Where Is Our Black Avant Garde?
On Creating a New Canon, and Responding to Old Denials
I’ve always been drawn to books with odd arrangements of words. Perhaps it’s because I came to literature as what I believed to be an outsider. I was in college, 19 and over my head at an Ivy League school, on the verge of dropping out of my pre-med track. I took art classes until my parents refused to pay for them anymore—low promise of return on their investment, they said. Fiction offered a creative outlet with a sheen of respectability. But nevertheless, I was daunted by the classics—having eschewed them in high school for cadvanced biology classes—and their endless pages filled with blocks of small text. I was drawn to numbers, equations, pictures. The same was true of many of my non-white peers in college—most of us came from public schools and two-income households. Even if our parents were educated (as mine were) we were far more likely than our white counterparts to be “raised by television,” or be pushed into money-making careers. We were shaped by hip-hop and A Different World as much as Dickens and Dickinson. When I cracked a spine and saw unusual arrangements of lines, varied fonts, and—joy of joys, pictures!—I grew excited.
My interests in hybrid literature, culture and race meant that I was always instinctively searching for a Black avant garde, and while I found many authors, there was never a single banner that united all these writers in the same way that “avant garde” encompassed an entire history of innovative writing by white people. Black experimental writers weren’t acknowledged in the same way as their white counterparts—both within the mainstream, and on their own terms. They were there, and yet they weren’t.
Appropriation and hybridization are two of the hallmarks of Black art forms (think of sampling in hip-hop) which is also true of experimental art. How come Black art isn’t seen as synonymous with experimentation? And how come the opposite is so often true? Why are Black artists, along with other racial minorities, usually excluded from the so-called avant garde?
To answer these questions, we should probably attempt a definition of “avant garde” and “experimental,” at least when used to qualify literature. In her essay, “New Ideas About Black Experimental Poetry,” Elizabeth Alexander offers an appealing definition: “Experimental: that which breaks with the doctrinaire and lets the previously unimaginable happen. Sometimes the wolf arrives in sheep’s clothing.” What is “experimental” or “avant garde” cannot be defined statically; as categories they are constituted subjectively, relative to the era and context within which the art appears. Alexander notes in the opening to her essay that Langston Hughes’s jazz poems were considered radically innovative when first published; we now take the form for granted.
Alexander cites two influential anthologies of experimental poetry—New American Poetry (1959), edited by Donald Allen, and a 1982 follow-up, The Post-Moderns: The New American Poetry Revisited—both of which feature the same lone African American poet, LeRoi Jones. Notably, Cathy Park Hong has offered a simple explanation for this ongoing exclusion: the racism of the avant garde’s gatekeepers.
Who cares, you might ask? As a writer, do you really want to be categorized—as avant garde often is—as dense, indecipherable, elitist, and perpetually unappreciated? Maybe not. But if we take avant garde at its most basic definition—that is, innovative—it becomes a serious problem: to be denied status as an innovator based on race is terrifying.
To attempt now, as I’ve set out to do, an avant garde canon of color, presents volumes of problematics that result from the politics of exclusion. So why do it? Alexander notes, “the conversation that stratifies convention and experimentation in black poetry skips over a richer investigation of what the black experimental is.” In the absence of much investigation into the origins of Black experimentation, simply tracing its history becomes an act of discovery in itself.
These list is an attempt at a history that includes those Black writers I find innovative, impossible to ignore. When compiling it, I also had to ask myself how I defined these terms, and what was experimental enough. It was an interesting exercise. Most writers with long careers have at least one experimental work in their repertoire, and I tried to be selective about which of those I included. And in attempt to get clear of my own biases I have also included the recommendations of colleagues and other writers (Ysabel Y. Gonzalez, Carina del Valle Schorske, David Shook). This list, as lists usually are, is inadequate, as it must be. Instead, I see it as a response to a larger denial, and at the same time an attempt to move forward.
Cane, Jean Toomer
This modernist hybrid novel, that blends poetry, verse and prose, was said to inaugurate the Harlem Renaissance in literature. Its inventiveness and strangely beautiful prose continues to inspire artists who play with form while addressing race and its history. Toomer’s rejection of racial labels is unclear and controversial to this day, further compounded by his belief in racial transcendence as espoused by the Greek-Armenian mystic Georges Gurdjieff. Cane has been re-released several times, and rediscovered by new generations of Black intellectuals just as often.
Morrison has constantly employed experimental forms over the course of her career. In several works—The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Jazz are the clearest examples—she uses techniques including omnivorism in regards to voice, jazz aesthetics, and appropriation of different forms. She is a preternaturally innovative writer who—perhaps because of her ease with storytelling—is rarely acknowledged as such.
The Black Arts Movement: Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez
The Black Arts Movement—and Amiri Baraka in particular—tend to usurp historical discussions of Black experimental writing. The literary outcropping of the Black Power movement, the BAM sought to define Blackness in a literary context while exploring written form and performance. Baraka was also associated with the Beats, though his presence on the scene has been obscured. Grove released his collected poems in a massive volume last year, titled SOS.
Patter, Douglas Kearney
Ysabel Y. Gonzalez: Douglas Kearney’s background is steeped in performance and graphic design, and Patter, as do most of his other publications, explores ways to engage with his readers through poetry in what he calls “performance typography.” Kearney is constantly investigating how text can perform on the page without the use of the body as a conduit. Patter experiments with typeface, size, placement, and space in order to have the text perform and embody the frustration and hurt the poet experienced as he and his wife had a miscarriage.
These poems also grapple with the poet’s identity as a Black husband, son and father—and all the ways in which he simultaneously embraces and rejects the labels that come along with Black masculinity. Patter is the first poetry book of its kind, a deep exploration of black text in white space, and all the ways in which the text must constantly perform—an embodiment of all the ways in which the Black man must perform in society. In some poems we find text pushing up against other text, interacting violently, typeface upon typeface. Kearney captures the poetic performance of the human condition and human body, along with inviting his readers to participate in his poems through their own decision-making. The icing on the cake is Kearney’s ability to infuse music and rhythm on the page as well, embedding song lyrics, mindful at every moment of movement.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, Claudia Rankine
Before Citizen made Claudia Rankine famous and a pop culture figure, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely made her famous with indie readers and those truly devoted to experimental poetry. Her stream-of-consciousness prose poetry that invokes the constant drone of television and new media, while hinting at the vulnerabilities of black femininity in the Internet age, laid the groundwork for Citizen’s powerful, declarative meditations on race.
With several books of poetry and nonfiction to her name, and a career that spans three decades, and many honors, Mullen is an elder of the contemporary avant garde Black scene. Her work straddles traditional verse and language poetry, all while seamlessly tackling politics and racial issues. Three of her works, Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge, have been reissued under the title Recyclopedia by Graywolf Press. From Sleeping with the Dictionary, a standout work that was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002:
“Exploring the Dark Continent”
This dream is not a map.
A poem is not the territory.
The dreamer reclines in a barbershop
carpeted with Afro turf.
In the dark some soul yells.
It hurts to walk barefoot
on cowrie shells.
Another august experimentalist in league with Mullen, Mackey has won a National Book Award and a Ruth Lilly Prize, and published several works of poetry, prose and criticism. Jeffrey Yang, at Mackey’s publisher, New Directions, says “[His] work is like putting a quarter in a jukebox, and the song that emerges is like nothing you’ve ever heard. His poetry feels like it exists in a parallel universe. The influence of the deep history and rhythms of jazz and world music jumps out at you immediately, but then the many other levels of his poems sink in and take you into a very unique poetic space that is in conversation with other cultures and arts. To me, he’s like a revered elder (but is too young to be one!) and carries on the modernist tradition of pushing the boundaries of the art.”
“Writing at the intersections of poetry and fiction, Renee Gladman explores city space as a site of reflection and obstruction for the contemporary subject. Her work looks particularly at how certain “problems” of experience, such as confusion or failures of translation, affect the ways in which consciousness, landscape, and action are represented in language. Most recently, she completed Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013), the third in a series of novellas based on the fictional city-state Ravicka and its inhabitants, the Ravickians.” (From Harvard’s Radcliffe institute, where Gladman is currently a fellow.)
Platitudes, Trey Ellis
A self-conscious, nervously funny metafiction by screenwriter and essayist Trey Ellis. Ellis intentionally sought to define what it was like to be young, black and alternative in the late 80s and early 90s, both through this book and his essay, “The New Black Aesthetic,” which is now included at the end of the only extant edition of Platitudes, reissued by Northeastern University Press. From the jacket copy: “First published in 1988, Platitudes takes on conflicts within the African American literary community. Dewayne Wellington, a failing black experimental novelist, and Isshee Ayam, a radical feminist author, collaborate on Dewayne’s latest sexist comedy. Alternately telling the story about the coming of age of Earle and Dorothy—two black middle-class teenagers, sex-starved in New York City—the battling writers sneak ever, and dangerously, closer to reconciling their literary disputes.” “The New Black Aesthetic” sought to unite Ellis’s generation of young black artists who felt caught between those two constrictive, often mutually exclusive, identities. “[we] grew up feeling misunderstood by both the black worlds and the white.”
Fanon, John Edgar Wideman
“Fanon is a novel about a writer—Wideman himself—trying to write a novel about Fanon. Wideman invents a fictional character named Thomas (he of the decapitated head), who sometimes stands in for Wideman himself. He then carries on an imaginary dialogue with the French film director Jean-Luc Godard, cuts back and forth between scenes from Fanon’s life and episodes from Wideman’s own, and at one point even has his wheelchair-bound mother encountering Fanon in the hospital. Such legerdemain might make the book sound involuted in a postmodern kind of way—and it does have occasional claustrophobic moments. But what Wideman has rivetingly achieved, among other things, is to find a path out of the cul-de-sac of self-consciousness that plagues the contemporary novel.
Read Wideman and listen to his astonishing bluntness, and you might start wondering, as Fanon himself must have, why white people keep writing novels—and running for public office—at all.” (From the New York Times review.)
A poet who studied under Allen Ginsberg, Beatty’s arch satirical style is singular for comic precision and incisive racial commentary. “Paul Beatty’s recurring themes—race and tribalism, human psychology, ambition and failure, and the haunting presence of history—are the heavy ones. But he moves through them with light steps, his precisely choreographed Southern California meander broken by exuberant outbursts of buck dancing and the occasional disemboweling. His early poetry and his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, opened up expansive new territory for writers trying to build an alternative literature, one that found its energy and idiom outside of the traditional American literary complex. But he has always belonged only to himself, unrushed and unburdened by any scene or movement.” (Chris Jackson, in an interview with the author at The Paris Review Daily.)
M. NourbeSe Philip
Carina del Valle Schorske: What if you don’t want to “make it new”? What if you have no choice but to make it new anyway? What if you’ve entered this New World, this avant garde, in chains, with its cutting-edge threatening your mother tongue? M. NourbeSe Philip writes a poetry whose innovation—her spells of silence, her stuttering syntax—is not an abstract experiment but a form of mourning for African words prohibited by “the ceremony of White… in the elsewhere of time.” Philip is best known here and now for her 2008 book Zong!, which was described as an “erasure” in the craft class where it first dragged me down. Technically I guess this is true: she makes her book from the transcripts of the trial of the slave ship Zong!; the slavers wanted to claim insurance money for the human cargo they’d tossed overboard when water rations ran short. Philip makes reading feel like drowning: the flotsam of words from the trial drifting across the surface of the page can’t save us from the deep silence we strain to fill with the voices of the dead. Zong! is not so much an erasure as a revelation of what—of who—was already erased, in the same way that Philip’s fractured “lan lan lang / language / l/anguish / anguish / —a foreign anguish” is not a break with the poetic past so much as the expression of a past already broken.
Twenty years before Philip wrote Zong!, she wrote She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. I want to celebrate its republication by Wesleyan University Press—every golden age is a renaissance—while at the same time remembering, with pleasure, the way the route of this masterwork has so far bypassed both Europe and the United States. She Tries Her Tongue—the first manuscript of a poet born in Tobago and raised in Canada—came into the world as the winner of Cuba’s prestigious Casa de Las Américas prize. The New World Remix was fresh before our station picked it up. The title of this early book seems to suggest that a woman’s long period of silence is now over, but I also like to think of her silence breaking over all of us like a wave, “the salt / sea / the yet / else / and /…something… / the perhaps blood lost.”
At a slim 78 pages, Annotations can easily be mistaken for a work of poetry. The melding of fiction and poetry is one of this book’s most interesting—and successful—facets. It is a novella that reads like a prose poem that reads like a tapestry of words. This evocative, completely original book fictionalizes the author’s coming of age as a curious young gay black boy in St. Louis. Rich imagery and nostalgia intermingle in this unique, elegaic and mysterious book:
“At first he would squirm in the barber’s chair, lest they inflict on him another Quo Vadis, but as he aged he learned to appreciate the barber’s focused attention, the tender, careful play of those fingers. ‘Tutti-frutti, good bootie,’ Afro-Sheen, Congo Queen. The coolest picks, plastic, tricolored, with long metal prongs, flaunted their power-fist, one had to be vigilant so as not to lose them. Upright in our afros like coxcombs brought dismay to the faces of our mothers, but how else could we boys display them so that the girls would not fail to see them.” (26-27)
Counternarratives, Keene’s second book released to acclaim last year, builds satisfyingly on Annotations, with a range of styles and encompassing fictional and historical characters.
Shockley is the author of several collections of poetry, and recently, the scholarly work Renegade Poetics, which details the history of innovative Black poetry, including many of the names on this list. From The Poetry Foundation: “Both spare and lyrical, Shockley’s poems often begin with an active interrogation of received poetic forms and practices, such as capitalization. But her work is also interested in subjectivity, the lyric tradition, and notions of place. In an interview with The Dead Mule, Shockley stated, ‘[W]hat I mean when I speak of myself as a ‘southern poet’ is that I grew up: hearing certain accents and vocabularies and speech patterns that were the aural essence of ‘home’ or the audible signal of danger, depending; thinking that racism wasn’t much of a problem in other parts of the country; eating a cuisine that was originally developed under conditions of make-do and make-last; enjoying five- or six-month summers and getting ‘snow days’ out of school when the forecast called for nothing other than ‘possible icy conditions’; knowing that my region was considered laughable almost everywhere else; assuming there was nothing unusual about finding churches on two out of every four corners; and believing that any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime—and that all of this informs my poetry, sometimes directly and sometimes in ways that might be unpredictable or illegible.'”
David Shook: My first memory of Will is incredibly clear. We met at a noisy mezcal bar in Tijuana the night before reading at a poetry festival held at its cultural center “La Bola,” and connected over our shared interest in international Black poets like Rabéarivelo and Césaire. Acknowledging the influence of those two writers serves as a useful point of departure for approaching his work, which invites reflection rather than immediate understanding, and poses questions rather than providing answers. Describing Alexander’s 1995 collection Asia & Haiti, which addresses recent political history of oppression in the developing world in what would become a recurring theme for Alexander, whose father was inspired by the radical Black leadership he witnessed on a military tour of the Caribbean, John Olson writes that “poetry writhes like a wounded snake in a miasma of brutality and oppression.”
The last time we met, Alexander gave me a sheath of new, unpublished poems that he’d written on his typewriter, which I later transcribed for publication in Bengal Lights, a Bangladeshi magazine interested in his work’s relevance to that country’s history and present realities. The transcription process allowed me a closer reading of his work than I’d previously experienced, as the poet addresses the subject of the poem’s dedication, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, directly in the second person throughout the entire poem:
as inscrutable scribe
fro unlit suns within suns
as elevated omen
as intransigent cellular inferno
as none other than a flare
Over seven pages “At the Vertigo Borders” moves with a tremendous velocity, despite employing very few verbs. Alexander refers to carbon tetrachloride, hellgrammites, glossolalia, and phonemes in what is essentially a praise poem for Gilbert-Lecomte, whom he describes as “encyclopedic with transgression,” a phrase that applies equally well to Alexander’s own work.
When his Poetry Foundation biography says that “Will Alexander is not easily categorized,” it summarizes what I believe makes him such a special poet. In his work and in his life, Will has transcended the categories others might have confined him to, producing a body of work that is always moving, occasionally baffling, and entirely his own.
Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis
Lewis’s National Book Award-winning debut may hint at what it might finally mean for innovative Black writing to be accepted in the mainstream. As Jay Deshpande pointed out in Slate, “Lewis’s work represents an important shift in how the mainstream literary world is considering the work of black poets… It’s the kind of work that erases the line between confessional, identity-based poetry and conceptual poetry—a line that has been problematically racialized for far too long.” It’s bothered me that I have not read any substantive criticism of this book (a form of bigotry all its own), so I will offer some of my own, as a corrective: This book is good (very good for a debut), but I was ultimately unable to connect with it, despite being a Black woman myself. This is a book that, again and again, is said to represent, “what it means to be a black woman today,” as Deshpande writes. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a mother, or of Lewis’s generation; perhaps also, because my family is from other countries and our relationship to American slavery is oblique. But that’s never prevented me from connecting with other work with similar parameters (a prime example: Morrison’s). The problem I found with this book is that so little of it feels truly personal. It’s telling that my favorite poems were the longer ones, written in verse—“On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari” and “Félicité” are dazzling, and felt close in the way the rest of the work did not. Perhaps it’s Lewis’s obsession with history, but I think it also shows the constraints of conceptual poetry, which she has elevated in Venus, but at the same time, shown its limits.
Feature image, Glenn Ligon’s Hands, 1996.
Listen: Claudia Rankine talks to Paul Holdengräber about objectifying the moment, investigating a subject, and accidental stalking.