Gwendolyn Brooks was a National Treasure who never received the rewards she deserved. First African American to win the Pulitzer, first black woman to be Library of Congress Consultant Poet (the designation before we got to Poet Laureate), finally in 2000 to win a prize from the American Academy, sure, but....
But her influence is the reward — the lives she changed, the spirit she passed on, the poetry that she lived. Here are reminiscences in the form of poems, a dialogue of tribute from two poets who knew her — who, in many ways, became poets because of her. Patricia Smith and Quraysh Lansana had their lives irrevocably altered by the earthfire word magic of this Schoolmarm of the Heavens.
- “You need to know Chicago if you’re going to learn to miss her,” by Patricia Smith
- “Elegy for Gwendolyn Brooks,” by Quraysh Ali Lansana
And here are the poets themselves speaking, a dialogue we overheard at a downtown Thai restaurant in Manhattan. Patricia: Who’s doing that book of Gwen tribute writing?
Quraysh: We should talk about that with Haki (R. Madhubuti).
P: That’s the thing about her — she dropped the big publishers to support Haki’s press (Third World Press) and the community.
Q: Last time I saw her was the day before we moved to New York. She showed me a draft of her new book. It was all marked up, in true Gwendolynian fashion.
P: That’s her word. She opened up a lot of thoughts about teaching students and students teaching teachers.
Q: Allegedly fictitious children, like in “Children Going Home.”
P: It’s easy to look at a community and generalize. She specified, she named those children. She was the first poet to look at a man shuffling down the street and give him a face and a voice. You’d go back to his apartment; you’d know that apartment. And later today I’ll be teaching “Persona Poems” — again!
Q: “We Real Cool” and “My People” were in my ninth grade English textbook. That’s when I was introduced to Ms. Brooks’ work.
P: I didn’t start reading Gwen until after I met her. It was the very first Chicago Poetry Festival, fifty poets in a blues club over the course of a winter afternoon. I went to laugh at the poets, watch them get drunk. Michael Warr was at the door with his clipboard.
Q: Him and his big ass glasses!
P: I sat down in the back and then this older woman walked in. Guess who it was! I could feel the buzz, but I couldn’t believe that this was a Pulitzer winner. Sears cinnamon stockings rolled down and her hair wrapped up! Not in a special seat, right there next to an anonymous. And I was amazed at the poetry going on! Surprised and amazed. Gwendolyn was introduced after a student. My jaw dropped! It was like she was just another poet. And she was, in her mind. To the rest of us, she was a goddess. Yet she read like she was discovering the poem for the first time. You could tell she was happy to be there. In a blues club. Surrounded by poets.
Q: Oh yeah, “Seven at the Golden Shovel” was written about Blaylock’s Bar at Cottage Grove, Chicago’s South Side, the Chatham neighborhood. Yes indeed, a real bar! She and Langston were the only Black poets in the literary textbooks.
P: You mean there actually was a book with Black poets in it?
Q: Well, I am a different generation.
[P gives Q a kiss]
Q: “Here are the poems of Robert Frost. We will have a test on similes tomorrow.” It was all literary devices, not meaning.
P: She asked if she could see my first manuscript. When I got it back, there was a blurb attached.
Q: I had stopped writing. Gone into broadcast journalism. When I got fired, I moved to a small town outside the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. I doubled the melanin content! There I found one of Ms. Gwendolyn’s books in the library. Packed a suitcase, a file of poems and $25 and moved to Chicago — I had never lived there before — to hang out at Haki’s bookstore on Cottage Grove. At the Guild Complex, I was appointed the official Gwendolyn driver.
P: She didn’t drive. She didn’t fly.
Q: Do you think that held back her career?
P: She didn’t have a career. Now that she’s dead, she can have a career. She had that white hot moment of silence after she finished reading a poem. She didn’t come to command the room but to read the poem. It was the poem that did the work.
Bob Holman: I remember her reading at St. Mark’s with Ntozake. Zake went first, and gave a super set, powerful and active. Then she said, “Now we’ll have Gwendolyn read her poem poems.” Gwen took the mic and said how happy she was to be here, that she’d heard about a church dedicated to poetry. “And now,” she said, “I’ll read my poem poems.” Only of course there was nothing old or routine, they were brilliant, every bit as powerful as Zake’s set.
Q: Patricia, you were there when I read my very first poem at an open mic!
P: Estelle’s. Let me remember what you read....