McKinley E. Melton Interview
Interviewed by: James H. Desmond
McKinley E. Melton is a professor of 20th and 21st Century African American Literature at Gettysburg College. He is a graduate of Duke University, and holds a PHD from the W.E.B DuBois department of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Recently, Professor Melton was awarded a 2019-2020 Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship by the American Council of Learned Socities, in order to support a year as a scholar-in-residence at the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. During this time, he worked on his current book project Claiming All the World as our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance, which investigates the relationship between cultural, political, and spiritual traditions and Black Diasporan literary and artistic traditions. I first met Professor Melton in the spring of 2018, during my freshman year at Gettysburg, when I was a student in his literature class titled, Voice and Visibility: African Americans and the Power of the Spoken Word. He has since served as my advisor in the English department over the course of my college career.
JHD: To start, can you tell me about your book project, Claiming all the World as our Stage?
MM: It’s a scholarly project on contemporary poets who have experienced success both through performance and through publication. So, I’m really interested in poets who work across the page and the stage. I am thinking about how the work that they do is situated within traditions that move across the African diaspora. Traditions of orality, literacy, and performance. And thinking through how contemporary artists are building on those traditions in ways that respond to circumstances of the current moment, and allow their work to operate as a form of artistic, political, cultural resistance against elements of anti-blackness that are global.
JHD: Last year you spend the entire year at the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. Can you tell me how your experiences there affected your thinking and writing process?
MM: Sure. The Furious Flower Poetry Center is built as the nation’s first academic center that’s dedicated to the study of black poetry and black poets. The center was conceived of by Joanne Gabbon, who is a professor of English as James Madison University. It was conceived back in 1994 as a part of a conference that was designed to honor Gwendolyn Brooks. The conference then gave birth to a center, which then runs a number of programs and academic events, summer camps, speaker series, reader series, and all these things. I should mention that the title for the center comes from a line of Gwendolyn Brooks poetry, from Second Sermon on the Workland. The Furious Flower Center is a space for a lot of programming, classes, teaching, educational work that goes around the celebration and the uplifting of black poets and black poetry. My time there was largely about the space and the freedom to work, and the ability to step away from a lot of my primary responsibilities to focus on reading and writing and clearing the mental space to begin work on this project.
JHD: Totally. So, in light of the fact that a global pandemic happened during that year…
MM: Did it? I missed that… Sorry, go ahead.
JHD: Did that inhibit on you at all, in terms of that freedom that you talked about?
MM: Yes, A number of issues arose from a practical and logistical sensibility. I had a good amount of travel that was planned for the spring. I was fortunate enough that I was able to go to Cape Town, South Africa in September. I was really excited, because I was planning to go in the spring, but I ended up going in September, and I’m really glad that I did, otherwise I would have been deeply, deeply upset had I not been able to go. So I went there in September, and my plan was to take a different trip to Chicago in April or May, because one of the chapters in the project is really looking at the poetics of place, and how poets are engaging with the space where they live. So, I designated Cape Town and Chicago as two places that I wants to examine. Logistically, I had travel plans for Chicago, and there were some conferences I had planned that I couldn’t go to, that kind of disturbed some of my research plan for the spring. That said, the fact of the matter is I spent the year reading and writing and hunkering down anyway, so the fact that I wasn’t able to travel did create some other opportunities for me. I was able to switch some things around, though I still am going to need to find time to do the travel that I had planned. But in terms of the ability to engage with the work, that wasn’t disrupted as much as it might’ve been. The major obstacle that I had to deal with was the shutdown of campus and the lack of access to the libray and various other resources which I navigated as best I could.
JHD: Going off of the travel, and how you said you write primarily about people who perform poetry, spoken word, how do you think your subject matter of performance been affected? You can’t have poetry conferences and you can’t have someone standing on a stage in the middle of quarantine.
MM: it’s been interesting. On one hand, a lot of poetry events where you actually have the live interaction were cancelled. A lot of poets couldn’t travel. You couldn’t have large gatherings in order to have the audience. What I found really interesting was that the artistic community really mobilized throughout the pandemic, and there was a whole slew of online, virtual activities and events. It certainly shifts the dynamic because you’re not really in an audience in the same way, where you’re feeding off the energy of the crowd, but it really was an opportunity to see poetry happening in different types of spaces. Even in general, if we’re thinking about clips of spoken word, it’s happening in a frozen moment in time, it’s on YouTube, it’s been uploaded, it’s already happened. But the idea of these events unfolding in real time, and my ability to be in the audience in real time at a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally be able to be at, because I’m constantly saying, “oh I wish I were in Chicago right now, or I wish I were in New York right now, or there’s no way I can make it to this reading in Houston, but it looks amazing.” Part of what the pandemic did by shifting everything online was to create a greater degree of access, which actually almost became a problem of trying to keep up with the different events because everybody was planning everything. Sometimes things would be competing with each other, and you’re trying to figure out “how can I make it to this and how can I make it to that, and I’m actually overwhelmed I can’t do anymore,” but there was actually an abundance of material that grew in ways that are very accessible, largely because of the pandemic.
JHD: That’s really cool to hear. I think a lot of people found that to be true, not only in your line of work, but in a lot of ways which is pretty interesting to think about.
MM: The pandemic has been an interesting moment in terms of questions around access and accessibility, right, because it highlighted how a lot of folks don’t have access to things, but it also created ways of making things much more accessible. With the presumption that people have access to the technology that they need to get onto Facebook live or to do a live streaming on YouTube, in some ways, it has operated as a highlighter of inequity, with respect to access. But it’s also created the opportunity for people to log onto Zoom to see things that they never would have been able to see before. I mean, Broadway plays being uploaded to YouTube and you know free readings and free speaker series and all these things. It’s been an interesting moment. I don’t really study technology in that way, but I am interested in the kind of way that the digital sphere is used as a platform for performance. So it’s been an interesting few months.
JHD: Kind of going off that, in light of the pandemic, but also the inequalities that it has brought up and the climate of the country following the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests, what do you think spoken word and performers in that community can offer to the world and the country in this moment?
MM: So you know James, I’m biased in this regard, admittedly, right? But I think that poetry in particular, but artists in general, have often been at the forefront of ways in which artistic work can speak to the political needs of the current moment. Particularly the poets that I’m looking at, because of my own interest in poetry as a form of political resistance and political action, these poets are those who are always invested and engaged in the kind of political undercurrents of our time. These artists that I’m looking at in particular are very much invested in responding to George Floyd as a part of a larger pattern of anti-blackness that I referenced earlier. One of the sections of my book is looking at a viral campaign from a few years back, that is still somewhat going on, but really kind of peaked three years ago. Maybe actually more than that. I think at this point it was probably around 2015-2016 when it peaked, the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. It was a series of online and in-person readings and letter writing campaigns that focused on using black poetry as a tool. Different folks would do readings that they posted online, either of their own work or others work, but they would always use the hashtag to link their work together. But they also all would start with, “My name is ----, am a black poet who refuses to be silent while this nation continues to murder black people. I have a right to be angry.” The whole idea of using my work to speak back to circumstances, the ongoing and very current circumstances of black people being killed in the streets. I don’t mean to say this in a morbid way, but it fuels my work. Not that I’m saying, “oh how fortunate it was that this was happening,” but the reality is that these moments continue to remind Black poets and Black artists of the importance that they do, particularly when that work can coincide with political organizing, protest actions and marches, and the ways poetry often gets used as a kind of soundtrack to these movements. I think that is really important.
JHD: That’s really interesting. You mentioned different places, like South Africa or Chicago, having an effect on the creative process. What do you think the effect that not being able to go places (because of the pandemic) has had on your creative process and the creative process of these poets and artist?
MM: Yeah, I don’t really know, James, if I’m being perfectly honest with you. I think that there’s a real value in a lot of these kinds of artistic communities. There’s a real emphasis on expression. I think that the ability to travel and move through different spaces, in some ways it’s a part of their professional work. They get flown places so that they can perform, so they can do readings, so they can make income, this is part of how they survive. There was a whole set of issues around artists in society who were finding themselves without their normal revenue streams, which became a whole set of issues in and of itself. But in terms of the idea of the ways that community can get together in their collectives when they show up for a reading at a coffee house or on a college campus, there’s an ability to build community through occupying shared space. Without being able to occupy physical shared space, I think what happened, which is some ways was really beautiful, was the ways various artists used the digital world as a space for community. I attended a few different events, one of them was celebration for a poet named Patricia Smith. She was turning 65, so she had three days of readings from 65 different poets for her 65th birthday. The energy in that zoom was unbelievable. It was so beautiful. It was so well done. But it was also that all these folks are logging in from their bedrooms, from their living rooms, from their kitchen tables. There is a way that community was being constructed without living in the same physical location. Which I think was just really beautiful, and I imagine that has a tremendous role in shaping their creative process with these poets who were able to be at that reading and be with their friends, even if they couldn’t touch their friends, but to be in conversation, I think, is central their creative process. In terms of my own, for me, it’s more about the resources I have access to, the more information I can think through and process and try to build out my own work. I was kind of soaking it up being in all the zooms that I could get to, and kind of finding value in being able to move through these different digital spaces.
JHD: Yeah totally. I think it will be interesting to revisit that question in 10, 20 years, or even one year, and see the poetry that was created in the past year, because I think there will be a considerable change. One last question, Claiming the World as our Stage, how important is that nowadays in light of the protests and things along those lines. How important do you think that is nowadays?
MM: Yeah, I mean, I think that it really is important. I think that there’s a significance to the idea of what it means to claim a space, in order to exists, your right to declare your right to exist in a space is one thing, but to claim ownership of a space is another thing entirely. I think that the idea of saying, it’s not just “our lives matter.” It’s not just, “I have the right to be here because I should be able to exist here.” But it’s really the declaration that “I am laying claim to this space, to these streets, to these corners, to this neighborhood, to this campus” in a way that says “I don’t just have the right to be tolerated, I have an ownership stake. I have a right to feel that I have just as much ownership over this space as anyone else.” In particular when you think about this idea of what I mean to be on a stage? What does it mean to perform? What does it mean to demand the attention of an audience to say “I’m here because I have something to say, something that’s worth being heard. I demand the right to speak. I claim ownership over space, which means I don’t need your permission to have access to it and I’m going to walk forthrightly into a space that’s mine. I’m going to say what I need to say and you should listen?” So I think there’s something really powerfully charged about that idea for me.
JHD: Thank you.