Situation Report from a Culture of Reading: Part I

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Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

– Richard III

Unlike Richard, contemporary readers need not be “subtle, false and treacherous” unto themselves and the worlds they inhabit. They need not pretend those worlds are either peaceful or private spaces, immune to terrors made with alacrity by other, literate human beings. The hyperbole of Reginald Martin’s title Everybody Knows What Time It Is becomes a truism in the process of daily reading, especially if what you are reading is not a political document, an analysis of skills, prowess, and trash talk in one sport or another, a scientific treatise, or an essay informed by valid evidence. That is to say, if you are reading what proclaims itself to be “literature,” you are counting privileged nanoseconds of duration. People who read “writing” count plain minutes of time. I value writing more than literature because writing is a more accurate representation (gesture) of how historical consciousness marks off trails. Writing that empowers is often excluded from lists of bestsellers. So be it.

The writing that is important for my culture of reading does not fit
into any single canon because it follows the Drinking Gourd and quits
the merely fashionable, post-whatever plantations of the Western academy
and looks for sanctuary elsewhere.

Fortunately, a considerable amount of writing in 2015 has abandoned slave space for regions where inevitable “enslavement” is minimal. Anticipate more flight in 2016. There is no known human space where writing can locate absolute freedom, but that fact does not preclude noble efforts to discover ideal places of more than four dimensions. Necessary writing is very comfortable with the advancing theories of physics.

To begin with poetry, Honorée Fannone Jeffers’s fourth collection The Glory Gets is valuable blues and womanist testimony regarding the endurance of the abused peoples of the Earth. As the elders would say, we must be still to carry and absorb the weight of Jeffers’s craft, which doesn’t err in being craft-for-craft’s sake. We can expect a similar dropping of knowledge in Treasure Shields Redmond’s “Chop: 30 Kwansabas for Fannie Lou Hamer,” which won the Winged City Chapbook Contest. From LSU Press in November comes All Souls: Essential Poems by Brenda Marie Osbey, a much-needed record of her consistent excellence in a tradition of African American poetry that wants attention. The work that Osbey, Redmond, and Jeffers do to anchor us in remembering is complemented by Philip Kolin’s Emmett Till in Different States: Poems. His book takes us into the Mississippi territory of abrasive recall mapped by Redmond’s tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer.

It can be said that writing by Kolin, Osbey, Redmond, and Jeffers takes us to the spaces where language gives birth to images of iconic moments in America’s violent past. These images morph into the bullet and blood photographs of the terrible present. And these visuals for the mind’s eye take us to the certain dread of existential futures. As writing, the poetry of now forces us to abandon excuses and assume the onus of reckoning and payback actions. We do not have to dismiss the recent angles and topologies of ascent claimed by poetry as literature, the motions that flee from or seek to trivialize the fires of the Black Arts Movement legacy. Such literature can travel to the post-Elizabethan bosom of some ocean of opportunity. If it can stay there forever is a question without an answer.

Two recent anthologies are devoted to poetry that is more akin to “writing” than to “literature,” namely What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America, edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey and The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall. From quite different angles, the books deconstruct and reconstruct the once simple idea of “writing” (acting or performing in print). The heavy question that applies to both is: WHAT IS INNOVATIVE POETRY?  The word “innovative” is not an easy substitute for the word “experimental.”  Even if it were, we are required to ask INNOVATIVE FOR WHOM AND ON WHAT GROUNDS? The word must be contextualized so as to expose the motives for using it.

C. S. Giscombe’s introduction for What I Say has its own integrity as a statement on aesthetic experimentation; it is rightly addressed to an audience that values “the difficult.” And we get another question: FOR WHOM IS WHAT DIFFICULT? On the other hand, Kevin Coval’s introduction for The BreakBeat Poets reminds one of the pioneering explanations in Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. Coval is very clear in saying his anthology is by and for the hip hop generation, a generation that constantly seeks alternative spaces for expression, and that the anthology has an unfinished mission. The debate about the innovative must go forth, and I hope the two anthologies will exist in parahistorical harmony. By the way, “parahistory” is a concept that I attribute to the historian Lerone Bennett.

Part 2 of this situation report, soon to come, will deal with some special narratives.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 1, 2015