C. Leigh McInnis and the sounds of Black Poetry

[By Goyland Williams]

If you have never heard/seen C. Leigh McInnis’s powerful performance/reading of his work(s) “Manhood,” “What Good Are Poems?” or any of his poems for that matter, then you are missing out on a hidden gem. As an extension of the NEH Institute “Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetries,” McInnis and a host of other distinguished poet/scholars have agreed to participate in a series of virtual seminars. Yesterday, I was a witness to his genius. 

At one point during McInnis’ virtual reading, I saw comments ranging from “Amen” to “Ashe”. For a moment, I thought that I was hearing a black sermon. A few participants immediately called attention to Iis sounding like Amiri Baraka. Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X. Walker even proclaimed: “I hear Baraka’s fire, Haki’s (Madhubuti) politics,and Saul William’s energy.” All of these were assessments that I would have to agree with. 

What does this say about the nature or characteristics of the performed text?

For whatever reason, I really took to his poem “What Good Are Poems?”.  He begins the poem by raising  a series of questions about the nature of a poem:

Can a poem be laid on top of a poem,
be laid on top of a poem, be laid on top of a poem
until we have built a shelter for the homeless?

As he continues, the verse flows while steadily building fervor and fire with the repeated phrase “Can a poem…”. Similar to the black preaching tradition, the repeated phrases serve a rhetorical and performative purpose. It is no surprise then that the poem follows the call and response tradition. The first stanza asks very clearly: What is the function of a poem? The second stanza is the response.

Poets are the African bees of political pollination.
Poems are the sperm of revolution.
We need poets to stop adding extra syrup and saccharin
to their sonnets so as to appease the pale palates of people
who have not the stomach for the straight-no-chaser truth.

There is no denying the sound of Baraka, Haki’s fire, or Saul Williams’ energy, but more importantly, there is no denying the fact that McInnis’s work follows a long tradition of black poets that take the words from the page to the stage.