BreakBeat Poets! by Krish Lingala

Poets Quraysh Ali Lansana and Kevin Coval discussed their new book “The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop” with educator and activist Bill Ayers at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park last Sunday afternoon.

“The Breakbeat Poets,” edited by Coval, Lansana and Chicago poet Nate Marshall, gathers work from 78 poets representing a broad spectrum of racial, sexual and gender identities. Coval and Lansana described the project as the first of it’s kind – a true recognition and compilation of poetry as hip hop. Sally Bergs-Seeley, a DePaul University English professor who attended the event, was excited by the pioneering work the three poets are doing.

“This is the newest edge of poetry,” Bergs-Seeley said. “for hip hop poetry to actually be published in anthology, that’s new – that’s a new frontier.”

Both poets also emphasized the book’s vital aim of increasing the representation and credibility of marginalized and underrepresented voices.

“There’s no hip hop without women, there’s no hip hop without folks from the LGBTQ community, there’s no hip hop without Puerto Rican brothers and sisters,” Lansana said.

The discussion covered topics ranging from police brutality to beat poetry, all through the lens of examining hip hop – what it is, its heritage, and its legacy. Throughout, Ayers, Coval, and Lansana articulated a vision of hip hop centering youth and knowledge as vital components.

“When the south Bronx turned their back on a crew of primarily young people of color, they continued to create despite the lack of arts funding, despite the criminalization, the rise of the privatized prison industrial complex,” Coval said. “They took to the public space to reclaim it for themselves and for their community.”

Most at the event expressed feelings that the legitimacy and centrality of hip hop as a poetry movement cannot be ignored – it is too ubiquitous and preeminent in youth culture and too prolific in its ability to inspire people to pick up the pen.

“This particular movement in art, this particular upsurge in the last couple of decades of hip hop and spoken word is really the largest poetry upsurge in the history of the world and it’s inviting people to share their voices,” Ayers said.

However, some in the poetry community continue to ignore the voices that Coval, Lansana, and Marshall highlight in their compilation. In a recent article in The New Republic, poet Cathy Park Hong derides the lack of racial sensitivity of esteemed poets like Kenneth Goldsmith. Coval says he has little time for those who are dismissive.

“It’s undeniable, man,” Coval said. “If you’re still in those same arguments that this is not art, you have not paid attention, you have not been involved in anything new for 40 years and you sound old as f**k and you’re going to die tomorrow if you’re not dead already.”

Despite the lack of recognition from some, the work Coval, Lansana, and Marshall are doing is gaining traction, with a feature in Poetry magazine’s April 2015 issue. Bergs-Seeley says the three poets are making a positive difference.

“Poetry saves lives,” Sally said. “I love what they’re doing, taking kids who feel vulnerable and giving them a voice and a place to express themselves.”

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