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Wide Awake with the Breakbeat Poets

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In this era of performance poetry and the rise of spoken word, there are many poets that are not as well read as they could be. In my formative writing years in the mid-1990s, I was told by a writing mentor that no matter how much I write or perform, I should always be reading that much more. Following this logic I have always adhered to reading different poetry movements and the various anthologies that encapsulate these. The first anthologies I went through were on the Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, and the Black Arts Movement.

Years later I enjoyed the anthologies edited by Jerome Rothenberg, like his "Technicians of the Sacred," and his "Poems for the Millennium," series. I have also appreciated anthologies on Multicultural poets, Ecopoets, the Language poets, Black Avant-garde poets, as well as regional poetry anthologies featuring poets from New York, Chicago, and Southern California. In line with this spirit, this week L.A. Letters examines two new important poetry anthologies that capture the zeitgeist of American poetry in 2015.

Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond


The first anthology to discuss is "Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond," just published under the umbrella of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series by Beyond Baroque Books. This new volume extends for over 300 pages and features over 112 Los Angeles poets. Edited by Suzanne Lummis, the collection aims to be the most ambitious assembling of Los Angeles poetry yet. There have been a number of Los Angeles poetry anthologies over the last century, but most of them were very focused and centered on a particular neighborhood or school of local writing.

Suzanne Lummis writes in her introduction, "These poems endorse neither the dream nor the nightmare vision of Los Angeles. Instead they wander through absurdity, pathos, comedy, anguish, irony and tenderness. And through NELA, NoHo, West L.A., Venice West, Malibu, Hollywood, East Hollywood, Downtown, K-Town, J-Town, East Los and Leimert Park they wander, usually with a purpose." The purpose seems to be delivering a micro-narrative. Each poem is a separate story, and the 200 plus poems collected cover all sides of the city.

Lummis arranged the poems to follow a loose geographic narrative, but most of all they capture the wide ranging spirit of the city. Important Angeleno poets like Wanda Coleman, Sesshu Foster, Gerald Locklin, Amy Uyematsu and Terry Wolverton are included, along with the city's first poet laureate Eloise Klein Healy and current poet laureate Luis Rodriguez. Professors like B.H. Fairchild, Tony Barnstone, Paul Vangelisti, Gail Wronsky, Ron Koertge, and William Mohr have poems in the book as well. In addition to veteran poets are a number of up and coming scribe's just beginning make their mark. There's also an equal mix of avant-garde poets along with neo-formalists.

Many of the poems offer short manifestos for core ideals of Los Angeles living, like Wanda Coleman's, "I Live for My Car," Bill Hickok's "How to Get to Heaven," and Dana Gioia's "Cruising with the Beach Boys." Sarcasm and irony are also recurring themes in the text in works like Kim Dower's "Boob Job," Mary Fitzpatrick's "In Time of Drought," and Douglas Kearney's "City of Searchlights and Dead Cats." The subjects of the poems cover the last century of Los Angeles history, from the rise of Hollywood, the Roaring 20s through the Cold War era, all the way up to the upheaval of the 1990s and into the multiple narratives of the 21st Century. The tone of the poems switch degrees with the same unpredictability as the varying landscapes of each neighborhood.

In the last two decades there has been a surging interest across the country in California Studies and the literature of Los Angeles. Connoisseurs of literary Los Angeles need to look no further than this collection to grasp the zeitgeist of what it's like to be alive in Los Angeles. The diverse range of voices in this anthology represent the pluralism which makes Los Angeles the penultimate Postmodern Metropolis. "Wide Awakes'," greatest feat is the veracity in which it captures contemporary Los Angeles.

The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop


This new anthology published by Haymarket Books, just released in April in time for National Poetry Month, bills itself as the first anthology of poetry from the hip-hop generation. In the past two decades there have been a few anthologies with some overlapping themes as this collection, but this is the first volume that is completely centered on establishing the poetics and aesthetics of hip-hop poetry. Edited by Kevin Coval, Nate Marshall, and Quraysh Ali Lansana, this anthology includes over 70 multicultural poets spanning over four decades.

Beginning in the early 1990s with the rise of spoken word and slam poetry, there has been a national discussion on hip-hop's influence on contemporary poetry. One of the first volumes of poetry to acknowledge this was "Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café." Edited by Miguel Algarin and Bob Holman in 1994, this was the time when poets were first being asked to perform on MTV and at Lollapalooza. A few years earlier Reg E. Gaines performed a poem on the Arsenio Hall Show. Kevin Coval grew up in Chicago during this era and naturally inculcated the spirit of hip-hop poetry.

Coval explains more in the introduction: "This is the story of how generations of young people reared on hip-hop culture and aesthetics took to the page and poem and microphone to create a movement in American letters in the tradition of the Black Arts, Nuyorican, and Beat generations and add to it and innovate on top." He also credits the poet and playwright Idris Goodwin for coining the term "Breakbeat Poets," during a phone conversation they had years ago. Coval is a longtime educator and has been an active poet for over two decades. He lives his practice. As the author of over five books, he has been thinking about this topic since the early 1990s, including in one of his earlier books, "Slingshots: A Hip-Hop Poetica."

Among the 70 poets in the collection, a number of them have MFA's and are now professors. Many of them began in the spoken word and slam scene. In many ways the bio of the poet T'ai Freedom Ford epitomizes the spirit of many of these poets: "T'ai Freedom Ford is a New York City high school English teacher and reformed 'slam' poet. A Cave Canem fellow, she received her MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College." Some writers have said this anthology begins the post-poetry slam era and represents the next chapter for spoken word and hip-hop poetry.

An anthology from 2007, "The Spoken Word Revolution Redux," edited by Mark Eleveld, includes contributions from "Breakbeat Poets" editors Kevin Coval and Nate Marshall, but that anthology discusses multiple forms of spoken word under the umbrella of both the poetry slam and hip-hop. Nate Marshall's poem "Lebron James," was included in the earlier text while he was still in high school. A former student of Coval, Marshall has been heavily involved in poetry since the 7th grade. His first book, "Wild Hundreds," recently won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and is going to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Marshall recently completed his MFA from the University of Michigan and is a Cave Canem fellow.

Marshall's essay, "Blueprint for Breakbeat Writing," is the concluding piece in the new anthology, and spells out the aesthetics for breakbeat writing. Among seven precepts set forth, two that are especially relevant are: "We believe in a foundational canon that is multicultural and multiethnic by definition and that celebrates and elevates the art and lives of people of color." And the second: "We believe in art that speaks to people's lived personal and political experience." The poems in "The Breakbeat Poets" epitomize these core ideas especially. It's no coincidence that the majority of poets in the anthology are also educators who teach in inner cities across America. Breakbeat poets live their art and make the personal political in their daily practice.

Coval's opening introduction in tandem with Nate Marshall's concluding essay, goes a long way to encapsulate what the spirit of what breakbeat poetry is. "The BreakBeat is the earth of hip-hop, what rappers began to rhyme couplets over," he explains. "They extended those couplets to make verses and choruses and began to slant rhyme and enjam and extend the line and line break in odd, thrilling places. A break in time. A rupture in narrative. A signifying of something new. Fresh. Dope. Ill. A generation unto itself. Arrived and here. A break from the Beats, an extension of the Black Arts, a continuation of the Nuyorican crew on the Lower East Side, a pidgin and Nation language, to cite Kamau Brathwaite. Hybrid and mixed. The BreakBeat Poets blow up bullshit distinctions between high and low, academic and popular, rap and poetry, page and stage." These ideas have been in the ether for many years now, but "The Breakbeat Poets" express them explicitly and with great clarity.

As Jeff Chang points out in his recent tome, "Who We Be," Ishmael Reed advocated for the expansion of the literary canon with multicultural poetry in the 1970s with his journal "Yardbird Reader." Reed built on this with his 2003 anthology of multicultural poetry, "From Totems to Hip Hop." "The Breakbeat Poets," picks up the mantle from Reed and extends the spirit into the 21st Century and beyond.

The acclaimed Angeleno poet and Cal Arts Professor, Douglas Kearney is also published in this collection, and offers a short artist statement. He writes, "My poems' use of what I've been calling 'performative typography' synthesizes some of graf's visual complexity and multiplicity, asking whether the audience is meant to read or look. At the same time, it gestures toward the relationship between an MC and a beat." Kearney's poetic sophistication, combined with his electric live delivery, epitomizes the dynamic spirit of breakbeat poetics. This highly developed aesthetic also appears in the anthology in poems by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Evie Shockley, Willie Perdomo, Tracie Morris, Jessica Care Moore, John Murillo, Suheir Hammad, Tara Betts, Michael Cirelli, Mayda del Valle, Jacob Saenz, Franny Choi and dozens of others in the text.

"The Breakbeat Poets," were recently featured in Poetry Magazine with several of the pieces from the collection included in the April issue. Credit must be given to Poetry's editor Don Share for understanding the importance of the work. As an anthology, it includes the perfect mix of theory and practice and does an excellent job at explicating the spirit of breakbeat poetry. This movement has been coming to rise for over a generation now, but it has never been expressed this well or phrased in language this clearly. "The Breakbeat Poets," captures the zeitgeist properly and puts the movement in its appropriate historical context. Educators looking to bring poetry to their classroom have their answer here.

Over the last century, there have been numerous poetry anthologies that epitomize the spirit of their respective eras. Both "Wide Awake" and "The Breakbeat Poets," capture the spirit of poetry in 2015. Salute to these two anthologies for being cultural touchstones in the topography of American and L.A. Letters.

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