Since 2009, I’ve written the annual National Poetry Month omnibus for a general interest literary publication. This year I proposed an online special feature that would serve as a complement, “The New Black,” focusing on African-American poetry published during the calendar year 2010-11. It didn’t happen. But for the record, here are the 2010-2011 members of “The New Black” – the title lifted from Evie Shockley’s new book.:
Aberjhani (“who is he? is that one name?,” in regard to the author of The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renissance and much more), Nordette N. Adams (ditto, with variations), Elizabeth Alexander, Jericho Brown (NEA and Whiting Awards), Toi Derricotte, Rita Dove, Camille Dungy, Nikky Finney, Cornelius Eady, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Nikki Giovanni, Terrance Hayes, Yona Harvey, Randall Horton (NEA), Major Jackson, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (NEA), Patricia Spears Jones, Allison Joseph, John Murillo, Harryette Mullen ("what is Trimmings and why is it important?”/ Jackson Award), Camille Rankine, Evie Shockley, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young. I had hoped, if space allowed, to add Reginald Dwayne Betts, whose remarkable story, told in a memoir, A Question of Freedom, is refracted in Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Alice James Press’s Beatrice Hawley Award winner, the two combining to garner him the NAACP Image Award in 2010; Tara Betts; Blas Falconer (NEA); Rachel Eliza Griffiths; Sean Hill; Iain Haley Pollock; Yusef Komunyakaa; Carl Phillips; the late Reginald Shepherd; Patricia Smith; Tracy K. Smith; Pimone Triplett; Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, a native Liberian writing about her family’s experience during what Denis Johnson called “The Small Boys’ War” in that tragic country; and last, Claude Wilkinson, a poet and painter of joyous vision. I planned to include three white writers -- Rachel Richardson, C. D. Wright, and Jake Adam York -- who had published new books immersed in race. I knew that this last decision would be controversial, but I took an informal poll, quoting Gerald Barrax, and felt assured by the reactions garnered: "How can any American poet, White or Black, not write about race? It is our national ground of being. Southern writers, for what should be obvious reasons, have dealt with it more openly and honestly than regional poets of the North, East, and West, who either politicize race or ignore it altogether. The former should have their noggins thumped for trivializing the crucial human issue of our culture; the latter should have their artistic licenses revoked."
Human issues are part and parcel of aesthetic ones, but I suspect Barrax would be the first to agree that no matter how urgent or sincere the special pleading that currently attends identity politics in the literary community, the result is not necessarily great, or even good, art. But nearly all these poets and I have one thing in common: the American South, and our culture of “racial osmosis,” as Alfred Corn has it. This permeability of boundaries, however difficult to understand, has urged many Southern writers of whatever genre to read and understand each other’s work with an indigenous empathy, shared grief for the past, and equal determination to move past worn-out social constructs that would keep us apart.
If my list contains omissions, I take responsibility but must explain my unembellished status: I’m not an academic, thus I lack collegial sources of information. On the other hand, I am the grateful beneficiary of exclusion from petty faculty politics and seek only, as a poet and reviewer, work that tugs at my heart and ignites my brain, not necessarily knowing the skin color of its creator.
-- Diann Blakely