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“Don’t ever trust white folk to cook your meat ’til it’s done to the bone,” says Alabama-based Honoree F. Jeffers, reading from her poem “The Gospel of Barbecue,” a tribute to her hog-slaughtering Uncle Bubba and the politics of pork. As soon as the line escapes her mouth, both the poet and packed audience of the Folger Shakespeare Library launch into a laughing fit of nearly a full minute.
Jeffers, along with fellow poets A. Van Jordan and Shara McCallum, is participating in a Monday-night reading and reception to celebrate the publication of Beyond the Frontier: African-American Poetry for the 21st Century, published last month by Baltimore’s Black Classic Press.
The three poets represent just a small cross-section of the writers featured in the anthology, including locals Jordan, DJ Renegade, James Coleman, and Michelle Calhoun Greene.
At the Folger, McCallum shares images from her childhood in Jamaica—even adapting the country’s lilting patois to read several poems. Jordan conjures up figures as diverse as Richard Pryor, Miles Davis, and John Henry; and Jeffers—who greets the crowd with a warm “How y’all doin’?”—tells stories of Southern life.
Before launching into their readings, each poet gives thanks to E. Ethelbert Miller, the Howard University professor and local poetry guru who tackled the arduous task of editing the 572-page book.
“It took me a number of years—five or six,” Miller says. “People would send me disks and I couldn’t open them. Then some people moved and I couldn’t contact them. Then some people wanted to change their names—there was some of what I call the ‘bell hooks syndrome’ people wanting to go with all lowercase letters. So I’m dealing with all of this and a deadline.
“This is my last anthology,” continues Miller, who also edited In Search of Color Everywhere, released in 1994. “I won’t do this again unless I’m hired by someone who provides a staff,” he adds, laughing.
Miller says he tried to draw from a diverse group of poets to make Beyond the Frontier well-rounded. “I try to create anthologies that are readable and accessible,” he says. “I wanted it to have a national scope—not just the poets who live in your neighborhood. If you pick up a book like this and know everyone in it, the editor didn’t do his job. Some people were critical that I left out a lot of the older, more well-known people, but this book shows a transition—a change in the literary landscape.
“I had to step back—it’s part of beginning to function as an elder in the community,” he says. “You have to be generous—give a book, write a check. We have to keep the tradition going.” —Sarah Godfrey