April is National Poetry Month in the United States. For African American writer Ishmael Reed, that means celebrating a very diverse literary tradition. Mr. Reed is the editor of a book called From Totems to Hip-Hop, A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. The collection introduces readers to poets they've probably never heard of before, and casts new light on familiar names as well.
Ask most people in the United States to name an American poet, and they're more likely to mention Walt Whitman or Robert Frost than Agha Shahid Ali. But a poem by the New Delhi-born poet is the first entry in From Totems to Hip Hop. He came to the United States as a young man and published several collections of poetry before his death in 2001.
Take a look at these lines from Mr. Ali's poem A Lost Memory of Delhi:
"I am not born It is 1948 and the bus turns onto a road without name My mother is a recent bride Her sari a blaze of brocade Silver dust parts her hair She doesn't see me." Ishmael Reed says poets like Agha Shahid Ali have been left out of many standard anthologies.
"We don't get the full range of African American, Asian American, Hispanic writing. We don't get the American-European avant garde. We don't get ethnic whites, or so-called Irish American and Jewish American writers. We only get tokens. And when people from those communities judge the writers they hold in esteem, some of those who are very popular are not mentioned. And we have a quite different list in this book than you would find in the average textbook," he explained.
While that list focuses on American poetry of the last hundred years, the book's title pays tribute to much older art forms. Ishmael Reed believes American literature began with totems, the picture stories Native Americans have been carving for thousands of years.
"Totem poles are not just objects of art but can be read like books, and what intrigued me was that the figures from those totem poles can be found in classic American literature up to today, the trickster figures and characters like that. So I believe the Native Americans were the first of our writers, and [for] a number of contemporary poets and poets from the past, there's a straight line from their work to the early Native American writing," he said.
The anthology includes a poem called Shagoon One Through Four by Andrew Hope, who belongs to the Sitka tribe of Alaska. He mixes modern day images like airplanes with bears and other symbols from Native American tradition.
Here's an excerpt:
"Thunderbirds flying Like giant planes Moving silently Across the gray sky. Thunderbirds flying Brown bears dancing, leaving footprints in the mud and snow Brown Bears Dancing into the Woods." Other poems in the anthology range across American culture, defying notions not only about who's writing poetry today, but what it should be about.
"Well, the cat started acting funny and the dog howled all night long…"
Ishmael Reed drew on his love of blues music, and his life in earthquake-prone California, to write the poem Earthquake Blues:
"The ground began to rumble As the panic hit the town. Mister Earthquake Mister Earthquake, you don't know good from bad. Mister Earthquake Mister Earthquake You don't know good from bad."
Ishmael Reed also includes poems by his students from the University of California at Berkeley. He says he wanted to show that young people can write poetry just as accomplished as that of older, established poets.
Corie Rosen was in her second year at the university when she wrote Madonna for the Damneda 1980s Heroine.
Here is an excerpt from her tribute to the rock star icon:
"You stretched out your hungry voice And grabbed Music Television With fingerless black lace back-beats And shocking pink lyrics. From nowhere-nobody-nothing New York Sweaty streets full of Italian girls just like youYou claimed your fame."
Corie Rosen's poem began with a classroom project.
"We had been assigned to write a poem about an icon or a hero. And I had begun writing a poem about, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who's wonderful. But I went into the professor with this thing I was writing, and he said write about someone who's touched your life in a personal way. And so I went from a great peacemaker to Madonna, one of my personal heroes," she said.
Corie Rosen says her taste in poetry ranges from T.S. Eliot to hip-hop, and she hopes there's some hip-hop in her poem.
The rhythmic verse style began in urban Black and Latino America, and it's had a huge influence on modern music and poetry. The anthology pays tribute to that influence with a range of voices, including the late Tupac Shakur. His poem, Why Must U Be Unfaithful, was recorded by Sarah Jones.
The anthology also includes Chicago, by the celebrated white poet Carl Sandburg, who died in 1967. Ishmael Reed sees the poem as a pioneering example of hip-hop. Carl Sandburg describes what he calls the "city of the big shoulders… half naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation." "There's a straight line from Carl Sandburg to the hip-hop poetsI mean this whole idea of populism and writing out of a working class experience and the hardships of growing up in such an environment. Carl Sandburg is the grand old man of hip hop," Mr. Reed said. Ishmael Reed says he hopes his collection not only introduces readers to a wider range of poets, but gives role models to aspiring young writers.
"I think it will give a lot of students who cannot find anything to identify with in the curriculum something to learn from. I studied the great European and American writers throughout elementary education and high school, but it was not until I read African American writer, James Baldwin, when I was 19 years old, that I thought maybe I could do it," he said.
Ishmael Reed is the editor of a new collection called From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002.
From Totems to Hip-Hop was published by Thunder's Mouth Press, 161 William Street, 16th Floor, New York, New York 10038.