Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guest post by E. Ethelbert Miller

I'm happy and grateful to present the following from poet and scholar E. Ethelbert Miller in honor of National Poetry Month.


Something important is going on. we are speakin. reachin for yr person/we cannot hold it/we don’t wanna sell it/we give you ourselves/if you listen.
- Ntozake Shange

In the May 2009 issue of Ebony magazine, there is a nice photograph of the top African Americans holding key positions in the Obama Administration. These individuals have political and social influence over our lives and would be considered as being part of the mainstream establishment. At any given time a few African American writers also move inside a similar orbit. These individuals are part of our literary establishment. Their names can be linked to affiliation with literary organizations and creative writing programs. Others obtain increased visibility and influence by winning prestigious literary awards and prizes. It’s possible to monitor and compile a list of names by going to two “popular” sources: Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle. African American writers who are profiled in these publications, or write for them will also have a small degree of literary clout. One can also see what African American writers are “in vogue” by examining the advertisements in these journals for workshops, creative writing programs, prizes, and residencies.

Pick-up recent copies of the two magazines that I mentioned and you will find a few names mentioned with a degree of regularity. These African American writers are “hot” right now. Depending on their talent or personality they could quickly disappear. The growing cultural significance of an organization like Cave Canem is something that should be monitored. One can almost predict that for the next 20-25 years any African American poet who emerges and wins a major award will have CC in their DNA. How this will change the literary landscape of America is something that should be monitored.

Meanwhile, here is a list of a few of the African American poets who no longer wear the mask or are invisible. White people already know their names and more black people need to learn them. How many of them do you know?

Let’s name names: Al Young, Natasha Trethewey, A. Van Jordan, Patricia Smith, Major Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Nikky Finney, Tim Seibles, Carl Phillips, Kevin Young, Afaa Michael Weaver, Rita Dove (Go to Poems Out Loud to hear Dove read from her latest), Harryette Mullen, Tyehimba Jess, Nathaniel Mackey, Crystal Wilkinson, Lucille Clifton, and Claudia Rankine.

Just looking over the above list one will immediately notice three Pulitzer Prize winners. Add maybe another seven or eight additional names to this list and one can estimate that a mere 30 African American poets will shape the future of African American literature. Where are we going? Pull the books of the poets I’ve just listed and look at everything from form to content. What will you discover? African American poetry has finally caught up to jazz. What do I mean by this? Let’s go back to a very prophetic speech given by Ntozake Shange in May 1977, at the National Afro-American Writers Conference held at Howard University. Shange made this remark:

we, as people, or as a literary cult, or a literary culture/have not demanded singularity from our writers. we cd all sound the same. come from the same region. be the same gender. born the same year.

Zaki was so right. We know the difference between Charlie Parker and Ben Webster. David Murray not Oliver Lake or Julius Hemphill. But what is the “sound” of African American poetry today? Is there such a thing as a Cave Canem poem? Can you tell me in the dark that this is Harryette Mullen and not Claudia Rankine?

We’ve always given our musicians more freedom to explore, discover and improvise. What lies beyond the pages of Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle? I suspect African American poetry will continue to dazzle and amaze the literary establishment. However, I’m waiting to meet the African American poet who will say – “Ethelbert, I can hear this new sound in my head. I just can’t play it yet.” When I meet that person, I will ask him or her if I can become their disciple. I want to know what’s beyond the horizon. I’ve already been reminded beware of the dog.

- E. Ethelbert Miller, April 13, 2009


Doret said...

Only recognize three of the poets. No wonder I am having a problem finding a poem for C.O.R.A diversity roll call. It's nice to see the art of poetry is still alive. I've allowed myself to forget poetry,I feel guilty and bad all at the same time.

Deborah said...

Thank you Mr. Miller you raise a provocative point. As a librarian, a fledgling poet and a graduate of a creative writing program I of course have heard of Cave Canem--even applied once myself and watched those like Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Kevin Young rise to new fame as I browsed literary mags. While I saw admittance in to CC as something very desirable, I never thought that I may have to give up some of my poetic self to "fit in". I will keep writing and reading...perhaps I will come upon that new African-American poetic voice within myself.

susan said...

I recognize all but 4! I love poetry. Love the article. Thanks for having Mr. Miller here. I more than know about Cave Canem. I have several of their anthologies and that would mean their very, early thin volumes.

Doret, holla. I will loan you a collection or two and child, I rarely give up my poetry so know you are much loved. :-)

susan said...

Okay, it is really late so I may be misreading Mr. Miller. Yes, I can tell you a thing or two about the caliber of the writing of a Cave Canem fellow. I will argue African American poets have distinct voices. Yousef and Major sound as much alike as they look alike. If you are a well-read and your knowledge of poetry extends beyond the particular sound of slam/open mic, there are definitive styles among our poets.

A true reader of poetry can tell you you by sound the difference between Dove and Clifton. By form, you should be able to recognize Brooks versus Giovanni. Tracy K. Smith and Camille Dungy are Cave Canem peers but I think I can recognize differences in their themes and approaches. Jessica Care Moore is great on the stage, but don't be fooled. This woman is well read, educated, don't let the ease of her lines fool to think she does execute craft. Unlike those who want to sound like her, Moore's work translates on the page as well as it does on the stage.

And any serious reader of poetry can recognize the literate, trained poet's work versus the novice who has not found his voice and who has limited or no knowledge of forms.

The novice often complains form restricts his art, but the seasoned poet knows the rules, how to use them, when to break or abandon them.