When tensions are high and life is tumultuous, there is one human enjoyment that can simultaneously question and answer our fears: Art. At the University of Pittsburgh, the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) provides the space to explore the art of black poetry.
The Center was founded in 2016 by Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey. It was a collaborative effort to create a space—a space like no other—for discussion, development, and celebration of African American and African Diasporic poetry and poetics.
“There’s nothing really like it at any other university. I thought it would be really important to develop a center that not only presented work by African American and African Diasporic writers and artists, but also to think through this historical moment in time. From my perspective there’s a lot of amazing poetry being produced by African American poets, but there’s not really a central place to think through the significance of that reality,” Professor Martin said.
The CAAPP is a place for people to present work they have already finished as individuals, but also to encourage collaboration. It’s a place where people can come to create new work. The Center hopes to attract fellows and residents who will come to Pittsburgh with the purpose of collaboration and creation. It will dovetail with some of the significant contributions of the Cave Canem Foundation, which, under the cofounding directorship of Pitt Writing Professor Emerita Toi Derricotte, began as an annual writing retreat and literary support network for African American writers in 1996.
“At the heart of the center is the spirit of collaboration,” Martin said. “It’s how the Center came about, and so we want to make sure that we continue to weave that into our programming.”
The idea for establishing the Center was greatly supported and encouraged by English Department Chair and Professor Don Bialostosky. He saw the Center as the possibility for a timely and necessary place of celebration and discourse. In a statement to T5F, he said:
I have learned from my attendance at Cave Canem readings and from following the careers of Pitt poets Toi Derricotte, Terrance Hayes, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Yona Harvey that we are in the midst of an extraordinary vital period in African American poetry. To have a center to further advance the current renaissance in Black poetry, to study it, and to archive it is timely. To have the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at Pitt is to recognize how much Pitt has contributed to this renaissance. Our Emerita poet Toi Derricotte helped bring it about through her co-creation of Cave Canem, the Dietrich School has helped to support it through its long-term funding of that project, and our current group of extraordinary Black poets contributes to it with every poem they write. That Pitt is now underwriting the work of the CAAPP couldn't be more appropriate.
In an effort to reach beyond the Pitt community, the Center has and will continue to cohost events not only on campus, but in the surrounding Pittsburgh community. Recently, CAAPP partnered with #Black Poets Speak Out to host a two-day event. The first event was a community workshop and reading at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios on Nov. 9 and the second day consisted of a Black Poets Speak Out reading in the Frick Fine Arts Building on Nov. 10. “[The Black Poets Speak Out movement] has been gaining momentum,” CAAPP Assistant Director Lauren Russell said. “Poets from all over the world are reading poems and sharing them on Tumblr. There were videos of them reading these poems and then it branched out to people doing readings in their communities.”
It was this community mindset that made the first night feel like a gathering of close friends and family members mourning a severe loss. This feeling was in response to the results of the 2016 presidential election earlier that week.
I was one of the many who attended the first night of this event. When I walked into the venue, I was greeted by a faint hum of whispered condolences and assurances of, “We’ll stick together.” I took a seat in the back row and watched as firm hugs were exchanged and people found seats where they could be comfortable. The night opened with an introduction of the movement.
#Black Poets Speak Out launched two years ago, following a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury's decision not bring charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown—a young, unarmed black man—to death. Not only is this ongoing project a celebration of Black poets’ works on Tumblr; it is also the assertion of a resolve to stand "in solidarity with those who refuse to accept these atrocities as a normal condition of black life." Amanda Johnston is credited with the start, but was joined by Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, Jonterri Gadson and Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe. We, the audience, were lucky enough to be there with Johnston, Brown and Browne. To see these people and feel their energy and passion made me feel like I was joining in on something bigger, like I was there because I needed to be there.
Mahogany Browne led the first workshop of the night. We were instructed to pair up and find someone to interview, someone who was a stranger. We each had five minutes then to ask two things of our partners: Describe a moment you woke without fear and describe how you felt waking up that morning. We exchanged interview notes with our partner and were then tasked with writing a poem using only the words on that page of notes.
Next we split into two groups. One group worked with Jericho Brown, while the other worked with Johnston. I was in the group with Johnston. On the table, she had scattered papers printed with statistics and profiles of victims of police shootings. She wanted us to read those papers and write down what we knew. She didn’t want us to write what the media told us or what the media wanted us to know; it was about what we knew to be true.
When our time for that workshop was up, Brown walked over to us and handed out a packet of poems. He had us read this passage from Claudia Rankine's groundbreaking book Citizen (Graywolf, 2014):
When the waitress hands your friend the card she took
from you, you laugh and ask what else her privilege gets
her? Oh, my perfect life, she answers. Then you both are
laughing so hard, everyone in the restaurant smiles.
Afterward we read Brown’s poem, “Heart Condition,” the style of which was inspired by Rankine. This style allowed for multiple meanings to be implied by one word. These works were his inspiration for our next writing exercise. He told us to write four or five sentences about some mundane action or routine we'd completed that day. Then, we wrote four or five sentences about something—anything—we cared about or felt strongly about. And finally, we were to take one sentence from the mundane section and follow it with a sentence from our second paragraph. We continued this pattern until we were out of sentences. I was strangely delighted at how I could draw connections between things I would have never thought could be related. This is the poem I had when I finished the exercise:
I woke up with my face smashed into my pillow.
The sexual assault charges brought against Donald Trump: 12.
It was 8 a.m. and I reached for my phone.
People asked, “Why now?” but is that the question we should be asking?
I sent a text to my little sister.
Donald Trump called every victim a liar and fought them with personal attacks and degradation.
I checked my email.
He chalked his actions up to “locker room talk” because, you know, boys will be boys.
I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep.
We didn’t have time to share these pieces because there was still a major part of the evening we needed to get to: The community reading. One after one, poets and attendees walked to the podium at the front of the room. Each person began by saying his or her name followed by, “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” This is the way all of the poems on the #BPSO Tumblr page begin; there is a modified script for allies who share work. At the community reading, everyone read either an original poem or a poem they had selected by another author.
The powerful words echoing through the space were answered by cheers and clapping and snapping and murmurs of empathy and agreement. The sense of community and the feeling that something special had taken place in that room lingered long after the guests began to leave.
The next evening, to a full Frick Fine Arts auditorium, Brown, Browne, and Johnston read poetry interspersed with video from the #Black Poets Speak Out project, curated by CAAPP graduate student assistant Jessica Lanay Moore. The reading was followed by discussion. In an atmosphere of openness, Johnston acknowledged that many people in the room were in shock over the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but that the fear and uncertainty many white people now expressed have been dominant feelings among African Americans for generations. "Welcome," Johnston said, encouraging audience members to connect with each other to make America safer and more inclusive for all.
In many ways, CAAPP builds on the important work done by Cave Canem to, over the past 20 years, change the American literary landscape to better reflect the power, innovation, and importance of poetic writing by African American and African Diasporic writers. And, like Furious Flower, James Madison University’s African American poetry center, it hosts readings by established and emerging black poets. What is new is CAAPP's commitment to poetics. “The emphasis on poetics as practice and the interdisciplinary emphasis [at the Center] seems really unique and exciting,” Russell said. “It’s not just thinking about African American p
Poetry. It’s thinking in broader constellations about all the things it interacts with. It’s having a social justice orientation and thinking about how poetry affects and is affected by the world. I think we’re the only place that does all of those things.”
For instance, last spring, when the establishment of CAAPP was first announced, the innovative poet, Erica Hunt, whose theoretical engagement with poetry as an agent of change is considered seminal, joined Annie Seaton, the Founder and Director of the Media and Difference Project at Bard College, on the panel, "What Is a Black Poetics and Why Does It Matter?" Also last spring, "Poetry and Race" was a well-attended event that included a community workshop and a group reading on the Pitt campus moderated by Professor of Poetry and CAAPP Codirector Terrance Hayes and featuring Toi Derricotte, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Ricky Laurentiis, Ross Gay, Nate Marshall, and Afaa Michael Weaver; the reading bringing together a roster of great poets was standing-room-only.
The Center will soon be offering classes as well. In the next academic year, the course Studio in African American Poetry and Poetics will be available for upper-level undergraduate and honors students as well as graduate students. The course will be taught by the writers the Center brings to campus for that semester. Russell will be the Studio's lead instructor, while others at the Center—including Hayes and Martin, the graduate student assistant, and visiting residents will conduct some of the course's seminars and workshops; in the future, the CAAPP also plans to bring on a post-MFA/PhD fellow, who will also take part in instruction, workshop facilitation, and collaboration. Applications are currently being taken for these fellowships, which are funded by the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
“[The visitors] will all lead a lecture or a workshop with students so that students will get really hands-on opportunities to work with some of the greatest artists and writers of our time,” Martin said about the future CAAPP course. “I think it’s going to give students a tremendous opportunity that wasn’t here before in an organized fashion.”
It’s educating people and creating a space where questions and thoughts are openly welcome that will allow for the University to understand the current state of the world.
Another important series of CAAPP events held this past fall was the interdisciplinary "Why Does Black Art Matter Now?" featuring acclaimed artist Lorna Simpson, prizewinning poet Robin Coste Lewis, and architects Mario Gooden, Imani Day, and Mitch McEwen. The first event, a community architectural design workshop led by McEwen and held at the Pittsburgh City of Asylum's new Alphabet City facility on the North Side, was titled "This Is What We Will Build When We Get Our Reparations"; on the Pitt campus, the architects offered presentations of speculative designs in response to Lewis's National Book Award-winning Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf, 2015); that evening in the Frick, Lewis and Simpson gave a reading and lecture respectively, followed by a moderated discussion and Q&A.
An addition to the existing fall programming came after the election, when CAAPP sponsored a teach-in, reminiscent of campus social justice movements during the watershed 1960s and 70s but with a distinct focus on our twenty-first-century American moment.
“We want to speak to what’s happening in the current moment,” Martin said. “We believe that art really speaks to social problems, so we want to keep that in mind.”