Professor Nikki Skillman (Indiana University) will workshop “White Faces, Black Hands: Race, Counterhistory, and the Poetics of the Letterform,” a paper based on her current book project, The New Page. Professor Seth Perlow (Georgetown University) will offer a response, followed by questions and group discussion.
While memorable, iconoclastic uses of extravagant typography have punctuated the history of avant-garde poetics for well over a century, such experiments have generally declined to explore the historicity of letterforms or meditate on the contingent social meanings of print. At the same time, the anti-expressive ethos of much avant-garde poetry and the relative rareness of typographic performativity in lyric have left the power of letterforms to facilitate intimacy, vulnerability, and emotional ambiguity in poetry largely unexplored. These are precisely the aptitudes for which recent poets who examine the racial valences of inscription as a cultural practice have turned to the poetics of the letterform, stressing the connotative freight that letters carry as they shape the significance of words in the world. This paper focuses on uses of conspicuous letterforms in contemporary poems of historical reckoning and remediation: a kind of graphic ventriloquism through which Tyehimba Jess and Douglas Kearney evoke the commodification of racism in nineteenth-century America, orchestrating virtuosic spectacles of poetic containment and escape; Harmony Holiday’s conjunction of many layers of historical typography in collages that collapse narratives of racial progress, embedding her poetic self-exposure within a paralyzing history of black suffering as spectacle; and the use of simulated hand drawn scripts in the poetry of Eve Ewing and M. NourbeSe Philip, who improvise over and against the facticity of the official record to limn more amenable counterhistories into being. Thus, while these poets use the public bearing of visible language to resist racist histories inscribed as print, they also use typographic form to orchestrate textual performances of subversive mastery, complex interiority, joy, play, and freedom.
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