Rita Dove

A Bold Gesture
Notes from the Editor

Callaloo 24.3 (2001) vi-viii Summer

This issue continues the celebration of the founding and the first appearance of Callaloo in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As such, this issue is a continuation of the project begun in the preceding numbers, Winter 2001 and Spring 2001. While the preceding issues of the journal focus, respectively, on the Confederate flag controversy and on the best of Callaloo prose, this number of the journal presents a selection of the best of the poetry printed in Callaloo since its inception in 1976. Here, when I say "the best of," I am referring to what I argued elsewhere. During these times when poststructuralist studies reigns as the most engaging mode for literary and cultural studies, I realize that such a claim as "the best of" is a bold gesture that is not without its own consequences, not a few of which might prove to be awkward or, even worse, disturbing. And yet, in spite of those consequences, I am prepared to argue that the selection process I have deployed for this project is simple: it is predicated on ideational and aesthetic concerns which I always keep in mind when I select work at a given time for a particular issue of the journal.

This issue of Callaloo also reflects the demographic scope of the quarterly. Although we have published creative and critical texts by writers from various racial and ethnic groups, including many from the African continent, the focus of Callaloo is the African Diaspora--that is, countries in the Caribbean, North America, South America, and Europe. And, in spite of the artificial barriers of language and distance, we publish work by and about writers of African descent from those regions, translating into English works by authors who write in Portuguese, French, Dutch, Spanish, and other languages. In an effort to publish writers from different linguistic groups and from different countries, I hope to engage African-American writers in conversation, however indirectly or directly, with other writers of the African Diaspora. What does it mean for Brenda Marie Osbey, Yusef Komunyakaa, or Natasha Trethewey to discover the Brazilian poet Edimilson de Almeida Pereira? Does the work of Dominican fiction writer José Alcantara Almánzar have any implications for such writers as Thomas Glave, Helen Elaine Lee, or Charles Johnson? How would Rita Dove, Jay Wright, John Edgar Wideman, or Percival Everett read texts by Astrid Roemer, Maryse Condé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Ana Lydia Vega, and Aimé Césaire? And vice versa. Then, too, what of our literary and cultural critics--for example, Mae Henderson, Brent Edwards, and Marlon Ross? Do texts by such West Indian writers as Jamaica Kincaid, Wilson Harris, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite affect the critical tools of these and other African Americanists? Ultimately, the question is how does reading in translation (or in the original language) or across geo-political boundaries engage the reader in the literature of another--however related--cultural, national, or linguistic group? To engage the U.S. American reader in the literary cultures of other countries in the African Diaspora--such, first of all, is the aim of Callaloo's international scope.

Although the general focus of Callaloo is the African Diaspora, the first and foremost commitment of the journal is to literature and culture produced by people of African descent native to the United States. Only eleven of the fifty-nine poets represented here either are second-generation immigrants or were born and/or live outside the United States. Therefore, the contents of this issue are largely a reflection of the production of African-American poetry of the past twenty-five years.

One feature which distinguishes the African-American poetry assembled here is its dramatic departure from the poetry of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. While I argue that the poetry is a departure, I must acknowledge that one of the generations of poets in this number of Callaloo wrote during the Movement but were not part of it. Poets like Jay Wright, Lucille Clifton, Clarence Major, Michael Harper, Audre Lorde, Gerald Barrax, and Ed Roberson wrote during that period but did not subscribe to the Movement's dictum that black poets should write solely for and about black people. These and a few other poets constitute what I call the First Group, the oldest of the three generations of poets represented here, but writers who, during the height of the revolutionary Movement, produced poems which did not follow its political and social dicta. As artists and as individuals, these poets remained true to themselves and to the culture (or cultures) which fashioned them. And yet the culture itself was not the subject or theme of their poems; rather, like the blues and jazz artists, these poets used the culture as one of the means of exploring issues common to all humanity. Perhaps their aesthetic position was not unlike that of fiction writer Ernest Gaines, one of their contemporaries, who argues in a Callaloo interview (May 1978) that he never writes "for any particular group. I try to write," he continues, "well enough so that everyone can pick up my book and say 'I like this.' A black child in this country can pick the book up and say, 'I like it.' This same I hope of a Chinese child, or a Russian child, or a Russian teacher. I never think of any particular audience. But I think of writing as well as I can. . . ."

The poets in the First Group privately and publicly affirmed and supported black communities and their causes, but they created poems which appealed to readerships inside and outside Black America. They witnessed the Black Arts Movement in all its positives and negatives, but these poets did not enlist their voices in its socio-political campaign.

Perhaps the central problem of the writers of the Black Arts Movement was their willingness to enclose themselves too tightly in their blackness and make it the subject of their work, rather than using racial identity to raise larger questions about modern or postmodern humanity, while still challenging the politics and power of White America. The First Group represented here, then, took their blackness as a given while addressing issues confronting both cultural and national identities. The Second Group--represented by the generation of Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Thylias Moss, Nathaniel Mackey, Ai, Toi Derricotte and others--similiarly confronts the complexity of identity. In fact, their poems moved African-American poetry to the private sphere--and yet I do not mean that they exiled themselves to that self-absorbed and self-pitying world which many European-American poets inhabit. Interior life--as opposed to the exterior world of our larger political, social, and economic struggles--is the landscape from which the Second Group explores the larger world. And that landscape, along with the individual selves or voices represented in their poems, is the metaphor for all the globe and its humanity. Their efforts and achievements are revolutionary: never before Rita Dove or Yusef Komunyakaa has the black poet successfully positioned the African-American self or persona as representative of humankind.

The Third Group--Sharan Strange, Kevin Young, Forrest Hamer, and Thomas Sayers Ellis, among others, immediately come to mind--continues the Second Group's examination of the family and particular personas, for example, but, educated after the Civil Rights Movement, these younger poets are daring and transgressive. For them, no subject is taboo in poetry. Even though they are conversant with many of the issues the Black Arts Movement raised and even though their work is obviously influenced by the poets of the preceding two groups, the poets in the Third Group are not willing to make blackness the only defining point of their poetry or of themselves. For them, blackness is only one possibility. There are other significant components of one's identity, they would argue, and one of them, for example, is sexual orientation and sexual practices. In much of the poetry of Carl Phillips, another member of this third generation, these components sometimes take center stage along with the influence of his formal education in ancient Latin and Greek literature. In this age of surface individualism in the arts, Thomas Sayers Ellis unmasks communal or collective vulnerabilities. In poems as disparate as private meditations and public performances, he uses the lense of popular culture to discover and recover soul aesthetics or practices in order to mend or restore home and community. One has to be careful, however, not to make the assumption that this young generation of poets arrived at these transgressive moments without building on the work of their predecessors. Whether or not they are aware of it, the architects and advocates of the Black Arts Movement--through their examples of assaults, defiance, and resistance--gave the Third (and Second) Group permission to write as they do now: from the work of Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, along with their contemporaries like Jay Wright and Michael S. Harper, for example, comes the work of both the Second and Third Group, the poetry of Thylias Moss and Kevin Young, of Yusef Komunyakaa and Natasha Tretheway, and of Rita Dove and Forrest Hamer. As represented in this special issue of Callaloo , African-American poetry of the last twenty-five years is transgenerational, and for all of its sharp departure from the poetry of the Black Arts Movement, it is part of the traditions which produced Frances Harper, Melvin Tolson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, June Jordan, Countee Cullen, Amiri Baraka, Phillis Wheatley, and Sonia Sanchez. African-American poetry of the last twenty-five years also bears the mark of influences from other literary and cultural traditions, including the African, the European, and the European-American.

The purpose of this issue of Callaloo , like the two preceding, is to celebrate the journal's achievements: its twenty-five year life and its contributions to developing, promoting, and recording literatures in the Black Diaspora during the last quarter of the 20th century. That achievement establishes an historic record. And that record constitutes future memory, heralding a great chorus of writers. As it was twenty-five years ago, Callaloo is uniquely positioned to provide a stage from which that chorus may be heard.

-- Charles Henry Rowell

 

 

 
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