Friday, June 10, 2005

Elizabeth Alexander - Venus Hottentot

I'm doing an independent study at Hamline this summer with Deborah Keenan, who is my advisor. I need to put together my poetry manuscript and so my assignment is to study how other poets put together their manuscripts.

She gave me a bunch of people and I'm starting with Elizabeth Alexander, whose first collection of poetry here just blew me away.

The manuscript's organization was especially interesting to me since she includes a lot of family poetry. I have a bunch of that too-- and am struggling with how to not make it an entier manuscript of family poetry.

The unavoidable answer to that of course is that I need to write a bunch more poems that are not family poems. Right.

The book takes its title from a poem about Sarah Baartman, the "Venus Hottentot" who was a woman from South Africa displayed as a freak in London.

It is divided into four numbered sections:

Containing "The Venus Hottentot"

Containing eight poems about herself and her own family
West Indian Primer - grandfather, great grandfather, great grandmother, father
Ode - to the place she grew up
Ladders - Sisters, Neices, Aunts, Fathers
Zodiac - First kiss
The Dirt-Eaters - Great grandma
Who I Think You Are - Daddy, Grandpa, "Baba"
House Party Sonnet '66 - Brother
Nineteen - Her first summer on her own

Containing 9 poems about historical artists and musicians (and one cowboy) tied together with multiple poems referencing collage artist Romare Bearden. With the exception of Frida Kahlo and Claude Monet, the figures are all African American.

Omni - Albert Murray - Albert Murray, Romare Bearden, Duke Ellington,
Robeson at Rutgers - Paul Robeson
Van Der Zee - James Van Der Zee
Bearden - Romare Bearden
Deadwood Dick - Nate Love
John Col - John Coltrane
Painting - Frida Kahlo
Monet at Giverny - Claude Monet
Farewell to You - Romare Bearden, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Willie "the Lion" Smith

Containing 11 poems that move around geographically sometimes with the author and sometimes with the news. Putting down roots, being transplanted, taking things for granted, exploring the idea of blackness.

Penmanship - differences in education from generation to generation
Letter: Blues - setting down new roots, being lonely
Boston Year - Contact with people from many different cultures in Boston
Kevin of the N.E. Crew - Graffitti, gangs and crime
Four Bongos: Take a Train - Subway musicians
"Radio Days" - Nostalgia
Miami Footnote - Visiting Miami
"Ala - Black men playing basketball in Alabama
A Poem for Nelson Mandela - Pretty self-explanatory
Today's News - Mike Tyson in a street brawl, Mohammed Ali throwing his gold medal away, the inability to define what blackness is-- too many things-- too many people
Preliminary Sketches: Philadelphia - Philadelphia as a place of roots

I'm least sure about the poems in the last set and I'm not sure why Penmanship is not included in the first section, since it mainly deals with differences between generations in her own family and isn't rooted in place, but in time.

I found this a very powerful collection of poems and will definitely re-read it and come back to this post so I can make changes to the analysis.


Blogger Frank León Roberts said...

Great collection. And Elizabeth Alexander is marvelous.

12:48 AM  

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