Paul Beatty was born in Los Angeles in 1962 and moved to West Los Angeles with his mother and two sisters when he was eight years old. In his introduction to Hokum, Beatty admits that by this time he had already been combing through his mother’s library, reading impressive amounts of literature from E. L. Doctorow to Mad magazine. Beatty, reared on cartoons and comics, was first exposed to African American literature between middle and high school, when he was given a copy of Maya Angelou’s novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). He claims that after reading three pages, he discarded the work, upset by what he believed to be its maudlin content, and consequently, he did not read African American literature again until ten years later.
After high school, Beatty moved to Boston, where he earned an M.A. in psychology at Boston University. During his time as a graduate student and teaching assistant, he began to write poetry. He then moved to New York City, where he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Brooklyn College. Although Beatty studied with the consummate Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, his fellow graduate students and some professors often failed to understand the urban sensibilities in his work, and for a time, Beatty struggled to find his poetic voice.
Soon after he graduated, Beatty began teaching in East Harlem and performing slam poetry at the newly reopened Nuyorican Poets Café. After Beatty won the first Nuyorican Grand Slam, the Café press published Beatty’s first book of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank, which was received as a rhythmic and smart collection of urban poems. Penguin published Beatty’s second book of poetry, Joker, Joker, Deuce , as a Penguin Poets selection, establishing his reputation as a poet. Critics...
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