Letter From the Director

Every poet must confront a serious problem; how to reconcile one’s private preoccupation with the need to make poetry that is both accessible and useful to others.”

Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2004)
Don't Deny My Song: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition

Welcome to Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry, an NEH summer institute sponsored by the KU Project on the History of Black Writing in conjunction with the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. Most of us would admit that poetry can elude us, and yet it continues to stir our passions; we never fail to embrace it on every occasion imaginable. It is our barometer of social change, allowing us to crystalize ideas into unique landscapes of language. While poetry raises some of the most critical questions that emerge in today’s academy and in the larger society that surrounds us, whether our role is that of teacher, writer, critic, we know that it continues to operate on the margins of culture. African American poetry has inserted itself into numerous debates, literally fighting its way into recognition—most recently with some major successes. It is precisely because African American poetry engages with the pertinent questions --about form and function, about academic and popular culture, about aesthetics and politics-- that compels us to give it special attention.

We have organized the institute into three weeks, each offering a close reading of a major period of African American poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries, where we simultaneously see tradition and innovation, continuity and change. By looking at key concepts of climate: where does poetry come from, under what conditions has it been produced and by whom; community: what is the relationship between audience, the poet and the poem; and culture: what does poetry mean, what does it do, and what values does it espouse, we draw attention to the multiple sites and forms of black poetry production and practice today. In addition to reading the poets themselves and contemporary criticism, we will bring back several important classics, including J. Saunders Redding’s To Make a Poet Black (1939), and Eugene Redmond’s Drum Voices, The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976). A more recent addition to the critical literature is the work of Lorenzo Thomas, the poet’s poet and the teacher’s teacher, who had an intimate knowledge of the cultural and intellectual workings of expressive culture and especially poetry. His five volumes of poetry and two remarkable studies Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2000) and Don’t Deny My Song: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition (2008), the volume from which we’ve adapted our title, have earned him a special place in Black Poetry Studies. We are pleased to dedicate this institute to his memory and take the lessons we learned from him forward.

The Don’t Deny My Voice summer institute will be an event, a gathering of scholars, including Aldon Nielsen, Tony Bolden, Joanne Gabbin, Meta Jones, Edgar Tidwell, R. Baxter Miller, Howard Rambsy, Jerry Ward, and Adam Bradley, as well as poet practitioners like Traci Morris. Most importantly, it is a place where your voice will be among those we look forward to hearing.

Maryemma Graham
Institute Director