An Affirmation for This Day: Meditate on Sonia Sanchez

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A few hours ago, I saw a public service ad online about doing something meaningful for September 11th, which, of course, was a horrible day in American history. So on this day, I’ve decided to celebrate my friend and beloved mentor, the renowned African American poet, educator and activist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez.

She celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday two days ago (on September 9th) and continues to bless us with her astounding poems and her courageous, do-right presence in the world. She is one of the most cherished people in my life. I cannot tell you how much I love her.

And, just as a slight, shallow aside, doesn’t she look really beautiful to be seventy-nine years old?! The picture to the right was taken very recently. And I promise you, she’s just as cute in person and she did not buy that hair, okay? It’s all hers, in its thick, wonderful glory. That’s what living a good life and eating a healthy diet can do, y’all.

I met “Miss Sonia” on the page before I’d met her in person, as if the case with many of us “young”—black poets.  She knew my father, as he had been a member of the Black Arts Movement and I had read her germinal volume We a BaddDDD People, which had been published by Broadside Press, the same press (then) of my father.

Sidebar: I don’t know how “young” I am anymore, but I still feel like a girl around Miss Sonia. She can do that to you, and you must always remember your manners around her. At least, I do.

And so, when I finally met her in the flesh in my teens—I was sixteen or seventeen—at a small gathering at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was a bit surprised at how tiny Miss Sonia was. I was expecting a much, much bigger person to match the huge voice in her poetry, not the tiny-boned, petite woman I encountered. But she was commanding in an almost overwhelming way when she spoke to me. Her air was one both of graciousness and gravitas.

Thirteen or so years later, I saw her again at Cave Canem, the workshop retreat for African American poets. It was the summer of 1998 in upstate New York, and I believe that in a few years, scholars of black poetry will write about that summer, not because I was there—I’m not being modest, just honest—but because of the collection of black poets who were.

Cave Cavem had been founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, well-known poets. Elizabeth Alexander was there as faculty, as was Lucille Clifton—another woman who became beloved to me—and Michael S. Harper. The author and editor Eugenia Collier was there as special guest. And several of the fellows present that year are published poets now, including Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Shara McCallum, Kate Rushin, John Keene, Reginald Harris, Monica A. Hand, and R. Erica Doyle.

I was walking down the hallway of the monastery (where the retreat was heldthat year) when I approached the open door of Miss Sonia’s room. Out of respect for the privacy of a famous person, I kept my head down and tried to pass, but her voice snagged me.

“Hello, my dear sister,” she called out.

My southern home training required a polite exchange but I didn’t want to act like a “groupie,” nor did I want to trade on her past acquaintance with my father—already, I’d caught some shade from my contemporaries for being a “second” generation black poet. I poked my head in, tentatively.

“Hello, Ms. Sanchez. How are you?”

“I’m well, my dear sister. And you?”

“I’m good, thank you.”

She asked my name. Now, I really was in a quandary, and sure enough, when she heard “Jeffers,” she said, “Ah, Lance’s daughter!” She even remembered our first meeting, over a decade before. I was trapped, sucked into the identity of my father, when I was trying to make a name for my own self.

But the next few days weren’t so bad. In fact, they were life-altering. Her poetry reading that week ties as one of the best I’ve ever experienced—it ties with the one Miss Lucille gave that same week. When Miss Sonia read, it was like being in church. No, it was like being in church during revival week, with a full gospel choir, and fried chicken and lemon pound cake afterward, in the fellowship hall.

Over the years, Miss Sonia has become my good friend and my mentor, and I call her about once a month. Mostly, I pretend I’m calling to “check on” her, but really, I’m just calling to hear that voice, that combination of stern, no-nonsense and tender nurturing.–I remember the first time she said she was proud of me, I burst into tears. Right there on the phone. Yes, I should have been ashamed at my display. But no, I was not. I’d been waiting a long time for her to say those words.

Sometimes, I must admit, I do still marvel that I am sharing conversations and laughter with—and receiving wisdom from—one of my literary heroes, and I do have “groupie” moments, like when she calls The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison simply “Toni”. My heart sort of stops a couple of seconds every time that happens and I have to suppress a little squeal. I can’t lie. I mean, Toni. Morrison. But mostly, I just love to hear Miss Sonia’s voice and the way she draws out “hey” like a Birmingham, Alabama lady when she knows it’s me on the phone. And how she calls me “my dear sister” and makes me feel, well, dear.

If you don’t know who Miss Sonia is, here are some links for you to “refresh yourself,” in the words of another dear black woman. (My mother.) I hope that Miss Sonia’s words will bless your day the way she blesses mine, whenever I call her and she answers the phone.

Sonia Sanchez’s official website 

Sonia Sanchez’s Wikipedia Page

Information about the Black Arts Movement

And finally, there is a documentary being made about Sonia Sanchez! It promises to be fantastic. Here is the link to the trailer of the film in progress. Enjoy!

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”

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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.

*

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.

An (Erased) Week in Black Poetry History

Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center

Last Saturday, I arose feeling fabulous. I bounced up out of bed and made me a café au (soy) lait and settled in with my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, which had an interview with a brother-poet, Major Jackson. His latest book, Holding Company, is out right now from W.W. Norton.

Major and I go way, way back. He and I were among the first group of fellows from the renowned Cave Canem Workshop/Retreat for African American Poets; I saw in Poets and Writers that Major had mentioned that wonderful week in June all of us shared fourteen years ago at Mt. St. Alphonsus, a former monastery turned Catholic retreat center in Esopus, New York; the center perched on the banks of the Hudson.

Also, Major had mentioned two other folks besides him from that week to publish books, A. Van Jordan and Terrance Hayes, both of them men. But he didn’t mention me, the only woman fellow from that week to have had a successful career in poetry. That was pretty upsetting, to say the least.

For those of you who don’t know about Cave Canem, let me give you some history. The workshop/retreat was founded by the poets Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in1996. The very first Cave Canem took place in a former monastery in Esopus, New York, a small town that sits on the Hudson River winding through the Catskill Mountains.

There were thirty of us total including two faculty members, two visiting poets, the director of the workshop retreat (also the wife of one of the founders), one week-long poet in-residence, twenty-three fellows and Father Francis Gargani, who ran the retreat center and who was the finest priest I had ever laid eyes on. And by the way, he is still fine, fourteen years later. It must be all that clean living.

The first day was intense and strange, at least to me. We sat around in a circle and started giving our back-stories. When we got to Renée Moore, she started weeping. I remember feeling shaken and confused by the sight of all those Black poets sitting around the circle. I had never experienced this scene, intellectually, emotionally, or any other kind of way. Vincent Woodard, our sweet departed soul, cried as well. He was the spiritual center of our group.

One night, several of the fellows decided to walk down the hill from the monastery to the river. It was blinding dark—no light anywhere on the path—and a few feet down the hill we realized we had no flashlights, but we couldn’t see to walk back. Some of the older people had stayed up the hill, like Miss Carrie Allen McCray (passed now as well) who was eighty-two and who needed her rest.

We had to hold each others’ hands in a chain and walk carefully. Someone said, “I wonder if this is what the runaway slaves felt like.” It was a sobering thought, because I was scared of the dark. But I had my friends to keep me safe, especially Herman Beavers, the first Black male feminist I ever met. I heard Van Jordan’s baritone somewhere. And James Richardson, who remains the most brilliant individual I have ever met, was bringing up the rear.  John Frazier was somewhere in that group, too.

At the bottom of the hill, Hayes Davis and D. J. Renegade made a bonfire. Elizabeth Alexander was down there, kicking it with us, even though she was officially famous and not a fellow but a poet-in-residence. And then, I started singing Aretha songs—with my little one and a half octave range. Rachel Harding was a lovely soprano so she took the notes I couldn’t hit.

At the end of the week when we left the monastery, I drove Hayes and Major back to Philadelphia where they both lived, because I had a rental car. We had such a good time in the car, just laughing and talking and cutting up. After we dropped Major off in Germantown, I stayed overnight with Hayes and his father, Mr. Earl (now late), who was an otherworldly brilliant and beautiful artist.  Mr. Earl bought us a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and I was so relieved. I was from the South and I had hoped those Northern Negroes didn’t want to eat something all chi-chi. And just like southern folks, Mr. Earl gave the blessing before we began to eat.

Over that next year, some of the 1996 fellows wrote me snail mail letters and I saved them all. I have letters from Van, Hayes, Yona Harvey (who married Terrance that next year), Toi, Herman—and a baby picture of Herm’s firstborn child. Sherry Lee sent us all pictures that she had taken and made into a calendar.

And I have a letter that Major wrote me. He was just starting his career back then, but I knew he would be famous one day. In the letter, he talked about having dinner with a few poets, all of them famous, and I was so proud of him.

Now, I could discuss the sexism of Major’s interview in Poets and Writers, in which Major apparently erased the entire memory of not only me, but all the other Black women—his Sisters—at that week-long workshop retreat, including the founder Toi Derricotte and Elizabeth Alexander, the woman who composed—from scratch—a poem she read at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

I could talk about why the only Sister out of the 1996 Cave Canem Fellows’ Group to make a career as a poet—that would be me—was not mentioned.  And he’s not the only Black male poet to erase other Black women; that history of sexism goes back a long time. And believe me, I will talk about that and in great and detailed length, but that discussion is for a later time.

Finally, I could remind that Negro that I let him ride back to Philly in my rental car for free, because I don’t recollect that he gave me no gas money.

For now, though, it’s really about a time lost. I was a girl then, a very young (minded) almost-twenty nine, and that first Cave Canem was the only time in my entire life where I felt truly loved and accepted by other Black people—or people, period.  I was completely wrapped up in joy.  I know it sounds silly, but that week seemed like one of those sunlit scenes from a film, out of time and place. A scene you hope will go on and on.

Over the years, I’ve remembered the love I shared with all those people, but I can’t remember all the names. One reason is that, if you go on the Cave Canem website’s mission page, there is a “history” section, but no list of the original fellows from that year. Which is pretty sad and strange considering that we Black folks hold history in such high esteem, because much of our history has been taken from us.

Some of the people I haven’t mentioned by name are: Sarah Micklem, Omari Daniel, Ronald Dorris, Valerie Jean, Afaa Michael Weaver, Patricia Spears Jones, and Lorelei Williams. But I know I have forgotten at least two people and that makes me really sad.

Over and over, I’ve gone to the Cave Canem website hoping for a list of the names of the original folks from 1996, but the list is never there, or at least, not where I can find it. Somewhere in an archive there are records of all those Black poets who helped to make Cave Canem what it is today—for better or for worse—but it would be nice if I didn’t have to search out that place to find a record of such a beautiful time. It would be nice if those six joyful days were fully honored.

Is There a Place In American Poetry For Hip Hop?

Some of y’all know that my poetry deals with African American music. Though I’m primarily known as a blues poet, all forms of Black music and how these affect our culture and who we are as a community have been a preoccupation of mine for a while.

An essay of mine, “Blues for Tar Baby: The Problem of Contemporary Black Hip Hop Poetry” was just published by The Kenyon Review Online. Here’s an excerpt from my piece:

“Because there always has been an exchange between black music and black poetry, the question one must ask is, when well meaning contemporary black poets use hip hop music as a point of departure and continue adding to the oral tradition in their own way, must they also continue to perpetuate the misogynist stereotypes (at worst) or deny or avoid female complexity or presence (at supposed best)? That is to say, must they engage in a battle only between men where women must be silent bystanders who sometimes get beat down in the process?”

You can read the rest of this piece at The Kenyon Review Online by clicking this link. Y’all know I always speak my mind, so when you finish reading,  let me know what you think by leaving comments here!