Poetry Witch Magazine

Farewell Issue


Celebrating the Bop 


Shimmies into A Room with a Two-Step: The Bop Poem 

By Tara Betts

My first encounter with the Bop poem was at an arts incubator office in Links Hall that used to house the offices for one of Chicago’s literary nonprofit organizations, Guild Complex. This weekend workshop took place sometime around 1999-2000. A small group of black poets in Chicago, less than 10 poets, sat at a table with Afaa Michael Weaver. Most, if not all of us, ended up becoming a part of Cave Canem eventually. Shortly thereafter, I read some of the first published Bops in books like Honoreé Jeffers 2000 debut The Gospel of Barbecue, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Black Swan (released in 2002), and G.E. Patterson’s Tug, which was published in 1999. All three were first full-length collections from these poets, and the Bop has appeared in several recent collections by poets like Evie Shockley, Ching-In Chen, Mitchell L.H. Douglas, and Mendi Lewis-Obadike among others.

I could relate the story of how the form began at Cave Canem workshop/retreat at Mt. Esopus in New York, where Afaa Michael Weaver first shared the form in 1997 with a group that is now a who’s who of African American poets. I was compelled to write with Weaver was such a gentle teacher’s spirit with the carriage of a mentor that I needed. Like getting to know Weaver’s poems, the Bop could be deceptively simple with a definitive flow, a rise and fall of a rhythmic gait tapping its ditty stanzas between the repetition of each refrain.

It would be easy to say that it is reminiscent of the blues, an Aristotelian dramatic structure, or as Weaver himself has said, the Pindaric ode. To me, the Bop acts as a vessel that carries multiple modes of drama and music. In the process of gathering together Bop poems for a potential anthology with Weaver, the sources I saw poets drew upon for the refrains were wide-ranging, and sometimes surprising—Woody Guthrie, Alberta Hunter, Hector Lavoe, Smashing Pumpkins, Gregory Isaacs, Joni Mitchell, Kanye West, Marvin Gaye, gospel singer John Prince Kee, and many, many others.

As more poets include this form in their slim published volumes and they appear on the internet, the Bop has the potential to make a diverse tradition where the content becomes compact with multiple turns. Typically, a sonnet has one volta, often residing somewhere in lines six through eight. In my experience, the three stanzas that rest above each repetition of the stanza offer a new turn, a blink toward another perspective in a situation or given scene. It is possible to end up in a completely different position from where one actually began as a reader. A poet can introduce, complicate, and resolve a problem, but the Bop is open-ended enough to accept that human nature and real life is almost never neatly resolved. A Bop is the form that allows the last stanza to house a dilemma that cannot be closed with the neat click of a latch on an ornate box.

Before I ever wrote a Bop poem, Weaver introduced me to Denise Levertov’s work, so it seems apropos to reference her thinking on received form as a place where content adheres to the demands of the form, but organic form also pays close attention to how the lines carefully coalesce with one another and form a vibrant whole. In fact, I recently reread a section from one of Levertov’s essays that resonates with how I see the structure of the Bop poem:

In organic poetry the metric movement, the measure, is the direct expression of the movement of perception. And the sounds, acting together with the measure, are a kind of extended onomatopoeia—i.e., they imitate not the sounds of an experience (which may well be soundless, or to which sounds contribute only incidentally), but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture. The varying speed and gait of different strands of perception within an experience (I think of strands of seaweed moving within a wave) result in counterpointed measures.  (Levertov 71)

When Levertov describes “extended onomatopoeia” and how the sounds create a cumulative emotional quality, this is easily discovered in Bop poems by numerous writers who have worked through the poem’s constraints.

However, I often think of how African American poets have always contained what Whitman appropriately dubbed as “multitudes” within the self, since Phyllis Wheatley wrote her first verses and well into the 21st century. I cannot help but think that working around the demands of family life and factory work to become a scholar and a poet demand creating a form that allows a poet to enter and exit a situation. That same poet’s immersion in the soul, blues, and history of black life that pairs with the compression and precision of the Chinese poetry that he has found kinship with fuels the motion of the Bop as well. So, is it unexpected at all, that he would find the ebb and flow of a type of poem that he would dub the Bop, then describe it as an inclusive, post-blues form? As thinkers and writers adopt terms like intersectionality as one approach writing, this form lets a lived intersectionality breathe and find its own steps.

When thinking of the Bop poem and this idea of how racial identity pervades a form, it would be a misstep to not think of Meta DuEwa Jones discussing African Americans writing in poetic form in her essay “descent and transcendence…” Jones discusses the complications that African American poets may encounter with defining black aesthetics, expressing accessible and urgent convictions, and evading essentialism. Jones mentions Weaver’s Bop, Sonia Sanchez’ sonku, and Redmond’s kwansaba, and elaborates on a wide range of African American poets working in traditionally taught forms and meters, but she also points out how the boundaries can become inconsequential, even as poets grapple with the the restrictions of race and class along with the constraints on the page:

In many cases, poets employ forms that may or may not emerge from within racial or ethnic cultural expressive modes. By doing so, they transcend the boundaries implied by racial imperatives to draw their ink only from the well of black experience.

Although Jones is doing vital scholarship around African American poets, this idea of “transcendence” seems to be exclusive too. Perhaps “breadth” could be exchanged for “transcendence”.

There is a specificity of experience in Bop poems that allows for inclusiveness and empathy. Over the course of reading Bop poems by poets of different races and cultures, the Bop can almost render a cinematic and engaged position, like someone sitting a reader down in a room and making them face what can be encountered there. Each reader will bring their own values to what they perceive, but the reader may turn their head, look under their chair, dart their eyes to a corner or the ceiling, or shift their glance to an opening door or a person occupying their hands with some mundane task at a table. Somehow that very interaction, regardless of its cultural references, places a reader in a moment of revelation or understanding. A good poem will always do that, so perhaps, I agree with Jones more than I initially thought.

Most poems that move in an engaging fashion lead to some other level of consideration, much like when a person is in a room and they have no choice but to inhabit that space for at least some amount of time. A person can sit in that room, adjust to the light, accept what’s going on, or carefully observe and notice something that would go all but unnoticed if they rushed ahead. The Bop poem permits that kind of consideration. A fixed space, a fixed time, a sonic echo in the refrain, and the gaze of poem and its content shifts. So, when a new detail or thought emerges in the last stanza, the satisfaction is not so much in resolution, but in learning more. Lingering in a poem can be an act of meditation, an image that evolves yet draws on back to a focus (like a refrain or another constraint), but it can dispel misconceptions and limitations within confined space. A clarity materializes in a space that vibrates with music, color, and movement, it shimmies into a room with a two-step, a Bop.



Jones, Meta DuEwa. “descent and transcendence…” Rattle. 2 December 2009. Web. 13 June                  
2016. < http://www.rattle.com/descent-and-transcendence-by-meta-duewa-jones/ >
Levertov, Denise. New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992. Print.




Winner of the 2016 Summer Solstice Bop Contest 

Judge Afaa M. Weaver 


Harry T. Burleigh meets Scott Joplin: New York City, 1908

     By Tyehimba Jess

I’ve unlocked my home with these 88 keys-
founded on scripture prophecy.          Just right for a sinner like me.
a pauper’s palace carved from ivory,
                                     a trembling church of testimony           it’s the raggedy penthouse of my dreams,
it’s my flatted, sharped rock of destiny.
                               A moaners bench made just for me            A surgeon’s table where I cut loose misery
I got a home in a-dat rock, don’t you see?
I got a home in a-dat rock, don’t you see?
                    Eight octaves of heaven and rumblin’ earth            it’s an island of rapture rescued from hell.
I tell you, it’s a humblin’ place to be-
                       stretched out amongst pinhole stars. Yes,          here’s where I clown, march and tilt along. Well,
it’s the place I’m bound to feel most free.
                I’ve found a home in the sacred music in me –           I’ve got a syncopated songbook to sell. Ragtime:
a black and brown patchwork symphony –
         stolen from Africa, bathed in field hollers of slaves;           soul snatched straight from brothel to concert stage.
a love, a rage, a language of me –
I got a home in a-dat rock, don’t you see?
I got a home in a-dat rock, don’t you see?
                           blood-blessed in a martyrs’ vocabulary           pockmarked and blued, but still sturdy
It hums the sound of deliverance callin’ me
                  beyond simple uderstanding. Rising into faith           despite sin’s heavy weight. I sit and listen:
like a deaf man daring to bloom into song. I believe
                             in this ministry that hymns with grace           there’s a way through piano to get born again;
you’re welcome to accompany this ages-rocked jubilee
Between earth and sky…
Thought I heard my savior cry
You got a home in a-dat rock, can’t you see?


“In “Harry T. Burleigh meets Scott Joplin…” the poem achieves a symmetry where the progression of the poem embodies the progression of ragtime itself. There is a unity of effect here that is drawn from and matches the refrain. The bop was designed, through the use of its triadic structure, to give the poet a path to unified progression in the way of the golden mean and the sonnet. In this poem I see that achievement working beautifully. The poem reflects an admirable empathy.” – Afaa M. Weaver



Return to Sender 
            After Yolanda J. Franklin 
By Nabila Lovelace


Daddy does the leaving, but our browns
match. So we walk around the block & everyone knows
whose I am until he crosses the knotted gate,
& the baseball field a swirling sand under
screeching wheels, to never return.


send it up, sent it through 


Papa and I share a protruding forehead
and a love for vinyl, the coiled licorice I collect.
I am a direct translation
of his face, while Mama & I wander
aisle after aisle of vegetables grown
below a Dixon belt. Each passerby keen
to her pink-limpstick-and-pumps beauty.
No one sees our resemblance.


send it up, send it through 


I think of Papa leaving and imagine him
passing the porch lion I watch shake its plaster
and live out its open mouth roar
around his leg, but
my looks are still his.
This conjure does not crack the mirror.


send it up, send it through, send it right back to you 




arachnid bop
By Brandon D. Johnson


I should’ve killed you the first time.
seen you walking toward the door
crushed you like a Brown Recluse
smiled when I prevented your entry.
spiders don’t steal from frail women
don’t leave bills for them to pay.


I was there and I saw what you did


I cannot solve this problem.
spider webs can be swept away.
the web around my mother won’t break.
spiders brandish insignias, and fangs.
you had no markings to warn us.
if I’d pulled a knife, gouged your heart
fired a gun, blown you apart
I’d stroke the steel of my limitations.


what good is being good in an evil world
I was there and I saw what you did.


her heart fell into your spindly trap.
sixteen years entwine her soul.
she’s reminded of you when paying your debts,
when she finds a shirt you once wore.
I pray you die in your sleep or another grinds you to dust.
my motives are too clear.


Mother is the name of God to a child.
Mother is the name of God to a child.
I was there and I saw what you did.




Tara BettsTara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Her chapbooks include Never Been Lois Lane7 x 7: kwansabas, and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Her writing has appeared in POETRYObsidian, Callaloo, and several anthologies. She is a co-editor for The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Mixed Race in the 21st Century and the unpublished anthologyBop, Strut, and Dance with Afaa M. Weaver. Betts earned her MFA at New England College and her Ph.D. in English at Binghamton University. She teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago. Photo by Tony Smith.

Tyehimba Jess is the author of two poetry collections, the 2004 National Poetry Series award-winning  Leadbelly and Olio, heralded as “encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant” by Publisher’s Weekly. The Library Journal has praised both books calling Leadbelly one of the “best poetry books of 2005″ and Olio a “daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture.”


10383889_10205690993300094_8260126595064425431_nBrandon D. Johnson, originally from Gary, Indiana has lived in the Washington, DC. area for the past 20 years. He is a founding member of the Modern Urban Griots, a poetry and performance collective in the District of Columbia. During the summers of ’97 and ’98, he participated in the Cave Canem Workshop/Retreat, a program for African American Poets founded by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. He is author of the collection Man Burns Ant and co-author of The Black Rooster Social Inn: This is the Place.


Nabila Lovelace is a born and raised Queens native, as well as a first generation American. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama— Tuscaloosa. Her debut collection Sons of Achilles is forthcoming from YesYes Books.


Afaa M. WeaverAfaa M. Weaver’s first book of poetry, Water Song (Callaloo Journal), was published in 1985. He received an MA in theater and playwriting at Brown, while simultaneously completing a BA in literature at Excelsior College. Since Water Song, Weaver has published several additional collections of poetry, including City of Eternal Spring(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014); The Government of Nature (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), for which he received the Kingsley Tufts Award; and The Ten Lights of God (Bucknell University Press, 2000). His full-length play Rosa was produced in 1993 at Venture Theater in Philadelphia. His short fiction appears in multiple anthologies, including Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present (Little, Brown, 1997), edited by Gloria Naylor. Weaver has received numerous fellowships and awards, including a 1995 fellowship from the Pennsylvania State Arts Council, a 1998 Pew Fellowship, and a 2002 Fulbright Scholar appointment to Taiwan, where he taught at the National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.