- Exploding Dimensions of Sound:Black Experimental Writing
Some years ago, the journal Callaloo supplemented its issues with a book series, featuring such prominent writers as Rita Dove, Gerald Barrax, and Nathaniel Mackey. Recently, with little fanfare, Callaloo has inaugurated a new series of books, The Callaloo African Diaspora Series, devoted, at least in the beginning, to critical volumes. The Callaloo editor, Charles Henry Rowell, has spoken of his hope to restore the creative series as well. For now, the critical volumes are planned as a continuation of the academic discussions in diaspora studies that the journal has enabled since its founding in the mid–1970s. The new series commenced with the publication of Edwin C. Hill’s Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Black Atlantic (2013). If the second volume in the series, with its concentration on experimental poetry, might at first seem somewhat more narrow, in fact Anthony Reed’s project, Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, is just as ambitious in its scope, and from the opening epigraphs by James Baldwin and Edouard Glissant through the chapter on Kamau Brathwaite’s “Sycorax Video Style” poetics, the book extends the Callaloo series’ diasporic reach from the Francophone to the Anglophone Caribbean.
Twenty years ago, writing on the subject of “avant-garde” African American poetry could be a relatively lonely endeavor, in marked [End Page 701] contrast to the period that saw the rise of black studies in academia. One of the unusual things about the Black Power movement was that there were so many poets and playwrights in leadership around the country. The Black Arts Movement, which Larry Neal described as the sister movement to Black Power, for all the controversies surrounding it, was remarkable for its astounding reach. Within months of the earliest soundings, communities around the nation were establishing arts centers and schools, some of which have survived into the present. It was a time when a person could pick up a copy of Black World in the barbershop and find poets on the cover and essays on literary theory inside. Things were very different just a few years later. By the time of my own graduate studies, the major advances in African American literary scholarship were being made around narrative, and poetry, as was true more generally in the academy, was increasingly marginalized. There is now, however, a new generation of younger scholars doing landmark research in African American poetry and poetics, and a significant number of them are drawn to the more adventurous end of the aesthetic spectrum. Recent works by Evie Shockley, Howard Rambsy, Meta Jones, T. J. Anderson III, Fred Moten, and others have moved the discussion forward and brought a larger audience to both the poetry and the criticism around black avant-gardes. One sign of the success of this gathering work is the recent awarding of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough prize for work in African American literary studies to Reed’s volume, a prize that did not even exist two decades ago.
I will say at the outset that the most crucial contribution of Reed’s book, though there are so many contributions, is that it moves the discussion off of the stubborn debate about the “New Black Aesthetic,” “Post-Soul,” and “Post-Race” attempts to drive a wedge between the contemporary and what is no longer even its immediate past. These debates have often been incoherent. More to the issue, they have often sidelined serious discussion of poetry and poetics. Reed gets right to the most pressing questions. Frantz Fanon complained of Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to the Negritude poets that Sartre had robbed them of their very opacity. Reed takes up that challenge, examining the constructions and operations of poetic opacities, adding what Melvin B. Tolson termed the eighth [End Page 702] ambiguity, that of race, to contemporary discussions of opacity such as Craig Dworkin’s. This book contains, to my mind, some of the most clearheaded...