African American Poetry and Contemporary Book History

The production of so many volumes of poetry by African American poets between 2000 and 2016 makes it difficult to keep track. We’re talking dozens and dozens of poets, hundreds of books, and thousands of poems. And that’s just to cite the poems that appear in book form. The poetry data greatly extends if we take stock of poems in magazines, poems in anthologies, poems performed at local spoken word scenes, and poems on YouTube.

Despite the prevalence of online materials in our digital age, physical books still matter. Further, the contemporary histories of black poetry as presented through book-length volumes contribute to our overall understanding of African American literary art. Documenting and pinpointing the nature of what has been produced will assist us in recognizing the ways that works by poets converge and depart from compositions by novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and other creative writers.

Taken together, Elizabeth Alexander, Allison Joseph, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Tyehimba Jess, Evie Shockley, Kevin Young, and many, many other poets have published a tremendous body of works over the last decade or so. Yet, I worry about whether their books will fade from our collective memories, or even enter into our consciousness. Without more concerted efforts to account for what poets have been up to, we will overlook crucial developments and important trends.

Each year, we do a good job of acknowledging select poets. In particular, we honor and celebrate award-winning poets. Notably, the numbers of such poets have increased in the 21st century. But, don’t we need more discussions concerning what’s happening with black poetry in general? One benefit of thinking about African American poetry in the context of the field of Book History is that we might be inclined to study how individual publications or groups of publications relate to a larger body of related texts along a trajectory of time.

So far, much of Book History has concentrated on works from a more distant past. However, who says that we can’t collect, organize, analyze, and describe works from a more recent past, like all the exciting developments that have taken place in poetry book publishing over the last 16 years? A clearer, even general sense of the contemporary histories of African American poetry would assist us in understanding the extents to which individual poets and works contribute to the whole.

Every few years, I’ve heard poets announce that “we’re experiencing a Renaissance” in black poetry. The remark, which I’ve heard expressed by various poets nearly every year for more than a decade now, has not necessarily convinced me of a monumental rebirth. Instead, I’ve taken note that poets at certain stages of their careers, typically those who are publishing their first books or involved with a distinct publishing project, deploy the rhetoric of a Renaissance to reflect their good feelings about what they are currently witnessing or participating in respect to poetry.

I hope that increasing numbers of poets, literary scholars, and cultural workers take up the tasks of documenting all that is occurring these days with African American poetry. Some of that documentation would involve accounting for the many poetry volumes published over the years. With a fuller account of the record of the activities, we’d be in a better position to assess the value of African American poetic contributions.

Howard Rambsy II teaches at Southern Illinois University; he blogs at the Cultural Front.