One year ago today, just in time for National Poetry Month, Haymarket Books published a groundbreaking poetry collection called The BreakBeat Poets. Featuring the work of seventy-eight different writers, The BreakBeat Poets celebrates the new “BreakBeat Generation.” The BreakBeat Generation, as defined by editor Kevin Coval, is a new era whose style is fueled by the hip-hop and spoken-word movements of the Black Arts, Nuyorican, and Beat poets.
“Hip-hop,” Coval says in the introduction, “made poetry relevant. It was no longer this dreadful, dead-white-male-centered, highly dull piece to sleep through in English class. It was very much alive and in our Walkmen and notebooks.”
Hip-hop created a connection to an audience that most classic poetry lacked. It was an invitation to participate extended to a generation who wasn’t used to being invited. Hip-hop, by definition, is a civic discourse. Political in nature, if not in content, many poems take on social justice as their refrain. In its own kind of revolution, hip-hop gives a voice to an unheard generation,
The BreakBeat Poets is both a masterful stand-alone collection and a magnetic introduction to some crucial poets you might not have heard before. And many of these poets aren’t done. With a sample of three groundbreaking works from the past, and three exciting new titles for 2016, here’s a primer on the BreakBeat Poets’ legacy.
This Is Modern Art (Haymarket Books) by Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin is a play which provides a glimpse into the lives of anonymous graffiti artists that asks us to question the true purpose of art. When one graffiti crew finishes the biggest graffiti bomb of their careers, the consequences get serious and spark a public debate asking, “Where does art belong?” The language of the play reflects Coval and Goodwin’s poetic backgrounds, using subtle imagery and turn-of-phrase to pack a heavy punch. The play was first staged at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago in early 2015. This Is Modern Art will be published on August 30, 2016.
Buck Studies (Fence Books) by Douglas Kearney is a poetic examination of blackness and maleness in jaw-dropping, hard-cut language. Kearney complicates and exhausts common notions of form and style to create lyrics and ballads you never knew were possible. At the hub of Buck Studies is a long mash-up of the stories of Herakles, the Greek bad-man, and that of Stagger Lee, the black bad-man. Buck Studies will be published on July 12, 2016.
Dated Emcees (City Lights Publishers) by Chinaka Hodge is a collection of 25 poems, meant to mirror the length of a classic double-album. Hodge’s writing is fiercely intelligent and emotionally packed. Each word is so specific and powerful that it feels as if Hodge has invented them just for each poem, just for each reader. Her work explores her own love life through the lens of hip-hop’s best known orators, characters, archetypes, and songs. Hodge has been featured in two seasons of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, as well as on PBS, NPR, and CNN – in other words, she’s kind of a big deal. Dated Emcees will be published on June 7, 2016.
Starve the Vulture: A Memoir (Akashic Books / Kaylie Jones Books) by Jason Carney is a powerful account of the author’s criminality, drug addiction, and recovery. Starve the Vulture is an unflinchingly honest confession. The memoir uses the lyrical, mesmerizing tone that Jason Carney is known for in his poetry to describe his path to redemption and unlikely fame on the national performance poetry circuit, where Carney is a four-time finalist. Woven into Carney’s path to recovery is a powerful family story, depicting the roots of prejudice and dysfunction through several generations. Starve the Vulture was published January 6, 2015
The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press) by Jericho Brown is a reclamation of mythologies, from Frankenstein to Cain and Abel. The New Testament seeks not to revise these histories but to find the source of redemption. Brown uses lyric to tenderly examine race, masculinity, and sexuality. Don’t pick up this book unless you have at least two hours to spare – one to read it, and one to sit stunned at the beautiful ache of truth you have just witnessed. Poet Claudia Rankine said, “To read Jericho Brown’s poems is to encounter devastating genius,” and that’s not an exaggeration. NPR.org praised The New Testament, saying that Brown’s poems “are always beautiful, full of a music that is a cross between the sinuous sentences of Carl Phillips, the forceful descriptions of Mark Doty, and hip rhythms of Terrance Hayes.”
Bury My Clothes (Haymarket Books) by Roger Bonair-Agard is a collection about art, and what it means when creation itself is an act of survival. Bonair-Agard uses a driving sense of rhythm and narration to bring the reader along on meditations of violence, race, and the place in art at which they intersect. National Book Award Finalist Patricia Smith praises Bury My Clothes as a collection of “unapologetically relentless stanzas [which] will slam their fists into places you have not yet discovered.” Bury My Clothes was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry.
Find out where to buy This Is Modern Art: A Play, Buck Studies, Dated Emcees, Starve the Vulture: A Memoir, The New Testament, and Bury My Clothes here on the Consortium website.