Finger Snaps & Incense: 5 Living Black Poets To Know & Read

February 1, 2013  |  

For some time I have known of the lone African-American created poetic form, the kwansaba.  During last year’s Kwanzaa celebration, I decided to try writing a few kwansabas. Caught up in Afro-Cuban imagery and candle flames, I overheard an elder at Kwanzaa talk about artifacts of black Americans. Her words made me think about the age of poetic forms like the sonnet or blank verse as compared with the youth of kwansabas. In my mind, a sign read poems=artifacts. I started to get excited and wrote three kwansabas.  I said to myself, You gotta create an artifact, you gotta find the magic.

Finding magic in poetry is easy; language sometimes seems like the dopest trick. The poetic interpretation of magic might be duende. Duende is an almost indescribable energy, if not soul that expresses the passions of our lives. Our passions are complex, and I think it’s essential to read poetry in the same way we listen to music

These five black poets are especially good at recognizing our complexity as humans, individuals and citizens. Because rap is poetry and accented poetry to dope (or mediocre) beats is rap, I decided to include a line from a rap song that captures some part of each poet’s work.

For I be speaking from my parables (Gang Starr from “You Know my Steez”)

Terrance Hayes’ poetry connects masculine and feminine principles in an endless joy of hip narratives. When I read him closely I detect more than familiar experiences and expressions. I see hard-won wisdom from a young, old soul. Read Hip Logic.

Those who could relate know the world ain’t cake (Fugees from “Ready or Not”)

One of A. Van Jordan’s books includes my favorite subjects, black girls. His work feels to me like he could go from writing poems, to directing movies to being a bartender with clever one-liners. Read MACNOLIA.

Have no fear, the camera’s here (Lupe Fiasco from “Superstar”)

The people that populate Patricia Smith’s poems are authentic, raw; they are everyone and everywhere as much as they are themselves in the eye of hurricane Katrina. Smith’s language and form capture the cruelty and imminence of living, dying and surviving. Read Blood Dazzler.

Get ya third eye poked (Common from “Thelonius”)

Last year, Tracy K. Smith became the fifth black person and the fourth black woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry. Her poems are quiet sometimes in that the reader should bring a level of specificity, of noise. In her poems, the truth is there in its shifty, mirror way of being anywhere we claim it to be. Read Life on Mars.

But mama got wise to the game (Pete Rock from “Reminisce Over You”)

Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer winner, often writes about place—the Deep South, and her mother—a black woman who married a white man. Her poems have a superior handle of history, voluble personas and memorable imagery.  Read Domestic Work.

Once you’re done reading, why not try to write a kwansaba? And the next time you download a CD, consider downloading a book of poems. The next time you catch a concert, consider catching a poet reading their work. More than financial support to artists and getting out the house, I get a sense of being in on something magical when I experience good art.

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