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New Anthology Celebrates ‘Ascent’ of African-American Poets

May 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks with longtime literary editor Charles Henry Rowell about his passion for promoting undiscovered and underappreciated African-American poets and artists. His latest effort is a new anthology called "Angles of Ascent."
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, bringing contemporary African-American poetry into the public eye.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL, Callaloo: I think we’re going to have to omit Colson Whitehead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meeting to plan the summer issue of the literacy journal Callaloo and editor Charles Henry Rowell finds he has an embarrassment of riches.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: We are going to have so much stuff. And I’m trying to hold back, so that we won’t overrun.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rowell, who was raised on a farm his parents owned in Alabama, started the journal in 1975 as a home for Southern black writers who he says were mostly ignored by journals of the day in both the South and North.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: The purpose was to identify, nurture, and promote and publish new black writers.

We will just keep going and keep going and keep going.

JEFFREY BROWN: At age 74 and for the last 12 years based at Texas A&M University, Rowell can look back on remarkable success. His journal has helped introduce several generations of now high-profile writers, some of whom we have featured on the NewsHour.

Former poet laureate Rita Dove:

RITA DOVE, Former Poet Laureate: “Singsong.”

“When I was young, the moon spoke in riddles and the stars rhymed. I was a new toy waiting for my owner to pick me up.”

JEFFREY BROWN: National Book Award Winner Terrance Hayes:

TERRANCE HAYES, National Book Award Winner: “Root.”

“My parents would have had me believe there was no such thing as race there in the wild backyard, our knees black with store-bought grass and dirt.”

JEFFREY BROWN: And the current laureate, Natasha Trethewey.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, U.S. Poet Laureate: “Elegy for My Father.”

“I think by now the river must be thick with salmon. Late August, I imagine it as it was that morning, drizzled, needling the surface, mist at the banks like a net settling around us.”

JEFFREY BROWN: These and 82 other poets are now part of Charles Rowell’s latest ambitious project: “Angles of Ascent,” a new “Norton Anthology.”

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: I wanted to demonstrate the infinite variety of voices and content and style and ideas in African — contemporary African-American poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: The anthology begins with poems from two literacy giants, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, followed by poets including Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni writing at the height of the black power movement.

But the majority of the book focuses on poets writing after the turbulent civil rights era.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: What fascinated me about the contemporary writer is that turn from the external world into the interior world, not the obsession with — quote — “the struggle,” not that that is not a valid subject, but that has been written about over and over. And these writers were not committing themselves to the struggle. They were committing their poetry to itself, to its craft, to its beauty.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a good thing, right?

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: Yes. Oh, yes, that’s very positive to me, because …

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: And I think it’s terribly revolutionary. These poets use being black to write about larger subjects.

JEFFREY BROWN: He says the change has not only broadened the poetry, but the audience as well.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: If I’m able to get you to feel what I’m thinking about in a poem, and you start identifying with it and you proceed to quote my poem, that’s revolutionary, you know, because earlier, non-African-Americans didn’t go around quoting African-American poets.

This is another cover art.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to discovering new poets, Rowell is also always on the lookout for new black artists from around the world.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: Collecting art is an addiction for me. And I don’t know. And I just feel that I have to have things around me that are beautiful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many of the paintings end up on the covers of the Callaloo journals. And this fall, he will publish a special edition devoted just to art.

In both art and poetry, he says, the idea is to promote the undiscovered or ignored.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: I’m prepared to do battle. And that has been my whole life, to do battle with whatever I confront that is anti-me or anti-community, not with loud, screaming voices, mind you, or sounding revolutionary, but doing the work that is necessary to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many, many years later, you still — still on the mission.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: I’m still on the battlefield.

JEFFREY BROWN: Doing the battle.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: That is my nature now. It’s in the DNA, practically.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new anthology is “Angles of Ascent.”

Charles Henry Rowell, thanks for talking with us.

CHARLES HENRY ROWELL: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, you can watch some of the poets included in the new anthology read from their works, including Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, Rita Dove, and Kevin Young. That’s on our Art Beat page.