Spring 2001



By Laurie Ramey With selected poems

"Report From Part Two": The Carolina African American Writers' Collective (To the memory and honor of Gwendolyn Brooks)

Writers have long congregated to share and critique their work in ways that conform to present notions of "writers' workshops." Frequently, these gatherings have been social - writer-friends joining for support, encouragement and a drink. The feuds evolve, the former friends move on.

There are also examples of writing communities, like other sorts of artificial cohorts, that coalesce around a central principle or ideology. African American literary societies historically have straddled both of these models, the social and the socially-committed.

These societies, which date back to the early to mid-nineteenth century, were dedicated above all to the principle of self-education. Their primary purposes were to make literature available to members, to encourage reading and thinking about literature, and to generate writing by members.

The Carolina African American Writers' Collective is an example of this tradition.

Founded in 1995 by Executive Director Lenard D. Moore, the roots of the organization were in necessity, circumstances not terribly different from those of a century and a half earlier. The isolation felt by early members such as Moore, Janice W. Hodges and Beverly Fields Burnette was based on the sliver of representation of black writers in the majority of existing writers' groups.

The situation was and is not much better in the academy, where proportionately few black students enroll in creative writing classes in highly ranked programs. HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have traditionally offered uncertain support, and occasional antagonism, to writers and students of writing.

The alienation felt by the CAAWC members was racial on the surface, but race is not just race. Race is culture. Race is experience. Race is language. Race is modes of expression. Race is history. In the words of early member Gina Streaty: "In regular [read: predominately white] collectives, "we" are usually the welcomed, but silent voice. Our works are generally misunderstood, under-appreciated, and often harshly critiqued for the simple reason that "they" cannot relate to it." (Interview, 1999 October)

We find a similar perspective in W.E.B. Du Bois's essay "Of the Training of Black Men," from The Souls of Black Folk, written in defense of black colleges. Du Bois argues that possession of culture for African Americans must include their own experience in addition to providing access to classical signposts of civilization.

Moore also discusses the need for a black writers' collective in terms of positive identification. Social and stylistic exclusion must be transformed into a self-determined inclusion: "I believe that any ethnic group would have some things that are culturally specific to their community which might be reflected in the structure and function of the literary and cultural organizations." (Interview, 1999 October)

Given that the CAAWC was founded based upon principles of social and potentially aesthetic solidarity, the question might be raised as to whether another form of pressure might be exerted to produce writing with a recognizable stamp. This is a danger facing all writers' collectives both within and outside of the academy.

It might be a particular threat to a gathering that is a self-designated "collective," whose operating principles value the group as the means of best nurturing the individual. According to Moore: "I believe in functioning as a cooperative group of writers rather than functioning as separate individuals. Moreover, I feel that "Collective" implies that CAAWC members are working towards similar goals for the organization as well as for their own literary work." (Interview, 1999 October)

Marx at the very least hovers on the margins of such thinking.

But then we move from 1995 to the current issue of Poetrybay, which offers proof that the frequently-cited "family" atmosphere of the CAAWC has provided a sociological model that, in practice, has mirrored the developmental progression from childhood to adulthood within a healthy family unit. First you must feel protected; then you can fly.

If writers' collectives provide safe harbor, this is an undeniable good. But if they are sufficiently supple to provide for genuine individuation, and the growth of participants into mature writers with unique voices, their value exponentially increases. Based upon the poems included here, the latter clearly applies.

Moore's own gifts as a poet draw heavily on his rural past, nature as a dominant theme, and his interest in and mastery of Japanese literary forms. As a result, as Executive Director of the CAAWC (sometimes referred to as "the chief" of the tribe by members), he has modeled a stress on verbal compression, the importance of the homely, and pinpoint imagery. This training is evident in a great deal of the writing produced by CAAWC writers: we see it in the Poetrybay portfolio to a person.

But Moore has brought something more, as indicated by the magnitude of accomplishments among members from the mid-nineties to the present, but particularly in the past year. This is reflected in the enormous list of prestigious literary awards, fellowships, recognitions and publications earned recently by CAAWC members. The collective has evolved from a technical training ground to a veritable "university" for serious writers ready to progress to a solid level of undeniable professionalism.

As important as the honors - perhaps even more so - the poems contained here by Christian A. Campbell, L. Teresa Church, Candice M. Jenkins, Lenard D. Moore, Mendi Lewis Obadike and Evie Shockley demonstrate a spiraling level of diversity in form and content compared to poetry written by members in the early years of the group. One especially notes a dramatic surge in literary experimentalism, bold diffuseness of structure, and surreal imagery.

These poets draw on an obviously widening range of influences, exemplifying touchstones of "blackness," touchstones of humanity, touchstones of the writerly.

From the foundations of accepting a fundamental fact - that of being a black writer - we see a tremendous development of individuality in the chorus of voices whose unique visions have been nurtured by the CAAWC experience.

As Moore puts it, looking back at the CAAWC legacy: "I think the poetry reflects the goals of the Collective. I also think that the poetry depicts the various experiences. And yet, I think that the CAAWC's members' voices are harmonious." (Interview, 1999 October)

Du Bois would be proud, but not surprised.

CAAWC was featured on Sunday, March 25, 2001 (2:00 PM) at The Virginia Festival of the Book (The University of Virginia) in Charlottesville, Virginia. States Lenard Moore: "I plan to edit a CAAWC anthology of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Although we usually autograph the several anthologies that have featured CAAWC as well as our own books and chapbooks, we need a CAAWC anthology. Our large audiences have recently been asking
about books with only CAAWC works. And yet, I have been planning to edit an anthology of our works for about 3 years." The following CAAWC members read at the VA Book Festival: Angela Belcher,Victor E. Blue, Beverly Fields Burnette, Chezia Thompson Cager, Christian A. Campbell, L. Teresa Church, Paula White Jackson, Candice M. Jenkins, Patricia A. Johnson, Lenard D. Moore, Gaye L. Newton, Mendi Lewis Obadike, Wendell W. Ottley III, Odessa Shaw, Evie Shockley, Gina M. Streaty.



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