Poetry homework: The good kind 

Poet Terrance Hayes
  • Poet Terrance Hayes

Ever since last fall, when the editorial team was pulling together our annual Arts Guide, I’d been looking forward to poet Terrance Hayes’ reading at the University of Indianapolis (1400 East Hanna Avenue). At the time, February was so far away it was ridiculous. I had months to plan the ways I was going to tell Hayes his poem “Fire,” which appears in 1999’s Hip Logic, was one of the most stunning pieces of work I’d ever read. I had devoured it repeatedly, told people about it, shared it with my mother, and couldn’t get the last few lines out of my head. When I had the chance to compliment Hayes after his reading, I was surprised I didn’t trip over my tongue or blurt out, “Cool you are so much — poems!” I credit the poet's conversational style with his audience with setting me at ease, as well as his humility. Hayes is the recipient of numerous honors, including a Whiting Writers Award. (The $50,000 prize was recently bestowed upon Michael Dahlie, Butler University’s Booth Tarkington Writer-in-Residence.)

Recommended Terrance Hayes poems: "Shafro" (Muscular Music, 1999). "Lighthead's Guide to the Galaxy" (Lighthead, 2010). "Fire." I can’t find a copy online, but it appears in Hip Logic (2002). If you are new to Hayes' work, the poet himself recommends you start with his earlier work. Starting with Lighthead, he explained, would be like jumping into the deep end of the pool. Drowning, I think, would put a real crimp in a person's day.

In addition to my love for Terrance Hayes, here are five other African-American authors I think you should check out. Think of it as post Black History Month homework or, at the very least, something to do now that Oprah’s Book Club is wrapping up. (Right? Please say yes.)

Slam poet Billy Tuggle is a force at the mic. I heard him perform last April and was inspired by his energy to pursue classes that would help me transition into more of a performance poet. The blog about Tuggle also mentions spoken word troupe Reservoir Dogwoods, who performed last night. Catch their show sometime. They’re white but you can still go see them. I won’t tell anyone.

Sapphire wrote the novel Push, on which the film Precious was based. Some 12 years after I first read the novel, I still quote lines, especially the one about alternative just being something different. That’s all I’m going to tell you because you should read the book. If novels aren't your thing, Sapphire also published three books of poetry, including Black Wings & Blind Angels (1999).

You need to read Maya Angelou because she is brilliant and because you can follow her on Twitter (@DrMayaAngelou). I’m not even going to recommend something for you to read because it’s all wonderful. Okay, I lied. Read "Phenomenal Woman" and "Still I Rise" and see if you don’t feel badass enough to kick over a building. Bonus points if you look up her performances on YouTube and absorb the awesometasity through your monitor. You’re welcome.

Author Shay Youngblood
  • Author Shay Youngblood

Shay Youngblood is the author of the novels Soul Kiss and Black Girl in Paris, two lyrical works that inspired me to keep plugging away at fiction writing. I recently discovered that Youngblood is also a painter, like Terrance Hayes, which makes their beautiful, fluid prose make that much more sense.

I fawned over Yusef Komunyakaa after hearing him read last fall. His latest book is Warhorses (2008).

Finally, to bring us back to Indy, I recommend checking out local poets who perform at spoken word events, such as Write On: The Poetry Spot and Writer’s Bloc. Visit the groups’ Facebook pages, available here and here, for upcoming events.

Obviously this isn't an exhaustive list of fantastic writers, but it's a good start. Read up. There will be a quiz.

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