"Slam Nations: Emerging Poetries, Imagined Communities"

by Meta DuEwa Jones


“Dramatic is the key word here...the energy pulses, snaps and crackles.”
(Teresa Wiltz, Chicago Tribune)

“Wildly entertaining...this film should find its way into the classroom.
A year’s worth of dry lectures can’t touch this experience.” 
(Robert Butler, Kansas City Star)

“Slams are nothing if not democratic...Slams are essentially performance art,
not literary art.”

(Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)


        These remarks capture the gist of a number of the reviews of Emmy award-winner Paul Devlin’s documentary film SlamNation.[1] Devlin’s film covers the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland Oregon, mixing scenes of live performances of the competing poets with interviews from these same participants. In a poetry slam, judges (in most cases) randomly chosen from the audience, score poets on a scale from one to ten. The poet, or team of poets, with the highest score at the end of a series of elimination rounds, “wins.” The audience participation and democratic nature of the event have helped to foster the popularity of “slam” poetry nationwide.[2] Yet it is precisely this audience-driven format of slams—in which showmanship, charisma, and theatricality of performance seems to count just as much as the artistic merit of the poems presented—that has fueled critical skepticism over whether the “poems” performed within a slam environment count as literature.

        The debate over whether the slam poetry movement fosters a “return to verse’s classical roots as an improvisational, often competitive oral art form,” as some would claim, or is indicative of “barbarians at the gate of high art” as others assert, boils down to a question that is continually asked about the art present in these competitions: “But is it really poetry?” My response to such a question is two fold: First, I suggest that we consider what definition of “poetry” bolsters such a question.  Does the quibble over the literary limitations of the verbal art present in the slams represent a critical ambivalence over the status of public readings or performance within the terrain of poetry? Does the inquiry into its generic boundaries indicate an uncertainty over the space for what is now called the “sport of the spoken word”? Ironically, it might signify a discomfort with the status of poetry inherent in the slams as “muscular verbal sport”[3]—as conspicuous public competition—versus the equally (if not more so) competitive yet discrete vying for literary prizes, publication opportunities in prestigious poetry journals, admission to Masters in Fine Arts programs, and teaching positions in creative writing departments at universities.[4]

My secondary response urges me to ask: But is it really new? The poet and critic Kalamu ya Salaam observes that “the first African-American to publish a book in America, George Moses Horton” (who in 1829 published The Hope of Liberty) “dictated his early poetry.” Thus, Salaam suggests that “the first black poet to publish a book manufactured on American soil was both literally and figuratively a spoken word poet.”[5] It may seem anachronistic to begin my talk for a panel examining “New Poetry” by highlighting Morton’s historical precedence in the art of spoken word. However, my purpose today is not to reach back in time chronologically, but across time, horizontally, to bring together three African-American women poets who worry the boundaries drawn between the spoken and the written word in their work.

       In this paper, I will be imagining a community that links one of the stars of the film SlamNation, Jessica Care Moore, with—our poet in residence at today’s panel—Harryette Mullen, and with the poet and playwright Elizabeth Alexander. Moore and Alexander easily qualify under the rubric of “New Poets” since their work has emerged on the scene within the last five to ten years. Considering that nearly two decades ago poems by Mullen were appearing in the journal Callaloo, matching Mullen with these two writers might seem a bit of a stretch. Yet, in an interview addressing the “Situation of American Writing in the 1990’s,” the poet Michael Harper rightfully asserts that in order for the future of American writing to flourish, editors and critics must be willing to stick with authors over the duration of their entire career.[6]

        Applying this critical principle to Mullen’s corpus, for example, enables one to view the evolution of her poetic form. Distinct variation exists between the singular lyric subjectivity and fairly straightforward narrative found in early Callaloo poems such as “Fable”[7] or in her book, Tree Tall Woman (1981), and the more formally innovative, non-linear and associative morphemic play present in S*PeRM**K*T (1992) and Muse and Drudge (1995). Thus, it is because I want to explore the work of “new poets” and new poetic developments by previously established writers that I place Mullen along with Moore and Alexander in my literary community.

         I will focus on three principle threads that connect Moore, Mullen and Alexander: 1) the visible influence of African-American musical forms on the composition and structure of their poems, 2) the transformative pairing of colloquial and highly literary references in poetic language, and 3) the figure of the poet as both muse and musician. While their thematic links are of significant interest, it is precisely because of their divergent formal approaches to the merging of music and poetry that I am interested in comparing their poems. Too often, poetry by writers of color is treated as a paraphraseable socio-political or racial-cultural statement instead of as carefully crafted verse. In the case of slam poetry, the argument is that such composition-performances don’t merit treatment as craft or as “verse.” As Maria Damon observes in an essay examining “Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings and Dissident Traditions,” poetry slams “have been accused of sanctioning mediocrity—that is, doggerel...It is assumed, both in traditional critical circles and also among the experimentalists that poetry that reaches for a wider field of conversants or emphasizes values other than craft and subjectivity necessarily suffers a diminution in subtlety and sophistication.”[8]Jessica Care Moore’s spoken-word oriented poetry, I contend, disabuses the reader-listener of this assumption.

        Moore’s presence as one of the star cast in SlamNation’s documentary of the sport of spoken word should come as no surprise. She is no stranger to public competition, her claim to fame includes five consecutive wins at Amateur Night at the Apollo. A quick review of one of Moore’s compositions suggests (Apollo wins notwithstanding) that she’s no amateur. I’ll start by reading an excerpt from Moore’s book, The Words Don’t Fit In My Mouth (1997). The poem is wryly entitled: “My caged bird don’t sing and every Black bird ain’t a piece of fried chicken”:

My caged bird don’t sing
It cries
Stolen wings can’t fly
Cause they took away our music
My caged bird don’t sing
It cries
Stolen wings can’t fly
Cause they took away our music
Soul takers
Turning trees to twigs
Fed us worms from pigs
Robbed our nests
At best
Baby Birds
Learn how to fly
Across foreign skies
Make it across
Millions on that ship
With settlers looking like Gilligan
Figuring out ways to steal again
Anotha loafa Sankofa
African Bird
Never heard a flock Still in shock
Carrying Glocs
We are the tock of the lock
But we forgot
Planet rocket to the planet rock
Don’t stop
Don’t pass go
Straight to hell
Bird dressed in blue
Locked in a red pod zoo
And all the walls were white
Typical African bird plight
Tight as it seems
Bird had those genes
To sing Negro spirituals
Dropping bass off her beak
Bellowing beats quite lyrical
Performing miracles
Magnificent enough to rebuild
The walls of Jericho
Here we go Here we go...[9]

Here we go into a contextual analysis of the poem: As my recital of Moore’s poem might illustrate, in terms of structure and form, Moore’s composition is written to be read aloud and heard. Often slant or near rhyme pairs such “across/Lost” and “Gilligan/steal again” are more clearly and effectively realized through pronunciation, timing of oral delivery and cadence. I should add that they are intended to be heard with musical accompaniment. Moore’s recent performance of “My Caged Bird” on the Eargasm: Crucial Poetics compilation album included a hip-hop derived percussive backbeat tailored to accentuate Moore’s own reading rhythm. Most tellingly, Moore’s reading/performance features the vocalist Blue (Alicia Ren嶪) interspersing a variegated reiteration of a chorus from the poem’s opening lines: “I know why the caged bird don’t sing...cause they took away our music.” [10] 

        Moore’s poem’s implicit critique of the appropriation and subsequent commodification of African-American musical forms by others is also found in its dedication to “all divas that grace the world with their spirit through songs no one can ever steal away” and later in the poem, when the speaker figuratively addresses the white male rapper, “Vanilla ice ice baby,” claiming that “every “Heart beat/Drum beat...ain’t for sample/Or sale.”[11] The “stolen wings” of Moore’s metaphorical bird also connects with two of Mullen’s stanzas at the bottom of the handout, excerpted from Muse & Drudge, which read:

clipped bird eclipsed moon
soon no memory of you
no drive or desire survives
you flutter invisible still[12]

*                *                *

white covers of black material
dense fabric that obeys its own logic
shadows pieced together tears and all
unfurling sheets of bluish music

In an interview Mullen explained that “white covers of black material” was an allusive “comment on the history of music in this country. What’s done by black people and then redone by white people, and white people are the ones who became the millionaires.”[13] Mullen’s remarks indicate she shares a concern similar to Moore’s although each uses different structural approaches to address the issue within her poetry.

        The trope of the caged or clipped bird—as emblematic of the plight of enslaved Africans negotiating the hostile terrain of America—can be traced to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s often anthologized poem, “Sympathy.” Moore’s titular reference to “My caged bird” in her poem compels the reader to revisit Dunbar’s caged bird. A century ago, the speaker in “Sympathy” proclaimed:

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing...

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
                When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, a—
When he beats his bars and he would be free

It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—[14]

Moore transforms the blood and bars imagery in Dunbar’s poem into a tri-color symbolism—“Bird dressed in blue/Locked in a red pod zoo/And all the walls were white/Typical African bird plight”—for Africans’ enslavement in America. Dunbar’s caged bird’s carol is a plaintive prayer. In contrast, Moore’s bird does not engage in deification but defecation. Halfway through the poem, the lines “Clawed feet/leaving droppings on cross burners/Wearing sheets” point to Moore’s use of metonymy and synecdoche—the cross and sheets evoke imagery associated with the Klu Klux Klan—to represent the bird’s metaphorical response to racial oppression. Moore’s trapped fowl also engages in a gendered act of resistance:

Black tar babies covered in feathers
Wearing America’s old past time tether
Didn’t make that caged bird sing a thing
But the whole village knew she could play the harmonica
With her heart flute
Breathe life into lungs
Make babies come
Still, that caged bird didn’t sing a peep
Cause she saw her family moved out like sheep
And she recognized the wolves shooting at her feet
Find a way to get a grip
Might fly off this slave ship[15]

Here, the bird’s ability to produce music is allied with her capacity to reproduce. Throughout the poem, Moore associatively links the inequitable commodification of Black music to the unjust commodification of Black bodies. In the face of slavery, the bird, if you will allow the pun, will not lay the ebony egg—she refuses to “make babies come” into a life of enforced labor for unpaid wages. Thus it is not just that Moore’s “caged bird don’t sing” but that it won’t sing.

        Due to time constraints, I will not be able to gloss all of the literary allusions in Moore’s “My Caged Bird.” My point here is to illustrate that (Roger Ebert’s aforementioned remarks to the contrary) spoken-word oriented poetry can be a “performance art” as well as a “literary” one. I should add that, in addition to her performances within a spoken-word and hip-hop musico-poetic milieu, Moore has also worked in a jazz idiom as well. She recorded her poem “The Word’s Don’t Fit In My Mouth” to jazz accompaniment on the jazz composer and saxophonist Antonio Hart’s recent release on Verve Records Here I Stand.The diversity of Moore’s collaborative performances with musicians seems apt. In the poem, her caged bird also performs in different musical genres. This canary is a multi-instrumentalist that can “sing Negro spirituals,” play a heart flute in one breath and the village blues on the harmonica in the next or become a human beat box that “bellows beats quite lyrical.” For Moore, the caged bird—metaphorically at least—is free to be “every woman;” she is lyricist and versifier, musician and muse.

In a related vein, Harryette Mullen envisions the poet as a performer, as a blues and jazz vocalist in her book length poem, Muse & Drudge. Mullen notes in an interview that she began the poem with a linguistic play on familiar blues subjects and phrases such as “you’ve had my thrills/a reefer a tub of gin/don’t mess with me I’m evil/I’m in your sin” in order to situate the poem in relationship to the blues tradition.[16] The opening quatrain for Muse & Drudge reflects this tradition in a metonymical and associative manner:

Sapphire’s lyre styles
plucked eyebrows
bow lips and legs
whose lives are lonely too[17]

        In four brief lines Mullen weaves together the tradition of classical poetry, blues-based jazz lyrics and composition and improvisation. “Sapphire’s lyre” explicitly names the African-American poet and novelist “Sapphire” while playing on the “lyre” as the etymological root for the word “lyric.” This resonates with the ancient idea of the poet as a lyricist. One hears the name for the ancient Greek poet “Sappho” embedded in “Sapphire.” Adjoining “Sapphire” to the word “lyre” directs the reader to this indirect reference since the “lyre” is a “harplike musical instrument of ancient Greece, used for accompanying the voice in singing and recitation.”[18] The addition of the word “styles“ is also multiply resonant since “the word stylos named the writer’s instrument for scratching words onto the wax tablets the ancient Greeks used instead of paper. Thus the modern word style indicates the personal mark of the artist.”[19] The unique vocal stylization and improvisation of standard blues and jazz lyrics was the personal hallmark of singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday’s musical power and skill. Consequently, the phrase “Sapphire’s lyre styles” loosely converted reads “Sapphire styles lyr-ics.” Mullen’s remark that she thought of Muse and Drudge “as the place where Sappho meets the blues at the crossroads”[20] then becomes Sapphire and sings the blues” affirms this reading.

       It should be noted that Sapphire sings both blues and jazz lyrics, since the last line in the quatrain, “whose lives are lonely too,” is a direct quote from the last verse of “Lush Life,” a jazz standard. Therefore, Mullen’s stated link to the blues tradition through her poem can be extended to the jazz tradition as well. This is apt, since she described her writing technique and style as being modeled on both blues and jazz performances. Mullen explains that Muse & Drudge was:

influenced by the compositional strategies of the blues, because blues verses are actually shuffled and rearranged by the performer, so new blues can be composed on the spot essentially by using different material in different orders. Quatrains can be free standing and shuffled in and out of the work in the way that blues verses are shuffled in and out in any particular performance—that is one way the echo of the blues enters the structure of the poem.[21]

Mullen also mentioned that “hypertext virtual shuffling” could be a suitable “technological metaphor” for her composition of the poem, suggesting that if Muse & Drudge is a blues poem, it is a post-modern blues.[22] None of the quatrains in the book have titles, nor do they appear to have one single progressive “arc of development” from book’s beginning to end. The hybrid blending of diverse resources present within a single quatrain such as “muse of the world picks/out stark melodies/her raspy fabric/tickling the ebonies” suggests that both the quatrains and individual lines can be shuffled and twisted around.[23] Each densely allusive line can stand alone, none builds towards a unified, paraphraseable statement or moves from statement to resolution. Unlike Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, or more recently, Sterling Plump, Mullen expands the definition of “blues poetry” to include work that is neither mimetically structured on the traditional AAB or AABA form of many blues lyrics nor a transparent transcription of blues vernacularisms. Instead, Mullen’s novel compositional approach reveals her interest in aspects of the blues and oral tradition “that are enigmatic and cryptic formulations, open to various interpretations.”[24] It is this “essence of enigma” which characterizes the complicated wordplay in Muse & Drudge that reveals its roots in jazz. “Mysterious,” Mullen notes, according to Clarence Major in Juba to Jive: a Dictionary of African-American Slang, refers to the “avant-garde musical tradition, something that’s way out.”[25] In terms of tradition, Mullen claims she “associated the avant-garde or innovative aspects of [her poem] with jazz musicians, particularly people like Thelonious Monk, as in “solo mysterioso.”[26] She also likened the phonemic games many of her verses engage in to scat singing. Mullen’s remarks concerning this aspect of her feminist avant-garde poetics is particularly revealing. It counters the critical tendency to read the innovative formal characteristics of her work as being essentially derived from European-American modernists such as Gertrude Stein and the more ostensibly opaque, or transparently vernacular, aspects of her writing as being socio-culturally rooted in African-American authors such as Zora Neale Hurston.[27] I would argue that Mullen’s remarks concerning her concepts and strategies for composition indicate that in terms of content and form Muse & Drudge is effectively styled as a hybrid blues/jazz poem.

        When jazz influenced poetry is compared to poetic forms influenced by the blues, the label “formless” is proffered as a compliment. The scholar Onwuchekwa Jemie, for instance, writes that “unlike the blues poem, the jazz poem is without form.”[28] This viewpoint is in part a result of the proliferation of jazz poetry during the early to mid seventies, that visibly—and deliberately—broke from more traditional metrical forms. Avant-garde “free jazz” of the late sixties and seventies that was closely associated with the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the pianist Cecil Taylor was seen as a model for poetic experimentation. This music’s departure from “straight-ahead” jazz conventions such as creating improvisations without preset chord progressions, suggests a better parallel than blues forms offer for attempts to transform jazz through poetry during this period. While it is true that the bulk of jazz poems written during this period were in free verse, the absence of set metrical patterns does not necessarily indicate the absence of a pattern.

        The assumption that the poetry modeled after jazz is necessarily amorphous is not compatible with the evidence at hand. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “John Col” demonstrates the contrary. I will recite Alexander’s poem in its entirety because its carefully embroidered pattern revolves around the title from the first to the final verse in the last stanza:

John Col

John Col-
trane’s “Central Park
West” from the first
the point where

this is not enough
untested pain
imagined shred-
ding of my heart

this poem snipped
from paper                Or
a battered brass
blood-blowing horn

the bloody foot-
lights cup the dark
where red and black
are beautiful

a terrible beau-
ty a terrible
beauty a terrible
beauty a horn

And this brass heart-
beat this red
sob           this                this
John Coltrane Col
trane song [29]

In contrast to the “sheets of sound”—a description Ira Gitler used to describe Coltrane’s rapid fire succession of streams of notes in his playing style of the ‘50’s (and here I hear an oblique echo of Mullen’s aforementioned “unfurling sheets of bluish music”) Alexander’s poem is pared down to a minimal number of words. In fact, because these highly evocative words “beat,” “heart,” “blood,” “terrible,” beauty” and “brass” are repeated with syntactical variance, the total number of unique words in the poem is less than it appears. Word count is crucial to understanding the poem’s structure; Alexander arranged the number of words or word fragments in each line of each stanza with mathematical precision. Even the variance has computational symmetry. To get a sense of the logic of her pattern, it is helpful to see a visual chart of the poem’s total word count per line and per stanza: 


Word Count Per Line

Word Count Per Stanza



















Note that not only are there no more than four words/word fragments per line but also there are no less than two. Also note that each stanza has at least one “doubled pair” of lines with an equivalent number of words (ie. “3, 3;” “2, 2;” “4, 4”). The two stanzas with the exact same word count, “3-3-3-3,” are the 3rd and the 5th stanzas; they are also the only two stanzas in the poem in which Coltrane’s horn is mentioned. The fourth and the sixth stanzas, by comparison, vary the total word count pattern of 12, they contain 13 and 15 words, respectively. The last stanza is the only stanza with five lines instead of four; this fifth line functions as a poetic equivalent of the “tag” in jazz. The line extends the poem’s opening theme; “trane song” circles back to join the opening line, “John Col,” which is also the poem’s title. The elegance of Alexander’s structure is its near-invisibility. Unless the reader is counting specifically for a numerical pattern, she would not necessarily be fully aware of its existence. And yet it serves as a guiding principle for the poem, it is the frame upon which each line is built.[30] In this, Alexander’s poem parallels the tapestry of a skillfully executed jazz solo: the casual listener may hear only a flurry of well-paced notes or well-timed silences that seem purely “spontaneous;” unless the listener dissects the improvisation, note for note, he or she may not be aware of the chord progressions upon which the improviser builds.

        On both a structural and a textual level, Alexander’s verbal scripting of Coltrane’s sound is characterized by syntactical restraint. If you look closely at your handout, you will notice that the poem contains no commas, semicolons, or periods, no punctuation to indicate grammatical pauses, stops or starts. Instead Alexander achieves a syncopated, alternately jarring and fluid rhythm in the poem by letting the silent spaces between the words speak. The only extralexical marks in the poem, significantly, are the quotations placed around “Central Park West, and between the hyphenated words “shred-ding,” “blood-blowing,” “foot-lights,” “beau-ty,” and “heart-beat.” Moreover, the fourth stanza—

a terrible beau-
ty a terrible
beauty a terrible
beauty a horn

—is the poetic equivalent of a musical riff. Alexander breaks apart and rearranges the phrase “a terrible beauty” as a jazz soloist would fragment and “worry” a melodic line. A standard procedure in jazz entails borrowing from other songs—that are not necessarily jazz tunes—and folding them into a restructured melody, often transforming the original tunes’ rhythmic framework and chord patterns. Similarly, Alexander’s manipulation of the phrase “a terrible/beauty a horn” builds in a sample which echoes crucial lines from Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916,” while transforming Yeats’ recurrent verses. Alexander’s borrowing is structurally significant. The concluding couplets for the first, second and final stanzas of “Easter 1916” are, respectively: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.,” “Transformed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.,” and “Are changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”[31] Alexander’s transformation of Yeats’ verse illustrates the striking effects of structural change of a few similar lines. In The First Book of Jazz, Langston Hughes declared that “Jazz is a way of playing music even more than it is a composed music. Almost any music can become jazz if it is played with jazz treatment.”[32] Similarly, Alexander’s poem suggests that jazz poetry can be seen as a way of playing with words, even more than it is genre of poetry composed about jazz.

        This emphasis on “playing with words,” or more generally on “play,” seems a suitable way to conclude my discussion of Moore, Mullen and Alexander. For the question of play brings us back to the metaphor used for slam competitions at the beginning of my talk. The noted film critic Roger Ebert called this “performance art” a “muscular verbal sport.” Given the valorization of the spectacle of the written over and above the “sport of the spoken word” in poetry scholarship, it is unlikely to see poets such as Moore and Mullen discussed in the same context. Moreover, due to the additional critical tendency to separate “formally innovative” writers such as Mullen from so-called “neo-formalists” such as Alexander, readers might not see them housed under the same tent. Yet I have endeavored to illustrate that it takes only a leap—or following Moore’s aviary metaphor, a flight—of critical faith to follow these three poets into whatever communal territory their poetry leads.  Emerging poetry scholarship should be willing to imagine across poetry communities, and if need be, to create them.


[1] Slamnation, dir. Paul Devlin, perf. Bob Holman, Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Beau Sia, et. al, Cinema Guild, 1998.

[2] Often signing up on a list is the sole requirement for being eligible to perform at a local coffeehouse or bar that hosts such slams.

[3] Roger Ebert, rev. of SlamNation, dir. Paul Devlin, Chicago Sun Times Online <http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1998/10/102304.html.

[4] Maria Damon, “Was that ‘Different,’ ‘Dissident’ or ‘Dissonant’? Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions,” Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, Ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) 334.

[5] Kalamu ya Salaam, “Why Spoken Word Rules,” Black Issues Book Review (March-April 1999): 21

[6]Harper, Michael. Interview. “The Situation of American Writing 1999.” American Literary History 11.2 (1999): 215-353.

[7] Harryette Mullen, “Fable,” Callaloo, 9.1(1986): 108.

[8] Damon 326.

[9] Jessica Care Moore, “My Caged Bird Don’t Sing and Every Black Bird Ain’t A Piece of Fried Chicken,” The Words Don’t Fit In My Mouth (New York: Moore Black Press, 1997) 96-98.

[10] Jessica Care Moore, “My Caged Bird Don’t Sing,” Eargasms: Crucial Poetics Vol. 1. Ozone, 1999.

[11] Moore, “My Caged Bird Don’t Sing,” The Words Don’t Fit In My Mouth 98.

[12] Mullen, Muse & Drudge (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 1995) 1

[13] Calvin Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues: An Interview with Harryette Mullen,” Callaloo 19.3 (1996): 652.

[14] Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Sympathy,” Norton Anthology of African American Literature, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Nellie McKay, et. al (New York: Norton, 1997) 900.

[15] Moore, “My Caged Bird,” The Words Don’t Fit In My Mouth 97.

[16] Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues” 653.

[17] Mullen, Muse & Drudge 1.

[18] “Lyre,” Webster’s Reference Dictionary 570.

[19] Robert O’Meally, Introduction, “Writing the Blues, Writing Jazz,” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (New York: Columbia UP, 1998) 535.

[20] Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues” 654.

[21] Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues” 654.

[22] Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues” 668.

[23] Mullen, Muse & Drudge 17.

[24] Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues” 664.

[25] Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues” 666.

[26] Bedient, “The Solo Mysterioso Blues” 666.

[27] See for example, an earlier issue of How2, in which Kimberly Lamm argues that “from [Gertrude] Stein’s work, Mullen extracts associational logic, verbal density that resists complete interpretive mastery by the reader, and a detached and idiosyncratic authorial presence. From [Zora Neale] Hurston’s work, Mullen extracts the performative and mimetic qualities of African-America [sic] dialect and its highly visual components while also emphasizing the way language participates in and shapes cultural and economic exchanges.” Kimberly Lamm, “Modernist Clothes Made New: The Visible Presence of Zora Neale Hurston and Gertrude Stein in Harryette Mullen’s TrimmingsHow2, <http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/stadler_center/how2/current/readings/lamm.html>. Also see Elisabeth Frost’s remarks in Postmodern Culture that both Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino “use a fundamentally Steinian lnaguage yet voice difference that Stein tended to avoid in her poetry—issues of race, class and inequity in American culture.” Elizabeth A. Frost, “Signifying on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino,” Postmodern Culture, n.p. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v005/5.3frost.html> I should add that I am not disputing the influence of Stein’s work on Mullen’s poetics or form of composition that both Lamm and Frost lucidly demonstrate. Instead, it is my contention that such categorization of the “innovative” and intricate as “white” and the vernacular and transparent as “black” does a disservice to the multiple musico-cultural and literary origins of “innovation” in Mullen’s work.

[28] Onwuchekwa Jemie, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia UP, 1976) 56-57.

[29] Elizabeth Alexander, “John Col,” The Venus Hottentot (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990).

[30] The structure of “John Col” can also be evaluated in terms of syllabic arrangement; in that case the pattern becomes 2-4-4-3; 5-4-4-4; 4-4-4-4; 4-4-4-4; 5-5-6-4; 4-3-3-4-2. Significantly the final stanza is a numerical variation of the first.

[31] William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, eds. M. H. Abrams, et. al (New York: Norton, 1993) 1878-1880. Alexander also picked up on the theme of repetition and slight variation in the cyclical elements of Yeats' poem. The third stanza provides the most suggestive comparison:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slide on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Repetition with variation in the above lines has the effect of building intensity of verbal resonance while shading meaning. Alexander uses greater economy of words to similar purpose in “John Col.” In addition, the opening couplet of the poem’s last stanza: “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart” may also be referred to in the brass “heart” in Alexander’s poem. Yeats’ changes are literal and temporal, “minute by minute” while Alexander’s are spatial and miniscule: mi-nute.

[32] Langston Hughes, “What is Jazz?” The First Book of Jazz (Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1999)46. Originally published by Franklin Watts in 1955.

BIO: Meta DuEwa Jones recently received her doctorate in English and American Literature from Standford University. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University of Virginia.



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