Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sophia Nguyen on the Dark Room Writers Collective in Harvard Magazine

A few years ago, The New Yorker published an article, "The Dark Room Collective: Where Black Poetry Took Wing," about the Dark Room Collective that left a lot to be desired. Not only did it erase a good number of the members and participants, but it offered a sketchy overview of what the Dark Room was and achieved, in part because its ideological agenda was quite off-target. To put it another way, the ideological agenda it attempt to affix to the Dark Room was incorrect. Even the title was incorrect; "black poetry" had taken wing many times before the Dark Room's appearance, as the Dark Room's readings, awards and tributes more than made clear.

Other pieces about the organization--which I belonged to for many years-- are much better; in 1996, two years after the Dark Room's final reading series occurred in Boston, one of the Dark Room's most honored poets, Cornelius Eady, penned a brief piece with Kwaku Alston, "Reading Ahead," for The New Yorker that was much more on the mark, and in 2013, co-founder and poet Sharan Strange wrote an entry, "Total Life Is What We Want’: A Brief History of The Dark Room Collective," for Mosaic magazine that not only shared aspects of the organization's history but her vision of what its aims were and her sense of its place in the firmament of African American and American letters.

There have been other pieces, but one of the most recent entries, Sophia Nguyen's thoughtful, capacious, beautifully written article in the March-April 2016 issue of Harvard Magazine, "Elbow Room: How the Dark Room Collective made space for a generation of African-American writers," ranks among the best. Not only does Nguyen get the history and names correct and quickly dispel the fact that all the members went to or met at Harvard, but she also offers an overview of what the Dark Room's activities meant in their contemporary moment and might signify today, while not trying to use the writers and their works as a way of bashing particular traditions in the Black literary tradition (the Black Arts Movement, Umbra, etc.), or misreading the literature or cultural effects that have emerged from it.

The impact on the Boston literary scene were visible to anyone who was paying attention. As she notes:
“The Dark Room Collective was one of the more influential movements in the city of Boston,” says fiction writer Don Lee, an associate of the group. Lee, who first moved to the area to pursue his M.F.A. at Emerson College, and then became editor of the journal Ploughshares, observed how they shook up the “lily white” literary scene. “There was terrific energy, and it was contagious.” He helped write a grant application that secured the Dark Room $12,500 from the Lannan Foundation—“not a huge amount, but at the time fairly significant”—which helped cover the travel expenses of writers they were beginning to invite from farther afield.
Nguyen, however, goes further and talks about the "Drive By" readings, and much more, showing that the Collective, more than anything else, helped to create and expand a conversation which involved paying attention not just to what was happening in Boston, to the literary past and to peers around the country.

She also broaches critiques of Dark Room writers' work as "depoliticized" and "conservative," but as she goes on to suggest, as I would underline, works as diverse as Kevin Young's To Repel Ghosts or Natasha Trethewey's Thrall or Thomas Sayers Ellis's Skin, Inc. or Tisa Bryant's Unexplained Presence? These are all deeply political, and formally playful to challenging works, and they're only a small portion of what Dark Room writers have produced. Playwrights, visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, and scholars who were affiliated with the group have gone on to produce work that is both politically engaged and aesthetically challenging as well, and without question, all the various strands of black cultural production, from the past up through the Dark Room's moment, on through today, are visible in the art that has emerged from it.

Here's one more quoted paragraph that gives a glimpse of what the Dark Room was really like:

What the Dark Room gave to its members makes their output difficult to corral. It’s something Ellis has called “elbow room”—a jostling freedom of movement that made Bryant, all those years ago, feel unexpected exhilaration during her 40-minute phone interview with the Collective. Though she at first tried to fake a love of jazz and the blues—at the time, these genres were to her parents’ taste, not hers—she then admitted to being a fan of the Cure, the Smiths, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. “And it was the most miraculous thing, because suddenly we were doing these bizarre medleys of Smith songs and P-Funk and Run DMC and Billy Bragg and Psychadelic Furs and Joan Armatrading. It was outrageous,” she told her interviewer. In “Dark Room: An Invocation,” Elizabeth Alexander declares “the house/came down because/we knew how to read/each other, could code-switch/with the same fast dazzle.” Now it’s a critical commonplace to hear that some Dark Room writer can reference Homer and Tupac in the same space, making virtuoso maneuvers between different expressive registers. At the time, Bryant said to herself with relief, “Okay, I’m not the freak I thought I was.”

Do check the article, and the poems Nguyen quotes. They're a great place in the Dark Room literary corpus to start.

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