Discussion Questions

Questions and Prompts for Further Discussion

For Reading Groups

1. Given both the innovations and reconfigurations of the elegy tracked within this volume, how might the standard definition of the genre be revised? As noted in this volume’s Introduction, The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms defines the elegy as “a lyric, usually formal in tone and diction, suggested either by the death of an actual person or by the poet’s contemplation of the tragic aspects of life. In either case, the emotion, originally expressed as a lament, finds consolation in the contemplation of some permanent principle.”

2. In this volume, we have focused on the considerable utility of elegiac writing for this political epoch that has included the two-term presidency of Barack H. Obama, the first person of African descent to hold the office, the presidency of Donald J. Trump, a figure who has aligned himself with white-supremacist groups and ideologies, and the strengthening of the contemporary black liberation movement known as Black Lives Matter. In your view, what are the distinct benefits of criticism, the personal essay, and poetry in addressing these sociopolitical exigencies? 

3. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian’s Gary Younge, activist and writer Eduardo Galeano noted, “History never really says goodbye. History says, see you later.”How do you see the poems and essays in this volume realizing the saliency of this remark?

4. Compare several of the most canonical elegies in the Anglo-American canon—John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!,” Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” among others—to the ones in this volume. In what ways do you see these contemporary poets both extending and complicating this tradition? Consider gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, and their intersections as you formulate your response.

5. Choose at least one text from the Appendix to place in conversation with the poems and essays in this volume. Challenge yourself to choose an unknown author, perform research, and introduce that author to your reading group. What is gained by exploring elegy beyond the poems and essays published in this volume?

For the Classroom

1. Read darlene anita scott’s crown of sonnets, “A Series of Survivals,” in conjunction with Debbie Mix’s essay “‘A diagnosis is an ending’: Pathology and Presence in Bettina Judd’s Patient.” In what ways do they both speak to the somatic experience of racial hauntings and reckonings? Moreover, what are the unique affordances of the sonnet—and a crown of sonnets in particular—for scott’s elucidation of the intergenerational grief and trauma of black women?

2. Essays included here by J. Peter Moore, Megan Feifer and Maia Butler, and Almas Khan describe the incorporation of elegiac tropes in film (Moore), op-eds (Feifer and Butler), and judicial opinions (Khan). What are the advantages of expanding conventional conceptions of elegy as the province of poetry? What other genres of art and rhetoric would be usefully considered under the rubric of elegy?

3. In Angela Jackson-Brown’s “I Must Not Breathe,” she describes an array of seemingly innocuous behaviors and actions that may trigger a violent response from police. What does this list suggest about the paralyzing (and often perilous) consequences of racial profiling?

4. In Danielle Legros Georges’s “Poem of History,” she describes the ways in which institutions where many of us work, study, and socialize sanction anti-black racism and violence. Reflect on your own experiences within institutions. How does engaging with elegies such as Georges’s occasion fresh insights about the spaces we inhabit?

5. Cameron Barnett’s “Uniform; or things I would paint if I were a painter” invokes a number of historical figures. What role do you think poetry in general and elegy in particular plays in re-imagining American history? 

6. In Lauren K. Alleyne’s “Elegy for Tamir,” she transforms the printed page into a sacred space where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice is still “becoming.” In what ways does this poem speak to the power of the word to envisage another kind of reality?    

7. Tiffany Austin’s “Dark Milk: After Basquiat” and “Peaches” exemplify a fusion of elegy and ekphrasis (poetry that engages with the visual arts). Look up “Dark Milk” by Jean-Michel Basquiat online, and discuss the ways in which Austin’s “Dark Milk: After Basquiat’s Painting” dialogues with this painting. Similarly, in “Peaches,” Austin references Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers (2015). Watch this film, and discuss Austin’s poetic reframing of the intersection of race and gender in particular.

8. Tony Medina’s “Senryu for Trayvon Martin” and Emily Jo Scalzo’s haiku “After Charleston” both utilize Japanese poetic forms to render contemporary elegies that speak particularly to violence perpetrated against African-descended people in America. What do these fusions of elegy and haiku and senryu achieve formally, and what might they suggest about the affordances of cross-cultural artistic exchange?  

9. Jacqueline Johnson’s “Soul Memory” and Charles Braxton’s “Strays in the Hood” invoke sacred language as they mourn victims of police brutality. Discuss the ways in which these artists negotiate the relationship between the secular and sacred realms in the context of state-sanctioned violence and grief.

10. Anne Lovering Rounds’s “American Diptych” uses an erasure method to signify the black lives that have been extinguished but nevertheless haunt the American landscape. Sequoia Maner similarly utilizes the white space on the page in her “Black Boy Contrapuntal for Trayvon Martin.” Discuss the use of visual poetics in the poetry of mourning.

11. Nicholas Goodly’s “Skin Tones” and Lauren K. Alleyne’s “Elegy for Tamir” speak directly to the deceased. In what ways does this strategy of apostrophe impact you as a reader? What kind of responsibilities are you being asked to assume, and to what ends?

12. Poems such as Paula Bohince’s “The Flint River” and Jason Harris’s “APPRAISAL (ELEGY for AS OF A NOW)” address the socioeconomic and environmental discrimination that is slower but no less imperiling as state-sanctioned killings. As you survey your own communities, what forms of institutionalized racism become clear? Consider, for example, gentrification, environmental hazards, underresourced public schools, food deserts, the absence of affordable and accessible medical care, and a lack of adequate city services, among other structural inequities.

13. Both Sarah Giragosian’s “Nina” and Sean Murphy’s “Bud Powell’s Brain” pay elegiac tribute to iconic African American musicians. Why is it necessary to continue to say the names and honor the legacies of individuals who have long ago passed away? What kinds of fresh insights are evoked in the process?

14. In our Introduction, we underscore the significance of social media for the increased engagement in both poetry and activism in recent years. In what ways does Chris Campanioni’s “#IWokeUpLikeThis or: The Latest in Space-Age #PostInternet Pajamas” exemplify the reciprocal relationship between poetry, particularly the elegy, and social media?

For Creative Writers and Scholar-Poets

1. How do you grapple with grief and mourning in your own writing, and in what ways do the poems and essays gathered here resonate with your artistic vision? How has revisiting the topic of elegy impacted your ideas about and strategies for writing?

2. What forms beside the elegy and the essay are crucial to voicing the concerns and aims of the Movement for Black Lives?

3. This book’s Appendix gathers an extensive list of elegies written by poets who adopt diverse styles, voices, and aims. What is the relationship between formalism, innovation, and elegy in African American letters? How do contemporary poets write within and against a legacy of elegiac predecessors? What else might be gleaned from the Appendix?

3. Lauren Alleyne’s “Poetry Workshop after the Verdict” speaks to the often unspoken white biases within many creative writing workshops. What are the racial dynamics within your own creative spaces, and how do they influence both your self-expression and the kinds of feedback you give and receive?  

4. We have facilitated a dialogue here between poets and scholars in the hopes of showcasing the distinct sociopolitical and cultural work that creative and critical writing perform. How do you negotiate the occasions for these distinct modes of writing? What is possible at the intersection of these modes?

5. We have focused here on elegies aligned with the aims of Black Lives Matter and the resistance to anti-black racism more generally. What other state-sanctioned forms of violence and oppression have engendered elegiac responses? How are the elegies of Black Lives Matter distinctive?  

For Activists

1. Several of the poets and essayists in this volume are of European descent while the majority of the poets and essayists are of African descent. In your view, what are the distinct roles that white and non-black people of color play in resisting anti-black racism and its intersections?

2. This volume’s “Elegists as Activists” section closes with an interview featuring Black Poets Speak Out (#BPSO) co-founder Amanda Johnston. In your view, how does Johnston’s work in particular and #BPSO more generally reflect the role of social media in twenty-first century justice movements? How does this interview illuminate the relationship between art and activism? How might you incorporate poetry into your anti-racist work?

3. One might read Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon’s poem “No Indictment” as a rallying cry at a political march. In what ways do you see poetry as distinct from political chants, and in what ways does it perform a similar function?