Poetry, Hip Hop, and Academia: A Discussion with Camille Rankine, Patrick Rosal, and Tracy K. Smith

Move with the crowds underground to take the A train uptown on a quintessential Manhattan evening in late April, the clouds having opened up the sky to all those glorious industrial gases from across the Hudson that can turn the western horizon an ink wash of pastels. Step onto West 4th Street in the Village, and if, like me, it’s poetry you’re after here in the historic sepia heart of beatniks, bongos, and berets in hip cafés, my friend, you’ll have to bump that copy of Howl or No Direction Home to the top of your Netflix queue, light up a French cigarette, and a dream a little dream of postwar counterculture on your own dime, because tonight the Village belongs to the poetry of a new millennium, brought to you by the good people of Cave Canem Foundation, who in 14 years of awarding a first-book prize to African American poets have introduced the country to a number of poets who have gone on to achieve significant reputations, including two Pulitzer Prize winners in Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith, one of the poets I’m off to see in The New School’s Wollman Hall.

Smith’s counterpart behind the long table this night of Jersey orange and blush is award-winning poet Patrick Rosal, a man short neither of words nor perspectives and gifted with a way of spinning them before a crowd. I walked in New York on time, but The New School keeps a truer clock. The hall was overflowing with people filling the seats and taking up camp along the back and sides.

Poet Camille Rankine moderated Smith and Rosal’s talk on craft, and as I entered she was asking them why the question “does poetry matter?” continues to come up with such frequency.

TKS: I think we’ve all had bad experiences in the classroom where teachers try to make you feel like there’s a joke or a trick in the middle of a poem that you have to riddle out. That perspective is working against the impulse of a poem, which I think, is to invite you in.

PR: How do I measure how much a student enjoys a poem? There’s not enough room for joy in academia.

Rankine shifted the conversation to Helen Vendler’s review of Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.

CR: Vendler’s battle with Rita Dove over her anthology begs the idea that the multi-cultural is adverse to quality, a watering down of quality.

TKS: The language and the pitch in that review are not measured, academic or rational. There’s something fearful and angry. Vendler takes cheap shots that are very uncharacteristic of her, and that reminds me of the way that certain political speech, without being explicit, is saying “I’m afraid, because this doesn’t look like me.”

CR: We’re all sitting up here, multicultural, obviously, and that’s great. Are there things about this current landscape, for minority writers and poets, that excite you, that interest you?

TKS: I feel like Cave Canem and Kundiman and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and other organizations with similar missions have really saved American poetry by bringing in so much energy, virtuosity, and different and necessary kinds of questions. The tradition is something that really moves; it’s liquid and fluid. And I feel like it’s hard to read work that’s coming out of these workshops and these contests and not recognize that any given poet can draw almost a sense of heritage from places that 25 years ago we would have thought to be impossible.

PR: I didn’t have many models. It’s so hopeful what’s poets coming up now, all the exciting new poets coming out.

As the conversation shifted to the audience Rosal was asked how hip hop had influenced his poetry.

PR: The most obvious lessons I learned from hip hop came from DJing and mixing as a DJ, the value of welcoming the unexpected or a mistake. There is a myth of purity and perfection in this culture and hip hop lets you be human, lets you learn from your mistakes. I learned you can do with language what DJs do with beats; you can move people.

The final question of the night came from an audience member who asked about process and why the poets wrote.

PR: You’ve got to read until your own poems start to cook. You’ve got to pay attention to the world.

When I left half an hour later, the line of audience members waiting to meet the poets still extended out the end of the aisle between the seats. The poets were still signing and talking and the rest of the audience was keeping the conversation going in small groups around the hall.


Photo Credit: Alison Meyers

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