The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop Edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

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As the youngest of five children, my musical interests were largely defined by my siblings who controlled the radio dial at home and in the car. It being the 1970s, there were heavy doses of John Denver, the Bee Gees, and Rod Stewart. I didn’t find my own musical niche until a fourth grade visit to the roller rink where I first heard Blondie’s “Rapture” and The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” I had no idea who Fab 5 Freddy was or what it meant to dress viciously, but it was love at first listen.

Those two songs with their infectious lyrics were my gateway to the developing genres of hip-hop and rap. I loved the wordinesses and the word play of this new music. I stationed a cassette player next to the kitchen radio so I could record any hip-hop or rap songs that happened to come on. I’d decipher and transcribe the lyrics and then replay the songs over and over until I could spit out the words—or my best guesses thereof—in time. (I recently found the theme song to the movie Beat Street on Youtube and am proud to say that I still know most of the words.) Though my musical tastes have wandered over the years, I’ve always had a soft spot for my first musical love and credit it with inspiring in me a love of poetry.

Thus, it was with great pleasure that I learned about the recently published anthology The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, which its editors describe as “the first poetry anthology by and for the Hip-Hop generation.” Assuming the book offered a compilation of the cream of the crop of hip-hop lyrics, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Five minutes in and I realized I had misunderstood the concept of the book: There’s not a song lyric in sight. Not that I minded. The book is a blazing success on an entirely different—and much more important—level.

The BreakBeat Poets is not concerned with proving that hip-hop is poetry but rather with documenting the positive impact this musical form has had on poetry. As editor Kevin Coval explains in the introduction, hip-hop has dusted off the cobwebs from this ancient literary form and made it relevant to young people. He’s not talking about songs lyrics that incorporate poetic elements but rather how the rhythms of hip-hop have inspired and invited a new generation to explore and write poetry. Inspiration is what BreakBeat is all about.

But what exactly is BreakBeat?

The term does not have a strict definition. According to Coval, it’s a broad category that includes any poetry influenced by “the breaks” in life. At the most literal level, the term references the “the break down, polyrhythmic, funky sections of records” as well as the breaks in a song where dancers “emerge on the floor to pop and lock and spin and defy the limitations of body and gravity.” In a broader sense, the term includes any poem inspired by a “break in time” or a “rupture in narrative” that leads to something outside the norm. In a historical sense, BreakBeat signifies a break from the notion of poetry as an art for cultural elites. In other words, pretty much anything goes.

The driving force behind The BreakBeat Poets is to show that poetry is “not just something done by dead white dudes who got lost in the forest.” To that end, the anthology offers works by a “crew” of over seventy “new American letter-makers” born between 1961 and 1991. Angel Pantoja and E’Mon McGee, both teenagers, appear here for the first time in print, while others, such as Jericho Brown, will be familiar to many Rumpus readers. Most of the writers are black but not all. I’ll admit to being surprised when I came across works by two of my favorite poets, Ocean Vuong, born in Vietnam, and Tarfia Faizullah, a Bangladeshi American. I had never thought of either of these writers in a hip-hop context. I needed to adjust my thinking. Again, this isn’t a book about hip-hop. It’s about the incredibly broad array of poetry created in the hip-hop era.

Not surprisingly, many of the poems in the anthology are about music. Patrick Rosal’s “A Note To Thomas Alva” tells the story of a group of boys cobbling together DJ equipment out of spare parts. After following them on their journey of salvaging and soldering, I wanted to cheer at their success:

Out of a hunk of rescued junk, we built a machine
to mix our masters. We chopped up classics
and made the whole block bounce. [48]

Tara Betts had me bouncing along with her “Hip Hop Analogies”:

If you be the needle
I be the LP.
If you be the buffed wall,
I be the Krylon.
If you be the backspin,
I be the break.
If you be the head nod,
I be the bassline. [108]

But many themes besides music are addressed. There are heavy doses of protest and history and race. There’s a searching for how to make things better, how, as Krista Franklin puts it, to solve “the algebra of black agony.” [66] What speaks most to me personally are the poems about coming of age. Faizullah’s “Blossoms in the Dark” speaks movingly of a teenage girl breaking the apron-strings:

If only love could be
like that first slice
of bacon dissolving
on your tongue, or
the short, tight skirt
rolled into your purse
nights you salaamed
your parents goodbye… [176]

I never salaamed to my parents but am intimately familiar with the process of leaving the house in a mother-approved outfit and performing a quick change in the backyard.

In addition to the diversity of writers and theme, there is a wonderful variety of forms and styles in The BreakBeat Poets. You will find couplets and prose and scattered words. There are scribbles and cross-outs and pages where you have to turn the book sideways to read. The range of selections from individual poets is impressive as well. These are writers who are willing to mess around, to throw it out there and see what sticks. I was struck by the contrast between Jamila Woods’s “Blk Girl Art” and “Deep in the Homeroom of Doom.” In one she invokes Amiri Baraka and in the other R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I kept turning pages just to see what came next.

Not that every poem in The BreakBeat Poets succeeds. More than a few fell flat on the page for me. When I checked the biographies of those particular poets, I was not surprised that many are also spoken word artists. My guess is that some of the poems that failed to grab me probably work better aloud. Even so, in most cases, I can understand why these poems were included. There isn’t a selection in the book that lacks some sort of power, whether it be brashness, humor, theme, or originality.

In the introduction, Coval says he grew up thinking that “all the poetry had already been written.” I recently spoke to a high school student who expressed the same sentiment. I can’t imagine how much worse the situation would be had hip-hop not come along. As the artist statements at the back of this volume amply prove, hip-hop deserves credit for inviting people to jump in and have a go at it. And the editors of The BreakBeat Poets deserve credit for compiling this important book.

Ellen F. Brown is an award-winning freelance writer from Richmond, Virginia. She writes about all manner of literary topics ranging from the history of artists books to publishing in the digital age. You can read more about her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @ellenfbrown. More from this author →