Poetry in Indianapolis: impact, influence and empathy

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April is National Poetry Month, and Indianapolis’ poetry scene has deep roots in Black culture.

Indianapolis-based poets Etheridge Knight and Mari Evans were both well-renowned writers who helped shape the Black Arts Movement in Naptown. Their work inspired many of Indy’s current poets and opened the doors for those who came after, said multi-hyphenated artist and educator Manon Voice.

“I want to always think about the ancestral lineage of poetry in Indianapolis, and … the Black poetry scene in Indianapolis would not be possible without Mari Evans and Etheridge Knight who are both pioneers of the Black Arts Movement,” Voice said. “Thankfully, they are being recognized more and more in our time. Sometimes it takes us a while to recognize the people who are trailblazing, opening up doors in their time.”

When looking at the history of poetry in America, Phillis Wheatly was the first African American woman to have a book of poems published, Voice said. Wheatley, who had to prove her work was really hers in court, “wrote her way through slavery” and purchased her freedom, Voice said.

The tradition of poetry and using words through storytelling has existed in the African Diaspora long before slavery, Voice said. The Griot — or historian and storyteller in West Africa — uses poetry and song to preserve history, genealogy and communicate messages with people. Wheatley carried on that tradition during the reconstruction era, as did Claude McKay and Paul Lawrence Dunbar during the Harlem Renaissance, Voice said.

“The poetic tradition is important to us as a people because it helps us to preserve our history for one. It helps us to remember who we are as a people, and it has been a way for us in this American story, to voice our struggles,” Voice said. “It’s also a way for us to celebrate, because we are people that have been through so much oppression and affliction, poetry lets us do both.”

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Tasha Jones, Indy-based poet and writer, has been writing poetry since the eighth grade and uses her poetry to tell stories and connect with the community and its history. Some poems, Jones said, are meant to help people through tragedy and trauma, and others are meant to showcase the joy and language of the cultures which have kept them alive.

Jones said Indianapolis is one of those cities where “poetry ebbs and flows.” Many famous poets and writers have either come from, come through or made their homes in Indy, including Alison Horton, Kurt Vonnegut, Crystal Rhodes, Dan Wakefield, Januarie York and Gabrielle Patterson, all of which helped keep the genre vibrant, Jones said.

“I think that the history of poetry in this city is long withstanding. It may seem like there’s not that many around, but there’s a plethora of poets here who are great who have international and national recognition,” Jones said. “So, it’s not that poetry is not here, and it’s not that there are not many Black poets here, it’s that maybe we don’t know all of them. It just kind of just depends on perspective, because I think this city is thriving with Black poets.”

Part of the reason poetry is necessary, especially to the Black community, is because of perspective, Jones said. Poetry is akin to painting a picture, Jones said, as it lends a perspective others might not have thought about in a creative and easily digestible way.

“So many times we have been fed what to think, what to say and how to say it. I think poets do a great job of telling it how it is and sometimes you need that perspective,” Jones said. “You need a perspective of something that is different, and I think people have a hard time understanding that angles and perspectives are necessary.”

When considering Black Arts Movements, such as jazz and poetry, Voice said they often go hand-in-hand, with poets like Langston Hughes writing jazz poetry. Spoken word poetry is also the forerunner of hip hop, which is considered the most powerful cultural evolution of our time created by people of the African diaspora, Voice said.

“The rappers were borrowing right from the Black Arts Movement,” Voice said. “They were borrowing from people like Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka and so that directly influenced hip hop, and so rappers. we see this long lineage of poetry being important and a part of our cultural experience.”

Poetry events

Several venues around the city still host open mic nights and poetry reading events and workshops. Here’s a short list of a few to check out for National Poetry Month.

The Green House AFFECT

5163 E. 82nd St.

Third Fridays at 9 P.M.

$10

facebook.com/TheGreenHouseAffect

Kafe’ Kuumba Open Mic

2186 N Sherman Dr.

April 19, 6-9 p.m.

Free (donations accepted)

facebook.com/KafeKuumba

Poetry Open Mic

Irving Theatre, 5505 E. Washington St.

Thursdays at 7 p.m.

Free

facebook.com/IrvingTheater

That Peace Open Mic

10 East Arts Hub, 3137 E. 10th St.

Thursdays at 7 p.m.

$10

facebook.com/ThatPeaceOpenMic/

The Real Kulture Muse

9105 E. 56th St.

Every other Thursday

$5

facebook.com/groups/2236692176488459

Vocab

White Rabbit Cabaret, 1116 Prospect St.

Second Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

$10

facebook.com/vocabindy

Contact Arts & Culture Reporter Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.