In this latest collection of her poetry, A Selected History of Soul Speak, Andrea Thompson wants to put the tenuous relationship between spoken word and formal poetry to bed. Not only does her collection offer an informal but sweeping history of spoken word, it presents the importance of that genre to her as an artist as well as a mixed-race woman who has had to navigate the impositions of limiting categories. The result is a lively work that is part poetic anthem, part literary homage and part confessional journey.
If anyone is up to the task of engaging the history of spoken word, it is Thompson, an established spoken word artist who has been performing and publishing works since the 1990s and can cast a capable eye over the key artists of the genre. From Sonia Sanchez to Gil Scott-Heron, she deftly drops words that are dedicated to these influences as much as they engage and rework them. “This is not a poem about Gil Scott-Heron,” she intones, borrowing from Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” in which he emphasizes what the poem is not. “[I]t is not a riff on the death of the American dream/ it does not venture a guess on whether or not/ the revolution will be aired on television…” In this manner, Thompson evokes Scott-Heron as both literary ancestor and educator.
While artists from the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s tend to dominate the spoken word imagination, Thompson’s vision includes the jazz poetry of Langston Hughes from the Harlem Renaissance period, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry from her early 1960s phase. Several contemporary Canadian artists, from Carol Camper to George Elliott Clarke, round out her literary pantheon.
Ultimately, Thompson is best when she is at her most vulnerable. Clear examples include “Good Hair,” in which she is made to feel guilty and inadequate at white and Black salons alike, and “Boy on a Swing,” in which her would-be heroism is displaced by a child’s tragic acuity. Other poems, such as “Mixed Privilege (For Adebe Derango-Adem)” and “Intersectionality,” similarly succeed by being both defiant and self-questioning about her racialized experiences. Though these poems don’t explicitly link themselves to the history of spoken word, they are powerful snapshots of Thompson and her soulful engagement with living poetry. Admittedly, A Selected History of Soul Speak can feel a little too on the nose at times. But when Thompson succeeds, she adheres to a well-learned lesson from her poet friend Tsjêbbe Hettinga: “My job is to own it, tell it like it is/ … keep searching/ until I find a way to write/ about anythingatall/ like nobodybutmyself.” Indeed.
Bertrand Bickersteth is the author of The Response of Weeds.