A Conversation with The Black Poets Society at W&M

Posted on
February 27, 2023

By Jenna Massey '24, External Relations Student Assistant, W&M Libraries

As part of the library’s celebration of Black History Month, I was tasked with spotlighting some of the artistic endeavors and achievements occurring at William & Mary. In an effort to acknowledge both literary arts and student groups in our community, I reached out to The Black Poets Society at W&M. The BPS was founded in October 2022 with the intention of “uplift[ing] and esteem[ing] the works and experiences of [Black Diasporic] poets, lyricists, and writers,” and encouraging “the creation of poetry and lyric amongst the Black Diasporic community on W&M’s own campus” (via Tribelink). I was fortunate to conduct a digital interview with founder Shawna Alston ’25 and executive board member Benjamin Boateng ’25 about what the organization means to them.

Jenna Massey '24: What inspired you to create The Black Poets Society at William & Mary? How do you hope to see the organization grow in the coming months?

Shawna Alston '25: Well, for starters, a lot of the literary-oriented, creative orgs on campus tend to be overwhelmingly white. When I started [at] William & Mary, I knew I wanted to be a part of the creative circuit here on campus, but getting here and failing to see other writers, poets, and artists who looked like me was discouraging. I realized that this is not because Black creatives weren't welcomed in these spaces, it was just that many of us simply felt that way. All or majority white spaces can often be intimidating. I created the Black Poets Society to encourage Black creatives to feel uninhibited in their writing. This space is supposed to serve as a place where no one feels intimidated, and in turn, everyone creates with a fullness of self. In the coming months, I would really just enjoy establishing a core group of Black writers interested in the org, regardless of experience. While I am interested in the taking submissions and publishing an anthology, right now we are still a small org with feeble membership. The goal, for the rest of this semester at least, is to garner enough attention to attract interested poets. 

Benjamin Boateng '25: The Black Poets Society honestly grew from a desire to expose campus and the greater Williamsburg area to the great Black thinkers, creators, and poets we have here on campus. So many events I have attended over the past few years hosted by other cultural organizations have had fantastic Black poets writing and speaking about the Black experience and things they hold dear, but they had no community. Through the Black Poets Society, I hope to create a loving gathering of writers to push each other in their writing, but ultimately, to discuss poetry and be recognized for the greatness that is their creativity.

As a new org we want to get our footing in the coming weeks and work with Swem Library, other cultural orgs for major showcases, and of course, have our own show centered around Black poetry!

JM: How does having a space like The Black Poets Society benefit writers like yourself?

SA: It’s truly a safe space, or at least that's what I want it to be. For many writers, your cultural experience(s) shape what and how you create. You're always creating from a personal place, and for a lot of Black writers, the nuances that come with creating uniquely Black art are not always understood or appreciated. The Black Poets Society serves as a place where your nuances aren't just understood, they're shared. 

BB: A space like The Black Poets Society allows a writer like me to truly voice my thoughts and feelings to people who look like me and can empathize with my struggle. Poetry, unlike other art forms, allows for an individual to pour their heart and soul into their words to allow their feelings to dress another. Through the BPS, our members and I hope to not only grow our writing skills, but to have a space where [our] writing topics, feelings, and identity as a whole are validated. Thus, causing [more] groundbreaking Black art to be known on campus and the world.

JM: We’re conducting this interview in the context of Black History Month. How do you feel that poetry finds its space in February’s historic celebrations and acknowledgments?

SA: A lot of what I do is inspired by those who've written before me; poets who were not just known for their poetry, but for how their poetry called for change. Nikki Giovanni and Lucile Clifton were women who wrote poems not as an escape from the bleakness of Black and white social interactions, but as mirrors, as reflections of what was happening around them. Poetry, just like most art, does not exist in a vacuum, or on the outskirts of social phenomena. For a lot of Black thinkers, art was the chosen medium for political commentary. Langston Hughes, for example, never shied away from commenting on the state of the world in his work. Right now, it is our job to honor that. It is our responsibility to remember and continue the work they started. 

BB: As with many things, you cannot talk about Black history without Black poets. From Langston Hughes to Maya Angelou, to even modern-day's Kendrick Lamar, pivotal poets and artists alike have furthered conversations around the Black identity and have brought unity and love through their artwork. It is pivotal that during Black History Month, we acknowledge this history of artistic thinkers and the contributions, whether big or small, household name or not; they have made for not only Black history but American history. It is through this acknowledgment that we can further the creative space to places previously unthought of, and as well, can further the fight for equity and equality.

JM: Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of intellectual debate recently about the significance of poetry – or any art, frankly – in the current cultural landscape. How would you argue the significance of this art form in the present day?

SA: I'm a bit biased as a poet myself, but I think poetry creates life. Poetry renews. I think poetry also gives new ways to say things; poetry allows us to play with language in a way other art forms don't really. You can't take the same liberties as you can when writing poetry compared to structuring the narrative of a novel. When allowed to play with language, to pick and choose, to create and re-create, I feel you get more done. You say more without have to say too much. Poetry can accomplish just as much, if not more, than any other art form simply because you can do with it whatever you want. 

BB: Poetry has undoubtedly gone global and is significant to the rise of new creative works within its specifically defined category of art, and others.

What I mean by this is that, of course, poetry, rhymes, and rhythmic chants are art forms that have stretched across hundreds of years, but now more than ever, we can see its influence in other art forms. Take rap for example. From gangster rap in the late 1980s to the 90s and now with the rise of melodic rap and RnB-laden tracks, we see a plethora of artistic techniques taken from poets and artists in the early days being transformed to a recognizable but completely new type of art.

This is the core importance of poetry and art in general - its regenerative properties. Humanity and its plethora of cultures have created endlessly through thousands of years, and each new art form describes and brings about a new age of human revolution. On a large scale, this is a complex and grand progression of human thought, but on the micro level, art and poetry have allowed an individual to show their unadulterated, unfiltered soul to the world, and that is unequivocally its biggest advantage in the modern day.

JM: Finally, do you have any poetry recommendations for our readers?

SA: I've been retuning to Lucille Clifton's "Flowers" lately. I'm also enamored with the works of my peers on campus. A friend of mine, Pelumi (@/pelum111 on Instagram), is also writing some really great stuff. 

You can stay up to date with The Black Poets Society on Instagram: @wmblackpoets