Three years ago, the anthology The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop heralded a generation of Chicago bards—people like Eve Ewing, Fatimah Asghar, Nate Marshall, and singer-songwriter Jamila Woods—who “do what Gwendolyn Brooks told thousands of young writers in Chicago and everywhere: Tell the story that’s in front of your nose,” as Kevin Coval wrote in his introduction to the book.
This month, local publisher Haymarket Books is back with a second volume, Black Girl Magic, edited by Woods, Idrissa Simmonds, and Mahogany L. Browne. “The first book was about how hip-hop influenced the craft of poetry,” says Woods. “This edition is about highlighting black women within that tradition.” Those include rapper Noname, a Bronzeville native, as well as established poets such as Morgan Parker, Angel Nafis, and Aja Monet.
Here, we shine a spotlight on five local poets featured in the new collection.
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In 2016, Lauren was named the first-ever Chicago youth poet laureate by Young Chicago Authors. Today, she’s a teaching artist and the author of the poetry collection Commando.
Woods:“I really wanted her poem in the collection. She talks about what it means to be a black woman in a public space and what your body becomes in that situation.”
said I walk like money,
a stain/finesse. examination
from “79th be the catwalk”
Lauren:“When I moved to 79th and South Shore, I was told that I walk like money, that I ‘walk rich,’ like I’m not from here, which tells people that I’m ‘easier.’ This poem is about how black girls don’t have a place where we can walk around and really be free.”
After the White House named Richardson a national student poet laureate in 2012, she went on to the University of Chicago and graduated in 2017.
Woods:“Her poem explores microaggressions and encounters with whiteness in a really powerful way.”
What do I tell the swamps, the long-stemmed //
rice he plates in heaps; what do I tell each harvested //
piece, & the water that made them & him & me //
and all of us. from “What do I tell the white boy who asks me of my heritage”
Richardson:“I was invited to this incredibly elaborate house on the wealthier side of Oak Park, where a boy asked me about my ancestry. It made me feel uncomfortable. What would my ancestors have said if they were ghosts on the wall during that incident?”
Miller teaches Afro-American studies at Kennedy-King College.
Woods:“Her juxtaposition of Full House and Rockwell Gardens is incredible. It reminded me of the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks, writing about place but also adding this lexicon of pop culture.”
The city’s project is to tear Rockwell //
Gardens down, to scatter us like mice, to build condominiums //
over our bones.
from “Poet Imagines Creating Full House in Rockwell Gardens”
Miller:“There are ‘projects’ where people live, and then there are the city’s projects that destroyed the projects. I walked past Rockwell Gardens every day growing up, and prostitutes would tell me to stay in school. It was a building where you knew there was a lot of poverty, but also a lot of love and families trying to survive.”
Kapri is a teaching artist fellow at Young Chicago Authors and a writer for the website Black Nerd Problems.
Woods:“Her voice and perspective are super unique. Kevin Coval says her poetry is like the confessionalism of SZA meets the badassness of Cardi B.”
actually i don’t understand martha, what do you mean when you say i speak so well? Oh, where did you expect me to work mary-beth? i don’t remember saying i lived on the South Side muriel.
Kapri:“I used to work for a water taxi company at Navy Pier. A black man with a Caribbean accent came up to our booth, and the white man working with me had difficulty understanding him. The white dude turned to me after and said, ‘Oh boy, those South Side accents!’ And I just stared at him.”
Jackson teaches fourth grade at a Chicago public school.
Woods:“She allows for multiplicities within the identity of black womanhood.”
How can you have history without braids? //
A black girl is happiest when rooted to the scalp are braids. //
She dances with them whipping down her back like corn in winds of harvest.
from “A sestina for a black girl who does not know how to braid hair”
Jackson:“I grew up without knowing how to braid hair. I would go from porch to porch, and we’d sit and talk, but it was always my hair being tested—no one taught me how to do it. My aunts and grandmas asked me, ‘How can you talk about history without braids?”
hair and makeup: Nika Vaughan with nika vaughan artists using NARS cosmetics
Video: DS Shin