How Black poets and writers gave a voice to ‘Affrilachia’


‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Imaging/Imagining.’
Photo by Raymond Thompson, Jr.

Amy M. Alvarez, West Virginia University and Jameka Hartley, University of Alabama

Appalachia, in the popular imagination, stubbornly remains poor and white.

Open a dictionary and you’ll see Appalachian described as a “native or inhabitant of Appalachia, especially one of predominantly Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestry.”

Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.

But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.

Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”

Upending a ‘single story’ of Appalachia

In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.

Black Appalachians have long been, as poet and historian Edward J. Cabbell put it, “a neglected minority within a neglected minority.”

Five Black children stand in the foreground while a white boy stands in the background.
A 1935 Farm Security Administration photograph of kids in Omar, West Virginia.
Library of Congress

Nonetheless, throughout the 20th century, Black Appalachian writers like Nikki Giovanni and Norman Jordan continued to write and wrestle with what it meant to be both Black and Appalachian.

In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.

By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”

Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.

It caught on.

In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.

A unique style emerges

Roughly 9% of Appalachian residents are Black, and this renders many of the region’s Black people “hypervisible,” meaning they stick out in primarily white spaces.

Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.

Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.

Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:

        He told me
  of my great uncle who, Depression era,
  loaned white townspeople venison
  and preserves. Later stood off
  the same ones with a gun
  when they wanted his property.

An Affrilachian future

We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.

Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.

In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”

Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]The Conversation

Amy M. Alvarez, Assistant Teaching Professor, English, West Virginia University and Jameka Hartley, Instructor of Gender & Race Studies, University of Alabama

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a mass suicide by slaves caused the legend of the flying African to take off



Like the best myths, the tale of Igbo Landing and the flying African seems to transcend boundaries of time and space.
Victor_Tongdee/iStock via Getty Images

Thomas Hallock, University of South Florida

In May 1803 a group of enslaved Africans from present-day Nigeria, of Ebo or Igbo descent, leaped from a single-masted ship into Dunbar Creek off St. Simons Island in Georgia. A slave agent concluded that the Africans drowned and died in an apparent mass suicide. But oral traditions would go on to claim that the Eboes either flew or walked over water back to Africa.

For generations, island residents, known as the Gullah-Geechee people, passed down the tale. When folklorists arrived in the 1930s, Igbo Landing and the story of the flying African assumed a mythological place in African American culture.

Though the site carries no bronze plaque and remains unmarked on tourist maps, it has become a symbol of the traumatizing legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery. Poets, artists, filmmakers, jazz musicians, griots, novelists such as Toni Morrison and pop stars like Beyoncé have all told versions of the tale.

They’ll often switch up the story’s details to reflect different times and places. Yet the heart of the original tale, one of longing for freedom, beats through each of these retellings. The stories continue to resonate because those yearnings – whether they’re from the cargo hold of a sloop or the confines of a prison cell – remain just as intense today.

Sourcing the story

As an academic trained in literary history, I always look for the reasons behind a story’s origins, and how stories travel or change over time. Variations of the flying African myth have been recorded from Arkansas to Canada, Cuba and Brazil.

Yet even as the many versions cut across the Black diaspora, the legend has coalesced around a single place: St. Simons. An entry in the Georgia Encyclopedia makes a direct correlation between the 1803 rebellion mass suicide and the later, literary folkloric tradition.

Why? One reason is geographic.

St. Simons, part of the archipelago that stretches from Florida to North Carolina, long remained separate from the mainland United States. This isolation allowed African customs to survive, where elsewhere they were assimilated or vanished. Historian Melissa L. Cooper describes the Gullah-Geechee people as cultural conservators, tasked in popular culture with the duties of preservation.

A sticker celebrating the Geechee heritage is seen on a pickup truck as passengers board a ferry.
The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of enslaved people who reside on the Southeast coast of the U.S.
AP Photo/David Goldman

Serendipity also played a role in siting the story. When a causeway from mainland Brunswick to St. Simons was built in 1924, folklorists literally followed a paved route into the past. During the New Deal, the Works Project Administration funded an oral history project that involved interviewing formerly enslaved people, and the flying African story was recorded in “Drums and Shadows,” the classic volume that published interviews from the project.

One Works Project Administration interviewer recorded St. Simons raconteur Floyd White asking, “Heahd about Ibo’s Landing. Das duh place weah dey bring duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship.”

They “staht singing and de mahch right down in duh ribbuh” – Dunbar Creek – and “mahch back tuh Africa.” But they never get home, White adds: “Dey gits drown.”

Floyd White is a key source on the flying African, though as the hackneyed written transcription of his interview suggests, questions linger. The Ebos, by his account, walk, rather than fly, across the water. White allows that he does not personally believe the myth; he says they drowned.

Stories change, song remains the same

The flying African, despite a genealogy rooted in St. Simons, has no single point of origin. A shifting present continues to rewrite the past. These differences across versions only underscore the strength of the myth’s central core.

Take how music is used. In almost every account of Igbo Landing, the Africans sing before they fly. They chant in a dialect of Bantu, one of Africa’s 500 languages: “Kum buba yali kum buba tambe, / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe.” Those words don’t have a direct translation; the words, more often, get described as secret, magical or lost.

But since the 1960s, in many retellings, the Bantu has been updated to the hymn “Oh Freedom,” an anthem first recorded after the Civil War and later popularized during the civil rights movement.

The storyteller Auntie Zya recounts the Igbo Landing legend in a YouTube post. To make the tale more relevant to children today, she launches into the familiar refrain, “And before I’d be a slave,” using the hymn to bridge the myth and a long struggle for civil rights.

And then there’s Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon,” the very title of which links music and flight. In the story, the novel’s main character, Milkman Dead, pieces together mysterious lyrics to recover a hidden past. Once he understands the song, he leaps from a Virginia cliff and flies away. Or is it suicide? The ending is famously ambiguous.

Toni Morrison talks about how, as a child, she was inspired by stories of enslaved African people flying home to their freedom.

Healing through flight

Like all powerful myths, Igbo Landing and the flying African transcend boundaries of time and space.

Experimental filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison perceives memories from Dunbar Creek as an “ancestral map.” In a poetic narrative she lays over a dance montage, she muses: “Dreams are reality, time is relative, and the past, present, and future are melding together.” Allison suggests that the cross-generational continuity of the myth nurtures her, sustaining her voice through centuries of violence.

Children’s author Virginia Hamilton, likewise, offers the flying African as a script for healing. Her most famous story, “The People Could Fly,” broaches the difficult subject of the Middle Passage, the leg of the slave trade in which Africans, tightly packed in slave ships, were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]

Hamilton explains why some Africans had to leave their wings behind when forced to America. “They couldn’t take their wings across the water on the slave ships,” she writes. “Too crowded, don’t you know.”

How does a culture get those wings back?

Where some storytellers linger over haunting images, such as the chains supposedly still heard in Dunbar Creek, artists such as Morrison, Allison and Hamilton look forward. Their stories lay the groundwork for recovery.

Hamilton presents “The People Could Fly” as a direct form of hope. In a preface to her collection of that title, she explains how tales “created out of sorrow” carry Black America forward. She reminds readers: “Keep close all the past that was good, and that remains full of promise.” A painful past must be summoned in order to be redeemed.

Igbo Landing starkly illustrated, in 1803, how the choice between slavery and death was not a choice at all. Slavery, sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote, was also social death.

But it’s important to remember that joy doubles as a form of decolonization. Music threads through every version of the flying African legend. Magic words propel fieldworkers into the sky, “Kum yali kum buba tambe.” In song, our spirits lift.

And who among us does not dream of flight?The Conversation

Thomas Hallock, Professor of English, University of South Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to write a love poem



Wikimedia/National Gallery of Art

Hannah Copley, University of Westminster

For many, this year’s Valentine’s Day will be like no other. If you are spending the day apart from your loved ones, and don’t fancy the card selection at your local Tesco, writing a poem can be a more personal way to reach out and connect. Indeed, to paraphrase John Donne, “more than kisses, [poems] mingle souls”.

Here are some poems to take inspiration from, as well as some prompts to help you get that first line on the page.

Make a list

In her sonnet, How Do I Love Thee, Elizabeth Barrett Browning demonstrates the effectiveness of staying power when it comes to writing romance. After setting out to count the ways, the poem sticks determinedly to its opening concept – how do I love thee – answering the question from every possible angle, reaching to “the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach”.




Read more:
Poems for long distant loves in lockdown


How do I love thee demonstrates how incorporating a list within a poem can make for a persuasive and intimate piece of writing. We see this again, in an altogether sillier way, in Ways of Making Love, by Hera Lindsay Bird. In her poem, Bird unfolds a surprising and decidedly unsexy list of similes to “answer” the instructional title of the poem:

Like a metal detector detecting another metal detector.
Like two lonely scholars in the dark clefts of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Like an ancient star slowly getting sucked into a black hole.

Whether it’s heartfelt or more lighthearted, a list poem is an opportunity to remember the quirks that make up a relationship. Half prayer, half receipt, it can quantify the seemingly unquantifiable, as the need to find the next answer to the opening question forces you to think creatively and explore beyond the obvious.

Why not begin with a title like “Each Thing You Do”, and challenge yourself to at least forty lines. Or perhaps you might want to answer Barrett Browning’s original question in light of our 2021 reality:

I love you further than two metres;
I love you beyond the limits of my daily walk.

Embrace desire

Ways of Making Love might not live up to the eroticism of its title, but Selima Hill’s Desire’s a Desire certainly delivers:

It taunts me
like the muzzle of a gun;
it sinks into my soul like chilled honey
packed into the depths of treacherous wounds;

In this variation of the list poem, Hill takes longing as her starting point and recounts its effects in sensual, almost painful detail. Similarly, in Kim Addionzo’s For Desire, the poet celebrates what it is to want without restraint or guilt, whether that’s “the strongest cheese”, the “good wine”, or “the lover who yanks open the door / of his house and presses me to the wall”. In Fucking in Cornwall, Ella Frears embraces the less-than-glamorous realities of sex and desire:

The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow
over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top.

It may not be the stuff of the big-budget period drama, but it’s joyful in its nostalgia for the awkward fumbling of first love, as well as of the rainy delights of the English seaside.

Each of these poems celebrates the power of declaring longing and need; of articulating the body and what it wants.

Be playful

Perhaps you’ll notice something familiar about the opening lines of Harryette Mullen’s Dim Lady:

My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin.

In this fast-paced ode, Mullen takes Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) — itself a parody — and effectively scribbles all over it. While she maintains the style of the original, she substitutes almost every word with a contemporary reference to mass consumer culture, rendering the whole declaration — and the love industry — joyfully ridiculous.

Dim Lady demonstrates the power of the re-write and celebrates the fact that poetry – like love – can be a playful and adaptable collaboration. Like the Zoom pub quiz and online escape room, Mullen’s word substitution is a game that can be played at whatever distance.

Why not each take Sonnet 130 and come up with your own versions using a different frame of reference. Types of plant? TV programmes? Biscuit brands? Then swap and compare results.

And remember, whatever style you decide to try this Valentine’s Day, keep in mind the poet Les Murray’s sage advice:

The best love poems are known
as such to the lovers alone.

When it comes to writing your own verse, remember, it’s the thought that counts.The Conversation

Hannah Copley, Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Poems for long distant loves in lockdown



Olga Strelnikova/Shutterstock

Kate North, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Many people are not lucky enough to be with their loved ones this valentine’s day. If that is the case, or if you simply want suitable words to mark the day, then there are plenty of long-distance love poems that you can reach for, to share or to read for comfort.

Some of them can be found in unexpected places, such as Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs, a book found in the Old Testament. But if you want an account of longing at a distance, a celebration of sexual intimacy, praise for lust and passion, then this is where you’ll find it: “How much better is thy love than wine!” declares Solomon, “By night on my bed I sought him…” speaks his lover. The lovers were not married and lived separately, and were perhaps in the early days of their courtship. The verse describes their visits to each other in erotic detail, and their yearning for each other when apart.

A slightly more traditional and obvious source for love poetry in the English language is, of course, William Shakespeare. Sonnet 98 gives us a meditation on love and distance. In it the speaker is so distraught that their lover is not present, they can no longer recognise the beauty of nature, even as spring bursts into bloom around them.

Love lost and changed with time

Distance is not always about a physical measurement of proximity though, it can also relate to the passing of time. Lost love, love that is no longer and first loves are all forms of love that are unreachable through time.

One example that speaks to this kind of love can be found in former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, his final collection. Hughes’s relationship with his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath, has been much written about. People have long been fascinated with the turbulent trajectory of their relationship and the tragic end to Plath’s life.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Flikr, CC BY

Many years after Plath’s passing, Hughes produced a collection of poems that he wrote throughout the decades after her death. It was published months before his own death and it can be read as an homage, a marking, an exploration and a final word on his passionate relationship with Plath:

I look up – as if to meet your voice

With all its urgent future

That has burst in on me.

For a more contemporary take on past love, I recommend reading Kim Addonizio, who has previously won the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation award and many other accolades. Love is a topic she returns to in her work time over. In her poem Stolen Moments she takes the reader back to the early throes of love, to an instance where it feels like love will never end, in which she finds a perfect memory of what it is to feel in love:

Now I get to feel his hands again, the kiss

That didn’t last, but sent some neural twin

Flashing wildly through the cortex.

Alice Willitts’ recent publication With Love is a collection in which every single title begins with the word “love”. In her poem love / couples who sleep in separate rooms live longer, she refuses to trade possible health benefits for the joy of being able to:

…open a dozy eye

right into your precious face




Read more:
How to write a love poem


Love from afar and in the moment

Another former poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, explores the complete arc of a romantic relationship, from the heady beginnings to the crashing end, in her collection Rapture. The opening poem, Text takes us through feelings of anticipation, excitement and desire as experienced in a brand new relationship. The moment of waiting for a lover’s message to appear on your phone, the thrill of the ring tone as it is received, the compulsion to read and reread it, over and over.

I tend the mobile now

like an injured bird.

We text, text, text

our significant words.

In the past year Duffy has invited poets from around the globe to write directly of their time during the pandemic. This has resulted in a large body of poetry, which will act as a record of lived experience from the pandemic’s earliest stages.

In the scores of poems on the project website, it is interesting to see how the themes of distance and relationships have shone through. For the poet Kim Moore:

now distance is a physical thing

that has crept into my heart

One of the most thought-provoking poems on the site draws on our primal need for intimacy as humans. It’s a need that cuts through familial, platonic and romantic relationships. In her poem Harbour Grace Nichols is willing to trade all, “for the simple harbour of a hug”. If you are unable to reach for a hug this Valentine’s Day, then finding one in a poem could be the next best thing.The Conversation

Kate North, Reader in Creative Writing, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Keats: how his poems of death and lost youth are resonating during COVID-19



John Keats by Joseph Severn (1819).
National Portrait Gallery

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Aberystwyth University

In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.

Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.

After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.

Life sliding by

His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.

He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:

When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.

But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?

That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.

It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.

Painting of a young John Keats reading a book.
John Keats by Joseph Severn, painted posthumously (1821-1823).
National Portrait Gallery, London

The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?

Illness and isolation

Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.

It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:


https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44473/hyperion

As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.

Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.

Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.The Conversation

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Professor of English Literature, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humour in poetry should be taken seriously



Vectorium/Shutterstock

Christina Thatcher, Cardiff Metropolitan University

As a child, I remember laughing out loud while reading Shel Silverstein’s poetry book A Light in the Attic (1981). I loved it so much that I started reciting the poem Skin Stealer every day, to the great annoyance of my little brother. Even now, these lines still come knocking:

This evening I unzipped my skin

And carefully unscrewed my head,

Exactly as I always do

When I prepare myself for bed.

As a teenager, I was taught that poetry should be more serious. It was art – and art took itself seriously. Even now, poems designed to make us laugh are often dismissed as frivolous. This seems strange given that many of our earliest poems are comic ones. The limerick, for instance, is thought to have originated during the Middle Ages and has been used to great humorous effect by thousands, from Shakespeare to Roald Dahl.

Perhaps the crime here isn’t that funny poems have been sidelined in favour of serious ones, but that funny poems are not also considered to be serious. Humour, after all, has the power to disarm us and promote reflective thinking.

Although there are innumerable ways in which poets can be funny in their work, I have chosen pieces here which employ three different types of humour to demonstrate how poetry can make us both laugh and think.

Sexy humour

Sometimes called dirty, naughty, rude or cheeky, this type of humour works because it violates social norms. After all, it is not polite to talk about sex. But, poetry which pokes fun at bodies and desire is centuries old.

Poems in this category can range from titillating to obscene. But, beyond the tee-hees, these pieces can reveal deeper truths about sex and relationships. Take a look at the opening of The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World by Rita Ann Higgins:

Absurdist humour

Poets who use absurdity in their work tend to operate under the assumption that implausibility is essential to comedy. Absurd humour highlights the ridiculousness of life, pushing normally accepted realities to extremes to give the audience a fresh perspective. This can be seen in Luke Kennard’s darkly funny poem The Murderer, which opens:

In his correspondence with writer Paul McDonald, Kennard discussed how this poem works to reveal the shortcomings of both characters, opening up a chance for readers to reflect on moral relativism.

Satirical humour

Satire is an excellent way for poets to respond to social trends and current events. Often, this type of humour relies on ridicule and exaggeration to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices. Satirical poems play an important role when it comes to challenging political, cultural and aesthetic oppression. According to the poet Matthew Rohrer, satire is a tool by which the oppressed get to make fun of their oppressors.

Satirical poetry takes many forms but one of my personal favourites is the cento – a patchwork poem made up of words or phrases directly from the person at the butt of the joke. Rob Sears’ The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump does this brilliantly, particularly this piece:

There are, of course, huge swathes of humour that I haven’t even touched on here. For instance, surrealism, dark humour and observational humour can provoke important discussions, launch taboos into the light and straddle the fine line between “haha” and “oh no”.

Because humour is also highly personal, you may not find any of the poems I’ve chosen to be funny. To remedy this, I also asked poets on Twitter to share the pieces which made them laugh and, wow, did they deliver. In this thread alone, the power of humour in poetry is self-evident.The Conversation

Christina Thatcher, Creative Writing Lecturer, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a lost manuscript revealed the first poets of Italian literature



Six Tuscan Poets by Giorgio Vasari, 1544. Dante Alighieri,
Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cino da Pistoia, Guittone d’Arezzo and Guido Cavalcanti are depicted in the oil painting.
Wikimedia/MIA

Maria Clotilde Camboni, University of Oxford

Imagine a world where we knew the name of Homer, but the poetry of The Odyssey was lost to us. That was the world of the early Italian Renaissance during the second half of the 15th century.

Many people knew the names of some early poets of Italian literature – those who were active during the 13th century. But they could not read their poems because they had not been printed and were not circulating in manuscripts.

Then, in around 1477 the de facto sovereign of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici – “the Magnificent” – commissioned the creation of an anthology of rare early Italian poetry to be sent to Federico d’Aragona, son of the king of Naples.

The luxurious manuscript became one of Federico’s most prized possessions. It was exhibited to and coveted by patricians and intellectuals for half a century – until its disappearance in the early 16th century.

An ornate colour photograph of a manuscript from 1476.
A page from another manuscript of vernacular poetry commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1476.
Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France

But it did not disappear completely. The interest aroused by this manuscript generated a paper trail of letters, partial copies and other materials which I, along with other researchers, have managed to piece together. These documents allow us to reconstruct not only the trajectory of the manuscript through different courts in Europe, but – crucially – what works it may have contained.

Who were the vernacular poets?

Vernacular literature – that is, literature written in the language normally spoken by the people – only had a marginal role during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The “real” culture was Latin. This meant that interest in the early poets who wrote in the Italian vernacular was limited – until the flourishing of the Italian language in the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

One of these 13th-century poets, Cino da Pistoia, was loved and celebrated by Dante Alighieri in his treatise on the art of poetry, “De vulgari eloquentia”. Dante said of his contemporary Cino:

There are a few, I feel, who have understood the excellence of the vernacular: these include Guido, Lapo … and Cino, from Pistoia, whom I place unworthily here at the end, moved by a consideration that is far from unworthy.

A black and white portrait of Cino.
A drawing of Cino da Pistoia from the 1808 book, Memorie della vita de Messer Cino da Pistoja by Sebastiano Ciampi.
Britannica.com

Guido Cavalcanti was another love poet. He and Dante were best friends and Dante regarded Cavalcanti as an authority on poetry. Cavalcanti is mentioned in Dante’s early poetry collection, the Vita nova.

The whole work is addressed to Cavalcanti and Dante even implies that he is writing in Italian because of him. But despite Dante’s popularity, even the Vita nova was hard to get hold of before 1576 when it was printed for the first time.

Guittone d’Arezzo was another highly regarded poet. He started as a love poet before becoming the most important author (before Dante) writing on moral and political themes.

The Raccolta Aragonese

The collection of Tuscan poetry sent to Federico d’Aragona by Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1477 contained Dante’s Vita nova, as well as rare poems recovered from ancient manuscripts by Cino, Guittone, Cavalcanti and many others. The collection was opened by a letter signed by Lorenzo himself.

The manuscript was later named after its owner and became the Raccolta Aragonese (“the Aragon collection”). It became one of Federico’s most prized possessions and the object of widespread interest and curiosity.

Federico took it with him when he travelled to Rome at the end of 1492 to swear allegiance to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. During this trip, he showed it to the scholar Paolo Cortesi, who immediately wrote to Piero de’ Medici – the son of the recently deceased Lorenzo the Magnificent. In this letter, Cortesi recounts that he had been shown a manuscript with poems by early vernacular poets, chiefly Cino and Guittone. The excitement is palpable: Cortesi is able to read poems by these authors whose names he had only ever heard mentioned before.

A coin bearing the image of Federico d'Aragona
King Federico of Naples (1451-1504) portrayed on a Francesco di Giorgio medal.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Such was the interest in these lost poets that partial copies of the Raccolta started to circulate. The first one was probably made by someone in Federico’s inner circle before he became King of Naples in 1496. News about his collection of rare early Italian poems was spreading.

The widow queen and the duchess

Federico was the last sovereign of his dynasty. He lost his throne when Louis XII of France invaded Italy. When he left Naples in the summer of 1501, Federico took the books of the royal library with him. He later had to sell part of them to sustain himself and his followers during his exile in France. But the Raccolta Aragonese was not sold and after his death in 1504 it was passed on to his widow, Isabella del Balzo.

An oil painting of Isabella d'Este
Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Titian (circa 1534-1536).
Wikimedia/KunsthistorischesMuseum

The widow queen then lent the collection to Isabella d’Este, the Duchess of Mantua, in northern Italy, in 1512. She kept it for two months and, even though in her letters she promised not to leave it in other people’s hands, it is likely that she commissioned a complete copy which led to further partial copies being made.

Even though the transmission of these copies was in manuscript form – and so not widespread – several Renaissance intellectuals managed to read these “lost” works and were influenced by them in their attempts to reconstruct the history of Italian literature.

The real game-changer came in 1527 when a printed collection of vernacular poetry finally took the works of masters like Cino, Guittone and Cavalcanti to a much wider audience. This is when they stopped being obscure and arcane authors and finally took their place in the canon of Italian literature.The Conversation

Maria Clotilde Camboni, , University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A tribute to J.P. Clark, Nigeria’s nature poet



J. P. Clark was one of Nigeria’s most eco-conscious writers.
Ommoclark2020/Wikimedia

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, University of Nigeria

Everyone dies. Everything that has life must someday relinquish it. But that exit is never final. Plants and animals are generally converted into new states and reabsorbed into nature. Human beings remain alive in people’s memories for varying degrees of time. And if you leave a legacy behind, your life will truly begin after your physical death.

The passing of Nigeria’s foremost poet and playwright, Professor J.P. Clark on 13 October, 2020, has reinforced this belief.

Thousands of scholars and and readers who encountered him through his literature retain him in their memories. They also transfer his existence to future generations looking for excellence in the arts.

Throughout his exemplary life, Clark touched on various issues affecting the globe. He displayed a thorough knowledge of his world through his poems.

His writing explored politics, arts and the socio-cultural character of humans. His intimacy with nature, conveyed via his poems, has made him a favourite of eco-conscious readers.

Rich ecological imagery

Clark’s exploration of the intersection between our natural environment and literature is an inspiration to writers and critics. He often found ways to accommodate nature, even when he addressed the mundane issues within politics and academia. His viewpoints can be found in his poetry collections The Casualties and Incidental Songs for Several Persons. His poem, The Usurpation, is a great example.




Read more:
J.P. Clark: the ‘pepper’ of the Niger Delta activism stew


Clark’s constant ecological imagery shows great knowledge of, and strong attachment to, natural entities. In all their dealings, human beings operate within the natural realm, interacting with other non-human entities.

I read Clark’s poems in the 1980s. My favourites were Night Rain, Streamside Exchange and Abiku. The stories in those poems often excited feelings of empathy with the human characters.

I revisited those poems 35 years later and realised the crucial influence of the natural environment in his work. Many of his poems set in the riverine areas of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, “embody environmental metaphors, capable of projecting authentic African eco-lit” according to a study of “natural trajectories” in the poems.




Read more:
John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Nigeria’s bard, playwright and activist


His exploration of nature in his poems stimulates a romantic awareness of the African ecosystem, that goes beyond the current agitations of environmental justice in Nigeria. They project 21st century African literary traditions beyond the domains of activism.

Clark’s works are multifaceted. His attachment to his home region, coupled with his training in the arts and the humanities may have conditioned him towards exploring nature in his works. And he did so alongside other nagging socio-political and economic themes that he equally projected.The Conversation

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, Lecturer, University of Nigeria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Rebecca Swift Foundation’s Women Poets’ Prize Winners


The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 Rebecca Swift Foundation’s Women Poets’ Prize.

For more visit:
https://publishingperspectives.com/2020/11/the-uk-women-poets-prize-names-three-2020-winners/

2020 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Poetry Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the 2020 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Poetry Prize Shortlist.

For more visit:
https://publishingperspectives.com/2020/11/canada-cbc-poetry-prize-names-its-2020-shortlist/