The 2016 collection of poems by Chinaka Hodge titled ‘Dated Emcees’ overflows with hip hop. The culture is manifested in obvious ways, through poem titles like ‘the b side’, ‘small poems for big’ and ‘2pac couplets,’ but hip hop is not a gimmick or a writing device in these poems: it is the entire world.
Hip hop is the ultimate assemblage music, and these poems reflect that. The poem ‘elevators (me and you)’ first recalls the 1996 single of the same name from the Atlanta duo Outkast, who use elevators as a metaphor for their rise from obscurity to fame, but Hodge flips it, and takes us to an actual elevator, this one occupied by football player Ray Rice and Janay Palmer, subjects of a surveillance video documenting Rice’s physical assault of his fiancee. The opening stanza reads: a woman...must spit her name away like teeth/rise when he say, practice falls/stay down—this lies in opposition to the other kind of practice described by Outkast, practicing their craft as emcees as they say: “now every day we looked up at the ceiling/watching ceiling fans go round, trying to catch that feeling.” There are two kinds of elevators, two kinds of practice, two kinds of laying down.
There are gorgeous convergences of form and subject, especially in ‘small poems for big’, 24 four haikus for each year the Notoroious B.I.G. lived. The haiku form emphasizes what is both ephemeral and eternal in nature, and there’s no one that fits that form better than Biggie.
What comes together throughout the collection is a vision of hip hop that hasn’t been tamed by some quiet version of poetry, but a poetry reinvigorated and resonating with an incredibly rich invocation of the full range of life in hip hop.