Countee Cullen was probably born in Louisville, Kentucky, though Cullen himself later liked to claim New York as his birthplace. In any case, he was at some point informally adopted by the Reverend A. and Carolyn Belle Cullen; prior to that he used the name Countee Porter. The Reverend was not only a minister but also a black activist in Harlem. Cullen himself absorbed the activism but realized his literary inclinations and homosexuality—see the simultaneously racial and sexual transgression of "Tableau"—would take him in different directions.
E.(Edward) E.(Estlin) Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard. When he began publishing in the 1920s, he lived in both New York and Paris, but he eventually spent most of his time in New York. From the outset there were powerfully contradictory impulses in his work. A strong component of sentimentality persisted throughout his career, but it is counterpointed either with blunt sexuality or with defamiliarizing typographic dislocation. He was sardonic about organized religion, but maintained an almost transcendentalizing faith in human beings.
Henry Dumas was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas, where he spent the first ten years of his life. It was long enough to absorb gospel music and the folk traditions of the South. At that point, he moved to Harlem, where he lived until joining the Air Force, a stint that included a year in the Middle East. All these experiences found a place in his poetry; "Son of Msippi" recalls his years in the South, while "Knees of a Natural Man" evokes the urban world of New York. He had spent some time at City College and at Rutgers, but never completed a degree.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Rita Dove was educated at Miami University in Ohio, the University of Tübingen in Germany, and the University of Iowa. She teaches at the University of Virginia. History and myth are frequent subjects. A book-length poem sequence, Thomas and Beulah (1986), presents her maternal grandparents' family history in the broad context of African American migration north after reconstruction. Mother Love (1995) is a contemporary retelling of the story of Demeter and Persephone.
Joy Davidman's first publications appeared while she was still an undergraduate at Hunter College. Poetry began to publish her poems in 1936 and, within a year or two, she had joined the Communist Party. Letter to a Comrade, the only collection of her own poems, was published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1938. She spent the latter half of 1939 in Hollywood as an assistant screenwriter for MGM, an experience that led to her writing a number of film reviews for New Masses in the early 1940s.
Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and in the surrounding area, James Dickey was first a public figure as a high school football star. He did not decide to be a writer until after service in the Air Force in World War II and then enrollment at Vanderbilt University. Even then, he took up other occupations as well. He helped train pilots in the Korean War and worked as an advertising executive for Coca-Cola. Both in his poetry and in his widely successful novel, Deliverance (1970), he was fascinated by violent, definitive tests of selfhood.
Born Florence Anthony in Albany, Texas, Ai did not learn her real father's identity until she was sixteen. Then she learned she had a Japanese American father; her mother was black, Irish, and Choctaw Indian. She took the name "Ai," which means "love" in Japanese, to signal her heritage. Ai's childhood was spent in a variety of cities, including Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. She was educated at the University of Arizona and the University of California at Irvine.
Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, a town near the city of Paterson, Williams made the city his home for most of his life. He would mix cosmopolitan experience with a commitment to local American life and would maintain a remarkable dual career. From his medical practice, Williams would draw characters who appeared in his fiction and poetry; he would also remain deeply committed to their lives, to the struggles they underwent and to their sustaining humor.
An enrolled member of the Mesquakie Nation of central Iowa, Ray Young Bear grew up on the tribal lands near Tama. He is not only a poet and a novelist but also a performing artist. With his wife Stella, whose bead work is depicted on the cover of The Invisible Musician (1990), he founded the Black Eagle Child Dance Troup, for which Young Bear plays drums. Under the Woodland Singers title, they have recorded traditional Native American songs.