- - Sunday, January 31, 2016

In two months, America will be celebrating National Poetry Month for the 20th time. Whereas the African-American literary presence within the larger national literary scene is concerned, much has changed since 1996.

In the first 78 years of the recognition, from 1918 through 1996, African-American poets were awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times. In the twenty years since, three African-American poets have had their books recognized with Pulitzers. Prior to 1999, no African-American poet had been awarded the National Book Award for poetry, but since then there have been six African-American poets who have won.

Those, though, are institutional and industry measures. The changes within the African-American poetry community and the impact African-American poets have had on American letters might better be measured by the aesthetic breadth and greater inclusivity their work has fostered.

For all the essential American literature that came out of the 1920s and 1930s Harlem Renaissance, it was, for the “black intelligentsia,” a period preoccupied with respectability politics and the idea of striving to prove that the black race was nobler than the racist stereotypes African-Americans lived under. In the 1960s and 1970, the Black Arts Movement embodied and amplified — in necessary ways — the anger and disillusionment of the age, but it too was a period when African-American poetry was dominated by a particular politics, and the poem as black nationalist polemic was often elevated over what might be considered more intimate, personal politics. There were, of course, poets whose work functioned as exceptions, many of whom have gone on to become major authors of the past thirty years, but in both instances, fuller representations of gender and class or broader explorations of the sexuality spectrum were dismissed in the interest of poetry that suited the prevailing political agendas.

But as much as poets of the Harlem Renaissance anticipated the poets of the Black Arts Movement, America has witnessed, over the past 40 years, a flourish of African-American poets inspired by their literary foremothers and forefathers to reach beyond the identity profiles and politics that often constrained those same literary heroes. What to call this new crop of poets specifically? Post-soul, Post-Civil Rights? While those descriptions may speak to correctly to chronology, they do not provide any consistent insight as to what these new generations of poets have created or continue to produce.

Where once Arna Bontemps’ “The Poetry of the Negro 1746 – 1970,” Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” or Stephen Henderson’s “Understanding the New Black Poetry” (all, interesting enough, published in the 1970s) may have been the only anthologies of African-American poetry and critical resources widely available, the number and range of anthologies of black poetry has since blossomed along with the work.

In 2013, W.W. Norton, publisher of some the most widely-taught anthologies of literature, released “Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry,” edited by Charles Rowell. That W. W. Norton would invest in and release such an anthology is another institutional or industry marker of the growth and prominence of African-American poetry within the national literary publishing world. But in his Poetry magazine review of the volume, Amiri Baraka took issue with the book’s editorial, writing, saying “it seems that [the book] has been pulled together as a relentless ‘anti’ to one thing: the Black Arts Movement.” Though disappointing, the public spat between Baraka and Mr. Rowell could also be considered one in a series of growing pains regarding the black poetry community and its literary output. As was the case with the response to Wallace Thurman’s publishing the single-issue literary magazine Fire!!! during the Harlem Renaissance or Robert Hayden’s assertion that he was poet first before being black at the 1966 Fisk Black Writers Conference, when writers come along and assert departures from the dominant arrangement of blackness and poetics, there is friction. Nonetheless, new voices — new in their openness, their synthesizing of styles and aesthetics, their disregard for established sensibilities — often result from such stimulative stress, and what one will find on bookshelves, websites and at poetry slams today fiercely attests to this.

If you are not sure where to look for what is happening in African-American poetry, I offer the following, non-exhaustive list of recent books and resources one might use to enter the this particular continuum of African-American artistry.

Print and Digital Publications

Callaloo: A Journal of Diasporic Arts and Letters

Torch Literary Arts

Kweli Literary Journal

The Offing

Vinyl Poetry

Literature Anthologies

“The Breakbeat Poets” (2015) edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana and Nate Marshall

“Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry” (2013) edited by Charles Rowell

“Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade” (2006) edited by Toi Derricotte, Camille T. Dungy, and Cornelius Eady

“Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam” (2001) edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes Rivera

“Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Writing” (2007) edited by G. Winston James

New Poetry Collections

“Olio” (2016) by Tyehimba Jess

“Thief in the Interior” (2016) Phillip B. Williams

“How to be Drawn” (2015) by Terrance Hayes

“Life on Mars” (2011) by Tracy K. Smith

“Head Off and Split” (2011) by Nikky Finney

Works by Major African-American Poets of the Past Thirty Years

“The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton” (2012) by Lucille Clifton

“Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems” (1993) by Yusef Komunyakaa

“The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde” (2000) by Audre Lorde

“Collected Poems: 1974-2004” (2016) by Rita Dove

“Vice: New and Selected Poems” (2002) by Ai

Kyle Dargan is director of the MFA program in creative writing and an associate professor of literature at American University. He is also author of “Honest Engine” and founder/editor, POST NO ILLS magazine.

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