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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Kwansaba

Discovery and Discipline in East St. Louis

To obtain an informed  view of what is happening in American poetry and poetics, you have to do a lot of work.  One task is to attend to matters of discovery and discipline in East St. Louis and the directions traced in

Roy, Darlene. Afrosynthesis: A Feast of Poetry & Folklore.  East St. Louis: Kuumba Scribes Press, 2015.

Roy, a co-founder of the Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club,  has compiled a guidebook to the kind of African American experimentation and lore which is seldom mentioned in such  critical discourses on the status of our literature as the anthology What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey.  Roy's book is evidence that our literary culture is vast , always contributing the American  historical narrative which is myopic and unfinished.  The yearly "Da-Dum-Dun" gatherings that pay homage to Miles Dewey Davis, Henry Dumas, and Katherine Dunham enliven triple consciousness regarding sound, words, and motion, but that consciousness can only be transmitted by such a creative document as Afrosynthesis, which allows us to discover the rewarding discipline of the kwansaba,  a fixed poetic form that originated in East St. Louis.

"The kwansaba," Roy explains , "is a form composed of seven lines of poetry, each of which has seven words, with each word containing no more than seven letters.  It was developed by Eugene B. Redmond and refined in an EBRWC summer workshop in 1995" (60).  The forty-three  kwansabas  in Afrosynthesis, which are prefaced by free flowing poems, blues, toasts, haikus and tankas  ---preparatory works for dealing with the challenges of the kwansaba, illuminate how to both conform to and depart from the strict rules.  In "Appendix: Guidelines to Writing Effective Kwansabas" (60-61), Roy enumerates permissible exceptions to the rule of seven and suggests using alliteration, assonance, neologisms, and onomatopoeia to maximize variety.

 It is pleasant to discover from careful readings of Roy's kwansabas how discipline within a tradition inspires remarkable innovations  ---re-w(rapping), for example, of consciousness into conch-us-nests.  Through the dedicated play with language and form, Roy teaches us how shape historical clues about the April 1, 1865 founding of East St. Louis or the July 2, 1917 race riot (a prism for Ferguson, August 9, 2014); craft  praise poems for Mrs. Ezora Gertrude Woodard Duncan, Josephine Baker, Barack Hussein Obama,  Sonia Sanchez, Quincy Troupe;  remix Paul Laurence Dunbar's phonetics with the humor of Langston Hughes.  Ultimately, Roy teaches us that the discipline demanded by fixed poetic forms begets stronger authenticity and encourages sustained meditation on the conditions of now.  Ah, yes. Afrosynthesis gives us proof that innovation in a nest of complex African American imperatives  is a beautiful thing in need-plagued time.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            May 11, 2016


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