Poet Louis Reyes Rivera is a professor of African American, Puerto Rican and Caribbean Literature and History; his latest collection, Scattered Scripture, won the 1997 Poetry Award from the Latin American Writers' Institute. He can be reached at Louisreyesrivera@aol.com.
Always there is need for song. And every human has a poem to write, a compulsion to contemplate out loud, an urge to dig out that ore of confusion locked up inside. But with the contradictions of privilege and caste, of class and gender distinctions regulating access, of those ever present distortions in textbooks with their one-sided measure of human worth, and with the culture of white man still serving as ultimate yardstick to what is acceptable as matter, not everyone is permitted to learn to read, much less to study poetry or hone the art and take the risk of putting one's self on paper.
While wanting to be naturally soothed by self-definition, too many among us learn to rely on commercial lyricists to reflect our joy and pain. At best, we latch onto committed activists who take on as social vocation the work of bridging the human spirit with word made flesh. At worst, we fall prey to professional wordsmiths (politicians and preachers alike) who conjure up another religion that dissuades us from social contention. Somewhere in between these two extremes, we sometimes meet and break a moment's bread with poets.
Today, what was once called poetry is referred to now as Spoken Word Art. Unlike the Rappers who have Hip Hopped twenty-syllable couplets into a steadfast beat, Spoken Word Artists have returned to free verse oration exhilarated by internal rhyme schemes and unfettered metaphors that speak directly to inner city blues. The news of the day, testament and affirmation, current and advanced, informs this form of poetry that outlines the immediate and understudied aspirations of African and Latino Americans caught in the crossfire between skin game caste and an ever shrinking planet of high tech advances.
Desk top publishing, internet websites, tea parties and Open Mic readings, marathon jams and poetry slams have combined to form the latest battlesites between truth and decadence. Inside the range of this contention are the new poets being pulled by and pushing against a state of confusion in search of clarity.
Their names are many and they come from everywhere, like Jamaican Dub Poets in Germany and England, or Nuyorican Poets in Texas and the Bronx. To single out the more notoriously known here in New York as comprising the new heat (like Tony Medina, Asha Bandele, Jessica Care Moore, Nzinga Chavis, Saul Williams, UniVerses, 2nd To Last, Ras Baraka), without qualification, is to commit the same crime as today's textbooks: taking a single droplet or two out of a river and making out like two droplets are the actual river itself. For just as each drop of water helps to form a river, each name dropped is but a metaphor for the many others who came before or right alongside those whose work forms our current popular canon.
Poetry, you see, is as old as breath itself. For when human beings across the planet simultaneously uttered that first initial sound, they gave rise to the same echo heard in the wail of every newborn child. The sound of that cry might be onomatopoeic, but its meaning is quite literal. "I am here, now!" This is the essential affidavit that serves as testament inside every person's compulsion to give voice to the voice, as condition urges vision, vision provokes thought, and thought pronounces the name of God: "I matter, too!"
Thus the birth of the word, the root of every language. Poetry. The strength of the people. The finest manifestation of craft, content and intent in every written and oral expression. The basis upon which all other literary genres have evolved. From poetry, not only the lyric, but as well drama and narrative, the expository and the thematic, the didactic and the ideological as root to all our scripture, sacred and profane.
It began as a blending of sound (the rhythm), sense (the experience), and color (the given image). A voice raised in celebration of itself. Chant and dance, music and tone, mystery and miracle forged into the embodied literature of people passing it on, by speech and sight, to each subsequent generation, asking and answering the fundamental question: How do we live? And is that the same as how we want to live or what we mean when we say there's something we're supposed to do?
The Chinese call it The Way; the Buddhist, Enlightenment; the Hindu, Nirvana; the Muslim, Complete Submission to the Will of Allah; the Egyptian-Judeo-Christian, Seeking the Light; and among many Africans and Amerindians it was once referred to as Being At One With Life. And from the poets among them, it is that inner compulsion to Follow the Muse. They speak to the same cause, challenging the inner voice to maintain balance between flesh, thought, action. Thus, Poet as author of scripture and Griot as Keeper of a Narrative. Each generation, regenerated by its own voices has, since the first word heard, added to that tapestry of affirmation. In Egypt and throughout the Americas, they called it Song; in Israel, Psalms; in West Africa, Nommo; and in Greece, Poetry.
It knows no borders. Unrestricted by or to genre, gender, nation, race, time or class. For in the need to contemplate, inside the compulsion to sing, and as Gylan Kain says, "to give voice to the deeper meaning of ourselves," poets learn to look upon love, life, struggle both as interchangeable terms and as the only limitations self-imposed. This is why poets are never invited to participate in televised forums, roundtable discussions and panels with other writers and speakers, journalists, politicians, social activists, academics, religious leaders. You never know what the poet will say.
This is also why poetry is considered the most dangerous art form, why it is not honestly taught and thoroughly nurtured into our youth in the schools, among our adults in the factories and fields, inside our homes, churches, offices. It cannot be diluted, bought, sold, compromised or traded without treason to its beauty, its necessity, its meaning. The poet learns to care about every word.
What we often view as a national literature is but one of many rivers coursing its way into the ocean of all our knowledge. In the general sense of world literature, we're supposed to bear in mind the ocean into which every river flows; with the particular local canon, however, we are actually cheated from studying all those droplets comprising both rivers and streams (the ethnic and the national), despite the fact that without them, there'd be no water to feed into that ocean.
Sad to say that too many of today's Spoken Word Artists lack an understanding of their own context. So focused on the immediacy of their own moment of breath, they are not as well studied into the history and evolution of this artform for the vocation that it is. In short, they have not really read or been taught to engage the works of those who came before them. And so, this contributive note regarding the river of our poetry.
African American poetry is not restricted to the United States. It is an hemispheric phenomenon as old as the dirge and the moan heard inside those first slave ships bound for the slave-breaking islands of the Caribbean, to Hispaniola and Mexico, long before they landed in Virginia. In the U.S., where drums were outlawed, it manifested as folklore, Spirituals and the Blues; in the Caribbean as Plena (Barbados), Bomba (Puerto Rico), Ska (Jamaica), with conga and steel drums, as with Merengue (Haiti) Mambo (Cuba) Calypso (Trinidad), like Samba (Brazil).
With European influences setting up the parameters over form and acceptability, here or there the poem was separated from music. Thus, slave narratives grew into novels and African poetry in the Americas often took on the semblance of European meter, pace and nuance (a la Phyllis Wheatley).
Today's reading rooms, soirees and poetry jams are hardly a new tradition, as they can be consistently traced back to 1888, the year that marked the end of American chattel slavery and the beginning of Negritude (both in Brazil) --during which period the children and grandchildren of slaves and runaways begin their careers as writers searching for new definition (like Charles Chestnut in fiction, Paul Lawrence Dunbar in poetry, and W.E.B. DuBois as researcher and social critic).
Of course, freedmen were writing long before then. North American (John Russworm, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, William Wells Brown) and Caribbean writers (Placido, Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Ramon Emeterio Betances, Lola Rodriguez de Tio, Jose Marti) had been laying out a foundation for a literary African/American thought. But it is after 1888 that a genuine and continuing renaissance begins, as it now included all of the descendants of former slaves learning to define themselves on paper. Thus, Rag and the Blues as immediate metaphor for the thousands of artists in places like Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Santiago de Cuba, Le Cap and Harlem, who helped initiate a composite rebirth of African art spreading across the face of America, sometimes rolling like a teardrop, other times in denial of itself, but always from the spirit of intellect shaping its own voice.
By the 1920s and early '30s, social struggle and a budding aesthetic had converged throughout the colonial world. Political movements (unionism, socialism, communism, anarchism, Pan-Africanism, nationalism, independence) often intersected with a cultural counterpart (Creolism, Diepalism, Negritude, the Harlem Renaissance). Cross-fertilizing. Like the largest number of UNIA chapters during the Garvey years were in Louisiana and Cuba, corresponding to the growth of a U.S. National Negro Renaissance and a Cuban Negrismo movement also taking place. Each in their own way stood against European imperialism while uncovering the parameters of self-definition.
As with the many African and Latino American poets practicing the art today, the list of folks involved back then is endless. In addition to critics, researchers and activists, like Ida B. Wells, William Monroe Trotter, Carter G. Woodson, Richard B. Moore, Alain Locke, J.A. Rogers, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, and with people like Arturo Alfonso Schomburg serving as natural bridge between the English, Spanish, French diasporic communities, the poets themselves comprised a river of personnel: Pablo Neruda, Luis Pales Matos, Jose de Diego, Nicolas Guillen, Juan Antonio Corretjer, Julia de Burgos, Clemente Soto Velez, Alfredo Miranda Archilla, Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedor Senghor, Leon Damas, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, and so many others who've not been as extensively published or read as these few. But their collective impact ushered in new forms and a continuum of literary stalwarts like Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, and John Oliver Killens. Killens, by the way, along with historian John Henrik Clarke, co-founded the Harlem Writers Guild, the one group that definitively bridged the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s/'30s with the 1960s Black Arts Movement and the 1970s Nuyorican Poetry Phenomenon.
Those who workshopped alongside Killens, in or out of the Guild, include at least two generations of dramatists (Lonnie Elder III, Loften Mitchell, Charles Russell, Douglas Turner Ward, Ossie Davis), fiction writers (Alice Childress, Rosa Guy, Piri Thomas, Maya Angelou, Louise Merriwhether, Sarah E. Wright, Richard Perry, Doris Jean Austin, Brenda Connor-Bey, Elizabeth Nunez Harrell, Nicholasa Mohr, Brenda Wilkerson, Arthur Flowers), poets and lyricists (Mari Evans, BJ Ashanti, Askia Muhammad Toure, Mervyn Taylor, Thulani Davis, Ntozake Shange, Fatisha, and Irving Burgie --the one who wrote most of the British Caribbean songs that first made Harry Belafonte famous).
With the Black Arts Movement, the proverbial Pushkin spark turned into flame as the 1966 National Black Writers Conference at Fisk University (organized by Killens) gave cognizance to what had already been taking place; thus we have the new poet-theoreticians, like Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Askia Toure, Ishmael Reed, Audre Lorde, Henry Dumas, alongside new critics, like Addison Gayle and Hoyt Fuller, new venues, like Umbra, Cannon Reed & Johnson, or the Watts Writers Workshop, through which Jayne Cortez and Quincy Troupe had developed their skills, or like Detroit-based Dudley Randall, through whose publishing efforts began the careers of Haki Madhubuti, Carolyn Rodgers, Sonia Sanchez. Like The Last Poets, many of them were as influenced by Malcolm X as by Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Paul Robeson and DuBois.
By the late 1960s, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Jesus Papoleto Melendez and Felipe Luciano became the latest spanning between African American and Puerto Rican literature that had been previously bridged by the likes of Schomburg, Guillen and Jesus Colon. As the 1970s took off, a Nuyorican mix began its own sidestream fruition to both African American and Puerto Rican orthodoxy. Spanglish took its place beside AfroAmericanese as a new idiom, with poets Miguel Algarin, Lorraine Sutton, Americo Casiano, Miguel Pinero, Sandra Maria Esteves, Julio Marzan, Lucky Cienfuegos, Roberto Marquez, Jose Angel Figueroa, Tato Laviera, Noel Rico, Magdalena Gomez, Susana Cabanas and Pedro Pietri serving as initial progenitors to another poetic sensibility. Its availability and earned place has often been hindered by Anglo arrogance and Hispanophilia, caught, as these poets were, between an evolving aesthetic-in-exile influenced by Ebonics on the mainland and an active insular and extremely cultural nationalism in Puerto Rico that at first refused to even recognize this hybrid created out of U.S. colonialism.
During this same period, from the late 1960s straight into the 1980s, the tradition of small press and self-publishing (traceable to the 1730s, when Europe began allowing colonies to own printing presses) had expanded into roughly 1,000 independent magazines and publishing outlets under the influence or control of African and Latino Americans: Freedomways, Journal of Black Poetry, Hambone, Callaloo, Literati Chicago, The Rican Journal, Third World Press, Third Press, Quinto del Sol, Black Classics Press, Yardbird Reader, Mango Publications, Arte Publico Press, Black World/First World, Poettential Unlimited, Shamal Books, Bola Press, Kitchen Table Press, Single Action Productions, Blind Beggar Press, Drum Voices Revue, Harlem River Press, just to name a few.
Thus, sandwiched between the Black Arts Movement and the rise of Hip Hop is a linking generation of African and Latino American poets, producers and publishers who had come into their own (and many of them by the mid-1970s) to serve as the latest bridge connecting the continuum of an hemispheric African American literary canon. These were the students of Malcolm and Martin and H. Rap Brown, entering the new decade with their own resolve, reading, performing and organizing everywhere: in prisons, community centers, cafes, in homes and on the streets, at Kwanzaa festivals and Malcolm X commemoration programs, at political rallies and in the schools. These sidestream stalwarts, most abundant in places like New York, were the immediate parents of those who would later become Rap and Spoken Word (Chuck D., Reg E. Gaines, Bruce George) Artists.
They had entered the '70s knowing that the major publishing outlets had already slammed its doors on Black Literature. Thus, they became the generation that had proliferated the publishing world with their own gumption, giving rise to, if not solidifying the careers of an Alice Walker, a Toni Morrison and an Ntozake Shange. Poets-publishers-organizers who did the basework while working a 9-to-5, raising a family, studying and performing their craft. In New York City alone, these included Yusef Waliyaya from The East's African Street festivals, John Branch from the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, Rich Bartee of Poettential Unlmtd., Lois Elaine Griffith of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, George Edward Tait of the Afrikan Functional Theatre, Gary Johnston and C.D. Grant of Blind Beggar Press, Layding Kaliba now with African Voices, Barbara Smith of Kitchen Table Press, Abu Muhammad of Nubian Blues magazine, Glen Thompson of Harlem River Press. From them and through them, such poets as Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Akua Lezli Hope, Zizwe Ngafua, Dawad Philip, B.J. Ashanti, Ted Wilson, Malkia M'buzi Moore, A. Wanjiku J. Reynolds, and many others previously mentioned either began or continued finding outlets for their works to appear in print.
Meanwhile, music and poetry never did finalize the divorce Euro-Americans insisted upon. Not only were Hughes and Hurston experimenting with the "jazz poem" and the intonations of northern and southern folklore back in the 1930s, but from the BeBop and Afro-Cuban Jazz era straight through to the present Rap/Spoken Word epoch, musicians and poets have consistently uncovered the African tradition of incorporating sound and sense into a wholistic art form. Literature, music and dance. Louis Armstrong, Sun Ra, Charlie Mingus, King Pleasure, Slim (Gailliard) & Slam (Stewart), Alvin Ailey had all eloquently continued that course. Singers Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Oscar Brown, Jr., and, of course, Nina Simone, had long ago fused poetry into the jazz voice (Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit was actually a poem someone had given her).
Of equal significance is the immediate link to Rap and Spoken Word. Musicians Weldon Irvine, Ahmed Abdullah and Oliver Lake, like their literary counterparts, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Jayne Cortez, Sekou Sundiata, Tom Mitchelson, Yusef Waliyaya, Cheryl Byron, Atiba Kwabena Wilson, Ngoma Hill, each in their turn, have preceded Sharif Simmons, UniVerses, 2nd To Last, etc., in fusing the poem with the idioms of music and dance.
And so the insistence that music and word are inseparable elements to the voice raising up and rising up comes full circle inside the currents of modern poetics. It's part of an ongoing continuum in constant evolution, an unfinished renaissance establishing its own parameters on its own terms. Like Sterling Brown once posed, "If it took Europe 300 years to unfold its renaissance, what makes you think that we can do it in six?"