Black Women Poets, An Appreciation…

Robert Tomlinson

I think people reflect differently at different times.  Since I like the visual arts so much, I often question, How did we get here?  Whether you think Modern Art began with Millet, Van Gogh or Manet, it’s fascinating to follow what happened in the twentieth century:  although many folks would agree that Pablo Picasso is still the overarching influence, we definitely live more in Duchamp’s world than Picasso’s.

I believe that the growth in any art form, though documented usually by the work of dynamic individuals, is cumulative and a result of the collective efforts of many.

There isn’t any celebration of the visual arts via a Visual Arts History Month, but we are fortunate that during Jimmy Carter’s administration, March was declared, Women’s History Month!  That February is African American History Month, means it’s a great opportunity to combine the two and pause to focus on Black Women Poets as part of this enriching period of study and reflection.

It’s also timely to do this now, in concert with the buzz created by Ms. Amanda Gorman’s poem, The Hill We Climb, written and performed for the Biden/ Harris inaugural on January 20th.  It seems she has single-handedly reignited a national conversation on poetry, which, I believe, can be attributed to not only the content of her poem but also the cadence and beauty with which it was delivered.

But, How did we get here?  We can’t justify a discussion on contemporary poetry without first acknowledging the encompassing influence of the French poet, Charles Baudelaire, along with Rimbaud and Mallarmé who followed in his footsteps.  In America, from the same period, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman became pillars of American verse.  I would also add Gertrude Stein, the American writer who lived most of her adult life in Paris, to this list of distinguished writers who distinctly showed us new ways of what a poem could be:  from what was written about, how the words were placed on the page and how language can challenge the way in which we think about ourselves and the world we occupy.  

I think the best art is a reflection of a conversation one has with oneself, but it’s also appropriate to examine the context of what was happening during the period a specific piece was created.  No one can doubt the important influence of motion pictures on Picasso’s cubistic paintings.  Nor can we neglect the overwhelming response to World War One’s scale of  catastrophic violence as it led to, in reaction to devastating warfare, the invention of DADA and the Surrealist’s need to embrace absurdity as a viable means of coping with intentional death on such a large scale.  Gertrude Stein’s ingenious play with words allows us to exist in the safety of our private world while we attempt to rejoin the world gone mad in an effort to find truths and maintain our sanity.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an American writer, anthropologist and filmmaker who was one of the first black women to achieve international acclaim for her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937.  Her ethnographic research made her a pioneer writer of “folk fiction” about the black South, where she illuminated the beauty of black lives surviving under the constant threats of racial injustice.

Pulitzer prize winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks ( 1917-2000) also reported on black lives/ ordinary folks in her community with searing honesty and tireless joy:

We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon.

Although there are many other well known and admired black women poets in America such as, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovani, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison and American Poet LaureateTracy K. Smith, the most familiar one is probably Dr. Maya Angelou.  The story of her private life reveals a person with determination and grit with an ability to transform continued hardships through her writing into grace with candor and keen insights on the plight of black women in a racist society.

I’d like to mention the work of three lesser known but valuable poetic voices:  Morgan Parker, tai freedom ford and Angel Nafis.  All three poets find strength and inspiration in their local communities, creating personal narratives that encompass the relevant issues of our time.

I first discovered t’ai freedom ford’s poetry through her book, How To Get Over, published by Red Hen Press in 2017.  Her poems read like conversations, as if the two of you were walking down a Brooklyn street huddled in a private discussion, where she is confiding in you all of her pressing concerns, both private and social, the issues that are both annoying her and inciting outrage.  The two primary themes in the book are arranged in separate groups of poems, past life portrait and how to get over, the former is historical, the later, strategic.  Both are filled with longing, grief and a strange acceptance that allows the author to endure and transform her circumstances into works of insight and wisdom. 

From how to get over

Icarus as woman

gather loose ends, tie in a bundle

kindle with rumor, humor them into a fiery hymn

consider flight, then reconsider on account of a broken wing.

push children from swings, memorize effortless delight

shadowbox colors purpling the horizon foolish

go home smelling of night:  all smoke and wonder…

From the same Brooklyn bookstore that I found ford’s, how to get over, I discovered Angel Nafis’s book, BlackGirl Mansion, first printed in 2012 by Red Beard Press.  Ms. Nafis is a New York poet, educated at Hunter College and is a Cave Canem fellow, the recipient of a Millay Colony residency, an Urban Word NYC mentor, and the founder and curator of the Greenlight Bookstore Poetry Salon. In 2011 she represented the LouderArts poetry project at both the Women of the World Poetry Slam and the National Poetry Slam. With poet Morgan Parker, she runs The Other Black Girl Collective, an internationally touring Black Feminist poetry duo. Facilitating writing workshops and reading poems globally, she lives in Brooklyn with artist, writer, and musician Shira Erlichman. In 2016, Nafis was a recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation.

There are many aspects to Nafis’s work that are likable and devastating.  She’s fearless and uninhibited in her willingness to not remain bound by preconceived structures of conventional poetry.  Great poets often address large issues through personal observations and private narratives.  Here a section from a poem that is almost danceable in its cadence, Be Blk!  for/ after Avery R. Young:

Be Crucifixion Blk!

Be everything remind me of my daddy Blk!

Fried, dyed, and laid to the side, Blk!

Everybody’s Goddaughter Blk!

Been an auntie since I was six, Blk!

Don’t like my name in your mouth, Blk!

Teeth can’t get no whiter, Blk!

Can’t believe my bones is white, Blk!

Dark as the elbow skin, Blk!

  Elbow grease for blood, Blk!

Want proof I’m Black, Blk!

The only thing blacker than black is gold, Blk!

  Diamonds and pearls, Blk!

  All I can do is offer you my love, Blk! …

Morgan Parker has received a lot of attention for her two books,

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and Magical Negro.

The praise is accurate and substantial. 

From, Buzzfeed:

Parker’s poetry is a sledgehammer covered in silk, exposing black women’s vulnerability and power and underscoring what it means to be magical and in pain.

Ms. Parker’s language is not gritty, she doesn’t incorporate conversational slang or bait the reader with street smarts.  She is careful, her work is deliberate, a slow reveal in a quiet way. 

Here’s part 4 of the poem, The History of Black People:

If you cut open my heart it would be midnight

at the greatest party of all time: a miniature

Shawn Carter and Audre Lorde, feasting on difference.

Uppity Negroes and Highfalutins  and Tyrones,

Rick James appearing before Judge Joe Brown,

grandaddies eating fruit over the sink , Bernie Mack

growling, America, Let’s Talk.  I never went to recess

because I don’t play.  I never learned 

to swim but I went swimming.  I make my enemy

disease in my blood.  I never believed in love.

I carry us all in me, drag my hooves in tall grass and

breathe when I am full, bask in a real feel-good

fugitive moment.  Even the sun yawns when I pray.

What do we look for in a successful work of art? 

Authenticity.

And a personal revelation that we can recognize and sink our teeth into.

Angel Nafis, t’ai freedom ford and Morgan Parker offer the reader the opportunity to reflect on who we are, how we became who we are and invite the question, who do we want to become?

 

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