Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Shockley’s book Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (University of Iowa Press). Recorded August 6th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Renegade Poetics outlines what “black aesthetics” might mean amid the ongoing legacy of the Black Arts Movement. I notice a basic tension in your book between wanting to confirm that the BAM’s reductive tendencies have had a constrictive impact on both creative and scholarly production and wanting to assert that our own conception of the BAM itself is a reductive one—this movement remained much more multifarious, complex, and diverse than subsequent critics have assumed. Could you provide a brief summary of current critical approaches to the BAM? Then could you point to common limitations in our conception of the BAM’s ideological or aesthetic range?
Evie Shockley: You’ve given a good sense of two of this book’s main goals. I guess they might seem in tension with each other, though I’d like to think of them as complementary.
AF: Sure I meant it as a productive tension.
ES: That sounds accurate. My book points to problems that have emerged from the Black Arts Movement, its reifications of a certain black aesthetic. But I try to address both audiences with a complex understanding of the BAM and audiences less familiar with it. I’d hate to perpetuate a narrow view of what the BAM accomplished. Perhaps the most influential people setting the ground for how we (in the academy, in African-American literary circles, in related circles) think about the BAM have been Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates. They came to writing about the BAM from quite different places. Baker did not participate directly but became a BAM enthusiast in his younger years, then slowly moved away, first towards a poststructural approach. Gates cut his eyeteeth dissecting problems with BAM ideology, especially the racial essentialism he’d detected in its rhetoric. His book Figures in Black presents a scholarly conception of the BAM that has become conventional—as a movement which placed politics before aesthetics, a criticism which emphasized political consequences over any analytic description of what literature does. Gates distrusted both tendencies. And alongside such theoretical constructs appeared popular notions associating the BAM with positive messages, such as “Black is beautiful”; the idea that Africa offers a source of rich cultural heritage; or the belief that African-American ways of being and speaking and musical forms should be celebrated. Those broader cultural assumptions provided the BAM’s privileged terms and sites of inquiry. So the confluence of scholarly assessment and popular conceptions come together in a perfect storm to produce our current, rigid definitions of the BAM, focusing on how much profanity or “non-standard English” appears in the poetry, how many references to revolution occur in a poem, how “angry” or African the poem sounds, rather than any number of the literature’s equally or more interesting aspects.
AF: As we discuss the dominant, yet constrictive, vision of the BAM, can you point to neglected individuals, particular readings or texts, polyvalent concepts that do not receive the attention they deserve, which could offer a rounder, fuller sense of the movement? What can we learn, for example, from the visual arts, where this type of semiotic play (in which emergent institutional discourse suddenly becomes ironized) seems to happen faster?
ES: Let’s start with the first question. This question prompts us to think through how the BAM gets associated with its most vocal or visible core activists, writers, and theorists. But for a movement to become a movement it must involve hundreds of people. It most likely spreads beyond Harlem, beyond New York. James Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement presents the BAM as a movement that occurs nationally by way of local clusters: West Coast clusters around Watts and so forth; Southern clusters that include New Orleans as a center point; Midwest clusters in Chicago, Detroit, other places; then on the East Coast, not just Harlem but Newark, Philly, etcetera. Still scholars begin to canonize a handful of figures, to generalize from specific individual definitions of black aesthetics or particular personal accounts of the movement—an interpretive process that excludes folks exploring different questions in distinct local contexts, who didn’t feel the need or attain the platform to assert their vision as the representative vision of the BAM. Many such debates, divergent practices and heterogeneous conversations never made their way into print. So the definitions derived from the BAM’s most famous texts (by Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka and a few others) end up overshadowing parallel events or arguments or concerns. Jayne Cortez works with the Watts Writers group then moves to New York because she becomes politicized through activities we associate with the BAM, yet produces a different type of work and, for a time, gets written out of the histories. Or if you look at Ed Roberson interviews, he says he took part in the BAM and not just as an onlooker: engaging in conversations, attending readings, learning from Baraka and Sanchez and so forth. He worked through BAM ideas in different ways, which doesn’t mean he didn’t participate. I discussed this very point with Aldon Nielsen not long ago, who emphasized that people we tend to focus on participated not just as writers and theorists but as activists who also wrote and theorized. Yet the movement took place not just among those at the forefront pushing their agendas in the most public contexts. Countless events occurred off-stage, so to speak. I look forward to future critical studies focused on figures who have been marginalized, as well as studies that reassess the central figures. For example, my Rutgers colleague Carter Mathes writes about Larry Neal (by all accounts, a key figure and dominant voice) further expanding the scope of his thought following, let’s say, his iconic essay “The Black Arts Movement.” Carter’s research demonstrates the breadth in Neal’s work which didn’t get published, which doesn’t get remembered, yet contains this striking range of ideas that keep growing more refined and complicated over the years. Or, as a segue into your question about art, we could consider another recent study, Spectacular Blackness, by Amy Ongiri. Ongiri looks at how the Black Panther Party in particular, but also a broader group of ‘60s and ‘70s artists associated with Black Power, used the visual, the spectacle, to capture the attention of the so-called black masses. Spectacular Blackness critiques accounts of the BAM that privilege the literary, with occasional references to music, while excluding art and popular visual media.
AF: I began with metacritical questions about the BAM because Renegade Poetics seems to provide a revaluative process—rethinking certain types of work, bringing forth new rhetorical questions or problems. A second set of reductive principles that this book contests, for example, concerns conventional assumptions that African-American poetry as a whole attaches itself to urban experience, emphasizes political struggle, prioritizes a vernacular-based rhetoric in order to address a black mass audience. By contrast, the authors you examine (Anne Spencer, Ed Roberson, Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, among others) construct poetic texts with unmistakable affinities to the “natural,” and/or emphasize meditative, writerly strategies of textual production. They do so, as you argue, not in a departure from blackness, but as a dynamic embodiment of blackness. So here’s my question: to what extent do you provide the individual cases of Spencer, of Roberson, in order to suggest that scholarly accounts have reinforced an artificial, inaccurate, stereotypical conception of black experience—one that overshadows many of the twentieth century’s most compelling achievements? To what extent do you seek a broad revisioning of the field? To what extent do you mean to say, here are some exceptional cases, outliers perhaps, but which ought to add nuance and detail to current scholarship?
ES: My take probably tacks between those two alternatives, but moves more toward the latter. I’d encourage a broad re-looking at the tradition, since this questioning of inherited assumptions keeps scholarship healthy. However, my book attempts to provide an open-ended assessment, not to suggest that preceding versions got it wrong and . . .
AF: That you can give us the right version.
ES: Exactly. I want to point towards a much more nuanced and detailed picture. So Renegade Poetics focuses on texts which foreground the dilemma that produces black aesthetics—the dilemma of writing black subjectivity in a racist society. The authors I consider use this dilemma to push their poetics in particularly innovative directions. Of course any number of compelling African-American writers do this, people we don’t think of always as innovative or writerly but who could benefit from a broader conception of black aesthetics. Rita Dove’s work would benefit from this broader definition. At least in her early career, Dove gets framed as somebody not writing “black” poetry, almost along the lines of Anne Spencer. And again this raises questions that I often struggle with. What do I mean when I call a piece “innovative”? How can I adopt this word without denigrating poems that remain excellent though not exactly path-breaking (at least to my eyes)? Whether or not I’ve succeeded at articulating such a difference, I’ve tried. Take someone like Lucille Clifton, who writes fabulous books but doesn’t necessarily push the envelope as Sonia Sanchez does with Does Your House Have Lions?—in terms of new formal ground, new territory, the coming together of craft and idea in unanticipated ways.
AF: Could we further address your point that African-Americans can leave behind confining stereotypes of black identity without obscuring their racial subjectivity, their historical experience? Late in the book, this argument takes the form of a “freedom from/freedom to” distinction. Since they make for a coherent triptych, could you explain how this distinction plays out among Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez and Harryette Mullen, three poets you identify. . . I think you present them as the only African-American women to publish long poems in lyric stanzas. Could you describe the “freedom to” in the case of these authors? Here maybe we can get to a poetics of excess—what it means for an African-American female poet to appear “excessive,” given this term’s positive connotations in poetry, though negative connotations elsewhere in the world.
ES: I raise the distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to” in my chapter on Will Alexander, though he might have a different sense of this binary than I do. But let’s just say, from my perspective: I think “freedom from” and “freedom to” operate in all three female poets. The freedom from oppressive life conditions, from stifling expectations for what black poetry does, from limitations readers might associate with race and gender and sexuality—those concerns remain extremely important for all three women. Inevitable generational differences arise, but each poet, like most epic poets, seeks to use all available tools, to speak to a broad range of audiences and avoid being read in really narrow ways. If you take Brooks as someone who evades certain expectations about a working-class black woman’s life (supposedly cut off from those exciting adventures we associate with men’s activities), that’s her gaining a “freedom from.” But her excessiveness in “The Anniad” also stands out, for example through the types of intricate rhyme schemes she uses. She takes Chaucer’s standard rhyme royal stanza and, instead of deploying the same ababbcc pattern, winds those rhymes any number of ways—a different way for almost each stanza. She uses super tight meter and a diction that she must have dropped into the dictionary to get, which certainly sends her reader back to the dictionary to unpack it. But again this performance of excess, this “freedom to” approach form so aggressively, never abandons the historical realities she hopes to push beyond. Part of why she has to out-Chaucer Chaucer in the first place is just so her use of form can register. Readers projecting a less sophisticated black poetics upon her work might overlook anything more subtle.
AF: Of course as we look at any individual, it seems hard fully to parse “freedom from” and “freedom to.” And your book engages the broader premise that scholars need to consider historically specific conditions, rather than just generalize about African-American letters or something. Can we consider how this historicist approach plays out with one particular concept? Let’s take polyvocality, and how this manifests in Brooks, Sanchez and Mullen. For me, polyvocality suggests communal modes of production. Call-and-response in gospel or blues or collaborative improvisation in jazz provide obvious points of reference. But Brooks’s case at least (and this goes back to a poetics of excess) suggests something different. Here polyvocality refers to a single, albeit quite complex poetic-subject hitting multiple registers of discourse. Polyvocality seems to occur through a collage of tonalities, through audience reception.
ES: I pick up this use of the term from Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s study “Speaking in Tongues.” She analyzes a number of texts (focusing on novels) to consider ways in which black women writers use language. It’s not quite as simple as calling this language coded, not equivalent to Gates’s concept of “signifyin(g),” but nonetheless describes a language use that encourages the reader or listener who is also black, also female, to hear one current of thought, while allowing other audiences to hear other meanings. So here emerges the idea of how polyvocality takes place through audience reception—through how a speech act gets heard, rather than solely how it gets made.
AF: That’s great because Brooks offers this inferred model of polyvocality, and then for Does Your House Have Lions? Sanchez builds polyvocality into the book’s basic structure. Then Mullen’s Muse & Drudge presents a palimpsestic, appropriation-based approach—perhaps a more post-humanist form of polyvocality. But again, what strikes me most is how you track various polyvocal projects fulfilling quite different intentions or functions, framed by the discrete historical circumstances in which each writer participates. So polyvocality remains consistent throughout African-American literature, yet demands nuanced accounts of how this concept gets embodied by any particular poet.
ES: That’s exactly what I hope readers take from the book. That’s my modulated approach to redefining black aesthetics. Again, if we consider how the BAM introduces black aesthetics, as a particular response to writing black subjectivity in a racist society, this response privileges particular types of politics. This response, coming immediately out of a Black Power context, draws heavily (and, to the extent possible, exclusively) on black culture to produce art intended to change black people’s way of seeing themselves in the world—both in terms of valuing their past and considering themselves as political agents in the present. That set of political goals I do not wish to set aside, but simply to place in its historical moment, so to open up other possibilities for a black aesthetics. These alternate approaches might seem equally political, though in different ways, or could take a depoliticized turn in a specific author’s context. Their politics might become unrecognizable from our own particular vantage point, but if we focus on the time and place of each writer, we can begin to see her politics more clearly. And so to circle back to questions about polyvocality in Brooks, Sanchez, Mullen: my chapters on these poets do not seek to codify a specific set of strategies as an authentic black aesthetics, but to unearth each poet’s approach to negotiating broader historical dynamics. Polyvocality means one thing when you work in the 1940s, hoping for attention from a literary establishment that treats black writing as inherently inferior. It means something else when you write, as Sonia Sanchez does in the late twentieth century, speaking to an audience you’d helped create in the 1960s, though now rethinking the politics of that earlier moment, especially the gender and sexual politics embedded in various black nationalisms. Then polyvocality again means something new when Harryette Mullen deliberately constructs a book speaking to (at least) two divergent communities or audiences. Each poet mentioned above faced different circumstances, and their responses differ accordingly, so our use of critical terminology likewise should differ.
AF: Well, when you argue for increased individuation as scholars in our critical approaches to African-American authors, do you see that as contradicting and/or as fulfilling the broader impulse behind categorizing authors according to race, gender, sexuality? Do you encounter frustration from critics who say we need a unified understanding of what it means to be African-American—to be a black writer? Does that tendency still circulate in the field?
ES: You’ve put your finger on one of this book’s underlying motivations, one problem that inspired me to write this way. But here again, I need to historicize my response. The BAM ushers an African-American literary tradition into the academy. Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka become some of the first people to teach black literary courses at the college level.
AF: With Larry Neal?
ES: Right. African-American literature became a recognized scholarly field about 40 years ago. Its founders had to assemble it, canonize it, map it out. It has to be fought for, then and at every moment. Scholars in the early years had no choice but to assert what made these texts black, why we needed to study them as a singular tradition—the same concerns that animated advocates for American literature (as opposed to British literature). American Studies scholars now confront similar questions, though without the same threat of American literature disappearing from view in the academy. So my book never means to dismiss productive work people did to constitute the field but means to provide a counterbalance so this swing of the pendulum, a very necessary swing, doesn’t linger too long on the far side of that spectrum. Of course we could apply an analogous argument to studies of women’s literature, of Jewish literature and so forth. Once we articulate that common historical backgrounds, common lived experiences shape these fields, then our job becomes to find further nuance, further differentiation. At some point we’ve got to permit ourselves to pose the opposite question: what if we consider these writers as individuals identified by our society as African-American? What if we decide to treat some texts less on the grounds of their engagement with common threads of a collective tradition and more in terms of their rhetorical or formal coherence? How could we construct a critical tradition that doesn’t exclude aberrant figures to save its own life? So here I offer a kind of push-back–but not a dismissive push-back–fully recognizing that sometimes the pendulum needs to swing toward commonalities.
AF: We do see explicit threats to Chicano Studies right now, in Arizona. The need for some sort of defensive posture remains perfectly clear. But also, in terms of urgent historical realities, we haven’t really discussed ecopoetics, which your book’s second half addresses. From your perspective as a scholar attuned both to the positive and negative legacy of the BAM, what advice do you have for ecopoetics? Let’s say advocates for ecopoetics, like advocates for the BAM, made the case that pressing political conditions demand a honed activist agenda, rather than an introspective appeal to further inclusivity—how would you respond to that? And then, conversely, does considering the pointed vantage of present ecopoetics make you more forgiving, more understanding of the BAM’s own legacy?
ES: You want to know whether I see analogies between ecopoetics and the BAM, as aesthetic movements articulated around or organized by political urgencies?
AF: We could turn to page 151 in your book if that helps, the sentence: “From this angle, these proponents of ‘ecopoetics’ are ironically reminiscent of those participants in the BAM who similarly advocated a particular, politicized, potentially transformative aesthetics as the grounds for inclusion in a category of poetry—in that case ‘black poetry.’”
ES: Got it. That’s actually the sentence that popped into my head. You’ve pointed to this moment when I mention that the discourses organized around Jonathan Skinner’s ecopoetics journal and Brenda Iijima’s eco language reader remain exclusively interested in innovative writing. This provides an ironic counterpoint to how the BAM drew its aesthetic lines based on political ideology. Of course, ecopoetics foregrounds innovative writing because this can help to question a reductive nature/culture binary, a romanticization of nature embedded in the aptly-named Romantic tradition. I understand that and sympathize, as I sympathize with the BAM’s intense focus on looking beyond a Eurocentric tradition and high modernism for models—on turning toward more politically empowering precedents. But I do think that ecopoetics could learn from the BAM’s mistakes in this instance. One shudders to think of offering Jonathan Skinner advice on ecopoetics, since he’s such an intelligent person and formidable thinker, but I would ask whether reserving the term “ecopoetics” for innovative writing (especially an exclusionary sense of experimental writing, one that marginalizes many people I consider in this book) really will help to reach the vast number of readers required to promote serious environmental change. Conversely, what happens when you use your own particular ideology not as a wedge, but as a bridge?
AF: Well along similar lines, it interests me that the phrase “double consciousness” never makes a real appearance in your book.
ES: Not so much.
AF: Though you clearly describe analogous binaries between avant-garde and black aesthetics, between experimental and activist agendas. We could consider that. Or I have another approach to this question, which focuses on your scholarly writing style. I love your generous use of dashes, colons, semicolons. Roland Barthes’s praise for anacoluthon comes to mind: a sentence that starts one way, then pivots and becomes something entirely different. That happens a lot here. So we could discuss double consciousness in terms of a scholar/poet duality—how you see your own deft syntactical moves shaping this text’s argument.
ES: Your first question deserves an answer, but your second question fascinates me, since nobody’s framed my writing style the way you just did. I’m very conscious of writing sentences that try to hold the nuance in place. I live for dashes. You should have seen how many I had! I also get policed on my use of parentheses by most copy editors. So I don’t know if I would have said this spontaneously, but yes, I think my syntax becomes part of the argument. I hope to remain both readable and complex. You don’t need a Ph.D. to parse this book. It tries to address audiences outside the academy proper, but also to create sentences that almost can’t be quoted out of context. They bear their context within them. I want to bring that complexity to these traditions: to studies of African-American poetry, of innovative poetry, of nature poetry and ecopoetics. One way of remaining responsible to complexity in the larger sense is to stay responsible at the smallest level.
Evie Shockley is the author of two poetry collections, the new black (Wesleyan, 2011) and a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006). From 2007-2011, she co-edited the poetry journal jubilat. Her work also includes a critical study: Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where she teaches African American literature and creative writing.