MLA “Lost Voices” Symposium, Lisbon (July 25 2019)
there are, everywhere unheard
(as one might see deep in an electron microscope)
—Russell Atkins, “At Night Keep Still”
Recent Radical U.S. Black Poetry Anthologies,
and the Political-Formal Challenge of Letters to the Future
This conference has been named “Lost Voices.” But are voices really “lost”? To whose ears are sounds “lost,” and script and images not seen, not read?
And who in the stratosphere of the current U.S. white patriarchy—led by a proud racist and misogynistic president and his Senatorial crew—ever knew there were voice to hear? Isn’t the problem not what has been “lost,” but what deficits of hearing accompany subjects mimicking white patriarchy’s narratives and carefully honed discourses? So the “name” of this conference might more aptly be titled by questions—like, Who has ears? Who doesn’t?
I’m challenged by the Russell Atkins quote above—quoted, in turn, and commented upon by editors Lauri Ramey and Aldon Lynn Nielsen in their fabulous collaborative Introduction to their edited 2006 collection, Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (published by the Modern & Contemporary Poetics series at the University of Alabama Press).
It makes me think not so much about the “lost” vs. found, or blindness vs. sight, but in terms of the Atkins lines “rigidities / violently breaking,” or something like what Fred Moten has called in his theory of jazz sound as extended into Black poetry and performance: “the break.” “Break / ing,” in the Atkins sense of the phrase, is everywhere. And it is out of “the break”, and its necessary break / down of “rigidities,” that a space is left resonating, vibrating, open. Contrary to what the Trumpsters back home suggest about public national discourse, America and its cultural heritages have always been a product of “the break.” And no people have contributed more to American culture-building and its breaking beauty than African Americans—through music, poetry, and so many forms of U.S. popular culture at its most daring and radical.
In this talk I am exploring the importance of those recent U.S. anthology collections of experimental African American poetry—yes, in bringing forward “lost,” or at least previously unheard, suppressed, steadfastly ignored, and/or silenced. Black poetry “voices” (already a term associated with Romanticism, which evolved as a white-Eurocentric lyric tradition in poetry) re-emerge in these collections, as new gatherings of writers influenced by African American experiment, particularly through jazz and Black-performance culture in general. The historical significance of Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans, which brought together for the first time groundbreaking work of U.S. Black poets of the 1950’s and ‘60’s Black arts movement—including some of my favorites Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, June Jordan, and so many other power-house poets—cannot be stated strongly enough. The first academically edited and published anthology that I know about dedicated to Black experimental poetries, it places Langston Hughes’s work alongside that of Melvin B. Tolson, which according to Onwuchenkwa Jemie (so say the editors) is “the folksy, populist, and proletariat verses” vs. those poems with a “code needing to be cracked,” or “hyper-European” (Arnold Rampersad’s phrase). The editors dismiss such typecasting of the experimentation of U.S. Black poetry brilliantly: “Are there no ‘folksy’ codes needing to be cracked?”, they write. After all, “a folk-based aesthetics” would include “musical idioms, especially blues, jazz, and spirituals”—all very much at the heart of African American poetics from the beginning of its evolution pre-emancipation, in slave chants, call and response and field hollers, and / or blues forms with roots deep in African cultural spirituality and tribal traditions.
While reviewing several twentieth-century Black U.S. poetry groups and movements, indeed, “lost” to white-coded academic discourses and performative / informational venues (teaching, publishing, grants, and other monetary awards, honors and positions), the editors also make a strong case for inclusion of this poetic work; for to keep such Black experimental poetries hidden “from collection and held at arm’s length from the syllabi of literary study, they will not be canonized … neither will readers of the canon be in any position to comprehend the historical context in which their own readings proceed” (xvii). In other words, literary materials “lost” or gone “missing” truly devalue cultural knowledge itself. For students of poetry and literary scholars to have access to a previously hidden body of Black literary production affects our apprehension of contexts, our paradigms of not only of reading but how we construct cultural thought. By also including many more women Black poets than had been done in previous anthologies of African American poetry, Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone builds a more authentic, informed frame through which we can read and perceive American poetics in general.
These projects have all been continued and amplified in the more recent What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (same editors, same press series, published in 2015). Including even more women writers, What I Say not only brings together a new generation of contemporary male poets like Nathaniel Mackey, C. S. Giscombe, and Will Alexander, but also champions so many female and non-binary writers also using experimental forms to challenge both poetic formal conventions and political insight, including Tisa Bryant, Renee Gladman, Duriel E. Harris, Erica Hunt, Tracie Morris, Julie Ezelle Patton, Evie Shockley, Giovanni Singleton, Claudia Rankine, Harryette Mullen, and too many other here to list.
All of these Black women poets would reappear again, together, in yet a more recently published anthology volume, Letters to the Future, published by the Tucson-based Kore press and edited by Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin. While the conceptualization and content of both Ramey-Nielson Black poetry anthologies is innovative, the organization is necessarily academic, readily followed by researchers who follow the conventions of university press publications. The editors begin with a collaborative yet singularly written Introduction (which is historically detailed and rhetorically persuasive in Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone) striving to break though biases against experimental Black poetics; subsequent “chapters” are titled by poet’s names and arranged by a selection of these individual poet’s works. This traditional anthology model serves to hold together and disseminate to a potentially new and perhaps biased audience the potentially subversive experimental-political content these two anthologies offer its readers. Since the poetics interior to the anthologies explore poetic modalities and forms as well as cultural references that may be unfamiliar within the white-centric academy, and that may also contemplate the effects the U.S. racial binary-as-hierarchy and its processes of violent social exclusion, the formal method of the 2006 and 2015 academic anthologies offers a way in to a readership associated with the symbolically “white” U.S. literary academy as an institution. Inquiries into issues like the signification of “blackness,” visual signifiers of a Euro-centric “colorist” way of viewing language and the world, class, social hegemony vs. marginalization and even the violence imposed upon a marginalized subject act as potentially threatening “triggers” even before a willing and sympathetic white, or “whiteness”-coded, university elite, which requires a kind of clearly legible map into the darkness produced by ‘white” literary cultural territorialization.
Letters to the Future does not seem to be collected with such an audience in mind. In this Kore press volume published just this year, a different method and a different purpose seem etched into the seams and binding of this book. Although the editors are professors teaching poetry and associated with creative writing programs in respected academic institutions, an academic organization is not at all foregrounded. Rather, the volume seems to create a conversation among the women involved in the anthology itself—a conversation we are invited into and can only feel part of if 1) we respond aesthetically and emotively to the poetics themselves and 2) if we share similar political values. Including those women whose work also appears in the 2015 What I Say volume—two of whom now reappear as editors as well as contributing poets and essay-writers—the patchwork quilt that is Letters to the Future: Black Women Radical Writing challenges academic forms of the book and the collection. Rather than modeling inclusion of Black poetry into a literary canon blarring “whiteness” both literally and symbolically, Letters to the Future, co-edited by Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin, models “exclusion” and the “violently breaking” of the Atkins poem. The structure lies “in the break,” reframing Moten’s concept (and book title) towards another book itself. It is not really a compilation of some of the best contemporary experimental writing by African American women, although it might function as such for those who are unfamiliar with this exposed new rugged land because of their educations and institutions of knowledge-gathering. This anthology—reminding me a bit of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee— is a compendium of discourses and verbal-visual “page” performances, including radical political essays, poignant interviews of important oral work done long ago with major Black female poetry figures but seemingly not to have seen the light of publishing until now, letters requesting work of volume contributors, statements disavowing the relevance of “artist statements” that explain one’s public work—all “letters” for the current world as well as “letters for the future,” as well as extremely innovative media-hybrid poems that sometimes hover on the border of not functioning as “poems” at all, certainly by any conventional description of what “poetry” is or might be. This is a conceptual volume—reminding me of the conceptual rock album. It is hard to read, hard to penetrate “meaning” and symbolic form. For it holds no one symbolic “form” except itself as a multiple series of competing non-coherent (for many readers) modes of address and written-reading forms. The great conceptual artist Adrian Piper is represented in the volume, for example, with a conceptual poem, as in her “tribute” (or terse commentary?) to Trayvon Martin killed by a white vigilante patrolling his neighborhood for daring to walk to visit a friend. She refuses to show either the body of Martin or to even discuss the topic of his murder. Instead, her page forms a blank, with the words:
The women included in this volume are at times individuals doing poetic and poetry hybrid work but also appear and re-appear in the ever-changing contexts that this volume as one reads through its pages sets up. The “introduction” is two texts authored differently, by each editor. Section One begins with lyric poems by Betsy Fagin and concludes with editor Hunt’s essay commentary; and Section Two mirrors but also builds on that formula by offering the performance-poetry works of LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and the music scores / visual “boxed” poems of Duriel E. Harris, entitled “Self Portrait with Black Box and Open Architecture.”
More conceptual and radically formal poems in addition to the interviews, discursive texts (like Tisa Bryant’s at the volume’s near-conclusion, what she calls an “Intraview” on “elided African Diasporic Aesthetics in Prose”), as well as pieces like those images of multi-media performance artist Julie Ezelle Patton
that seem more visual-art than literary, lay before our eyes like a readerly gauntlet to provoke questions about not only what we are reading but how—and just what— “composes” “poetry” as a written/spoken performance-conceptual art( Patton is shown in photo to the left next to her artwork). I am going to call this organizational concept for Letters to the Future a “Performance Architecture,” a title Hunt gave a recent conceptual poetry piece. Hunt was commissioned to write “Situation Diagram” at the request of a New York City gallery, as she observed and served as a spectator of a series of black panel canvases. Itself a highly innovative poem, “A Performance Architecture” is organized in a series, actually, of three concurrent poems on the page, arranged in three competing and simultaneously viewed columns; it considers the topics of black ontology, being a black female spectator, masking, social erasure and black womanhood, as well as the violence Black Americans face every day due simply to racism in U.S. society, a legitimized violence too often supported by the police under an American white hegemony. In what I believe is Hunt’s suggestion of a “performance architecture” in this poem series and others, depicting the instability of “blackness” as a category and of race itself, I turn again to Moten. (In a note to “A Performance Architecture, Hunt describes her indebtedness to theories of DuBois, Fanon, as well as Moten)—this time to his recent book of essays, Black and Blur, where in “The Magic of Objects” he discusses the possibility of a “postdiscipinary” effect of a “very young discipline” in the academy, that of performance studies” (34): a “discipline” that no longer adheres to the rules and boundaries of disciplinary thought, to cultural “rigidities” alluded to in Atkins’ poem. Asking questions about the possibility of the “objectless locality where disciplinary and discipline are eclipsed,” Moten quotes from Randy Martin’s book Critical Moves:
“Insofar as structure and agency retain the discrete separation of object and subject, practice emerges instead as the already amalgamated process of these last two terms. From the perspective of practices, it is no longer possible to insert human activity into a fixed landscape of social structure; both moments are formed in perpetual motion.”(Martin quoted in Moten, 34)
If “moments are formed in perpetual motion,” disciplinarity is “rigidities / violently breaking” (note the line break) in both performance studies and also in performance art. Letters to the Future, I would argue, is a volume that embraces both, in the work published therewithin, and in the format of the book-as-art. The rather long excerpt from Martin in Moten’s essay goes on to argue that the “immediate political application” of any performance-based practice, valuing “human activity” over the “fixed landscape” (one established by the social order—in Western cultural traditions certainly a hierarchical achievement of power) is best “articulated” through issues concerning race, gender, and other cultural differentials that set certain groups of people outside the system. The intention, Martin adds, is to grant these different “articulating structures” a “historicity” and a “politics,” as well as a “practice in relation to one another” (Martin quoted in Moten, 35).
Thus, a “performance architecture” underlying this anthology as a performance-like principle stresses “historicity” and “politics” as part of its “practice,” which is also one of our human “relation to one another” rather than that of singular atomistic subjectivity as a feature of post-Enlightenment (and capitalist) thought. While this volume, Letters to the Future, offers author “sample work” in seemingly singular “episodes” lacing the book as form, it also offers a more collective experience of their work in the interactive and dialogical, conversational framework. The anthology volume allows for the various fields of “historicity” and one’s own “politics” to filter through to the core of the shifting, unstable, activity of the book architecture, activating the material published but not really establishing a stable unit of identity or a sister-selfhood—like “woman” / “blackness” / “black womanhood” / “straight” /“gay”/ “non-binary.” It leaches through the binaries in total as a “performance” work. It is not a volume readily available to summary; it is not a linear learning tool for university literature classrooms or other academic platforms—like this conference talk. It intends to rattle the very solidification of poetry as a profession, or poetry studies (or gender, or black studies) as a disciplinary category.
It is this very instability, in terms of “the discipline,” that ironically gives me as a reader a coherence to its structuring processes (if not its “structure,” a word that infers stability and lack of motion). As Moten writes, a performance-oriented practice is as if “thought of for the first time,” and it is one that must “eclipse” the “object.” The threat is not that Letters to the Future like the “performance architecture” it embraces will give rise to “irruption of or into the sciences of value” (Moten’s words on performance theory). The threat is that, as such —an irregular irruption into the academy, which seeks reductiveness and predictable forms of reading and information-dissemination— it will not be read at all—except among a small audience of highly tuned in poets themselves, mostly women, and or mostly identifying as African American. Yet I believe that this irruption into the tendency of academic things to “rigidify” and lose their creative intellectual force is a healthy and productive cultural event. It is a disruption of the naturalization of not only of those hallowed traditions associated with academic modes of knowledge that keep our research and writing narrow and limited, but, likewise, have kept categories of “race” rigid and binary: that keep Black language black, “races” self-identifying and divided against one another in a re-performance of tribalism with “White” being the dominating tribal force, and certainly the disappearance of Black experimental hybrid poetics and conceptual arts from any mainstream readership “lost.”
Just to be clear: for Moten, this “irruption” in performance and performance as a theory is the very basis of American “black performances” as art form: as “anticipatory manifestations of that shift / irruption,” Moten writes in his Blur and Black essay (35).
Anticipatory. Letters to the Future. “Letters”—yet to occur. But a bit of zen embodies this on-going “lack” and futurity. All letters are occurring always now—in the “irruption” or spatialization of [in] “the break.”
Shift, irruption, a future being born—possibility: these terms also apply to theories of the post-human, so well discussed and considered by Hershini Bhana Young, in his article “Twenty-First-Century Post-Humans: The Rise of the See-J,” in the Duke UP 2014 essay collection, Black Performance Theory. In the context of a discussion of Thomas Wiggins’ music (a slave born in 1849, also known as “Blind Tom) and also Josephine Baker’s dance, Young discusses what he calls Black “technologies of (hyper)embodiment.” Their bodily figuration
reveal[s] the uncanny reinvigoration of modern regimes that render black people as fungible objects, ready for updated forms of consumption. They remember and foresee those events and people historically subjugated, refusing any model of reconciliation based on historical amnesia.” (Young 45-46)
To me, it is crucial that Young discusses both the visual and sound—in terms of what he calls a “post-human” performance of blackness as the embodiment of embodiment in American culture, particularly, I would add, for Black women. Young writes about sound: “the sonic allows a staging of the black subject as both within and outside of modernity, as excluded from traditional liberal discourses of the human and therefore having a special relationship with the category of post-human” (47). (He cites sound theories including Alexander Weheliye, Fred Moten, and Kodwo Eshun.) Sound offers a particular paring with subjectivity, he writes, since sound as performativity “decenters the ocularcentrism of Western subject formation” (48). And he also considers the connection of sound / vision to Black embodiment and also exclusion—as source of art for both Frantz Fanon, in one example, and the contemporary (Adrian) Piper as multi-media conceptual artist-photographer: “The importance and power of the visual gaze to fix the black subject in her own skin appear in numerous black performative texts,” Young writes. (49) Tying the two modalities—sound and the visual image—together again through their dual performativity, Young echoes what Moten has written on sound in his theory of Black performance:
If we think about the aural as a demonic methodology and not just a phonic materiality, we discover that visual art bears aural substance—it pulsates with sound. An opaque reading would move understandings of the literal meaning of the visual (what Moten calls it ontology) towards a dissonant, improvised reading of the process of the visual.” (Young 49)
In the next few minutes, I’d like to consider the linking of sound and visual performativity on the page in a selection of pieces in Letters to the Future, a tiny example of a rich and complex if fragmented and un-group-able (un-discipline/d) volume. In these sonic and visual as well as linguistic performance texts inside the already performative book architecture, the Black women as a group here refuse or reject certainties of race (which is a cultural not natural phenomenon), of “blackness” and “womanhood,” and at the same time offer the possibilities of writing under erasure, a larger culture “characterized by the lack of recognition of black humanity, by the denial of human rights, by exclusion,” which results, in Young’s words, “in the yearning black [female] subject always already turning elsewhere, to alienness and post-humanity” (47-48).
SLIDES OF WORKS BY TWO SAMPLE POETS IN LETTERS TO THE FUTURE
(Above) Darriel Harris’s “musical score” series from her book Simulacra, includes “Black Mary Integrates the School House,” and “Ten Little Nigga (K)Nots and then There Were None” is based on children’s nursery rhymes from the post-Reconstruction Era and into the twentieth century under Jim Crow, which sought to teach both white children to oppress and subject Blacks and also tried to instill in Black children a sense of social inferiority based on Black stereotypes.
(Below) Giovanni Singleton —Her “Mu” “cow” visual poems borrow from the “Mu” Zen koan (a koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle that reveals the inadequacy of reason in coming to enlightenment that are studied by Zen students: “Mu” is shorthand for the name of the first koan in a twelfth-century Chinese collection compiled by Wumen Huikai, called the Gateless Gate or Gateless Barrier.)
 Ramey and Nielson note that Black Fire, for example, edited by Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka, included women’s poetry in only 9 percent of the selections.
 Hershini Bhana Young, in his article “Twenty-First-Century Post-Humans: The Rise of the See-J,” in Black Performance Theory, ed. By Thomas F. De Frantz and Anita Gonzales, in 2014), 45-62.
Laura Hinton is a poet and a scholar of feminist theory and multi-media poetics. Her scholarly books include The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy: Sadomasochistic Sentiments from Clarissa to Rescue 911 (SUNY Press), the collection We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics (co-editor, University of Alabama Press); and most recently editor of the collection Jayne Cortez, Adrienne Rich, and the Feminist Superhero: Voice, Vision, Politics and Performance in U.S. Contemporary Women’s Poetics (Lexington Books 2016), upon which this program is based. Her poetry books include Sisyphus My Love (To Record a Dream in a Bathtub) (BlazeVox Books 2009) and Ubermutter’s Death Dance (BlazeVox 2016). Hinton also maintains a weblog on hybrid poetics, “Chant de la Sirene” (www.chantdelasirene.com), and she teaches as a Professor of English at the City College of New York, where specializes in women’s literature, visual studies and hybrid poetics. Her website is: laurahinton-singingsirens.com.
Cover image by Julie Ezelle Patton, contained in the anthology Letters to the future.