“The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop” is a ground-breaking poetry anthology that brings the voices of the hip-hop generation to the front of the line. It was edited primarily by Kevin Coval: a highly regarded published poet and playwright, Quraysh Ali Lansana: a faculty member at Oklahoma City University and author of eight anthologies, and Nate Marshall: a rapper and award-winning poet. Containing about 330 pages of poetry and essays, The Breakbeat Poets is quite literally fresh, having just come off the printing press of Haymarket Books and into the world in 2015.
The back of the book begins to set the tone for the anthology itself, describing itself as “for people who’ve never read a poem, for people who thought poems were only something done by dead white dudes that got lost in a forest, and for poetry heads.” This playful tone carries through many of the pieces within the covers of The BreakBeat Poets, although the dialogue of what it’s like to live in the hip-hop generation in America is never lost. Much of the language contained in the poems is typically considered crude, like in “PUSSY MONSTER” by Franny Choi as featured in the book. However, this language is shown to be one of the beams of the structure that hip-hop culture is, for better or for worse. In other words, it is not something that is used fully in lightheartedness in The BreakBeat Poets.
An example of this is “In defense of the code-switch or why you talk like that or why you gotta always be cussing” by Roger Bonair-Agard. The poem begins with the narrator’s mother and principal teaching him “the English of John Milton,” but develops as he learns different set of language and way of pronouncing things on the streets of where he lives. Bonair-Agard then proceeds to spit on the existence of the idea of code-switching, the oppression that it implies, and the connotations that are forced upon Anglo versus non-Anglo dialects. He does this partially by playing with the different meanings that these dialects place on words: “school me, you could be 10 years old / thrown to the ground arrested / in school.” In addition, the same kind of rhythm here links in with the much of the poetry in BreakBeat Poets, echoing rap and hip-hop culture throughout:
“like a spinning record
to the beat
to the beat
till the breaka breaka dawn.”
-It’s Just Begun by Mayda Del Valle
Though humor weaves through the anthology, sometimes lighthearted and sometimes caustic, The BreakBeat Poets always seeks to reach deep beneath the surface. An excellent example of this is contained in the description: after the initial colloquialisms and conversational tone, the description closes with “This anthology is meant to expand the idea of who a poet is and what a poem is for.” This hints at the contemporary conversation that highly published poetry is written solely for and by affluent, heterosexual, white men. In contrast, in this poetry anthology the vast majority of the featured poets are non-white, and the cover is packed with vibrantly-colored illustrations: the profiles of adolescents of all different races, drawn comic-book style in superhero gear. The BreakBeat Poets pushes against the historical racial norms of poetry, unapologetically and masterfully putting the voices of people of color in America in the spotlight.
Reviewed by: Gabriella Basile