Black Women Poets by the Numbers: Evie Shockley and Allison Joseph

By Whiteside, Briana | Journal of Ethnic American Literature, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Black Women Poets by the Numbers: Evie Shockley and Allison Joseph


Whiteside, Briana, Journal of Ethnic American Literature


Canonical poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Maya Angelou are widely recognized and anthologized. Accordingly, they have received considerable critical or popular attention. However, contemporary poets, whose works appear less frequently, receive relatively little exposure for their contributions. One way to alleviate that problem of visibility would be to consider how individual contemporary poets relate to and diverge from important practices of large number of poets.

For now, I focus on aspects of poetry by Evie Shockley and Allison Joseph in relation to the works of 91 other poets who have produced volumes over the last 13 years. Shockley's and Joseph's contributions to black poetry are important because they promote the visual and creative approaches of black poetry. My work demonstrates the results of utilizing a dataset and statistical software to think about expansive trends among large numbers of poets. Although Shockley and Joseph are poets whose works I focus on specifically, they serve as important gateways into a larger body of writers who have similar characteristics in their writings.

The use of technology to advance examinations of African American poetry expands the conversation concerning black literature and digital humanities, a combination that has received little attention so far. Curating datasets that concentrate on black poetry is noteworthy because doing so allows us to think about a wide range of poets as opposed to one at a time. Scholars routinely focus on one or two or three poets in an article, but by focusing on dozens of poets at a time, we can produce "smart data" in consideration of the insights that volumes provide. In this case, smart files refer to the useful information that could be gained from utilizing a technological approach to expose more opportunities of viewing black poetry. Not all the issues regarding black poetry are compatible with the big data approach. Still, the challenge of giving contemporary poets exposure requires attention and the notion of gathering smart files and identifying trends with big data has the potential of serving as one option.

Poems by Shockley and Joseph reimagine and present more ways of reading standard poetry. But we do even more by displaying how their poems are not viewed in isolation, but suggestive of works by their contemporaries. The designs of Evie Shockley's illustrative poems present readers with an artistic alternative to reading standard poetry in verse or meter. Allison Joseph's production of 34 interrelated sonnets is suggestive of a broader practice of sonnet composition among several contemporary poets. Taken together, placing Joseph and Shockley in the context of 91 other poets who have produced volumes since 2000 will highlight the productions of black poets over 13 years. Furthermore, incorporating statisti- cal software reveals the significance of utilizing a large dataset on black poetry in order to help eliminate the barrier of identifying characteristics of a poets' work.

A Summary of Constructing a Dataset on African American poetry, 2000-2013

The "Black Poets by the Numbers: 2000-2013" project began in 2009 under the name "The Promise of Poetry." The idea was to introduce undergraduates to volumes of black poetry published since 2000. The select volumes were from Howard Rambsy's personal collection. At that time, the collection comprised approximately 100 volumes of poetry by African American men and women poets. Rambsy coordinated "browsing sessions" where students, who had relatively little access to contemporary volumes of poetry, could look through dozens of works by poets. In addition, Rambsy and his assistants began blogging about contemporary black poetry as well.

Emily Phillips assisted Rambsy with an early organization of the books, which result in the document, "African American Poetry: An Initial Bibliography of 104 Contemporary Volumes, 2000-2011" released online on July 2, 2011. …

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