Unsung Masters 2024: Recovering the Work of Black Arts Poet Tom Postell

Tom Postell
Unsung Masters 2024: Recovering the Work of Black Arts Poet Tom Postell

Every year, the Unsung Masters book series highlights a writer or poet whose work has been “unjustly neglected.” The project is a collaboration between Pleiades Press, Gulf Coast, and Copper Nickel, curated by UH professor Kevin Prufer and UH alumnus Wayne Miller of the University of Colorado—Denver.

FORWARD caught up with this year’s co-editors—poetry PhD student Anthony Sutton and poet/curator Michael C. Peterson—as they finished editorial work on the series’ 2024 volume.

This year’s volume focuses on Tom Postell, a figure in the Black Arts Movement. Could you tell me about the choice to focus on his work?

MP: I'm the curator of the George Elliston Poetry Room in Cincinnati. Tom came to me in the form of a question, through Tom's wife of a decade, Rose Bianchi, and through a University of Cincinnati professor of Philosophy named Jenefer Robinson. Postell was born in Cincinnati in 1927 and spent the end of his life in Cincinnati. And they wanted to know how to get this work published or if the work was publishable. Upon further inspection, it became abundantly clear that Postell was somebody whose work—in the words of a scholar named Aldon Lynn Nielsen, who is writing a piece for the project—needed to be recovered. Postell was deeply in touch with a writer named Amiri Baraka. He appears frequently in Baraka’s autobiography as a figure of some prominence, mentorship, and friendship. He was poised to have an impact. So the question is, where did he go?

Were there historical factors that led to Postell’s work being overlooked?

AS: Part of what’s exciting and ambitious about our project is that there are maybe four poems that Tom published in his life, and most of our work was accessing and digitizing type script drafts. We're publishing, essentially, the book that Postell was working on. He never really had the circumstance to have the literary world look at him in the first place. And I think our volume does a good job of addressing both structural/cultural unkindnesses, and also personal unkindnesses that hindered Tom. This is a major expansion of the work that’s publicly available.

Could you tell me a little bit more the process of working on the book?

MP: The work began some years ago. Rose, Tom's wife, had sought counsel from Amiri Baraka, but according to Rose, it wasn't particularly helpful. So Rose was left hanging on to a bunch of writing, one book of which we consider to be his major opus of poetry: a volume called Poems from the Tomb. One of the great problems was, of course, that of white editors in the period that inhibited an innovator like Tom from ever reaching much textual dissemination. The work began with daily conversations with Rose. We pored through everything. Due to the traumatic ending of Tom's life a lot of things were missing.

What were some of the challenges or surprises in compiling this volume, or discoveries you made?

AS: Part of the exciting work of doing research on Black Arts poets and writers of color who fit into experimental modes of writing is that everything is a discovery—because it was so unarchived. My essay contribution tries to highlight the inheritance that Tom's work has from European avant-garde writers, particularly Arthur Rimbaud. But then there's so much to say about the influence of jazz music in Tom’s work, and part of the excitement is seeing all these sensibilities swirling together.

MP: Anthony's been one of the forces that has allowed me to see Tom's work in new ways. One of the strengths of the Unsung Masters series is that it becomes a deeply participatory and communal curation of a writer who we all want to embrace and return to a place of greater volume in our lives. In our daily conversations as editors, something new is always coming up. We’re building a mini-archive of conversation, dialogue, and scholarship around a writer that has seen no light. We’re so fortunate to have a range of wonderful contributors. It's like a graphic equalizer: each one of them brings a different part of the frequency up in our in our hearts and minds with regard to Tom. There's no other book series like it in the country right now.

AS: We have some scholarship, we have some creative contributions. We have a range of more contemporary Black writers who have some kind of lineage from the Black Arts movement. Tom had no archive, and we’ve done a lot of work to include people whose work points to him in some way.

How has working with Postell’s poetry influenced your own work?

AS: UH has given me a lot of depth in Black critical thought, which has become paramount to my scholarly work. I came in as a PhD student knowing almost nothing in this field. This really was a moment to put into practice the methods I was trained in around Black critical work. I started saying that Saidiya Hartman was our guiding star because Tom really is in line with that Wayward Lives kind of thing. I’m particularly thankful for the courses and lectures I've sat in with Dr. Haylee Harrell. Here’s how we can really bring the care and attention to a writer whose life we had a lot of gaps and here's how we can gesture to what we think are in the gaps.

MP: It's a deeply humanizing project to be looking closely at Tom’s work. It certainly changed the way that as an archivist and curator I acquire and help build a collection here. We have spent so long searching for the most miniscule bits of ephemera to confirm or deny certain aspects. It's a good reminder that collections are built with such smallnesses and not with grandiosities.

You recently participated in a reading at AWP with other Unsung Masters editors. What was that like? How do you see Postell fitting into the lineage of the series?

MP: We both felt honored to be up there with Niki Herd, Dana Levin, and Kasim Ali. We were excited to try reading one of these poems of Tom’s—one of his great typographical experiments. It’s a poem that exists on the page in two antiphonal voices. And it’s littered with punctuative experimentation. Anthony and I hatched this plan that we were going to do this antiphonally over a single mic. It felt like a very rock-and-roll moment, and it worked wonderfully. The poem was like a musical score, it told us exactly where to go.

AS: We were both reading simultaneously. There are so many places where Tom’s work asks us to push what the Unsung Masters volumes are capable of. We were both reading at the same time—no one else’s volume could do that. Of course, the other volumes are great too.

MP: The audience was weirdly thrilled. We’ve been in this together for a while, and it’s sort of like emerging from the cave. There’s automatically excitement built in.

Are there audiences you hope the poems will find?

MP: Tom recalibrates the way we think about the trajectory of Black Arts and what we think of as modern Black Power poetry in the period. There’s not just one synchronous path to it by way of Amiri Baraka, who is oftentimes the most amplified voice of that period. It also redefines to whom we attribute this sacred label of “avant-garde.” It brings the idea of the avant-garde back home; it diversifies it and gives it texture. Recovery can be a very political process; it’s fraught with a lot of problems and privilege and issues of equity. It's something the project hopefully calls attention to.

AS: We are in a moment where there’s a lot of recovery work happening with Black Arts poets. I hope that people who are interested in that come to this book. I can’t articulate just how impactful this project has been to the direction of the type of scholarship I want to do. This is just such a great intervention into the racial politics of experimental poetry and mid-twentieth century poetry.

A poem by Tom Postell follows. Anthony and Michael read this poem of Postell’s aloud at AWP:

[There they sit vacantly        the]

There they sit vacantly               the

star,ing at the cards                       light

until night calls them                           is

with his tow,ering might                        strong

to sleep.                                                           on

There they s,it at breakfast                                   me

star,ing at the morning news           who

un,til., they must work                              am

until a certain time later                                      I

th,ey stare at m,e I                          who

am being stared at and it                           are

is st,range.                                                             you