Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Keeping Black Poetry Alive

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Keeping Black Poetry Alive

Article excerpt

Helping all students, regardless of race, to appreciate the craft is often a challenge, scholars say.

Thomas Sayers Ellis, assistant professor of creative writing at New York's Sarah Lawrence College, is one of many scholars fighting for the soul of Black poetry, a struggle that takes place largely off-campus. Unless one is accepted into a top-level graduate poetry program, such as Boston University's program or the Iowa Writing Workshop, a poet's opportunities are limited. And Black poets face an even tougher road.

E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, says the problem has been brewing for a while. In the 1980s, Miller tried to get 100 or so historically Black colleges and universities revved up about creative writing programs. Only a dozen responded. Most of the institutions didn't see the value in investing in the programs, arguing that creative writing wasn't a marketable skill. Xavier University of Louisiana was one of the HBCUs that did respond favorably, creating an undergraduate poetry program. Xavier and Spelman College both currently have undergraduate creative writing minors, and Howard and Morehouse College each offer one undergraduate class. But none of the top-tier HBCUs offer graduate-level poetry programs.

"Just like anything else, programs grow out of demand," says Dr. Eleanor W. Traylor, chairman of the English department at Howard. "We have an undergraduate creative writing program, but our graduate program is focused on training future faculty."

But Traylor doesn't rule out the possibility that Howard will institute a graduate poetry program in the future.

"When demand changes, things shift. I see this will be an evolving eventuality, not long in coming. We have no will or intent of bias against it," she says. "The success of poetry in popular culture, and the fact that many writers hold academic degrees and seek employment as university professors, have both prompted interest in creative writing."

But Haki R. Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press and director of Chicago State University's master's of fine arts program, says it will never happen.

"Traditional HBCUs suffer from a lack of vision," he says. "Most of these people are bought by corporate America. The humanities and certainly the arts are secondary to what HBCUs see as their mission. It takes a different perspective on the world to see how important art is."

Keeping Black Poetry Alive

"To free, at last, all Black text. That's my goal, " states Ellis, author of the 2005 poetry collection The Maverick Roan. Having always taught at predominantly White universities, he admits feeling a conflict between his own idiom and the language of the poetry he teaches.

Ellis' goal is especially relevant given the proliferation of graduatelevel creative writing programs at predominately White universities. Originally designed to teach "verse," many of these programs have increasingly focused on trendy, anything-goes poems, with minimal training in craft. As these programs were incorporated into the traditional curriculum, Black poets who chose to write more idiomatically and politically than their White peers began to get left behind. Their work, derived and inspired by rap, jazz, folk and spoken word, became increasingly rare on campus.

In an effort to create a network and give Black poets more exposure, Harvard University undergraduate Ellis and his colleagues founded The Dark Room Collective in 1988. The workshop for Black writers soon evolved into a reading series where many young poets got their start. Among the list of notable Dark Room alums are Natasha Tretheway, John Keene, Tracy K. Smith, Major Jackson, Sharan Strange and Kevin Young.

Though The Dark Room disbanded in 1996, it paved the way for new opportunities. Today's aspiring poets generally only have two choices if they want to study poetry on a graduate level: either enroll at a traditionally White institution or head to Chicago State University. …

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