Twenty-five years ago, the poet, playwright, and essayist Lenard D. Moore founded the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. What started as just a few people meeting monthly at his own home to discuss books and encourage one another to write grew over the years into a robust, compelling group of artists amplifying the voices of the American South.
All The Songs We Sing, an anthology of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, celebrates these artists, the Collective’s growth, and the importance of diversity within American literature. And though the anthology’s featured writers all share some connection to North Carolina specifically, the content also relates to themes and issues that are critical on a much more global scale — especially now, in light of the renewed urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations about race and injustice happening around the world.
Here the reader will find works written with reference to E. Ethelbert Miller and Michelle Obama as well as works written in memory of Emmett Till and John Coltrane. Devastating depictions of violence burst forth on certain pages, such as in the poem “In a Place Where” by Patricia A. Johnson; the author offsets the beauty, tranquility, and familiarity of a rural landscape with the horrifying details surrounding the murder of her cousin G. P. Johnson in July of 1997. In other works, darkness lurks just below the surface, such as in the poem “The Pictograph Selfie,” where Ashley Harris ponders her youthful appearance: “I smile that my armor / has become so appealing, / but still / not good enough to / distract death at the next / traffic stop.” Meanwhile, in “An Unrelenting Meal,” Beverly Fields Burnette describes an old crane who “darted away from younger, more agile fowl,” then chokes on an “unyielding fish, / before others realized / he’d bitten off / far more / than he could swallow.”
Indeed, nature’s assorted notes ring loudly throughout the collection, whether that nature is of the human kind or otherwise. Authors of the Collective grapple with the complexities of social constructs and the environment, of beauty and danger, of culture and history. Camille T. Dungy writes in her essay “From Dirt:” “…once the ants announced their interest in the artichoke, I let them enjoy its substance while I settled for appreciating its splendor. I was not dependent on that artichoke for its nutritional value, and if my point is to see to it that things around me thrive, sharing with ants could be part of this goal. … If there is to be a flourishing that I can cultivate, I want its reach to be wide.”
In the excerpt titled “A History of Wanting,” from her novel Fes Is a Mirror, Chantal James writes: “the feel of metal money in my hands every day was teaching me something. … money, it seemed to me, was imperceptibly imprinted with wanting, a recorded history of wanting. and [sic] listening to what coins had to tell me made me realize that even as i [sic] squatted on the ground to receive them, at that very moment, the force of someone else’s desire rested with me.”
As varied as the topics in this anthology are, so too are the styles of writing. In his introduction, Moore points out that in addition to “the traditional style and the modernist approach,” readers will find “poetic forms such as bops, kwansabas, minute poems, persona poems, free verse, ballads, haiku, haibun, innovative poems, and so forth.” Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina Poet Laureate and founder of SistaWRITE, notes in the book’s foreword: “The language throughout this anthology is alive and vital, adding something new to the reading experience that escapes the trap of telling the reader how a text should read. This isn’t a collection of identities. It is a collection of different literary forms and devices that dictate their own boundaries and determine their own fields of influence.”
All The Songs We Sing is a complex, nuanced ballad, an important ensemble of voices worth listening to and spending careful time with. The artists of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective have not only brought the noise, they’ve brought the music.
All The Songs We Sing:
Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective
Edited by Lenard D. Moore
Published June 2, 2020