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George Diepenbrock
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Project to focus on poetry that sprung from Civil Rights Era

Tue, 08/26/2014

LAWRENCE — As many iconic events of the Civil Rights Movement reach their 50th anniversary this decade, the University of Kansas' Project on the History of Black Writing will take a closer look at how such an influential period in American history spurred a new era of poetry.

"In the 1960s, if you think about the country as a whole, this is probably the busiest period for social change," said Maryemma Graham, HBW's founder and director. "One way of measuring what's happening is in the products. Poetry is certainly an art form, but in this case, poetry is also a product."

HBW recently received its 15th National Endowment for the Humanities grant in the project's more than 30-year history. The $156,000 grant will fund a second institute in 2015, Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement, as part of its special series, Don't Deny My Voice, which received initial NEH funding in 2012.

In addition to the study of African-American poetry written in the last 50 years, the grant will fund a 2015 institute on campus from July 19 to Aug. 1, 2015, in which 25 college and university teachers – known as NEH Summer Scholars — from across the country will study with residential and visiting faculty.

HBW 's partnership with the Ermal Garinger Academic Resource Center will again allow the institute to extend into the fall with a 2015 webinar series that is open to the public, similar to its 2013 institute, Don't Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry. HBW and EGARC have already confirmed twice as many webinars as DDMV I with some of the country's most well-known poets, including Sonia Sanchez, Nikky Finney, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kwame Dawes, Jessica Care Moore and Nathaniel Mackey.

Sarah Arbuthnot Lendt, who manages HBW's grants and institutes, said the first institute generated rich ideas and content for the Summer Scholars to take back to their own campuses.

"We knew from DDMV I that three weeks were not enough to get at the heart of some important issues," Arbuthnot Lendt said.

The new grant will build upon that work and allow for more intense focus on a strand of African-American poetry, beginning with the mid-1960s, a period commonly known as the Black Arts Movement.

"What you see happening to poetry both in its content and its style and the way in which people engage it reflects the questions that people are asking on the ground," said Graham, who is a University Distinguished Professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "This poetry is absolutely essential to our larger dialogue about what poetry is and what it does. We are only beginning to notice this now, perhaps because of the high visibility of a few of these poets."

The poets themselves experience shifting identities, make new art from old ones, but many of them and their related movements are part of an invisible archive, she said.

"The institute is our way of breaking free of prescriptive readings and the critical invisibility that limit our teaching and our ongoing scholarship," Graham said,

Artists and cultural workers in the mid-1960s extended their explorations of race and ethnic identity, expanding the sources for their art, and privileged African-American readers and general audiences in new ways, even as they no longer lived in distinct sectors defined by race. This literary art created a public space for poetry, pushing the boundaries of the genre. Once the space was there, subsequent generations of poets, regardless of their ethnic background, experienced a new freedom, Graham said.

"Today poetry is a highly diverse genre with different voices, operating in a range of traditions and contexts. What happened when writers took whatever was in their world and transformed it into art?" she said. "The unleashing of talent has earned great respect for black poetry. What does it mean for us to better understand the trajectory of black poetry and its roots in the Black Arts Movement, a movement largely responsible for this unleashing?"

The institute's first week will focus on The Demographics and Production of Contemporary Black Poetry, led by Howard Rambsy, an associate professor of literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

During the second week, the institute will focus on Contemporary Black Poetry and Form, led by Evie Shockley, poet and associate professor of English at Rutgers University. 

 "These are some tough questions because of the generational shift. There are poets who will say I am not a black poet," Graham said. "We're troubling this notion of race and what it means for the generations after the 1960s? There is a new black, so-to-speak that challenges the idea of post race. What is new about it?"

The inspiration for this second institute came from the loss of some of black poetry's iconic figures, including Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. The institute marks the centennial of the birth of Margaret Walker, the first black writer to win the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1942.

Prior to the summer institute, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, a webinar presenter in 2013, will be on KU's campus March 3-4 as part of the Humanities Lecture Series, by the Hall Center for the Humanities.

The institute website, http:dontdeny.ku.edu, also functions as one of KU's Digital Humanities sites to make important documents and resources available and downloadable allowing the public, including educators at other institutions, to gain access to the materials online.

The institute includes support from the Office of the Chancellor, the Provost, CLAS, and Spencer Museum of Art, and KU and Lawrence community members will be invited to participate in several events, readings and a panel.

"Artists are our prophets. They see the past. They see the future, when their imagination finds expression through art," Graham said. "Often it is black poets who show us an image of a different world, one we must look at. "



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