Since the black arts movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, it has been the mission of some black poets to target their art at everyday black people, as opposed to the very white and often very elitist academy. Amiri Baraka (often called the father of the black arts movement) epitomizes this ideal, and has spawned countless imitators, but no true successors. With his first book, No Noose Is Good Noose (Harlem River Press, 157 pp., $15), Tony Medina proves not to be an exception.
No Noose is a loose collection of political truisms, heavy on the polemics, light on the imagery. At its best, No Noose is Medina’s manifesto on class- and race-based injustice; at its worse, it is a reject from a Marxist essay contest. Medina’s mission, as the back of the book states, is to “force today’s poetry from the safe confines of the academy into the explosive and resistant spaces of the street.” But after reading this, it’s hard to believe that academic poets are shaking with fear. Unfortunately, Medina, while “forcing,” forgets the very thing he’s supposed to be liberating—the poetry. The result is a rambling socialist treatise, about as artistic as a root canal.
He starts off nicely with “rice and beans aesthetics,” in which he writes that “we want a deeper blues/a harder bop/a saucy salsa serenade/painting sound pictures/in the heart.” This image is one of the best in the book, but that doesn’t mean much given the relatively small number of images that actually appear.
The poems that follow feature Medina’s descent into didacticism. He questions: “I wonder wonder wonder/wonder who’s/fucked up the world/for me and you.” He philosophizes: “We are suffering/through the violent excesses/of the ruling class/& their state apparatus.” He reflects: “All my life/I’ve lived/in the asshole/hairs of imperialism.” He even haikus: “Clinton’s so full of/Shit he’s got anal warts on/his nose—Ugly Fuck!”
But most of all he lectures, and boy does he lecture. In “How Much Is That Poet in the Window,” Medina asserts that “they will pay/for your silence,/brother/they will pay/for your ignorance,/sister.” In “Equality is the death of dialectics,” Medina writes that “The poor/through the/ideas &/institutions/owned by/the rich/through the/exploitation/of the poor/are lead/to believe/in private/ownership/and spend/the better part/of their lives/trying to be/rich in order/to secure/their destiny.” The only difference between these lines and sentences from an essay is the line breaks.
The only thing Medina has going for him in the book is his politics, and at times his politics are off. In “Compensation,” he attempts to cast Colin Ferguson as someone striking a blow against capitalism and oppression. But there are countless others who were sane when they struck blows, not just raving lunatics who shot a few innocents. Amazingly, Medina also rails against the only environment where this book could actually get an endorsement, the open-mike scene.
In “How Much Is That Poet,” Medina dedicates the poem “To those lame motherfuckers among us who walk around w/6 poems & call themselves poets.” But it’s better to be a lame motherfucker with six poems than a motherfucker with a book of lame poems. “The Illiterati” is a similar dis of open-mike poets. The poem presents some valid critiques, but based on this book, Medina really isn’t someone who can afford to make them.
The tragedy of No Noose is that Medina is actually a gifted writer. His poem from the anthology In the Tradition, “Don’t Say Good Night to Ethridge Knight,” as well as his piece in In Defense of Mumia (which Medina co-edited), “Hanging Notes of a Judge,” all reveal a writer of rare talent. Yet neither of those poems appears in No Noose. Since Medina is a talented poet, the poor quality of the book can only be explained by laziness. Rather than think of creative ways to make his point, Medina comes up with kindergarten images, similes and metaphors that clearly required a minimal amount of thought.
The result is a sloppy, forgettable work that cheats the very people Medina professes to be trying to liberate, the oppressed. Nobody was ever liberated by bad art, and there are legions of poets who dare to be political but still turn out top-notch work. Darryl Holmes, Lucille Clifton, Larry Neal, and Baraka have all produced work that is technically sound and politically relevant. Medina should take some notes.—Ta-Nehisi Coates