Last October, the Poetry Foundation celebrated its annual Poetry Day with a reading by Carolyn Forché and Jamaal May, both contributors to this magazine. It was a dynamic pairing of two masterful poets of witness who are very different from each other. Forché’s record of achievement extends across four decades; May’s first book was published just a couple of years ago. And though May can properly be said to speak for both himself and Forché when he describes his work as an exploration of “the uneasy spaces between disparate emotions, and by extension, the uneasy spaces between human connection,” these are poets who are utterly distinctive, even to the extent of having rather different audiences. This was made vivid as I watched the audience for the reading enter the auditorium of Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center.
The diversity of the crowd who had gathered to hear one or the other of these poets was striking and heartening, and I was especially happy to see a great many young poets affiliated with the organization Young Chicago Authors (YCA) taking their seats. YCA is known around the world for their Louder Than a Bomb program, founded in 2001 as a way, its website states, “to celebrate the identity of all people in a new and radically diverse public cultural space.” It has become the world’s largest youth poetry festival.
When I was the age of these writers, poetry and rock and roll filled a tremendous void in my life and in the lives of many others; for their generation it has been poetry and hip-hop. Therein lies both a kinship and a difference. I always avoid the discussions about whether hip-hop is poetry just as I didn’t care as a young person whether rock lyrics were or not. We embrace music and poetry of various kinds without contradiction: that’s the least negative capability can do for us. And I’d say that our Poetry Day reading was the embodiment of capaciousness and open-mindedness. Poets who had never read or heard of Forché clicked their fingers and vividly vocalized their enthusiasm for lines she read; and Forché fans, few of whom I daresay listen to much hip-hop, experienced the powerful and musical delight of Jamaal’s work.
I myself made a new friend that evening: Kevin Coval, YCA’s artistic director. As people were taking their seats, we had one of those animated poetry conversations that can happen so unexpectedly and gratifyingly — and vowed to undertake projects to move further forward this convergence of audiences. That is why this issue of Poetry, timed for National Poetry Month, features a selection of BreakBeat poets: in the pages that follow, readers will experience a “new American poetry in the age of hip-hop,” a resounding allusion to the resonant and groundbreaking 1960 anthology edited by Donald M. Allen, The New American Poetry 1945–1960. In fact, our feature is an excerpt from the book The BreakBeat Poets, published this month by Haymarket Books, and edited by Coval with Quraysh Ali Lansana and Nate Marshall. Like Forché’s, the work of the BreakBeat poets is crucially alive to our present moment. As the anthology’s editors say, this is work “for people who love Hip-Hop, for fans of the culture, for people who’ve never read a poem, for people who thought poems were only something done by dead white dudes who got lost in a forest, and for poetry heads.” In other words, it is for everyone.
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...