The Difficult Miracle

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song edited by Kevin Young. New York: Library of America. 1170 pages. $45.

The cover of African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song

AMBER ROSE JOHNSON: In the face of this title, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song (Library of America, $45), you’re intentionally widening the geographic and aesthetic scope. It’s much more diasporic than “African American” might seem to suggest. And you have prose, songs, epics, formally constrained poems, poems that make us question what poetry can be, and look like, and do. What was your approach to the scale and scope of this anthology?

KEVIN YOUNG: The African diaspora is so rich and important, yet I couldn’t call it “Black Poetry” because that would be worldwide, and given its span of centuries, could barely be contained by any one volume. As is, the African American tradition can hardly fit either! At the same time, I don’t think you can call it African American poetry and not do some of those things you mentioned, including questioning what “African American” means, what “American” means, even what “poetry” means. In some ways, I was extending and expanding that tradition, including someone like Nicolás Guillén, who’s Cuban and is writing in forms explicitly influenced by African song. He was trying to find folk forms to write in much like fellow modernists and blues poets, for instance, of the early part of the twentieth century. I wanted to braid two traditions, formalism and experimentalism— which are not such opposites—or political and personal, which are sometimes seen as incompatible. In this, I’m led by the poets themselves. The younger generation and my generation feel really comfortable crossing those lines and taking what they need from whichever tradition they find themselves in. What I’m struck by now is when I flip through the book and say, “This poem is talking to that poem!” as they sit alongside each other by an accident of alphabet or chronology. That kind of conversation—of people talking to each other across pages, across generations, across eons—is really important and is actually not accidental. And so any one poem in the book, I hope, conjures the whole. Sometimes that requires messing the page up, poets well know. Claude McKay’s protest sonnets—he had to write them in that way—prove so much more powerful because that tension between what the sonnet is supposed to do as a love poem and the love and anger that he’s able to get in there. With examples like McKay or Angelina Weld Grimké, how can you write mild introductions or compile teeny anthologies? You have to represent that hugeness.

To sort of narrow my frame a little bit, there’s one set of poems that I was really excited to see: Lucille Clifton’s unpublished “Jump Rope Rhymes.” Can you say a little bit about them?

After I helped get Clifton’s archives to Emory University, right after they were processed and opened, she died, and I sat with her boxes of poetry and literally read everything we had. Every poem, every page. Among those poems were these jump-rope rhymes. It was a chance to put in some of that folk poetry that influenced her, that in this case she transcribed.

For at least one of them, I thought to myself, “I jumped to that!” They conjure up children’s voices and almost call for an embodied response.

And they’re typically Black and female creations. I think that’s also important. I really wanted to include the diversity of Black poetry, especially gender diversity.

I want to take a step back and talk about your role as the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and—soon to be—the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. You’re obviously a poet and a scholar deeply immersed in archives and historical research. How does your relationship to these institutions—where you’re archiving objects and media and a lot more than poetry—inform the way you construct an anthology as its own kind of archive?

You almost answered the question, I think! You have to compose poetry as a place of discovery and memory, which is what archives are. Sometimes people say they “found” something in the archive. Well, it was there to be found—that’s the point. As a curator, you are adding material to enable discovery in the future. The hardest thing is not discovering or rediscovering, it’s limiting those discoveries and making editorial choices.

It was really important to have a diversity of women’s voices and nonbinary voices in the anthology. And the process demands that because, especially in Black poetry, so much of it is not as recorded as you might wish—or downright neglected. And places like the Schomburg Center are places that kept this history always. The reason we have such a great collection of, say, Black Arts poetry or the world’s largest collection of Green Books is because we were collecting all along. We’ve always kept the flame alive.

Kevin Young. Photo: Melanie Dunea
Kevin Young. Photo: Melanie Dunea

Jumping to the present for a moment: There’s this fantastic prose poem by Khadijah Queen: “I want to not have to write another word about who the cops keep killing.” It spoke to me of a larger fatigue that a lot of us have been feeling for a while, especially now. Fatigue from political absurdity, Zoom fatigue, loneliness fatigue from the quarantine, fatigue from this pandemic. She writes at the end: “I cry Again because I want to not cry because I actually hate crying because none of my tears can offer resurrection none of my poems can offer resurrection none of my image searches can offer resurrection and I want us to stay alive.” That stopped me in my tracks. In a moment when we barely have time to read five-minute news articles, why is it important to have an anthology of poetry?

A poem like Queen’s insists we think about its subject, but it also admits the difficulty of writing in a time like this. Poetry offers testimony and intimacy. The lyric offers a voice across time, space, and even language. For a moment, you’re in that voice, you’re in that body, you’re in that “I,” and that’s an incredible technology. I really think of poetry as a mode of transport—transporting us in the largest sense. Sometimes the testimony is about a small thing, you know, a “difficult miracle” as June Jordan says. And sometimes it’s about larger societal forces. And I think the best poets recognize that those two things are intimately tied together.

Jamila Woods is the last poet in the anthology, and her poem “Ode to Herb Kent” is so good. It’s an ode to this Blackity Black, too-smooth disc jockey. It recounts the way that music and his love of Black culture kept people afloat in a very difficult time during the civil-rights movement. And I love that the anthology ends on that note, because it’s turning away to a moment of celebration and a moment of self-fashioning and posturing and community. I want to ask if there’s a poem in this collection that you reached for when you were like, “I need a feel-good poem,” or “I need a poem that makes me feel my Blackest self today”?

I don’t know if I would pick just one. I love Bob Kaufman, whose photo is here on my wall behind me. He has some poems like “Blues for Hal Waters” where he gets at the surrealism and the strangeness and the laughter of Blackness. Or a poem like Danez Smith’s “dinosaurs in the hood” poem. It reminds me of when I was in the Dark Room Collective, people would read crazy, wild poems that were able to hold your attention. We used to have to read to crowds in bars, and, not to romanticize it, but at readings where no one expected you to do anything, you best bring it. Or, even worse, the person right in front of you was Natasha Trethewey reading her great poems. And you’re like, “I’ve got to write and read my butt off tonight.”

A lot of folks think about a modern American canon starting with Walt Whitman, the Whitmanian line, and the Whitmanian “I.” I recently asked Erica Hunt about how she would describe a Black-feminist revision of the Whitmanian “I,” and she said, “Ubuntu: ‘I am, because we are.’” And that came to mind when you were talking about being in a collective space with Trethewey, and needing to be yourself—that self is contextualized by the community.

I think that collectives are concentrated community. And in some ways, they’re self-selected, and in some ways, they are these weird accidents of time and place. I would liken it to the Harlem Renaissance. Why that moment? It’s a confluence of these forces—some social, some personal—and these personalities that suddenly meet. I don’t think about the word “canon” much. I think: here are the writers who matter right now. I mean, Baldwin, is he in the canon? I guess, sure, he should be, now is, but canon or no canon, we have Baldwin. I think it’s important in a project like this to represent it as a fact, as opposed to a reclamation. I reread James Weldon Johnson saying there’s no people who’ve been great without great art, and if we have a poetry that’s great enough, it will prove our humanity. Now we’re like, “I’m not proving that, I’m just going to write and do the great-art part.” That is the change made by people like Johnson. I hope the anthology shows the freedom of writing right now and the freedom to write however you wish and be Black.

Part of what makes the “difficult miracle” is not just the conditions of being Black in America, but of using this language, this colonized, bloodied language. I’ll finish by asking about the way that poets help us think about language, and how to press on language that presses on us.

I have to go back to Phillis Wheatley, like the anthology does, a poet writing in enslavement and not in her original language. She made the language her own, under extreme constraints. I think you see the ways that there’s always been this resistance in language—sitting down to write can be a radical act. The poets who are in the anthology take that charge seriously—seriously enough to have a lot of fun on the page sometimes. You realize that you don’t have to choose—it’s laughing to keep from crying, it’s epic, it’s a sorrow song. It’s all the things that we are. If there’s anything that is worth thinking about, it is the ways that Black poets have been writing like this for a long time. Seeing the political in the everyday and seeing the miracle in the everyday. The struggle and the song. There’s a reason those two words are joined in the subtitle. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, but usually it’s this wondrous mix that Black people have created. And I hope the anthology is a testament to that.

Amber Rose Johnson is a poet, activist, and educator.