Gettysburg College Professor Dr. McKinley Melton presented his work-in-progress poetry project in an online presentation on October 2, 2020. The project focused primarily on African American poets who performed spoken word pieces.
“Spoken word poetry is an understudied field, and I am interested in thinking through the ways that Black poets in the contemporary moment are building upon the traditions of poetry and performance, while using their work as a form of resistance and a form of political engagement,” said Melton.”
Melton gained inspiration for this project from a class he had been teaching on spoken word poetry. “It’s called “Voice and Visibility” and it introduces the power of the spoken word. It’s been a course that I have been teaching for about ten years. I had to teach a course for three weeks that met for five hours a day. I was trying to think of a course that would keep students engaged,” said Melton.
Melton mentioned how poetry tends to be avoided by more people than other forms of literature. “In some ways, yes. I think [poetry] is somewhat understudied and underappreciated. I think a lot of people tend to find poetry unapproachable. If people encounter a few poems they don’t like, they are more apt to write off the whole genre, compared to that of a novel.”
“My favorite poet in the contemporary moment is Danez Smith; I have met them on a few different occasions. There are a number of really great poets who I have had the opportunity to meet and I think are wonderful,” said Melton.
In light of political movements and recognition, Melton stated, “I think in some ways, [African American poets] are almost getting more attention outside of the campus communities than they are on campuses. I think one of the things we continue to struggle with is that our curriculum on college campuses across the country is still very White, Western, and male. There is a great amount of attention that is being paid to Black writers, Black poets, and Black creators. But, it’s still not anywhere near where it could and should be on college campuses. It feels like there is a greater tendency to embrace Black voices outside of these rigid, institutional spaces.”
Melton mentioned how, “In terms of the larger Arts’ world there are a number of really great initiatives that are centering and exploring the work of Black poets. The major [writing] awards are also going to Black poets. I think that there is a great awareness and an appreciation for Black poetry that, often times, is not coming from the academy or higher education at all.”
“I think that there are ways that you can center diverse experiences and diverse voices into every single field on every campus. The idea of coverage and the idea of these things that are considered essential should always be engaged with diversity and engage with questions of race, sexuality, gender, power, and privilege. I don’t think that these things need to be electives or optional because they should be fully integrated into the work that we do and into the questions that we ask,” said Melton.
“I felt a sense of fulfillment because folks were willing to listen and engage with the ideas that I was putting out there,” said Melton as he reflected on the presentation.
“Literature doesn’t operate in a vacuum. I want [my students] to be able to read a text critically, but I want them to use their critical engagement with the text as a pathway into bigger questions. I want them to think through how literature can be an avenue towards those questions. Literature can be appreciated for its quality, craft, and beauty; but, also how it can help to facilitate the questions that we need to be asking and the conversations that we need to be having,” said Melton.