Black poetry institute at KU brings together experts of less-studied art form
Tyehimba Jess is reading aloud his first-person poem “martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935.”
The passage is intense, intimate. As Jess speaks, a murmured “mmm hmm” and “yes” float from the audience.
when your man comes home from prison,
when he comes back like the wound
and you are the stitch…
At this poetry reading, to say the audience is appreciative would be an understatement.
Before him in the room at the Kansas Union are 25 scholars from across the country, mostly university faculty members and a few advanced graduate students who specialize in black poetry. They’ve applied to be accepted, and they’ve spent months doing homework and reading assignments in advance to prepare for this gathering.
The scholars have converged on KU for a two-week summer intensive institute entitled “Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement,” which runs through Aug. 1 and is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their leaders are another dozen or so staff and faculty members teaching seminars and leading discussions.
Academics do this kind of gathering all the time — but not to study black poetry.
Maryemma Graham, distinguished professor of English at KU and founder of the Project on the History of Black Writing, is director of the institute.
“Poetry festivals, poetry slams — those are very popular,” she said. “A lot of people are doing it, but the writing about it, the understanding of it and the actual teaching of it is much more limited.”
The more people “do” black poetry the more important studying it becomes, Graham said.
“Whenever you get this explosion, you need to understand, who is it coming from? Why now? What does it mean?” she said. “We’re spending two weeks really examining these kinds of things.”
Jess, a faculty member for the institute, is an award-winning poet and an assistant professor of English at the College of Staten Island in New York.
His 2005 book “leadbelly” is a collection of poems inspired by the life of black blues musician — and, at times, prison inmate — Huddie William Ledbetter. Martha Promise was Ledbetter’s wife.
Jess reads on:
…you got to scrub loose the jailtime fingersmears
from ashy skin, lather down the cuffmarks
from ankle and wrist, rinse solitary’s stench loose
from his hair…
In a field that isn’t that widely studied, it’s “refreshing” to be surrounded by others committed to “advancing African-American poetry,” said another institute faculty member, Howard Rambsy II, associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University — Edwardsville.
The art form is characteristically “dynamic, lively and engaging,” Rambsy explained. Inspiration stems from a history of spoken word, there are links to rap and blues music, and themes often include struggles such as being liberated from slavery.
Hearing and reading such poetry is a way to get a better understanding of black history and culture, Rambsy said.
But it’s not just topics from the past.
“Martha promise” was written to capture a 1935 scene between Promise and her husband, Jess said.
The poem peeps into the life of a couple grappling with the prison industrial complex, alienation and vilification, he said. “It’s pretty much the same thing as talking about that in 2015.”
Jess’ reading concludes:
…and when he opens his eyes
you tell him calm and sure
how a woman birthed him
back whole again.
From his audience, applause.
Two public events are planned as part of the Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement Institute at KU.
• Taproom Poetry Series Featuring William J. Harris and Evie Shockley. 5 p.m. Sunday at Eighth Street Taproom, 801 New Hampshire St.
• Poetry Reading Featuring Harryette Mullen and Meta DuEwa Jones. 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St.