Monday, April 06, 2015

Out of Bonds: The Slave Past & Contemporary Poetry at Rutgers

Last Friday I participated in a great mini-symposium, "Out of Bounds: The Slave Past and Contemporary Poetry," at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Organized by Douglas Jones, an assistant professor in the English department at Rutgers-New Brunswick, with the assistance of Gabrielle Everett, a doctoral student in English, the event aimed to explore ideas contained in a paper entitled “On Failing to Make the Past Present" by UC-Berkeley English professor Stephen Best, that appeared in a 2012 issue of the journal MLQ, through talks, presentations, discussions, and poetry readings.
To summarize Best's article, in it he suggests that rather than taking the approach of Toni Morrison, in Beloved and other works (though not A Mercy) of reviewing and reanimating the past as a means of understanding the present, which is to say, of viewing slavery and its conditions as part of an epistemological continuum with and prism to understand present day concerns, contemporary black scholars and writers might have followed--and still might follow--Orlando Patterson's 1970s prescription for African Americans to utterly remake ourselves anew as if from a clean slate, or, to put it another way, reading through the lines of argument in A Mercy, rather than racial and historical affiliation, "We seem less held together by race here, and more together in our abandonment."

Meta and Evie
The symposium began with a vibrant, provocative, and probing open conversation, led by Jones and Ivy Wilson, my former colleague and an associate professor at Northwestern University, on Best's article. I arrived halfway into this conversation, which was truly open to all present, which meant not just faculty and graduate students, but undergraduates and other audience members, but the sizable portion of Jones' and Wilson's exchange, as well as the questions and commentary from everyone else, that I caught was superb and highly informative. I kept thinking as I listened that Jones's article echoed in some key ways Kenneth W. Warren's provocative arguments in What Was African American Literature?, which have merited several waves of responses, and Jones articulated this connection with considerable brio, illuminating the parallels before challenging both approaches.

Evie reading her poem,
which is projected on the screen
behind her.
This portion set the stage for the next portion of the afternoon, which was the two sets of conversations pairing contemporary literary and cultural studies scholars, and contemporary poets (though Evie Shockley is also a major scholar in her own right). Radiclani Clytus, a filmmaker, critic and assistant professor of English at Brown University and I began, with Radiclani posing some thoughts about my work, both older poems that directly treated the theme of slavery (I had dug them up for him), leading into a discussion of some of the pieces in Counternarratives, in which slavery and its aftermath is not only thematized in multiple ways, but narrativized and dramatized in half the stories. Radi is as sharp as a laser and kept me thinking on my toes, creating a free-wheeling back and forth. It was easily one of the most enjoyable public conversations I've had in years. I wish it were possible to participate in public discussions like this, with Radi and others, more often.

Tyehimba, reading one of his
syncopated sonnets

Next came Evie, a renowned poet and scholar of poetry, who teaches at Rutgers-New Brunswick, and Meta DuEwa Jones, an acclaimed scholar who teaches at Howard University. Evie and Meta talked about Evie's work, beginning with Evie reading one of her formally and linguistically experimental poems that allowed them talk in and around the notion of the cut--"how does tight, taut form work in relation to damage, monstrous intimacy" (citing Christina Sharpe's brilliant work here)--and so much more. Along the way, Stowe's "Topsy," critics Sylvia Wynter and Alex Weheliye, legal tender, Toi Derricotte, the confluence of multiple heritages, histories and herstories, and M. Nourbese Philip's Zong all arose in the course of their back-and-forth.

Tyehimba, reading one of the poems
that adapts the ghazal form
Tyehimba Jess concluded the events, delivering the keynote presentation, introducing and then reading a series of poems, many dealing with historical figures who emerged during and shortly after the Civil War period, such as Blind Tom, Black Patti, and the McCoy Twins, from his forthcoming collection Olio. His new work, following formally from the inventive, innovative aesthetic vision in his award-winning first collection Leadbelly, includes a number of poems using innovative forms, among them what he has labeled "syncopated sonnets," which incorporate multidirectionality and improvisation into their formal structures, which is to say, multiple possibilities for reading (up-down, across from top to bottom and the reverse, skipping diagonally between lines, and so on) left up to the reader-performer, and Jess did so with panache. He also read poems that adapted the ghazal (and Golden Shovel) form, again showing how the poems themselves suggested certain performativities and how he, as the author and reader, improvised on those, creating at certain points what felt very much like the blues and at others like hip hop. No one does it like Jess!

It was a scintillating afternoon and evening, and I want to thank Doug, Gabrielle and Ivy, and Radiclani, Meta, Evie and Jess, as well as my sister campus in New Brunswick again! And as we said, we have to do this again--soon!

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