A version of the following was delivered by Adrian Matejka as the Blaney Lecture, “Let’s Stay Together: Notes About Black Poetry & Community,” on February 11, 2021.
It’s serendipitous that this is the 25th anniversary of Cave Canem. You can read a significant exploration of the organization’s history written by one of the early faculty members, Kwame Dawes, on the Cave Canem website. What follows is definitely not that. It’s more of a meditation on the ways we build community and what they might be good for while we’re all out here in the wilderness.
Because revisionism aside, Black poetry stayed in the wilderness in the 20th and early 21st century. We look back and talk about the Harlem Renaissance as the major movement and it was for Black people. The work being done earned that distinction even as it was a curiosity for readers outside of our community. We look at the Black Arts Movement and Callaloo literary journal in the early years and they were significant and vital for Black artists and writers even as the institutions and agencies with the money remained nonplussed.
That didn’t stop Mari Evans and Etheridge Knight and Lucille Clifton and Wanda Coleman from doing the work they were doing with more grace than the scholars and institutions that were ignoring them. They found ways to create community from local need. They found ways to build zeitgeist for themselves and for others in the critical margins.
Humming like Al Green
Just outside of Detroit, June 2002, and the wood-embossed corridors of the Cranbrook Academy of Art were wide but not especially well lit. So when I stepped through the long walkway and into Kingswood Hall, it was as if someone opened up all the curtains on a bright Sunday. The Cave Canem welcome circle where poets, younger and elder, adorned, beautiful, and dangerous were arranged elliptically in fold-out chairs. The bland lights flickering on the ceiling and in the sconces lining the walls didn’t stand a chance.
There were nearly sixty luminous Black poets in attendance. I recognized some of them from their author photos and a couple of others from readings or conferences. The intensity of all that lyricism was mesmerizing, their smiles reassuring, and I didn’t know how to act while being immersed in all of that Black splendor. Like many poets I carried—and still carry—deep insecurities about language, about my poetic genealogy and history. I worry over whether or not the work I’m trying to do is legible and sustainable. So to be in the same room with poets I’d been borrowing from for years was exhilarating and profoundly exhausting.
These details might not seem significant, but they are to me. The lights again, with their unfocused but expansive halos, like the smudged ring around a lamp in the backdrop of a polaroid. The ornate wood, ubiquitous as music. The sounds of the room, too, settling like music as we each found a seat in that egalitarian circle. Who imagined such acoustics? The feeling that I myself was unfolding and expanding and if I continued to swell, the chair I was sitting in might not be able to hold all of me. This is what community can feel like. All of this and the internal arpeggio of belonging.
Protest & Homily
Here’s some history: Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady built Cave Canem from the music of the many writers of the Black Diaspora, but also from their need. They had done the tough, megaphone work alone on the dais. The protest work in abandoned attics. The kind of rough-knuckled work necessary to make a variance of poetry that can be shouted on an empty street and still be revolution or homily.
I wasn’t there for those foundational movements, but I was there with deep need for it the entire time. Solo in the middle of an Indianapolis suburbs, the lingering history of marginalization in every book I was assigned in high school.
Sharing the truth is the most unfettered, incendiary poetry.
Cave Canem faculty Nikky Finney taught me that under the right auspices poetry can be a bright freedom narrative. Yusef Komunyakaa taught me that Black poetry can be a manifesto against our corrupt government and its tin-eared systems. Marilyn Nelson taught me that history is never what they tell you if you approach it with wisdom. Over a snack at 2 am, Al Young taught me to straighten up and play from the gut. So many possibilities in poetry and prose for Black writers and we are able to be us because of those who came before us.
Mnemonics of Isolation
I’m thinking about that long-ago and radical writing retreat right now for many reasons, not the least of which is pandemic loneliness. Writing alone for nearly a year reminds me of my undergraduate study, during which I never took a workshop or writing seminar with another Black student or with a Black poet leading the discussion. I was an oasis without the requisite palm tree and blue water for the thirsty traveler, a blue dot on someone else’s interstellar photo.
I’m mixing metaphors here because neither of them seem to address the fluidity of identity and how isolating it can be when none of your own metaphors fit neatly. I’m thinking about all of this now in 2021, back home in Indiana as my neighbors still goose-step masklessly under their billowing flags of racism at the same time others climb the U.S. Capitol walls before spilling into those marbled halls, epithets where their mouths should be. The insurrectionists were high-fiving each other between chants in the Great Rotunda.
Meanwhile, my team can’t dap each other, can’t give each other a pound or a real-time what’s up unless it’s on a screen. The flip, slip, grip, then ha-ha of handshakes is only a line in my notebook now, not a held memory. The tenuous head nod on the way to the basketball court is fading, too, and now I can’t smell the hardwood or remember the collective sound everyone makes after gets shook by a cross over. All of it is as absent as chance encounters at the bookstore now. We are solo in the attic and haven’t figured out how to replace handwritten letters with poems.
What I’ve learned during this pandemic is isolation inspires nostalgia and nostalgia evokes an even more significant need for fellowship with my writing community in a way that Cave Canem afforded me so long ago.
Like many Americans, I’m part of too many communities and identities to be honest about any of them. At the same time, identity and community are front row in contemporary poetry. Some of my communities are chosen for me by racists and type-casters and airport security and grocery stores clerks. Others are simply autobiographical facts: I’m a Black man, but I was raised by my white mother. I sometimes write about urban landscapes but I’m from the more agrarian Midwest. I was born into a soundtrack of jazz and funk, but I raised myself up on the rap cassettes I got as third generation dubs from my friend Che’s cousin from the Bronx.
To be a poet is to necessarily be generations away from the big world of days while also dreaming of momentary, visceral connections of community. I can feel the distance like a sickness I haven’t gotten yet.
A White Poet Says It Out Loud
A while back, I did a talk for Cave Canem in Brooklyn about poetry and stand up comedy. The talk was open to anyone who was interested and we chopped it up about Dave Chappelle, Moms Mabley, and Richard Pryor. After, a white poet approached me and challenged the exclusivity of the CC retreat. “Why can’t I attend Cave Canem? Excluding white people is another form of racism.”
That entitlement, that belief that even the language and gestures of Black folks are the purview of Whiteness is as built into the poetry community as it is into America itself. It’s what allows some white poets to imagine they can take a nom de plume from another cultural community and still make it into the pages of Best American Poetry. It’s what allows some white poets to write in blackface and be confused by the backlash. “If you don’t understand what I’m doing, you’re not the audience” is a familiar diminishing dismissal by these poets.
This might not seem like it’s about community, but it is: when there’s no acknowledgement of a culture and its artistry, some opportunistic somebody will try to claim it. The Black Arts Movement made that squatting more difficult. Callaloo, Cave Canem, the Darkroom Collective, and the Black Took Collective have all made it more difficult to heist a community’s stories and signifiers under the auspices of “art”. It’s about the physiology of colonialism as much as it is about the psychology.
The Sweet Science
The science of community is simple even if the psychology of it is not. We need to be around people, for our poetry and for ourselves. Our bodies respond to pheromones and they activate serotonin. We get addicted to those serotonin stimulations and their requisite sonnets of flashback and want, then call it love. We need those pheromones when they’re gone and call it being lovesick. No, we need those hips and gestures and memories and call it lovesick. Technically we are sick. When a cherished friend or partner is absent, our bodies go through withdrawal—no pheromones, no serotonin, no mornings lingering in the coffee steam. Being a poet in the wilderness, or in a pandemic, is a little like being lovesick. Poets need other poets—either on the page or in the world—in order to be our best selves. Poets need community in order to engage with and activate their visions and ideas. Thoreau acted like he was solo by the pond, but in fact a freed slave, Zilaph White was his neighbor. The myth of the monolithic writer is more about exclusion than empowerment.
The Poetry of Place
Nearly all of us are writing in seclusion right now, working through variations of what it means to be acapella without a chorus, what the audience looks like in an empty room. Cave Canem was about finding the audience I never knew I was looking for, primarily because that audience seemed impossible in the 1990s. Of course, I was always going to be one of the only ones in my little literary terrarium because there could only be one like the 3 Black poets who had won the Pulitzer Prize: Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Of course, I’d have to write my way through whiteness. Of course, writing is a lonely art made even lonelier by its homogeneity. That’s the American way and it was that way growing up in the suburbs of Indianapolis as well, though for different reasons.
When I was a kid in Indianapolis, we would go on the same field trip each year to the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home. I don’t remember anything about those field trips or the poetry they talked about except that everything in the home seemed like an antique—the furniture, the leather books with their resplendent gold pages, the words themselves. The historic house was the only lasting testament to literature in the city back then.
Now there’s a black and white mural of James Whitcomb Riley wearing a top hat off of Michigan Street. His glasses are attached to his waistcoat by an ornate chain. There’s a mural of Kurt Vonnegut smiling in a rumpled trench coat on one end of Massachusetts Avenue, a street that cuts through my city’s cultural areas. Placing the mural there makes sense because Vonnegut once said “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis.”
But, on the other end of Massachusetts Avenue is a mural of Mari Evans, resplendent artist, enabler of Black voices in poetry, prose, and beyond. In the image, she looks like she’s heard this part of the story before, the one where a Black woman does immeasurable amounts of cultural work without getting any support or credit until much later. (Hello Gwendolyn Brooks, hello Lucille Clifton, hello June Jordan.) People outside of this city most likely know Vonnegut and may have a vague memory of Whitcomb Riley. But those of us in the city, those of us from the city, know Mari Evans as the poet of Indy. She, along with Etheridge Knight, is the real foundation of poetry in the Circle City. They built poetry communities even as they built poetry constituencies.
In a lot of ways, Black poetry in Indianapolis is a microcosm of Black poetry in America. The first collection of poetry written by a Black American poet is Phyllis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and it includes the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and in the poem, race is lensed through the gaze of the enslavers: “Some view our sable race with scornful eye, / ‘Their colour is a diabolic die’.” A Black woman doing the ear and heart work that the racists of her time refused to imagine was possible. She wasn’t writing in conversation as much as she was trying to create conversation. What else could she do in those times of chattel and murder while she used poetry to define herself?
There was nobody for her to be in conversation with even if she was allowed to do so. She did have conversations with Black abolitionists which I imagine made a different kind of poetry. It’s frustrating to be the first. It’s exhausting and lonely to be the only. Mari Evans’s extraordinary poem “I Am a Black Woman” was published two hundred years after Phyllis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” and Ms. Evans shifts the lens:
I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
She wasn’t the only Black woman in Indianapolis, but she wrote for those women who felt like nobody saw them. And maybe, those who felt like nobody wanted to hear their verses. In absence of immediate, tangible community, there can be a community of commiseration. There can be a community of words that defies space and time and circumstance.
Third Space & Its Inhabitants
Mari Evans’s “I Am a Black Woman” makes me think of Homi K. Bhabha’s idea of third space communication from The Location of Culture. The way he put it, individual cultures have individual communicative patterns and the patterns across communities don’t line up. We can’t communicate directly. Instead, we stumble around, antagonize and fetishize, then, finally, create a third communicative space for conversation.
Bhabha’s idea isn’t unique in therapy circles, but it makes sense in poetry. Poets dialogue with conflicting cues and habits. In this time of masks and distance, we can’t even communicate with the person standing in front of us at the grocery store, let alone a musician in Argentina or a chemist in New Mexico. It reminds me of something Miles Davis once said: “If you understood everything I said, you’d be me.” Maybe the pandemic mask is the real third space.
This is where poetry becomes the poetry of community. No matter how much some poets try to deconstruct or reconstruct, poetry is about communication: conveying ideas, music, and imagery to our perceived audience that may or may not recognize the appropriate poetic cues. By its nature as an artistic construct, poetry is already a third space of communication—not the poet, not the audience, but a part of both. Essentially poetry works in the same way Bhabha describes only without the power dynamics. The real challenge— the challenge for Black poets—is the complications of our voices, the lack of amplification of our voices, the historical lack of institutional support for our work.
These Institutions & Our Heroes
In 2006, I was part of a reading at the Gwendolyn Brooks Conference at Chicago State. Some of my friends and heroes were participants, among them Patricia Spears Jones and Patricia Smith. Frank X. Walker and Marilyn Nelson. Lynn Thompson and Major Jackson. Lillian Yvonne Bertram and Quincy Troupe. Everyone in attendance recognized that we were sharing words in the shadow of Ms. Brooks and brought it in accordingly. Patricia Smith read from the manuscript that would become her National Book Award-finalist collection Blood Dazzler, which inspired me to finally start writing poems for The Big Smoke. It was the way she scaffolded history and its attendant memories that pushed me out of my research and into monologue.
One night after the readings, a few of us were hanging out at the hotel bar while a dude with a Jheri curl sang covers of the Commodores and Al Green accompanied by keyboard player and guitarist. Of course he sang “Let’s Stay Together” and of course we tried to harmonize with him in the habit of poets. We created a third space between that lounge singer, Al Green’s magnificence, and our suspect poetry key. Somewhere between songs, Patricia Spears Jones made the point (and I’m paraphrasing) that younger Black poets didn’t understand what it was like before Cave Canem and without meaning to, gave me the idea that started this essay.
I’m thinking about all of this because I wanted to use this talk to examine some of the Black women whose poetry has inspired me and who worked outside of the familiar communities using the Black Arts Movement and Cave Canem as the framework. Wanda Coleman and Ai, for example. Lucille Clifton. Elizabeth Alexander and Patricia Smith. Allison Joseph and Patricia Spears Jones. There are many, many more, including Black male poets like Melvin Dixon and Jay Wright. But I’m also thinking locally, about Mari Evans and the ways she was not as vocally or materially supported here in Indianapolis as Etheridge Knight was. I’m thinking about the ways that Black women create spaces for everybody else, but are so rarely offered that same space in return.
I’m also thinking about the physical and emotional exhaustion of creating spaces. I spent most of my time as Poet Laureate of Indiana on two projects: creating a series of movable community workshops for people in underserved communities and building an archive at the Indiana State Library for Indiana poetry. I had so much help in my efforts from the Indiana Humanities, Indiana Arts Commission, the State Library, the Center for Black Literature and Culture, and the Academy of America poets among other local organizations. But even with all of that help and the resources I was provided, the work was exhausting. I had no energy day to day for my own poems because the work of creating spaces for other people came from the same body place. To do that with the vitality and relentlessness of Toi and Cornelius year after year is unimaginable to me.
So I hope this is a talk of praise as much as a talk that examines the ways we create community outside of the very institutions that were created to be community spaces. The giveback of community which doesn’t always exist. And the unsayable fact is institutions, even the most well-meaning, are exclusive by their very existence. None of them have the resources necessary to support everybody and there isn’t enough room for everybody in any movement. Somebody always gets left outside of it. Too often in American poetry that somebody has been Black women.
Attitudes & Indiana Questions
One of the things missing from poetry and America at large is a more capacious community of transcendence. A community that preferences the artisan’s wellbeing over the commerce of the art. In Indiana, we had Lyles Station, a community built by free Blacks on land they purchased in the 1840s that was welcoming of everybody. We know that name and the history even as the town is now called an “unincorporated community.” Unincorporation isn’t a bad thing. What about all the people who protected each other from lynch mobs and random violences in this complicated state? What about the unnamed people who took care of each other then and now because the government and other institutions are unwilling to do so? It’s only a small shuffle from the biography of uplift to enacting it. That’s especially true in poetry. Right now, there are more poets from the Black Diaspora writing in apartments and offices and church pews and apple orchards than any time before. How are we going to continue to enact for them? How are we going to create inclusive spaces for them when the spaces have been repurposed in ways that never consider the acoustics or the lighting? Singing along with Al Green is a start, but if you can hum like he does.