Party People, Party People: Friday Good News Roll Call!

 

Hey Y’all:

It’s Friday morning, and I’m up far too early. Alas, I did not just get paid. (That’s an Old School Jam reference. Y’all young’uns don’t know what I’m talking about.) But since I’ve been writing steadily, I get up with the proverbial chickens. Also, I try to get in at least one Yoga practice a week, so I don’t cuss people out. (Don’t act like y’all don’t know what I’m talking about.)

But I’m also up early because I’m pretty excited since this has been a good news week for me: I was included in two new books on poetry that just came out!

Wingbeats II: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, edited by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen

Here’s an excerpt from the description of the book:

“Whether you want a quick exercise to jump-start the words or multi-layered approaches that will take you deeper into poetry, Wingbeats II is for you…You will find exercises for collaborative writing, for bending narrative into new poetic shapes, for experimenting with persona, for writing nonlinear poems. For those interested in traditional elements, Wingbeats II includes exercises on the sonnet, as well as approaches to meter, line breaks, syllabics, and more..”

I have an essay called “The Happy Blues” included that talks about how to write this usually sad poetic form with a twist.

You can order Wingbeats II here!

AND

Poems of the American South, edited by David Biespiel.

Here’s an excerpt from the Foreword to the book:

“This anthology begins with the hymns and rhythms of enslaved people who were shipped to this continent four hundred years ago against their will. Enslaved Africans brought with them the roots of American poetry and, as a consequence, there’s been an ingrained sensibility about the tragedy of human bondage in Southern literature; as William Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.'”

I have a poem included called “Portrait of Unknown Provenance of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the Child of an Unknown African Woman and Admiral Sir John Lindsay,and Her Cousin, the Lady Elizabeth Murray c. 1779″ 

You can order Poems of the American South here!

Thank y’all for sharing in my good news! I’m always so grateful for my work to be supported and acutely aware of how blessed and lucky I am.

Have a great weekend!

Love,

Phillis Remastered

Why I'm No Longer A Black Poet

Robert Hayden

“Why I’m No Longer A Black Poet”

………by Reginald Dwayne Betts, ………PR Guest Blogger

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Forgetting is the gift to folks who don’t mind circling the same wagon, year after year, decade after decade. It seems that is the case for black poetry in America, this circling of the wagon, a perpetual seeking of place and definition. How one manages racial identity in these fifty states has become something that can always be mined for content and controversy.

I’m thinking about Robert Hayden and about his position on the infamous question, “Am I a poet, or am I a black poet?”—that “to be or not to be” used to bludgeon African-American men and women who write in America.  It’s what prompted the 1966 Black Writers Conference at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee; it was an historic gathering of writers, civil rights workers, and others to discuss the image of the Negro in literature.

At the Conference, the poet Robert Hayden remarked, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks—it has been given importance it should not have.” His remarks preceded those of Melvin Tolson, who famously went on to proclaim, “I’m a black poet, an African American poet, a Negro poet. I’m no accident – and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you think.”

This contentious encounter is all recorded in the June 1966 issue of Black Digest, and if you aren’t careful, after reading the account of this encounter, you might walk away thinking that Hayden’s and Tolson’s poetics were a world apart. But read a bit of Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and you will find Tolson doing what Hayden did time and again: write about black folks with a serious sense of wordplay, with panache. Tolson’s poetry makes this public spat over the question all the more interesting, and all the more redundant.

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Melvin Tolson

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The backstory to this is everything Robert Hayden’s writing has taught me: Nat Turner, the Amistad Mutiny, all those figures from the (Detroit) Paradise Valley series, Bessie Smith, the meticulous emotional turmoil that was the Middle Passage, Paul Robeson – all names and historical moments that are but a sample of what I found early on in his verse. I think that I benefited from having read Hayden before I had any real idea that I wanted to be a poet, because at that time I read him alongside Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lucy Terry and countless others, including the anonymous authors of the Spirituals and Work Songs, without yet having a social or historical context.

There is no one that could walk away from the Hayden’s Collected Poems not knowing these poems were soaked in what it meant to be black in America from slavery to beyond the 1960s. Hayden was the guy with narratives, history, myth. He dropped science in a way that the other poets I read just weren’t.

At this point, it’s almost a waste to go into comparisons between Hayden and poets of the Black Arts Movement. Any such comparison would be more about personality, less about poem. And at the end of the day, Hayden maintained an exquisite balance in his poetry, work that didn’t seek to demonize or make heroic the figures that found their way into those poems.  Hayden sought less to grant historic black figures anything (be it humanity or heroism) and more to carve a truth out of words that didn’t exist, exactly that way, before they were written. When I first learned of the Fisk Conference controversy, of Hayden’s not wanting to be referred to as a “black” poet, I hadn’t thought about how naming can be akin to handcuffing.  And frankly, I left that issue alone. I wanted to be black because I already had been black as a failure and so I wanted to be black as a success.

For me, being black, wanting to be a writer, wanting to engage in the world larger than my block and my fears, have been about using color as the first filter. I was the kid who wanted to know why we read Shakespeare in high school and not Chinua Achebe, the kid who read the Stolen Legacy and waxed poetic about how Aristotelian thought was stolen from a library in Egypt. My mind was the constant playing of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back—and I had yet to hear the album.

The thing is, you get older. And when I did, I recognized how racial solidarity addled my brain. My obsession with race became more important than the history I didn’t know.

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Langston Hughes

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In “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” (1926) published in The Nation, Langston Hughes did not argue for a singular blackness, but I read it that way, missing the part where he wrote, “If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” No, I was stuck on his chastising Countée Cullen for his desire not to be known as a “Negro poet,” his wanting to be brave where Cullen seemed so awkwardly afraid of his blackness.

This craving worked as gift and detriment for me. And it was silly.  At the time, I viewed black poetry—all black literature—as a kind of service literature. The problem, of course, is that the best of black literature is far more than service, even when the writers are completely devoted to a kind of service. Ultimately, when I am moved to shirk racial symbolism, it’s partly because no one wanted my wearing “race” when I ran wild in the streets, and partly because there is a little dishonesty in the ordeal–as the idea of blackness too often replaces the fact of blackness. And so, a group of black writers who scrape with words to create a world gets reduced to: “X confronts his black identity (or decides to abandon it).”

What has been lost as I enter into present, public conversations about black literature is the myriad ways of conveying blackness. Conversations about “blackness” always overshadow the elements, the sounds, the nuance, the slang and vibrancy that reduce regional distinctions in African America to places where words become worlds. In having discussions about what it means to be a black poet, I forget that my moms went to work at four every morning without having to name herself “black” anything. That my folks, all of them, lived fully in their black skins, and, when need be, discussed racism and dealt with it—but they needed no obsession with adjectives. None of my friends who aren’t writers or reading the books about “post black” use these terms, or talk about them. They talk about the cost of daycare, of healthcare, of rent – and I imagine there is a poet singing his songs right now who only will be noticed for writing “black”—or being black while writing.

All of this returns me to Robert Hayden, whose “blackness” was called into question because he, like Cullen, didn’t want to be relegated to a literary ghetto (like today’s black literature section in popular bookstores). I’ve come to realize that black poets’ racial solidarity has become tantamount to another restraint: our thinking about black poetry has been reduced to how and why we represent racial issues—and our commitment to language has been allowed to fall slack. We will not call it service literature, but we do want it to serve.

I have found access within the black literary community and felt at home, but that community sometimes has looked askance at me when I’ve admitted to feeling at home at largely white institutions, too. As the saying goes, I am “the Negro of the moment.”—And yes, there is a trace of truth to this saying, but the idea behind it is corrupt and corrupting. Am I to understand the entire history of literature and black folks in America as merely a succession of chosen Negroes?

What is apparent is that the erasing of history that goes on is layered and complex. If you aren’t careful someone will dress you in a beret and an Afro pick before your first good line is written, or they will have you referring to your complexion as a mere coincidence.  It’s all from the same bag, a not-so subtle-way to erase the nuance out of you.

Sometimes the black community that raised me is a far cry from the community represented in the work I read, often the work I write. Sadly, many of the people who are my “black” peers display an overwhelming gap in information. But our poems dance. They dance before a crowd that has no sense of literary tradition. (Or does). They dance before those most concerned (if concerned at all) with what moves them, and little else.

And at a time when we black poets must demand our presence be acknowledged, must scrap and badger with decision makers and power holders of largely white institutions, we have survived, in large part, due to racial solidarity.  Yet, this same solidarity has now lead to a climate where to criticize the work of another black writer is tantamount to racial treason.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe these aren’t real issues issue at all.

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I want to say I stopped being a black poet when I discovered that black poets had the audacity to question Robert Hayden’s authenticity—but the truth is that it is deeper than that. The truth is I have found myself longing to be fuller in my own skin, to dismiss the rhetoric that surrounds what it means to be a black poet and find a way to write a poetry that better reflects the sounds I hear in my sleep, the sounds I hear when I walk down the streets that are most familiar with me – and the sounds that I hear when I am in a strange place filled with black faces.

At the Fisk Conference, Robert Hayden ended his speech by saying the blackest thing ever said at an academic conference (at least to me). Speaking to those whom he expected to disagree with him, Hayden remarked, “Baby, that’s your problem, not mine.”

With that statement, he took it back to where the truth always exists: don’t listen to what a person calls him- or herself, just listen to what is said when the guards are down. And the proof is always in the poems, because if your guards aren’t down when you go to that necessary place, then you were lying before you even started.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts: Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting

Hey Y’all:

I’m so excited to introduce Reginald Dwayne Betts, who has joined PhillisRemastered as a regular guest blogger!

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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“Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting”

I.

The fourth of July weekend, 1997, found me bracing myself for cuffs once again. Already in prison I was headed for a cell all my own, a little spot in C Building to celebrate my lack of freedom. The reason I was going to the hole isn’t as important now as it was then, the invented assault on an officer charge then a way to demonstrate how little control I had over my own life and now a point of humor.

The only relevant part is that I ended up in that single cell on the bottom floor, in the summer time when the heat was so oppressive that men would strip naked and lay on the small plastic covered mattress with a cup or two of water poured over them. A makeshift cold bath. Nothing of the situation had me expecting my life would change, nothing of the situation expected me to find the one thing I’d get from prison and hold on to forever, as if it were some life line.

This was my second time in the hole, and I’d already learned that with a book I could deal with my cell door never opening. Quickly I learned that despite the library cart not coming to the hole there were hundreds of books back there. Books that were read and passed on, having either been brought back there by people who had time to think before they were hauled off to solitary, or snuck back there by guards and the housemen who worked those hallways, passing out our meals, cleaning showers and sweeping the hallways under the not so careful watch of the C/Os.

One day I stood at the steel grill of my cell door, and shouted down the hallway for a book, any book, to read. Moments later Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” was tossed under my cell. Up until this point I’d never heard of Robert Hayden, of Lucille Clifton, of Sonia Sanchez. I’d never heard of Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and so many others. You were expected to read the books and pass them on–so I began copying poems long hand in a little blue folder. And this is how I became a poet.

This is also why when I think about poetry, when I hear people saying that poetry saved their lives, I imagine it to be true. What I learned when I came home is writing can exist in a superficial way in the lives of those who claim to love it, that it could be reduced to arguments that did little to advance the art, little to interrogate the art, but much to lift the intellectual status of the arguer. I found myself in those same conversations, sometimes leading them.

It has all been a manner of forgetting what it was like when the stakes were so high that the frivolities of my own criticism were lost in my pursuit of the poem that didn’t need me to criticize it. Back then I knew two poets, and didn’t talk about poetry much to anyone, and it was enough. Now I know scores of poets, and talk about poetry often, and it is often not nearly the bread it was before.

II.

A few days ago, maybe a little longer, a friend of mine told me that I was a poet in the MFA generation. I had no real idea what “the MFA generation” was, but in retrospect understood some of what he was saying. We, a generation of writers who became writers under the academia sponsored tutelage of other writers, our readings directed and in some ways predicated on the institutions we went to, are susceptible to having gaps in our hearings. Which is to say gaps in the writers who we have been encouraged to take as literary mentors.

The argument is that for the black writer, this is more troubling, because if one is to accept the authority of the institutions that degree us, one must, almost, also accept that barring any reclamation projects (i.e. Zora Neale Hurston) that the writers of color who were not acknowledged as writers by this hugely generalized beast called academia are not writers of quality.

He misses the point though, because even where he is correct, it isn’t the fault of the institution that we forget writers. Writers have and always will be forgotten. Alan Dugan won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection of poems and I can’t recall any poet ever mentioning him to me. I went through undergrad at a fine institution without once reading Steinbeck or Faulkner, while majoring in English. I also didn’t read many writers of color outside of classes that fell under the rubric of African American studies. But this is besides the point. My friend, fine writer that he is, has chosen (in this brief conversation) to advocate agitation over the work.

I am not a poet of the “MFA generation,” if there is any such thing. I understand that it is a clever way of framing a conversation about all that literature in America lacks, but in the end it fails to discuss what is vibrant, or even what one can do about the missing pieces, or why the missing pieces are important.

Regardless, I am a poet of prison, which is to say that if you have been to prison you might understand fully how almost every conversation for me appears a sort of circling the wagon, of returning to some point where the nights were bleak and what I saw out of my window was barbed wire. I blame those nights for making me a poet, and blame those nights for introducing to Neruda and Knight, to Brooks, Alexander, Baraka and Hemingway.

All of which is to say that I was introduced to authors by my own whim, and am a bit disappointed in what I’ve forgotten, disappointed in how some of what drove me to want to write has been dismissed by writers and writing programs I have been a part of without me acknowledging that those poems carried something that drove me. We should be disappointed in what we forget and what others fail to acknowledge, but the idea that it is not totally our duty to do the remembering (in ways that move beyond critique and complaint) strikes me as naive.

In 1997, the second collection of poems I purchased was Michael Harper’s anthology Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep. I remember reading a poet in there, Sherley Anne Williams. She first gave me the idea to write poem as epistle. Just a few days ago I was searching for her name, and couldn’t find a trace of those poems anywhere on line. I did find a Sherley Anne Williams who wrote “The Peacock Poems,” but wasn’t sure if that was her. A friend pointed me to the journal Callaloo, where her series of poems (the series I remembered) “Letters From A New England Negro” were published.

Williams’s first collection The Peacock Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published. Yet, her name too, I have not heard mentioned, have not mentioned myself. So now, as a free man, with a wealth of friends who are writers, I find it harder to discover and rediscover poetry that I should love than I did when I was in prison. And I ask myself why, and I’m convinced that the problem, if there is a problem, is that black poets have been tricked into believing that there is this homogenous thing called the “black community.”

And so we imagine that we get what we need, we must get what we need, because we are in this community. But we lack—and we bicker, and we complain. And while those these are great, and are indeed vital, we (this fictitious, homogenous whole) seem not to remember with the same ferociousness that we bemoan the forgetting. And then we fail to discover why we do this. Or to remember.

None of this is to argue I’m innocent in any of this. I think it’s to say that in prison I hoped to find a community where I could raise my children, and they would say with pride that, “Such and such used to come by my dad’s house, it would be him, him, her and her and they would be talking about poems and drinking and cursing and laughing.”

That my children would say this and be amazed each time that they thought about it how vibrant the arts community I was apart of was/is—and my biggest failure as a poet is that I have not worked to create that kind of community around myself, being far too concerned with the trappings of national recognition than the happiness of true community.

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“Remember, Christians, Negros Black as Cain”: The (Ongoing) Need to Defend Black Poetry

In 1773, when Phillis Wheatley, an unfree Black woman, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first African American to publish a book of poetry and shook the foundations of philosophical, scientific, and literary notions about people of African descent. For example, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, the philosopher Immanuel Kant ranks different races, and going further, argues, “Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”

There were plenty of readers who, while fascinated with Wheatley’s racial (and presumably to them, exotic) background, still spoke and thought highly of her. On October 26, 1775, Wheatley sent a poem and letter to George Washington, then leader of the colonial Revolutionary forces. Washington responded to her on February 28, 1776, and he referred to her as “Miss Phillis” in his heading. These two written acts were revolutionary their own right; given the social status of Black folks in the colonies at that time, it was bold of Wheatley to write Washington, and it was a transformative act on the part of Washington to consider—and record—a Black woman as a lady.

Yet when Thomas Jefferson, a key intellectual architect of the Revolution, chose to write about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia, he dismissed her: “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” It is interesting that Jefferson’s contemptuous assessment of Wheatley’s poetry occurs in the same section in which he implies that Black women engage in bestiality:

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white.. preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.

During Wheatley’s time, her work was not just proof of Africans’ intellectual capability, but their full humanity when placed alongside that of their White counterparts. By placing Africans in the monkey’s embrace, Jefferson attempts to take away the gains that Wheatley’s poetry accorded an entire race of people. This may seem to be an unrealistic claim—until we take Kant’s assessment of Africans into account.

Since Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, there have been too many attacks to count over the years on Black poetry, but two more stand out, because the attacks focus not just on critical analysis of African American poetry, but also, on “canonical” Black poets, in particular those who are revered in the Black community.

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In 1963, the poet Louis Simpson wrote a review of Gwendolyn Brooks Selected Poems in New York Herald Tribune Book Week.  Thirteen years before, Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen; she was the first African American to do so, and instantly, Brooks became one of the “Great Black Firsts,” one of the numbers recorded by the African American community in its battle against the continual onslaught of racism. As a “First,” Brooks came to represent Black achievement—and, like Wheatley, an example of Black humanity. It would seem that Simpson was aware of Brooks’ importance to Black cultural production and the connection of that cultural production to Black America in general , for he begins his review with a dismissive assessment of the entire Black Poetic Body:

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems contains some lively pictures of Negro life. I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.

He then goes on to say, “Miss Brooks must have had a devil of a time trying to write poetry in the United States, where there has been practically no Negro poetry worth talking about.” And in those few short sentences, Simpson attempts to make quick work of a tradition of Black poetry that (in 1963) went back over two centuries.

Simpson went on to publish several books of criticism, and apparently, his attempt to dismember of African American poetry did not affect his career in the least. When Simpson’s review was reprinted in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (2001), it included a statement by Simpson:

I am glad to see my review of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems reprinted because this gives me an opportunity to set the record straight…I had said in my review that black writing that concentrated on being black was of limited interest. I did not mean to suggest that black writers should not speak of their blackness—only that they could write about other things as well.

Here, Simpson acknowledges that he might have hurt some folks’ feelings—presumably Black folks’ feelings—but will not acknowledge that, in the same way that he assumes that the inferiority of Black poetry speech acts should be taken prima facie, his contemptuous speech act detailing what he views as the inferiority of Brooks’s poetry and the entirety of African American poetry should be taken in the same way.

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A few days ago, Helen Vendler published a review in The New York Review of Books  on Rita Dove’s anthology, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. After Brooks, Dove was only the second African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (in 1987, thirty-seven years after Brooks), and thus, holds honored status in Black literary circles.

We are now in the twenty-first century, and so, in the past, a review might have taken months to make the rounds among poetry circles; now, it takes a matter of days. There have been poets on internet social media (such as Facebook) discussing Vendler’s revew and Rita Dove’s subsequent letter in defense of it.  Many, if not most, of the White poets that have discussed Vendler’s review have been outraged, but they have missed the context in which most Black poets take Vendler’s review—as part of a ceturies-long, ongoing attack on the Black Poetic Body.

All critics view themselves as experts. In order to argue something, the arguer must view him- or herself as an expert on the subject. But there’s a difference between arguing about a subject and arguing based upon one’s place in the world. Helen Vendler’s arguments against Dove’s editorial choices are based upon what could be called White Privilege Literary Largesse. She doesn’t mind that Rita Dove includes a few poets of color —what she calls “minority” poets– in the anthology; what Vendler minds is that Dove has the audacity to place those poets on the same level as the White poets.

Vendler hasn’t always had a problem with Rita Dove. In times past, she has been a champion of Dove’s work, as when she included positive assessments of Rita Dove’s poetry alongside Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Jorie Graham in The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Refinition (1995). However, once Dove started making her own canonical gestures by editing her own anthology Vendler moveed from being Dove’s champion to her attempted vanquisher.

First, there’s an attack on Dove’s choices, as when states, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and then Vendler proceeds to tally up pages given White—all male—poets versus Black poets. This already shows that Vendler isn’t engaged in the usual pedestrian criticism of the table of contents, and it becomes even clearer when Vendler moves from page counts to an attack on Rita Dove’s person, as evidenced by the following:

How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?

This passage is telling because it shines a light on the issues Vendler has with Dove-the-Black-Woman and not just Dove-the-Editor. Vendler wants to know how Dove could be so ungrateful, because she was “rewarded” so much. “Awarded” would imply that Dove deserved her many accolades, simply because she’s a brilliant poet and hard worker. However, “rewarded” implies that Dove was given advantages in exchange for something. And what exactly does Vendler think that something should be? Ignoring the fraught history of this country? Pretending that Black poets besides “Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa”—the two Black poets who don’t need “special defense”—don’t exist?

But what remains unspoken speaks volumes: Vendler really means, how is it that an Uppity Black Female Poet dared to get out of her place? How dare she make her own editorial—intellectual—choices without checking with anyone first? And that anyone would be Helen Vendler.

And finally, there is this passage, the ultimate attack on the Black Poetry Body:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one.

In other words, the best Black poets can’t ever tangle with the best White ones. And it’s ridiculous for anyone to assert that–especially another Black poet.

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There’s been a lot talk this year among poets about “race” in poetry—“race” meaning “black people” or “people of color.” I’ve talked about this issue on my blog, that “race” is a concept, going back to the eighteenth century. Thus, when I write about black people, I’m not writing about race. I’m writing about full participants in humanity—and I’m writing about this humanity as a given, which is something Phillis Wheatley couldn’t take for granted.

And the obvious question is why does no one say that White folks are writing about “race” when they write about themselves? (No one except Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, of course.) No, when White folks write about themselves, they are writing about America. They are writing about unraced universal experience. They are writing about the ultimate human existence.

This condescending critical assessment of Black poetry has been in place since Jefferson first took up his pen, and informs the sort of contemporary scholarly/intellectual condescension of Simpson and Vendler, because when one attacks African American cultural production, that attack goes to the heart of an issue that is both moral and intellectual, and which goes back to Enlightenment philosophy. Now, it’s not that Black folks aren’t human; only the meanest White person would say something like that. But what’s implied is that cultural production assumes humanity from the start. It also assumes something else: privilege.

In Rita Dove’s introduction to her anthology, she assumes her own kind of privilege, intellectual privilege, and her right to claim that privilege galls Helen Vendler, for if Blacks and other poets of color are not included in Dove’s anthology because of multiculturalism, but rather, on their literary merit alone, then the whole American literary landscape not only changes in the present, it also reconfigures the past. And Helen Vendler and others like her are terrified of that prospect.

* The title of this essay is a line taken from Phillis Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America” in Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Annie Allen. New York, Harper and Row, 1949.

—. Selected Poems. New York, Harper and Row, 1963.

Dove, Rita. “Defending an Anthology: Rita Dove in Reply to Helen Vendler.” New York Review of Books 22 December 2011.

—. The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. New York, Penguin, 2011.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Query XIV: Laws.” Notes on the State of Virginia.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John

T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Simpson, Louis. “Taking the Poem by the Horns.” New York Herald Tribune Book Week, 27 October 1963, 27.  Rpt in Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (Under Discussion) Edited by Stephen Caldwell Wright.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Vendler, Helen.  “Are These the Poems to Remember?”  New York Review of Books 24 November 2011.

—.  The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Washington, George. Letter to Phillis Wheatley on February 28, 1776. Writings Vol. 4 Edited by John Kilpatrick. (1931).

Wheatley, Phillis. Letter to George Washington on October 26, 1775. Phillis Wheatley: The Complete Writings.  Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Prelude To A Wig Snatch: The Black Scholarly Edition

A few weeks ago, President and Mrs. Obama decided to have a Poetry Night at the White House. I was all excited, until I found out that Common and Jill Scott were going to be on the program with former US Poet Laureates Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

I love Jill Scott the musician, but I’ve never thought she was a great poet and when she walked on stage at the White House, bringing a laptop to the podium and reading from it, I knew I’d been right. Then, I noticed she was “biting” legendary Sonia Sanchez’s style, without giving credit. This is a no-no in the poetry world. You can “bite” but you have to put something at the top of your poem like, “after Sonia Sanchez.”

And Jill committed the sin of going over her allotted time, again, another no-no, although poets do that frequently and you can feel the room getting cold as each minute stretches longer. But, as my nephew can say, I guess Jill was “a’ight.”

But Common was much worse than Jill could ever be. I could barely made it through watching his poem. There was a lot of uproar and to-do about Common’s invite from conservatives who claimed he hated cops. (Oh wow, like the rest of the African American community just absolutely adores the American criminal justice system and all its paid officers.)

But frankly I didn’t care about Common and the cops at all. My beef was and still is that Common is a horrible poet. Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

Listen, Common looks great without his shirt on, and I know this because I went to see his movie with Queen Latifah and Common’s acting was almost as horrible as his poetry. But since he did not take his shirt off at the White House, I was really, really cranky that the space for someone who was a good poet (and who didn’t regularly use the b-word when referring to women in his/her records) was taken by the admittedly cute but poetry-tone deaf rapper Common.

What made me even crankier was that there were African American literary and cultural scholars online praising Common’s “artistry” evidenced in those sad, pedestrian heroic couplets of his.

And then, what made me downright enraged was the tone that some—not all, but some—of those critics were using, a tone of condescension.  How was it that I was a published, award-winning Black poet, yet my opinion did not count at all about Black poetry, unless of course, I agreed that Common was a great poet?

I couldn’t understand what was happening. Why were all these siddity,  upper-middle class scholarly Black folks pretending that Common a fabulous poet? Didn’t they know that what he was reciting wasn’t good poetry, unless of course, he was a child in grade school?

The overall gist of the online scholarly comments went something like this:

Number One, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a matter of “perspective.” And even if the beholder is someone who doesn’t read not only poetry books but, like, any books at all, that functionally illiterate someone gets to say what is and what is not poetry.

Number two, if you don’t think Common is a good poet, you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, and if you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, that means you’re prejudiced against working class Black folks. And shame on your classist self and stop pouring your haterade.

Then I realized something: creative writing (and poetry in particular) seems to be the only other field that people think they can just come into with no knowledge of tradition, no training, and with no apprenticeship at the feet of other experts. (The other field is stripping.)

Let me break this down further.

I love me some Jill Scott the singer. I saw her concert DVD “Live in Paris” and she was signifying on other singers who had “dancers in the background” and no “live instrumentation;” the implication was that real singers didn’t need all of that.

Now, I sang the blues back in graduate school, fronting for a band of White guys. (I loved them boys, too. They could really play). And I could carry a pretty good tune and belt like nobody’s business, but I still only have about a one and a half octave range, certainly I couldn’t stand next to Jill Scott on the stage without completely embarrassing myself.

So how does Jill Scott get to be serious about her art but want to keep me and my (probably) lip-synching one and a half octave self –and my background dancers and pre-recorded music track–off her stage, but I don’t get to be serious about my art on my page? How is she going to dog out somebody’s dancers and then bring her laptop to the White House and read off it? I’m just saying.

You know why I haven’t mentioned Common here in this “musician metaphor” ? Because if I’m not a musician and I can sing, Common’s talking over a prerecorded track definitely eliminates him from that field.

Let’s return to the Black literary critics. I don’t want to give the impression here that if someone doesn’t agree with me, that makes him or her The Devil. I like a good debate and I like it vigorous. As Tina sang, I like my debate “nice and rough.” Maybe it’s because I hung with boys back in the day. I never learned to fight well with my fists, but I can sell some woof tickets with the best of them, and I always bring Blady Jane to a debate.

My issue is not disagreement with my views on poetry. My issue is that I’ve worked hard as a poet and I keep waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the scholarly respect that should be accorded to me and to others who have worked hard in this field and who are actual practitioners in the field of poetry.

We poets don’t talk about it, we be about it.

Most literary and cultural critics I know are brilliant writers and thinkers. But most that I know couldn’t write a successful poem if you were holding their mama hostage somewhere, either. Yet, these folks—literary and cultural critics—who have never written a successful poem let alone published a book of award-winning poetry now claim the right to tell professional poets, the actual practitioners of the craft, what is and is not poetry. And they claim the right to chuckle condescendingly at us when we try to disagree with them.

And why? It’s simple: the critics went to graduate school and earned Ph.D.’s in Literary and/or Cultural Studies.  And most of us poets don’t have those Ph.D’s.

These are the folks who can suddenly decide that someone is a poet based upon whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth, as long as he can “rhyme”—which rhymes with “time,” “dime,” “lime,” in his stank heroic couplets—and as long as he is a Black man who looks good in or out of a suit and no matter what he calls us Sisters.

But if I, a trained and award-winning poet, an expert in the field with eighteen years of work under my belt, says “No, that’s not good poetry,” I will be called a classist. I will be told to go set my jealous self down and start writing a poem that “reaches the people” the way that “Genius-Brother Common” did with his simplistic rhymes.  And again, before I pick up the pen, put down the haterade.

Now, what I just wrote (above) is called “literary analysis.” I looked at what several Black literary and cultural scholars wrote online a few weeks back about Common’s poetry performance at the White House, thought about what they wrote, and then I took a position based upon my thoughts on what they wrote.

But what I just did doesn’t count as “literary analysis” to literary and cultural scholars because I don’t have a Ph.D. in literary or cultural studies. I certainly couldn’t publish my analysis in a peer-reviewed critical journal; if I mailed it to them, they would send my work back to me in twenty-four hours, if I was lucky. If not, they’d throw it in the trash can.

So now, who’s the classist?

.

——–

P.S. Thanks to my Brother-poet Rich Villar for “wig snatch”!:-)

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My Journey With Albert

I’ve talked a lot about the fact that I have been a serious fiction writer for a long time, sixteen years to be exact.  My graduate creative program was structured so that you couldn’t concentrate in two genres, so I concentrated in poetry, but over the years after grad school, I collected fiction pubs here and there. I still didn’t have any confidence about my fiction, though, so I decided to take a workshop.

The fiction workshop was with an organization that I will not name. I won’t identify the year or the teacher, either; I only will say I admired the teacher so much because he was a well-known Black fiction writer, though I hadn’t yet read his work. However, when I entered the workshop, the teacher had a very gruff, nearly rude manner toward me, even though I was putting the full beam of my Southern Belle charm on him.

Y’all that charm is dangerous, especially when combined with my mother’s biscuits, but I didn’t make him the biscuits. Maybe that was my problem.

Strangely, though, the teacher was friendly to the other students, just not to me— it seemed that way. But sometimes, I’m very overly sensitive, so I thought it was just in my head. He and I were nearly of the same generation, while the other students were much younger than I was, and since I was an accomplished poet with two books, I wondered if I was giving off some “know-it-all” impression without wanting to. I knew my having poetry books meant nothing in the fiction world, so arrogance wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

Finally, it came time to workshop my story. Weeks before the workshop began, I had sent in a twenty-page story called “Fish Albert,” about an old man who wants to be independent and take care of himself, but whose daughter is starting to take his independence away from him, bit by bit.

Both Albert and his daughter are Black, and they live in the deep country, in a (fictitious) small town in Georgia called Chicasetta. The old man speaks in deep vernacular and is uneducated, while his daughter is a college graduate who speaks very correct English with a clipped accent. There were parts of this story that I knew had serious issues, but to me, those issues were plot-based. I had a habit of writing  long passages of beautiful language that didn’t go anywhere, and I knew I needed help with that. But I didn’t have any problem with the setting and the dialogue–I thought.

When it came time for workshop, though, the teacher didn’t talk about the plot at all; instead, he focused almost solely on the language the old man used, meaning the Black vernacular. My teacher told me the story was “riddled with racial cliché” and he went on to say how “offensive” the character of the old man was, how people like this “didn’t really exist.” (Clearly, my teacher had never met any of my great-uncles.)  When I asked him—in my humblest, most quiet, and frankly, my most unlike-Honorée manner—how to fix the story, he suggested cutting eighteen pages out of it. Which would have left, like, two pages. To me, it seemed–again seemed--like he was saying “throw this story in the trash can.”

As I sat there and my teacher talked about my writing in a strident tone and with his face screwed up like he was smelling a fresh outhouse, I started getting the impression that he was taking something about my story personally, but I didn’t know what. I immediately tried to dismiss that notion, because I’ve had my own students say, “she didn’t like me” on teaching evaluations.

I decided to set the story aside. Clearly it was bad and couldn’t be fixed.

Then, a while later, I decided to order a book by that teacher from Amazon. I couldn’t even make it through the book, I was so bored. So I started reading another book by him—same experience. The novels were very smart and funny and had extremely intellectual frameworks, but I felt no emotional connection to the stories or the characters. Admittedly, I’m prejudiced that way; I like a lot of feeling in my books, not just irony and humor.

I like a lot of feeling in my life, too, by the way.

Then, I got to thinking–or “cogitating,” as Albert might say. Maybe the problem between my teacher and me had been our own artistic prejudices. He liked smart stories and didn’t care whether anyone was feeling something inside when reading his work while I liked emotional stories and didn’t care about the intellectual impression I was leaving.

But just because I don’t have an intellectual concept when I sit down to write doesn’t mean I’m not smart. Like the main character in my story, I have a southern drawl and speak (sometimes) in the vernacular, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. And it also doesn’t mean I can’t write a smart story, either—smart doesn’t always have to look and act one way. We Black folks have to stop making that mistake about each other.

That’s when I went to my files and found the “Fish Albert” story. At that point, the story was five years old.

I changed the title of the story to “A Cheerful Tune” and submitted it to Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review. It was accepted and published. Now, in my teacher’s defense, I did revise that story, a lot. But I also kept the basic plot and the Black vernacular dialogue that he really, really despised.

A few days ago, I received a letter from the editor of Shenandoah informing me that I had won the Goodheart Award in Fiction, and the prize comes with money, too! And I really liked the name of that award. The name says something to me—and not just that 1) I’m about to get paid and 2) my former teacher can suck it–and he can suck my traditional southern African American folkways and vernacular.

No, “Goodheart” reminds me to look back and see how far I’ve come and not to get down on myself if I’m not moving as far ahead as I think I should. Surely, I want to make money on my creative writing, but I’ll never be super-rich, and probably not even moderately rich. The most I can hope for is to pay off my student loans. But I write because it gives me happiness inside and a purpose in life.

So let me say this.

I know a lot of y’all out there feel like me and I want to encourage y’all to stay the course on your good journey, whatever it be. Don’t you let nobody stop your flow. And don’t you let nobody turn you round or steal your joy. You got the victory inside you. Remember that.

And that’s me and my Black vernacular talking to you. Okay?

(A Very Special) Good Sister Watch: Rosalyn Story

Before I go any further, let me say, you’re about to get free swag. I’m not playing with you.

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me keep going. Then, I’ll get back to the free part again.

Rosalyn Story wrote a well-reviewed book, Wading HomeWashington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and Essence reviewed this book about a community and family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was Story’s third book of prose and her second novel, but apparently, it didn’t sell as well as it should. At all.

I hear y’all saying, “Well, Honorée, if this book was so good, why didn’t it sell? There’s a dead cat on the line somewhere here.”

But you already know Story’s story because it’s an old one.

Remember, Zora Neale Hurston? She was the award-winning author of The Black Woman’s Second Bible, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Well, she died in poverty and her work had to be resurrected by industrious English university professors and Alice Walker.

And then there are all those good Black films that didn’t even get nominated for Oscars, let alone win, like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou, and Daughters of the Dust by the genius Julie Dash.

Can I get a “dang” here?

Somehow, it takes the rest of the world fifty to a hundred years to catch up with good Black art. But now, we Black folks have the internet, and guess what? It’s easy to spread information about Black art. If you’ve got a computer and can pay $19.99 a month for internet access, you, too, can be part of a new, self-empowered, and internet-based Black Arts Movement.

But here’s the thing to learn from the previous BAM that took place in 1960s and 70s: We got the power in our hands, y’all. Trust.

But first, we have to free our minds of the attitude that if White folks don’t put us in the paper, we can’t make a decent career in the arts. That’s just not true. The internet is now the extension of the African American grapevine—just like dinner in the church hall after Sunday service, the beauty parlor, and the barber shop.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t and won’t appreciate when White folks put us in the paper, too. Don’t get me wrong, now, because every little bit helps. And I like to see my name in the paper and so does my mama, by the way. But it does mean that we have a long tradition of having our own publicity and news outlets in the Black community, both non-traditional and traditional.

In addition to those three places I mentioned, we had Ebony and Jet magazine, too. Collectively, those five venues were all you needed, back in the day, to get your hustle on.

I’ve been talking about this issue  for a while with a very good friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, I think we need to be talking more about it with more self-awareness. There are pockets of us who are self-aware about what the positive uses of the internet, but too many of us Black folks only use the internet to keep up with the myriad ways Beyoncé flaunts her glorious butt cheeks in glamorous locales, or to start beefs with people (with ridiculous online aliases) that we’ve never met and never will. More of us Black folks need to start understanding our power to extend the “community” beyond our physical neighborhoods, and how that can be both a good and bad thing.

But for now, it’s all about the good.

So let’s spread the word about this sister’s fabulous, sassy book, and it will be easy for you to do, because until February 28–the end of Black History Month– her book is available from her publisher for free. That’s right. YOU CAN GET THIS SISTER’S NOVEL FOR NO MONEY. I told you at the beginning of this post that you were going to get free swag.

Do I ever lie to y’all? I think you know the answer to that question. So you also know I’m not lying when I say that within ten minutes of finding out this information on Tayari Jone’s Facebook page, I downloaded this book, because y’all know I sure enough love me some free swag.

Here’s what to do.

One, download the book for free by clicking this link right here and support this sister’s publicity of her hardworking art hustle.

And then, two, once you read this book, go on over to the Amazon page for the novel and write her a nice review, when you get the time. (I recently found out that this helps Amazon–and other prestigious venues like The New York Times bestseller list–choose sales ranks, in addition to how many people actually buy the book.)

Then, three, join Good Reads and list it as one of your books, so other (non-Black) people can start reading the book and spreading the word in the circles of their friends.

And finally, four, if you have a blog, write a short piece about the book, and include a link to the book’s Amazon and publisher pages. There are some fabulous Black writers blogs out there–look on the right side of this page and scroll down, and you’ll find links to several of them– but you can start your own, too. In many cases, it’s free to start your own blog.

And keep doing numbers two, three, and (if possible) four for each Black book you read that you think is  good–and that you spent money on– whether it is poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. It sounds simple, and it is–but if every one of us did that for every Black book we read that we liked, we could boost sales, bit by bit. And we could help kick (slowly and to a painful death) that rumor that we Black folks don’t read “real” literature and we don’t support it with our money either.

I’m feeling empowered today, y’all, and I hope you are, too. Let’s get this thing going.

*Hustle Alert* Nov. 15th deadlines!

Hey Y’all:

TODAY is the deadline for some really sassy awards in Creative Writing, and the next two days are, too.

So I thought I would remind you to check out Poets and Writers Grants and Awards page and get your hustle on. If you live in a small town, the Post Office closes at 5pm. But some of y’all live in the Big Bad City, and the post office doesn’t close until midnight. Dang. Y’all know that just boggles my country brain.

I know that most of y’all Negroes (and y’all Folks of Other Complexions) have a book just waiting to send out, or individual poems and stories. So get your head right, get your courage up and go to the Post Office today and send out, already!

And don’t forget to put your right hand on the package and say a prayer to Whoever you worship and get your Godly mojo going. And if you’re an atheist or an agnostic, just say, “I really want this package to win a prize and publication.” That will get it. That’s mojo, too.

Or, do like my cheating atheist or agnostic friends used to do–have somebody who does believe in a higher power place his or her right hand on the package and pray and get the Godly mojo going. I got a friend like that who used to let me pray for her, but she shall remain nameless.:-)

Here is the link to the page on Poets and Writers! Bon Chance, y’all! And remember: THIS IS YOUR TIME, BUT YOU WON’T KNOW THAT UNLESS YOU CLAIM IT!

Alright, now I’m gone calm down on the exclamation points.:-)