As a child, the first poem Tracie Morris, PhD, read by a Black writer was “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. Decades later, when Dr. Morris—now a distinguished visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—was getting her MFA, “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes was the only poem by a Black writer taught in a class on 20th-century poetry.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you seriously only giving me the poem that I read by Black writer when I was 5 years old?'” she recalls. “Why is it that the canon does not integrate these important voices that are on the pulse of time?”
A limited understanding of Black poets persists today. Many people know of Langston Hughes and maybe Audre Lourde. But there’s a gap between them. When Black poets get recognition, it’s primarily when they speak about the Black experience, says Dr. Morris.
“A lot of times, Black poets are put in a little teeny tiny box, and it’s like, ‘Tell us of your people.’ It’s very exoticizing and limiting,” says Dr. Morris. “It’s damaging because it reduces us as people. Black people have opinions on everything—just go to a Black barbecue. [This reduction] is a way of saying, ‘The only thing that we’re interested in is the way that you feel about yourself.’ In other words, you’re not a person of the world […] you’re just a Black person in the world. I don’t think that that’s helpful.”
There are many notable Black poets—of the present and the past—who don’t receive the widespread recognition they deserve. So many that asking Dr. Morris to choose 10 was a “very painful process,” she tells me. In order to include more of the many great poets she regards, she recommends two anthologies: The Vintage Book of African American Poetry ($17) and Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing ($40). The former is a must-read if you want to know about the history of Black poetry and contemporary Black poetry. (“It has to be on everybody’s bookshelf, it’s just fantastic,” she says.) Of the latter, which includes some of her own work, Dr. Morris says it presents “a beautiful range of all kinds of Black women’s voices.”
Dr. Morris herself is an extremely distinguished poet, performance artist, and researcher. She’s performed, researched, and presented work in more than 30 countries. Her art installations and performances have been featured at many national and international museums and galleries including The Museum of Modern Art, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and The Whitney Museum. She’s authored many books including Hard Kore: Poemes/Per-Form: Poems of Mythos and Place and Who Do With Words ($19).
To learn more about some of the Black poets Dr. Morris reveres, read about some of her favorites below.
10 important Black poets to add to your reading list
“Sekou Sundiata, MFA, was a great poet and he was also a really wonderful performer,” says Dr. Morris. “Sekou was great, you’ll see a lot of his recordings, he was really known as a recording artist, he didn’t publish a lot in books, but he did have an extraordinary presence in New York and throughout the world as a poet performer who worked with music and also did theater.”
Morris highlights one of Sundiata’s poems, “Blink Your Eyes.” “It’s about a young Black man who gets shot by the police, because they said he was running a red light. And I wanted to mention that particular poem because of the viral video that went out from that young man in Midland, Texas—Tye Anderson—whose 90-year-old grandmother stood in front of him so the police wouldn’t shoot him, and they said he had been running a stop sign in his case.”
“Nathaniel Mackey, PhD, MFA, is a giant and a genius and he is a poet that uses really extraordinary language to talk about African and African American traditions and culture,” says Dr. Morris. “He’s the one we all look up to.” Mackey is a poet, novelist, editor, and critic who teaches creative writing at Duke University. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Blue Fasa ($17), Nod House ($16), the National Book Award-winning Splay Anthem ($16). Many of his poems are also available to read online.
Lucille Clifton was “discovered” by Langston Hughes. “She’s just—she’s Lucille Clifton. It’s very hard for me to even start talking about her because she’s just a great poet,” says Dr. Morris. “One of the people who actually first published her and made sure that she got her first book out was the late great Toni Morrison, so I think that’s probably the only endorsement I need to make to kind of inform you about her status.” Her books Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 ($18) and Next: New Poems ($16), made her was the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. You can read some of her many poems here.
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and directs the school’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. Dr. Bertman has published poetry, prose, and essays in numerous journals and has received numerous honors including a 2017 Harvard University Woodberry Poetry Room Creative Grant. They are the author of the poetry collection Travesty Generator ($15) which received the 2020 Poetry Society of America Anna Rabinowitz Prize for interdisciplinary and venturesome work. You can read some of their work here.
Khadijah Queen, PhD, is a fantastic poet and playwright, says Dr. Morris. She an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and serves as core faculty for the Mile-High MFA in creative writing at Regis University. She’s authored five books including poetry collections Conduit ($15), Black Peculiar ($15), and Fearful Beloved ($16). Her sixth book, Anodyne ($16), is set to be released in August 2020.
Anaïs Duplan, MFA, a trans* poet, curator, and artist. His forthcoming book of essays, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture, is set to be released in September 2020. He’s also authored a full-length poetry collection, Take This Stallion ($18) and chapbook, Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus. He has taught poetry at the University of Iowa and Columbia University.
‘Gbenga Adeoba is an “up-and-coming poet who’s very important in the Black poetry scene in the United States and Africa,” says Dr. Morris. Adeoba’s first book, Exodus ($17), explores forms of migration due to the slave trade, war, natural disasters, and economic opportunities. It earned the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry.
Kam Hilliard, MFA, is one of Morris’ former students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “[Hillard] is doing some fascinating things and, really, I think articulates the angst and the energy of this moment, and has for a few years,” says Dr. Morris. “Their work is really really very intense, very energetic, and hard to put down.” During their time in the workshop, they published their third chapbook, henceforce: a travel poetic ($14). You can read some of their work here.
Yona Harvey is a poet and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Her first poetry collection, Hemming the Water ($16), received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her second poetry collection, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, will be released in September 2020. “She is just a really great poet with a lot of range and her work is super interesting,” says Morris. She also co-authored Black Panther spin-off comics Black Panther: World of Wakanda ($17) and Black Panther & The Crew: We Are the Streets ($17).
Asiya Wadud is a poet and a teacher at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. “She has a collection out called Crosslight for a Youngbird ($15), it’s a beautiful beautiful heartfelt collection that I think deserves attention,” says Morris. She also authored Syncope ($17) in 2019. Wadud leads an English conversation group for new immigrants at the Brooklyn Public Library. You can read more of her work here.
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