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Renegade Poetics: Innovative Poetry by African Americans

Considering that February is African American History Month, this week L.A. Letters features two important books that expand, as well as question, the canon of 20th Century African-American Poetry.

"Every Goodbye Ain't Gone," published by the University of Alabama Press, and "Renegade Poetics," published by the University of Iowa Press, work well as companion books to accentuate their common theme of redefining African American poetry and celebrating Black poets besides the usual suspects like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka. There's no dismissal or criticisms of these giants; rather these two books open up the lens and feature many other less known but uniquely gifted poets, like Russell Atkins, Jayne Cortez, David Henderson, June Jordan, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Ishmael Reed, Ed Roberson, Lorenzo Thomas and Melvin B. Tolson, among many others. These two books showcase many innovative writers that have been left out of many critical discussions because they didn't match the paradigm of their era.

"Every Goodbye Ain't Gone" is a collection subtitled, "An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African-Americans." Featuring 38 poets including the figures above, editors Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey have assembled a powerful cavalcade of poetry. Their introduction, "Fear of a Black Experiment," sets the tone for the poets featured: "We offer this collection as a means of remapping the ground in ways that may shift our historical comprehensions of African-American poetry in recent years and our anticipations of critical comprehensions to come. The present collection affords a fresh perspective on the more experimental poetries created by African American artists in the decades following the Second World War."

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The many poems within the anthology are a treasure trove of style and forms. Noting how many previous anthologies of African American Poetry were close to 90 percent men, the editors have included more women in this collection, and also explain the ground gained by Black women writers over the last half Century.

The editors continue in their introduction, "One of the most important things we can do today is to recognize the importance of those such as Jayne Cortez, Elouise Loftin, Gloria Tropp, and June Jordan who broke a path for the many women who were to come after them, the remarkable next generation of women artists whose work will reappear in the next installment of this project."

Jayne Cortez died last month. She played a prominent role in Los Angeles poetry during the 1960s. Briefly married to Ornette Coleman, she has often been grouped in with the Black Arts Movement poets, but she was also noted for the strong surrealist streak within her work. She put much of her poetry to music in the Black Arts era, and often performed her poems with jazz groups like Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra. Cortez was closely affiliated with the Watts Writers Workshop during its early years, and two of its founding members, Eric Priestley and Quincy Troupe, were among many mentored by her.

Priestley writes, "I will never forget Jayne, and it's not because she gave me a chance to play the lead role in her play (the same role that James Earl Jones played when the play originally was staged on Broadway in New York), but more importantly because she shared her life, time and talent with me and protected and encouraged my talent like a big sister would protect a little brother. She demanded social-equality from others and she instilled in me too to do the same. And most of all: she preserved and nurtured my sense of dignity!"

Six of Cortez's poems are included in the anthology, including "Under the Edge of February" and "Phraseology."

There are many other intriguing poets published in the work, like Russell Atkins. Atkins was an avant-garde poet active in early 1960s Cleveland, whom Langston Hughes appreciated. Hughes decided to connect Atkins to Leroi Jones a few years before the birth of the Black Arts Movement and Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka. The 13 poems of Atkins are the most of any writer in the book. His work experiments with typography and uses sound like a saxophonist.

On the heels of Atkins is Bob Kaufman, known for his association with the beat poets of San Francisco, with 12 poems published within. Kaufman is also famous for his almost decade-long vow of silence after JFK was shot. Ed Roberson, AB Spellman and Lorenzo Thomas, each have several poems featured. Considering that some of these poems were out of print or published only in small run journals, the anthology becomes all the more valuable; the editors succeed in their mission to expand the African American poetic canon.

"Renegade Poetics" is a book of critical essays subtitled "Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry." Written by Rutgers Professor and poet Evie Shockley, the book's 200 pages of prose redefine what she calls "the Black Aesthetic." Her critical essays go a long way to explain how and why the African American poets noted in the anthology are so progressive. In her first paragraph Shockley writes, "I aim to highlight and resituate innovative poetry that has been dismissed, marginalized and misread: first, in relation to the African American poetic tradition, because its experiments were not 'recognizably black'; and second, in relation to constructions of the avant-garde tradition, because they were."

The book begins with the question: "What do we mean when we designate as 'black' certain behaviors, values, or forms of expression?" The discussion segues into a synopsis of the Black Arts Movement, and then traces the evolution of African American poetry over the last Century focusing mostly on the last 50 years.

The chapter "Protest/Poetry" starts by charting the mostly untold story of the innovative 1920s poet Anne Spencer. Spencer wrote about nature and the poetry of gardens, yet managed to denounce racism and gender politics within her extended metaphors. Shockley writes of Spencer, "her poetics are also unconventional in the ways they depart from the strictly traditional forms favored by Romantic poets, to whom she and other Renaissance-era women poets are often compared. . . Spencer gives us a skillful blend of internal and end rhymes at varying intervals, such that rather than chiming heavily, they seem to float along the exuberant music of her language."

Misunderstood in many ways during her lifetime, Spencer's proper place as not just a groundbreaking African American woman poet, but groundbreaking poet period is stated clearly in Shockley's treatment.

Award-winning poet and UCLA English Professor Harryette Mullen is the subject of a compelling chapter; she also provided the inspiration for Shockley's title "Renegade Poetics." Mullen's poetic techniques use collage to melt Gertrude Stein and Language Poetry with the Black Arts Movement. Shockley explains, "Mullen explores the extent to which their competing priorities can be rendered compatible within a single work, taking as the ground for her experiment the contested territory of the first-person speaker of lyric poetry -- or, 'the lyric I.' More specifically, Mullen raises the stakes of her venture into black-poetry-as-innovative poetry by working the poem's black cultural material into an investigation of the particular question of black women's identity."

Her books "Muse & Drudge", "S*PeRM**K*T", and "Sleeping With the Dictionary" are masterful tomes of innovative poetry. Shockley also notes the influence on Mullen of her mentor Lorenzo Thomas and his Umbra group of Writers, as well as of Gwendolyn Brooks. Mullen in turn has influenced new generation of innovative African American poets, like Douglas Kearney, to name just one.

In a later chapter the Los Angeles-born Surrealist poet Will Alexander is discussed with the same detail as Mullen. Mentioned in this column before as being shortlisted for Los Angeles Poet Laureate, Alexander is an Afro-Surrealist with 10 published books, most recently with New Directions and City Lights. Originally involved briefly with Los Angeles poets like K. Curtis Lyle and Kamau Daaood, Alexander is a complicated, poet working on multiple dimensions of meaning. Shockley writes, "For Alexander, a person whose imagination can encompass the three planes of existence -- subconscious, conscious, and supra-conscious -- is able to use language in ways that reveal all those realities to others." Shockley's chapter on Alexander is one of the best accounts of his work because she possesses the background knowledge to properly explain his hard-to-define genius.

Shockley's most recent book of her own poetry, "The New Black" published in 2011, won several awards and places her in the elite class of innovative Black poet she celebrates. Her oeuvre focuses on reconsidering and destabilizing black aesthetics. In her conclusion she says, "It is important that we are able to work with a conceptualization of experiences, concerns, and poetics that African American poets have, but grounded enough in social and literary histories relevant to a given poet's work to provide the necessary analytical precision." Shockley's book highlights the breadth within African American poetry, and broadens its discussion in the 21st Century.

"Every Goodbye Ain't Gone," along with "Renegade Poetics, are valuable sources for poetry scholars. The two books update the construction of the African American canon of poetry and open up the discourse. Moreover, Los Angeles writers like Harryette Mullen and Will Alexander play such prominent roles in Innovative Poetry, which comes as no surprise.

Over the next few weeks other books related to African American History month will be discussed. This week's column celebrates the visionary poets and editors pushing the envelope. Here's to the progressive writers redefining and reimagining the cutting edge of L.A. Letters.


Top: Jayne Cortez at Poetry Project, St. Mark's Church, New York, 2009. Photo by T. Carrigan used under a Creative Commons license.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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