette Mullen, Kevin Young and the late Akilah Oliver, to name just a few, whose continually explorative, rigorous, pleasurable poetics are held in wide regard throughout the poetry community. These poets are some of American poetry’s most compelling experimenters right now—each book a wholly new effort, a brilliant new dismantling and reengineering of genre, style and subject—and their presence in the contemporary scene has done much to pave the way for the next wave of poets discussed here, whose books thrillingly and critically expand the “ways to be black in a poem.”
Skin, Inc., Thomas Sayers Ellis (Graywolf Press, 2010)
Amnesiac, Duriel E. Harris (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2010)
Negro League Baseball, Harmony Holiday (Fence Books, 2011)
The Black Automaton, Douglas Kearney (Fence Books, 2009)
Discipline, Dawn Lundy Martin (Nightboat Books, 2009)
Mule, Shane McCrae (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011)
Poems of the Black Object, Ronaldo V. Wilson (Futurepoem, 2009)
Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans, edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey (University of Alabama Press, 2006)
About the Author
Arielle Greenberg's most recent books are the hybrid-genre Home/Birth: A Poemic, with Rachel Zucker, and the anthology Gurlesque, co-edited with Lara Glenum; Ugly Duckling Presse will republish her chapbook Shake Her in 2012. She recently left a tenured position at Columbia College Chicago to move to rural Maine with her family.
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon