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Keeping Black Poetry Alive

Keeping Black Poetry Alive

Helping all students, regardless of race, to appreciate the craft is often a challenge, scholars say.

By Diane Mehta

Thomas Sayers Ellis, assistant professor of creative writing at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, is one of many scholars fighting for the soul of Black poetry, a struggle that takes place largely off-campus. Unless one is accepted into a top-level graduate poetry program, such as Boston University’s program or the Iowa Writing Workshop, a poet’s opportunities are limited. And Black poets face an even tougher road.

E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, says the problem has been brewing for a while. In the 1980s, Miller tried to get 100 or so historically Black colleges and universities revved up about creative writing programs. Only a dozen responded. Most of the institutions didn’t see the value in investing in the programs, arguing that creative writing wasn’t a marketable skill. Xavier University of Louisiana was one of the HBCUs that did respond favorably, creating an undergraduate poetry program. Xavier and Spelman College both currently have undergraduate creative writing minors, and Howard and Morehouse College each offer one undergraduate class. But none of the top-tier HBCUs offer graduate-level poetry programs.

“Just like anything else, programs grow out of demand,” says Dr. Eleanor W. Traylor, chairman of the English department at Howard. “We have an undergraduate creative writing program, but our graduate program is focused on training future faculty.”

But Traylor doesn’t rule out the possibility that Howard will institute a graduate poetry program in the future.

“When demand changes, things shift. I see this will be an evolving eventuality, not long in coming. We have no will or intent of bias against it,” she says. “The success of poetry in popular culture, and the fact that many writers hold academic degrees and seek employment as university professors, have both prompted interest in creative writing.”

But Haki R. Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press and director of Chicago State University’s master’s of fine arts program, says it will never happen.

“Traditional HBCUs suffer from a lack of vision,” he says. “Most of these people are bought by corporate America. The humanities and certainly the arts are secondary to what HBCUs see as their mission. It takes a different perspective on the world to see how important art is.”

Keeping Black Poetry Alive
“To free, at last, all Black text. That’s my goal, ” states Ellis, author of the 2005 poetry collection The Maverick Room. Having always taught at predominantly White universities, he admits feeling a conflict between his own idiom and the language of the poetry he teaches.

Ellis’ goal is especially relevant given the proliferation of graduate-level creative writing programs at predominately White universities. Originally designed to teach “verse,” many of these programs have increasingly focused on trendy, anything-goes poems, with minimal training in craft. As these programs were incorporated into the traditional curriculum, Black poets who chose to write more idiomatically and politically than their White peers began to get left behind. Their work, derived and inspired by rap, jazz, folk and spoken word, became increasingly rare on campus.

In an effort to create a network and give Black poets more exposure, Harvard University undergraduate Ellis and his colleagues founded The Dark Room Collective in 1988. The workshop for Black writers soon evolved into a reading series where many young poets got their start. Among the list of notable Dark Room alums are Natasha Tretheway, John Keene, Tracy K. Smith, Major Jackson, Sharan Strange and Kevin Young.

Though The Dark Room disbanded in 1996, it paved the way for new opportunities. Today’s aspiring poets generally only have two choices if they want to study poetry on a graduate level: either enroll at a traditionally White institution or head to Chicago State University. Although not technically an HBCU, Chicago State is predominantly Black. The institution offers the master’s in fine arts degree and also houses the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, which will host its 16th annual writers’ conference in October.

Madhubuti founded Chicago State’s MFA program four years ago.

“That has always been my mission,” he says. And now Chicago State “is the only program worldwide that’s centered around African-American literature.” He says there is a growing need for Black writers.

“It’s best to be nurtured among your own,” Madhubuti says, adding that Black students have cultural differences with their White peers, and that their work needs to be critiqued from a different point of view, by like-minded professors.

Becoming part of the literary elite usually requires a prestigious book deal and a tenured teaching position, and this is causing discomfort for Ellis and many others. His latest project, Soul March: Notes for Black Poets, is a grab bag of reflections, rants, instructions and dialogues about race, craft, literary politics and tradition from contemporary Black poets. The tenor of the book is deeply critical, ranging from exultations about being true to the self to poet Wanda Coleman’s charge that “Black literary excellence is occluded by mediocrities.”

The book’s contributors bemoan what’s left out of poems because of the desire to be palatable, and the wrong-minded things put into poems to “gain entry into the clique,” in the words of poet Crystal Williams. As Major Jackson, an associate professor of English at the University of Vermont, warns in the book, “The prison you construct around yourself in words will soon be your reality.”

Appreciating the Craft
Helping all students, regardless of race, to appreciate the craft
is often a challenge.

“It’s the rare student who embraces the difficulties and rewards of poetry, and who can create the deep and original attention that line deserves,” says Jackson.

Ellis says his students’ interests are sparked more by generational than racial factors. He teaches more White students than Black, but they’re all coming from the same place: spoken word. His students are inspired by visually oriented performance poetry and music videos. “The performance on the page, between the reader and the page, is much more subtle,” he says. “[The interest] all sprung from hip-hop, because Def Jam began as a hip-hop recording label before they decided to do the Def Poetry Jam and Comedy tour.”

Knowing the cultural background of his students helps Ellis develop effective teaching techniques. He simulates readings, uses video performances and asks the students what a particular poem would sound like if Gertrude Stein, for example had two turntables behind her. He also demands that his students translate poems. That could mean reading a poem by Robert Frost and rewriting it from their perspective. And he incorporates lots of memorization, a tool he learned from one of his mentors, Boston University’s Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. But Ellis doesn’t stop there. He’s also known to utilize high-concept art and drawing in his courses. For example, he takes students to view specific artwork and asks them to think of a poem that reminds them structurally of the painting.

Ellis’ work-in-progress, Colored Only: Identity Repair Poems, attempts to survey the tradition of literacy, Black writing and identity politics. The result: ironic poems about race. He says his work is about getting America to see and hear all the language it can. What he wants is a place in academia for “folk, which is class, and where slang, slanted language and aggressive behavior live.”

Part of that is about getting the language of poor people into literary English, he says, but also about incorporating Black style and behavior. For example, Ellis explains that in 1980 people on the street greeted you with “what’s up.” In 1985, it became “sup.” Now it’s just a physical gesture, a head nod. “Prosody has to respect, reimagine and revisualize that,” says Ellis. “My beef is about language — when poor people are cut out, language is amputated. I don’t think America is seeing and hearing all the lives we can.”

Ellis’ own poems are a mixture of formal and free — from fragmented percussive phrasing to lyrical pentameter that take its cue from Walcott’s famously vivid, concise style. He’s a Black poet, but he doesn’t want to dance in Blackface. How much can he push the academic envelope? As Ellis says in his poem, “Race Change Operation:”

“I will be a White fiction full of Blackish progression/the first human bestseller, a Jigga Book Spook.” 

Where Poets Can Be Poets*

African American Review (
Since 1967, then called Negro American Literature Forum, this journal has been giving young literary scholars a place to test and refine their ideas. In 1992, they broadened their scope and began publishing poetry, fiction and other literary formats.

Callaloo (
This literary journal has been a breeding ground for new generations of writers since the late 1970s, always mingling the work of emerging poets among the more established. It began running writing workshops at HBCUs in 1997, and by 2001 had switched to more intense residential summer workshops. For two weeks, writers and teachers do readings and teach craft at Texas A&M University, Callaloo founder Dr. Charles H. Rowell’s home institution. The next workshop is scheduled for June 2007. See Web site for more details.

Cave Canem (
A weeklong summer workshop-retreat held at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. Founded by UP English professor Toi Derricotte and SUNY-Stony Brook English professor Cornelius Eady, the workshop-retreat is “not to groom students or compete with the established Master’s of Fine Arts programs, but to have a place where, for one week out of 52, you could focus on your work without the distraction of being the only Black writer in the workshop.”

Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference for Black Literature and Creative Writing (
Chicago State University has hosted this conference for 16 years. This year’s conference, scheduled for Oct. 25-28, will include literary awards, a workshop on writing children’s literature and a hip-hop poetry concert.

*Not meant to be an exhaustive list.

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