Rock and a Hard Place: Erica Hunt and the Poetics of African-American Postmodernity

by Kathy Lou Schultz

Erica Hunt is the inheritor of a legacy gone missing. A legacy of avant-garde practice by African-American women poets including Julia Fields and Elouise Loftin. A legacy of work that has escaped the notice of most scholars, that has been allowed to go out of print, or was poorly published in the first place. It is important to situate Hunt within this context of innovative African-American writing, a corollary and a parallel process of which is dismantling the construction of the American poetry avant-garde as white. The history of avant-garde practice by African-American women poets has been both misplaced and misread, leading to readings of avant-garde literatures that are entirely too white, and collections of African-American literature that eschew formal experimentation.

        Hunt, whose lineage includes Language poets, feminist writers, and politicized writers of color, produces works that draw upon these categories while at the same time exploding the boundaries between them. In drawing from these multiple trajectories, a reading of Hunt’s work makes apparent the ways in which scholarly mappings of these traditions have been insufficient. While Hunt is commonly referred to as an “experimental” poet, the term “experimental” as used in relation to American literatures is both an over-used and under-theorized category. Erica Hunt's work requires one to position the term “experimental” across literary traditions, to understand how the term is used in the contemporary understandings of each tradition, as well as how its meaning has migrated historically. This paper seeks to position an understanding of experimentalism across the traditions from which Hunt draws—African-American, women’s, and avant-garde literatures—in order to both contextualize and provide a reading of Hunt’s writing practices.

        It is instructive to begin with a statement of poetics by Hunt, an essay entitled, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics.” This essay reveals that Hunt, a social activist, is intimately involved with working to dismantle those social structures that maintain racial and patriarchal hegemonic systems. She has incorporated these ideals into the interrogation of language, a fundamental part of her poetic experiment:

One troubling aspect of privileging language as the primary site to torque new meaning and possibility is that it is severed from the political question of for whom new meaning is produced. The ideal reader is an endangered species, the committed reader has an ideological agenda both open and closed, flawed and acute, that we do not address directly. On one level the lack of address is a problem of the dispersed character of the social movements in this country at present; on another level it is the general difficulty of looking squarely at the roles we play as writers in forming social consciousness (“Notes” 687).

For Hunt, then, language as a political tool—and the role writers play in shaping, illuminating, or subverting it—is at the heart of her writing practice. Hunt goes on to call for a poetics in which it is “important to think how writing can begin to develop among oppositional groups, how writing can begin to have a social existence in a world where authority has become highly mobile, based less on identity and on barely discerned or discussed relationships”(“Notes” 687). This passage from the one articulation of poetics Hunt has published is particularly useful in understanding the ways in which her writing negotiates between what might narrowly be called “Language poetry” and a kind of “testimonial” social voice often expected from African-American poets.[1]  In short, Hunt incorporates aspects of both projects in producing a work that contains recognizable elements at the same time that it is entirely “new.”

        As we will see throughout this paper, critical readings which are based upon and reinforce identity-based categories often perform a kind of normalizing function, enforcing conservative reading practices and expectations. What does it mean to read a writer such as Hunt up against the canonized versions of African-American writing? I propose that a new critical history is necessary to encompass readings of radical African-American literary practices, a tradition that includes such writers as Fields, Oliver Pitcher, Lloyd Addison, and Norman Henry Pritchard, and was carried forward through the work of several poets including Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, and Bob Kaufman. Readings that posit the avant-garde of American poetries as white have contributed to the disappearance of a number of these writers equally as well as a conservative black aesthetics that cannot account for their language and poetic experiments. The influence of these writers is felt on practicing contemporary African-American poets including Hunt, Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, and Nathaniel Mackey.

        If we widen the conversation about black writing to include the precursors to the Black Arts Movement detailed in Aldon Nielsen’s excellent history of post-World War II black experimental poetries, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism, we can begin to see how the work of a writer such as Hunt participates in a dialogue which might include both African-American poets from, for example, the Umbra Group, and the Language poets, a loosely connected group that was never made up exclusively of white men in the first place, though some critical histories may lead readers to believe that to be the case.

        We begin to see, then, with the example of Hunt’s work, that the question was never “either/or:” either form or content, either black or avant-garde. Her work illustrates the ways in which reading the histories of African-American literature and avant-garde poetries as separate colludes in a kind of essentializing of “identity” in American letters that leads one to draw pre-formed conclusions about the ways in which African-American literature is supposed to behave. Indeed, meeting normative expectations for how and what an African-American writer should write has often been a prerequisite to success. [2] Again, if we go back to Nielsen, we see that the necessary critical acclaim from predominantly white critics and editors was often achieved by black poets who “sounded black” or included “black subject matter” or content. For those writers who persisted in “sounding black” in a way that was not recognizable to a white audience, publication was hard-won, or often non-existent.

        American literatures that are seen as part and parcel of “identity”(eg. women’s literature, African-American literature, lesbian literature) are pigeonholed by particular expectations for form and content. Indeed, it has been the texts that meet those expectations that have been more readily canonized. In the particular case of “women’s writing,” texts that meet normative expectations for narrative form have garnered favor from mainstream academic critics, whereas texts which employ such techniques as visual experimentation or use of the entire page as a field are still often absent from college curricula. These choices were borne out of cultural feminist publishing projects that celebrated women’s poetry, particularly writing about women’s experiences. A range of “experiences” or subject matter constituted the primary litmus test for what might be considered “feminist” writing. What was ignored, however, was the fact that these writers were filling the same container—the narrative poem which became institutionalized in American literature after World War II—albeit with different content. As Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller illustrate in their paper “Gender and Avant-Garde Editing: Comparing the 1920s with the 1990s,” the academy continues to exacerbate the division between “testimonial” or primarily narrative-based works, and feminist poetry that is concerned with linguistic innovation, and therefore is more “experimental”:

[W]omen’s contributions to experimental poetry publication today are not well recognized in current scholarly narratives. Because American academic feminism has generally allied itself with an identity politics focus, and because the greatest impetus for reading, teaching, and publishing works by women has come from feminist scholars, the view from academe tends to obscure women’s publishing that does not fit this mold. Thus, Kim Whitehead’s scholarly study, The Feminist Poetry Movement (published in 1996), assumes that there is only one feminist poetry movement, best represented by Minnie Bruce Pratt, June Jordan, Judy Grahn, Gloria Anzaldua, Irena Klepfisz, and Joy Harjo. In her brief survey of feminist press production Whitehead does mention one Kelsey Street [3] title (Nellie Wong’s Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park), but she seems generally unaware of publishing ventures that exhibit versions of feminism concerned with the gendered implications of literary conventions and linguistic structures themselves.(Keller and Miller)

With the amount of activity taking place in the area of innovative feminist poetics—print magazines, online magazines, reading series, and book series—much of this activity taking place on university campuses, it is difficult to believe that Whitehead was entirely unaware of this tradition. Rather, it is more likely that work by writers such as Erica Hunt did not fit neatly within Whitehead’s particular feminist reading, ie. innovative writing does not “represent” in a way that a feminist identity politics can recognize.

        Keller and Miller go on to point out that the academic feminist focus on identity politics in literature creates a particularly dire situation for women of color doing experimental writing: “It has contributed especially to the invisibility of the women of color whose experimentalist work resists fulfilling conventional expectations for work that ‘represents’—in the sense both of representational aesthetics and of demographic representativeness—cultural diversity.” Those expectation for racial “representativeness” are now institutionalized within white liberal ideological systems in such institutions as the university which seek “diversity” in a way that collapses racial categories into unitary structures that least threaten dominant power systems. As Hunt points out in  “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics”:

The principle of cooptation is this: that dominant culture will transfer its own partiality onto the opposition it tries to suppress. It will always maintain that it holds the complete world view, despite the fissures. Opposition is alternately demonized or accommodated through partial concessions without a meaningful alteration of dominant culture's own terms.(685)

The literary canon, then, has been able to accommodate black writers’ poetic works which replicate known formal gestures while fulfilling a predominantly white audience’s hunger for the supposedly “authentic voice” of African-American “experience.”

        Conservative literary critics of the African-American tradition reinforce this focus on the category of experience, at the expense of discussions of literary form. As I have stated earlier, this is a hazard of critical reading practices informed by identity politics. Michael Awkward examines this topic in a discussion of the critic Joyce Joyce’s attacks upon Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Joyce suggests that there is a single acceptable black practice of critical reading and a single acceptable outcome. Such reading is extratextual in focus (it asks, in effect, not what the text does, but what it can do for the Afro-American reader), and is infinitely more concerned with content than with formal strategies. Scholars whose use of critical theory suggests to Joyce that they are more interested in exploring language of the black text than in studying its potentially inspiring content are accused of disloyalty to the cause of black liberation. Pre-supposing a uniform Afro-American experience of racism or, in the words (if not the precise wording) of George Kent, a singular adventure of blackness in Western culture, Joyce and other traditional Afro-American critics argue that experience ought to lead to a common, overtly political interpretation that is essentially unconcerned with the aesthetic qualities of black texts.(30)

For Erica Hunt, however, “the aesthetic quality of black texts” is an essential concern of her writing practice. Hunt’s poems consistently interrogate what it means for a poet to participate in a conversation about what a black aesthetic contains, means, and signifies. The work does so in a way that engages form as well as what might broadly be called “content.” Furthermore, her writing participates in dismantling normative reading expectations while still concerning itself fundamentally with issues of race and gender. By taking on constructions of race on the level of the sentence, Hunt rewrites predominant racial narratives including the definition of “blackness” in America.

      In a forthcoming essay Harryette Mullen writes:

That Hunt declines in this poem to write in what is called "Black English" or "black vernacular," that she declines further to use either euphonious lyrical lines or normative speech-like sentences constituting what is called an "authentic voice," leaves this work outside the mainstream American canon as well as outside the currently constructed canon of African-American literature—a canon constituted around the central idea of textualized orality, or "the speakerly text."

Mullen is writing specifically here about a poem from Erica Hunt’s second book of poems, Arcade(1996), but her analysis applies to Hunt’s writing strategy as a whole. It is important to note that the current canon of African-American literature (as exemplified by the new Norton anthology) champions work that fulfills traditional expectation for form, content, and voice. Work by Erica Hunt and fellow experimentalist Will Alexander is notably absent.

        A reading of Hunt becomes more complex, however, when we consider Houston Baker’s historical approach to reading black literary conservatism and black literary experimentalism. Baker provides insight into the ways in which black writing has negotiated, encompassed, and rebelled against normative literary expectations. Readings of black vernacular have changed over time, having been seen variously as reactionary and radical. In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker proposes that the defining moment in African-American modernism is Booker T. Washington’s 1895 address to the Negro exhibit of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, which Baker reads as an enactment of the performance of minstrelsy: “And it is, first and foremost, the mastery of the minstrel mask by blacks that constitutes a primary move in Afro-American discursive modernism.”(17) This “mastery of form” is an example of radical “back talk” for the African-American speaker/writer:

Obviously, an Afro-American spokesperson who wished to engage in a masterful and empowering play within the minstrel spirit house needed the uncanny ability to manipulate bizarre phonic legacies. For he or she had the task of transforming the mask and its sounds into negotiable discursive currency. In effect, the task was the production of a manual of black speaking, a book of speaking back and black.”(Baker 24)

For the African-American writer, then, mastery of dominant forms took on a subversive quality. Indeed, this mastery had to take place in African-American literature before what Baker calls the “deformation of mastery” could occur. In learning to manipulate the dominant discursive practice—which was the vernacular—Washington negotiated an effective method of black speaking in which to “talk back” to the oppressor. Therefore, Hunt’s refusal of “black vernacular” or the “authentic voice” must be understood within its historical moment. It is a moment in which the very notion of “authenticity” is called into question, and black speaking/writing has attained multivalent structures. As always, the sanctioned or canonized version of what that voice should entail is structured to support particular ideologies. I propose that traditional scholars currently fail to recognize those texts by African-American women that refuse to meet orderly narrative expectations. If we were to project Baker’s argument further, Hunt’s work takes the next logical step, in effect enacting “the deformation of the deformation of mastery.”

        Hunt’s playful prose-like poems shatter paradigms unprepared for texts that serve up language into new histories, local histories of a black woman who is witness to a world order in which appearances are not what they seem: “In an era of palaces inhabited by officials who’ve inherited their squint you have to do more than scratch the surface” (Local History 40). Hunt’s first collection of poems, Local History(1993), was published by small press publisher Roof Books in New York and includes three sections of poems. In this book, Hunt does indeed do more than simply “scratch the surface.” For Hunt the surreal is given over to the ordinary facts of existence, which for her bear political import. She extends the feminist engagement with the “personal” in both political content and her overall project.

        In “A Coronary Artist” the female speaker dreams not only of “Snow falling upwards” but also of “The bed in the corner of the empty lot. Cut logs careening away from the saw. They know what’s waiting for them” (Local History, 13). The impending crisis (“You can smell the smoke answering the alarm”) is positioned within the dailiness of family life:

To bring one’s face into the morning when it’s barely light. To promote sunshine to my daughter while surviving my own ferocious will to sleep. This is the corner to turn to the bathroom. This is the sink, I look at myself and see the person I might have been had I gotten more sleep.(Local History 13)

In this world, the lived experiences of gender are highlighted in the artificiality of their construction: “One becomes an adult without knowing the details of how it was done, knowing only which team you’re on, which hat corresponds to your glands,” but the effects of gendered power dynamics are still very real: “Custom has it that a woman gets up first to solve the dilemma of the burning moment.”(Local History 13) The “family soundtrack” runs in the background “putting everything on hold.”

        In exploring the signs and symbols of language, Hunt persistently locates her work within the political sphere of lived events; dissecting language’s apparatus is no mere exercise. She proposes that

We could argue, get sprained on topic mountain and pass the whole night putting our shoulders to the planet…Except when the lights go off. Except when the paint comes off the walls. When the calm we’ve kept comes off in conversation. When they’ve eaten the last northerner and I’m the stranger in their midst. Or when the bricks of the aircraft we’re flying in begin to migrate slowly apart. Except when the exits aren’t marked and the busses have stopped running at this hour. When we believe we have no other choice but to run while motionless.(Local History 9)

Indeed, deconstructing the apparatus of language, of discourse, is part of a project in which Hunt confronts the apparatus of power. Hers is a poetics in which “fore” competes for space with “ground;” surface is constantly juxtaposed with reality; the mechanism by which the official state is run exposed for its bare brutality. The piece “cold war breaks” describes the “movie version” of the 20th century “which soon will be the only version anyone remembers”:

The routine explanations of atrocity will be clocked, to present them precisely as they do on the evening news. Anchors will play themselves, mime a mix of concern and fatigue, as if the news had happened to them. It will entertaining however.”(Local History 23)

      Replicant versions of “history” can repeat exponentially in which the news anchor is an actor played by the news anchor himself. Atrocity is boiled down to a bland soup of “routine explanation” in which the emotions are engaged only enough to mime concern and “entertain.” Such ideological manipulations put this reader in the mind of Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World,” wherein generic—read “white”—“world citizens” serenade the viewer/rider with what white liberalism most wants to hear: The Other is not “Other” at all, in fact, the other is just like me. This worldview flattens difference, ignoring the xenophobic outcome that results from the imposition of dominant cultural codes upon people of color.

        In these poems, language becomes an active presence that can trip up or inflate experience. In a poem entitled “The Order of the Story,” the speaker exhorts the reader to “invent a language” and to describe various things.

Describe the buts in the doorway, in the doorway and everywhere in between, where she trips or slides down them into some other contingency, a sentence with a dangling clause. She is the figure in the vicinity of her experience with its distracting claims on her attention. Capital letters inflate routine, without which days curve away.(Local History 15)

Hunt is creating a kind of “grammar” of experience where language itself not only marks daily routine, but is also worn upon the body; she becomes in effect “a sentence with a dangling clause,” a part of speech that exists outside of the accepted “laws” or rules of grammar. She exists in violation. In addition, the title draws attention to the fact that Hunt’s writing practice de-orders or deconstructs traditional narrative structures, literally the way in which a “story” should be “ordered.”

        Furthermore, language is the intermediary through which experience necessarily must be understood, indeed felt, but even then the woman in the poem can only hope to get within “the vicinity” of her own experience. For Hunt, then, language is opaque; it does not simply reveal or explain. The materiality of language, then, is primary. It is not possible simply to consume these poems as one might a nice dessert (or for that matter most poems one would encounter in The New Yorker). She calls our attention to the materials, the making of the product itself, and is aware that her subject position, and that of her poems, occupies a place within commodity culture.

I come flying out of the elevator, out of my container, out of my box. I am myself, not the product you asked for, not the one you pointed to on the shelf. This one, not that one. No strings and anything might happen.(Local History 11)

Hunt is also the inheritor of the tradition of the epistolary, a tradition being turned inside out by Hunt and her contemporaries including Nathaniel Mackey and Dodie Bellamy. Mackey explores the form of the epistolary novel in his ongoing prose series, “From a Broken Bottle, Traces of Perfume Still Emanate,” two volumes of which have been published: Bedouin Hornbook(1986) and Djbot Baghostus's Run(1993). Dodie Bellamy challenges the genre in The Letters of Mina Harker, a “novel” from Hard Press. As Robin Tremblay-McGaw points out in her essay “Class, Gender, Genre: A Culture Bomb, The Letters of Mina Harker,” the epistolary novel carries with it particular class and gender implications:

Historically, the epistolary novel has its origin as a form used by male writers to tell the private, supposedly ‘authentic’ (read unmediated) story of a woman’s seduction, abandonment, and fall…The letters are usually presented as written for private not public purposes. Once they have been made public—after some remarkable or fortuitous chance—they are presumed to be part of a secret and therefore more revealing, more authentic text. Frequently the female subject, as in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Clarissa, is of a ‘propertied’ family.

Hunt’s work participates in this kind of rewriting of the history of female subjectivity. Taken into the hands of a black woman confronting traditional power structures, the epistolary takes new shape. Hunt uses the form to her advantage in the series of letters punningly entitled “Correspondence Theory.”(Local History 33) An exchange addressed simply to “Dear” is in turn answered “Dear Dear” a salutation that also functions as a kind of lament. One can imagine a womanly figure looking out over Hunt’s landscape of urban decay, racial tension, a hurricane about to hit the city, and shaking her head: “Dear Dear,” indeed. In this world, the city has become a Disneyland fa蓷de, complete with “natives,” in which the city’s functions have been commandeered for the comfort of tourists. “Street signs are moved around, and streets renamed so that tourists walk only sanctioned loops. The loops concentrate site; representative locales, ordinarily dispersed through the city, are packed into a pedestrian mall.”(Local History 38)

        The themes of “Correspondence Theory” are a relentless urbanity, rewriting of myths, and commentary upon political inequity:

In this war casualties multiply: one in four in prison, one in four unemployed, one in four with a habit, every square foot to be fought for. In the panic that is no solution, the police and the young guarantee one another employment; the ranks of each army swell.(Local History 38)

This passage invites the reader to suggest or supply who “one” in each of the declarative statements denotes or connotes, effectively involving the reader in participation in a kind of meta-analysis of social oppressions while in the very act of reading the poem. However this work is not entirely “open” in meaning, but rather suggests particular trajectories. For example, the “war at home” evokes the struggle both by and against African-American men. The statistic “one in four in prison” is particularly horrifying, though in the year 2000, the facts are even worse.

        Erica Hunt’s work brings together disparate elements in such a way as to demand new reading strategies. On the back of Local History, Charles Bernstein’s quote states in part: “A new poet demands new readers. Hunt’s poetry, it seems to me, demands a new public.” The challenge for the critic is to engage in the various conversations that Hunt’s work demands while bringing together a new poetic discourse rigorous enough to answer the questions that it raises.

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Awkward, Michael. Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Bellamy, Dodie. The Letters of Mina Harker. Hard Press.

Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology : A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. London: Verso, 1998.

Himes, Chester. Yesterday Will Make You Cry. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

Hunt, Erica. “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics.” The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 197-212. Rpt. in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing By Women, ed. Mary Margaret Sloan. New York: Talisman House, 1998.

_____. Local History. New York: Roof Books, 1993.

Keller, Lynn and Cristanne Miller. “Gender and Avant-Garde Editing: Comparing the 1920s with the 1990s” HOW2 Vol. 1, No. 2, September 1999.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Bedouin Notebook. Callaloo Fiction Series 1986; Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press, 1997.

_____. Djbot Baghostus’s Run. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993.

Mullen, Harryette. “‘Incessant Elusives:’ The Oppositional Poetics of Erica Hunt and

Will Alexander.” MELUS Journal, forthcoming.

Nielsen, Aldon. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Silliman, Ron. In The American Tree.  Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

Tremblay-McGaw, Robin. “Class, Gender, Genre: A Culture Bomb, ‘The Letters of Mina Harker’ by Dodie Bellamy.” HOW2 Vol. 1, No. 2, September 1999.

[1] I am using the term “Language poetry” to describe linguistically innovative, politicized avant-garde writing practices that also frequently engage critical theory. This work is exemplified by such anthologies as Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree and The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein.

[2] This applies equally to writers of fiction, as well as poets. Chester Himes’s novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry was published in a barely recognizable version by editors during his lifetime and was only recently released in its intended form by Old School Press in 1998. As the Old School editors point out in their introduction, “Himes had decided to tell the story of his life using the voice of a white man, Jimmy Monroe, which enabled him to draw a few red herrings across the trail and resolve what appeared at the time as an irrevocable contradiction: being a black man and a writer and demonstrating that it is possible for an African American to go beyond ghetto experience…The editors deliberately and relentlessly erased the tenderer and more artistic aspects to turn Himes’s manuscript into a hard-boiled prison novel. For many publishers in those days, the only place where the black man was not an invisible man was in a prison cell.” (Himes, 8).

[3] Kelsey Street is a 25-year-old poetry press that publishes innovative poetry by women, and collaborations between poets and visual artists. Their authors include Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Erica Hunt, and Myung Mi Kim, among others.


BIO: Kathy Lous Schultz is a doctoral student in literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of two collections of poems: Re dress (San Francisco State University) and Genealogy (a+bend press). A third volume is forthcoming from Atelos.



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