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Tuesday, September 22, 2015




Three anthologies

Coval, Kevin, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, eds. The BreakBeat  Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015.

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn and Lauri Ramey, eds.  Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry.  Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn and Lauri Ramey, eds. What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.

send us on a mission of tackling difficult w(hole)s by way of revisiting the frames established by Stephen Henderson ( Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, 1972) and  Eugene B.  Redmond (Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History, 1976).

Forty years ago, Henderson could assume that African Americans shared something in common regarding how they did something in language and listened to music, the language and the music being shaped by profound shared experiences of life in the United States of America ; Redmond could assume, quite legitimately, that a folk spirit hovered "over the whole of Afro-American literary and cultural life ---sometimes calling it to its tasks, other times providing it with just the needed lift and magic (16). Forty years later, the frames  ---mission, speech, music ---remain valid as abstractions. It is our use of the frames that has changed dramatically over time; our uses of these frames will always specify our allegiances both ideological and aesthetic.  How we deal with the concrete totality of poetry, or with the slippery labels we attach to its manifest fragments, throws violent light on what human beings do not assume  in common.  If poetry matters in 2015, it matters in concert with "@#life matters."

In the interim between 1976 and 2001, the first year of a new century, the positioning of new black poetry was admirably represented by

Powell, Kevin and Ras Baraka, eds. In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers. New York: Harlem River Press, 1992.

a Sankofa book, acknowledging fidelity to mission as well as inevitable change in speech and music. To be sure, one could find innovation in this anthology, but innovation was not its primal feature.  Historicized unity within diversity was the major concern.  A decade later, increased attention to the experimental as a mark of diversity and personal freedom  exploded.  More overt  attention to the individual talent and less to tradition seasoned  poetry in the performance spaces of page and stage.  New assumptions, quite unlike those of Henderson and Redmond, came into play.  Innovation assumed urgency in gestures to promote inclusion in the making of American poetry.

The question "What is innovation?" is not trivial, even if it is asked in our Age of Implacable Terrorisms, but the better question under such conditions is a forking one:  "How and why  does innovation occur?" Considered as parts of ongoing projects to discover what is "representative," Every Goodbye Ain't Gone and What I Say (two units of a whole)  complement The BreakBeat Poets.  At the same time, the three anthologies prompt our asking why the profound innovation of Asili Ya Nadhiri's "tonal drawings written in poetic form" is such an interesting absence.  Literature, especially poetry, is like light; it is at once wave and particles, artifact (what a poet creates)  and event (an unpredictable process involving materiality and sensation for a poet's audiences).  In order to be innovative, it is essential  that a work effect conceptual or epistemological difference rather than superficial visual or/and auditory difference. This is how innovation occurs.  Why do they occur?  Innovations happen because human beings abhor stasis, the boredom of aural or visual static. 

The absence of Nadhiri's  tonal drawings, and work by a few other poets who refuse to be properly unorthodox,   allows one to suspect that the counter-establishment also has tacit  rules of exclusion.  Even if that is not the case, the absence does serve to emphasize, yet once again,  that any anthology is a limited representation, a sampling that creates grounds for broader explorations.

 In the instance of What I Say, the  subtitle "  Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America" places the contributors in a national matrix, whereas  the subtitle "An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans" assigned to Every Goodbye Ain't Gone associates poets with genre, special interest groups among American poets,  and technique.  Thus, in 2006, Nielsen and Ramey justified their enterprise as "a break from the established disciplinary modes, a break from regnant pecking orders, and a breakthrough"( xxi)  for the period 1945 to approximately 1977. What is emphasized is both inter- and intra- dynamics of ignoring and excluding.  The justification for What I Say as a continuation of the original project  in 2015 is of quite a different order. "One of the crucial contributions of this volume, then," according to Nielsen and Ramey, "will be to provide a much broader context for understanding the poetic innovations  of the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, permitting readers to map the independent routes by which various poets reached their particular modes of aesthetic experimentation "(xiv).  It is most strategic that they did not write the introduction about independent routes but gave that task to C. S. Giscombe, who fulfilled it with "Making Book: Winners, Losers, Poetry, Anthologies, and the Color Line," his 2007 MLA presentation for a panel on "Poetry, Race, Aesthetics."  I urge readers to scrutinize  Giscombe's introduction to discover what is currently the price of inclusion.

It is noteworthy that The BreakBeat Poets anthology represents a bolder taking of risks than does What I Say, primarily because it seems to return with maximum energy to the mapping of cultural utterances made in the Powell and Baraka anthology; one might have  discovered  follow-though mappings  in

Medina, Tony and Louis Reyes Rivera, eds. Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Medina, Tony, Samiya A. Bashir, and Quraysh Ali Lansana, eds. Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art.  Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

Rivera, Louis Reyes and Bruce George, eds. The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by Gang Members and Their Affiliates.  Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2008.

Given that Douglas Kearney has work on pages 86-92 of What I Say and pages 117-126 of The BreakBeat Poets, it seems apparent that innovation as innovation simply ignores the artificial boundaries that literary discourses have not completely abandoned and re-valorizes William Melvin Kelley's message that Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970).  One expects nothing more and nothing less from a book which represents "New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop."  Although neo-capitalism has co-opted and reductively "objectified"  many aspects of hip-hop, it has failed to eradicate the ancient collective spirit Eugene B. Redmond alluded to in Drumvoices or the referential power of speech and music Henderson evoked in Understanding the New Black Poetry.  The work collected in this anthology is nothing short of mind-blasting; it is an arsenal of aesthetic weaponry for the creation of new verbal and visual orders in this world.  It does not disappoint in effecting Kevin Coval's hope that the book is "a piece of the growing discourse on how art can be used to create a fresher world, a useful tool to further and extend and generate conversations in classrooms and ciphers, on the corner, in living rooms, in institutions, and in the renegade spaces young people carve out for themselves despite state control....This is a prayer book and a shank, concrete realism and abstracted futurism" (xxii).

Through the conduit of innovations, ashé complements amen!  If poetry matters in 2015, it matters in concert with "@#life matters."


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

September 22, 2015

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