AN EVENING WITH
The Pulitzer Prize-Winner and Poet Laureate Shuns Pretense, Invites Challenges
by B. Denise Hawkins
From a cozy corner in the last row of the auditorium, Gwendolyn Brooks, revered by many African American poets as their patron saint, sits alone, radiating her own special light in the darkened theater. In seconds, without a wave or a word, she becomes the center of a crowd of gushing girls, excited English professors and rising literary stars, who bathe her in the glow of flashbulbs and warm accolades.
The occasion was an historic three-day gathering of African American poets called "The Furious Flower Conference," held recently at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, where Brooks was both the inspiration and the official honoree. One minute, North Carolina Central freshman Tomeka Ward was just one of the crowd gathered at Brooks' side, eager to shake her hand and glean inspiration. Suddenly Brooks said "read," and Ward, an honor student, performed on the spot. Reading the first poem she had ever written - "A DarkOne's Child" - to the bespectacled 77-year-old current Poet Laureate of Illinois "was one of the most frightening things I've ever done," Ward said afterwards. "It was like I was exposing all of me...[Brooks'] smile was enough for me. I didn't imagine that she would take the time and respond."
The roles Brooks plays - teacher, poet and person - almost always effortlessly merge. And "If you do not listen you will miss her secrets," said poet and Brooks protégé, Haki Madhubuti, in his tribute to Brooks. "We do not occupy the margins of her heart. We are the blood, soul, spirit and water source pumping the music that she speaks. Uncluttered by people worship, she lives always on the edge of significant discovery. Her instruction is rise to the occasion. Her work is sharing and making words matter. She gives to the people everybody takes from..."
Brooks has been in the poetic limelight since 1950, when she received the Pulitzer Prize for her second volume of poetry, "Annie Allen." She was named Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, and continues to hold that post. In the more than three decades since, the national spotlight has continued to shine on the lady whom friends and poet wannabees respectfully call "Miss Brooks."
In early October she won the National Book Foundation Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. And in May, Brooks received what she called "the absolute award crown of my career," when she was chosen as the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. In this exclusive interview, Brooks talks with Black Issues In Higher Education News Editor B. Denise Hawkins about her stellar literary career, the future of African American poetry and why she prefers to be called "Black."
Some literary critics have charged that when Black poets don't confine themselves to writing about the "Black experience" then they are not "legitimate" Black poets.
A Black poet can only write from the Black experience. What else can they write from? They are Black. Whatever they write, whether it's exclusively about the beauty of flowers or the horrors of war or the deliciousness of a piece of chocolate cake, it's still an expression by a Black...and if they try to avoid putting any Blackness in there, it also says something.
What is the Black experience?
The Black experience is any experience that a Black person has. When I was in Ghana with my husband, we were talking about poetry. He said that there was nothing new left for Black poets to write about. Everything had been done. In fact, everything had been done by everybody-sonnets. I thought that was a real nutty thing to say. I think there is always something possible to be invented. In my little book, "Young Poets Primer," I talk about this.
[Gwendolyn Brooks reading an excerpt from "Young Poets Primer" which was published in 1980]:
"Poetry has a future. You may initiate new forms, you may create. You do not have to consider that everything has been done...Understand that somebody invented the sonnet. Understand that the day before the sonnet was invented there was no sonnet."
You received hundreds of solicited and unsolicited manuscripts and poems to be reviewed. How do you determine what is good writing? How do you evaluate?
The first thing I do is look for clichés. That's not to say that I don't have clichés in my work, but I try to avoid them. then I want to be sure that the poet is speaking honestly and saying what he or she really means. How you would respond to a circumstance or incident is what you write about. I look for all that.
How should African American poetry be critiqued, evaluated and chronicled?
Anybody writing about the literary history of Black poetry should be interested in really trying to understand what the poets were trying to do. What the poet is like. The first thing that any critic or someone writing about the history of Black poetry should do is read the poetry. There are lots of people out here who are writing about my poetry who have read "A Song in the Front Yard," "We Real Cool" and the "Bean Eaters," then they're through. They know nothing about my book "Winnie" which marks a very significant change in my writing. It's a kind of writing I had not done before.
They need to ask why did I feel that kind of writing was suitable for my subject, which was Winnie Mandela. They need to know that I am interested in Winnie Mandela, not just in Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. They need to know that I am interested in what goes on in the streets, that my own home has been invaded, that I started a workshop for some of the hardest Black criminals who were part of a group called the Blackstone Rangers, and got to know some of the things that motivated them, and wrote on this subject in a poem that I think is very well written. Excuse my vanity.
The poem is called "The Blackstone Rangers." They need to read that. Many critics are not going to read that. They are satisfied with trying to give the public the impression that I'm an old-fashioned writer. Many of the critics, Black and white, are like that. They want to use "A Song in the Front Yard" to represent my entire output and intent. I really do believe that I have been changing all along. None of my books is exactly like the other.
Since you childhood you have lived and worked in Chicago. How has that city and its people influenced your writing?
Of course, living in the city, I wrote differently than I would have if I had been raised in Topeka, KS, where I had been born and lived for six weeks. I'm so glad my parents decided to move to Chicago. I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That's my headquarters.
When you sit down to write, what is your thought process like?
I write and rewrite and ask myself the sterling question - Is this really what I want to say? With an emphasis on really and I. I started using a ball point pen which is still what I use to this day. At some point of course, you have to see how what you are writing looks like in print. At that stage I use an ordinary old-fashioned typewriter.
A few years ago, when the works of both Toni Morrison and Terri McMillan flourished for weeks on the best-seller list, critics attempted to forge a wedge between them and force readers to choose-"scholarship" as in the case of Morrison's novel "Beloved"- or "pop culture," in the case of McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale." Are you concerned about fitting in either literary camp? Should readers, especially Black readers, be forced to choose?
I'm not interested in fitting in. To what? Into T.S. Eliot's mode of writing? What I find very fascinating is that young Black women are reading both of those authors. They seem just as excited about one as the other, and they want to have both on their bookshelves. In the white race there was some of that same kind of dissension involving Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Katherine Mansfield...well nobody could say that she wasn't literary. Virginia Woolf's style was a more studied literariness. There will always be those kinds of comparisons. I think they are absolutely ideal. All these books are available to us. All we have to do is put down our money.
I am not a scholar. I'm just a writer who loves to write and will always write. Scholars are very hard workers. I think I'm rather lazy. If [scholars] have something pressing in their work that requires study, they will go and study and find through reading many books...what it is that they need. I could never do that. If I get excited about something, or if something happens out in the street...I want to report it and record it. I will go inside myself, bring out what I feel, put it on paper, look at it, pull out all of the clichés and nuttiness...I will work on those things. I will work hard in that way. But scholarship-pooh, pooh.
You continue to attract throngs of students and young writers who admire and study your work.
They like poetry that means something to them. Most of the young people that you saw me with today have already heard me on this campus or that campus. I travel a lot. I visit about 50 campuses a year. For some of them, it's like saying hello to mommy. I have no way of knowing whether people idolize my poetry or not, because sometimes when some of those who have been most loving, when they write about the poets they admire, my name never comes up.
The language in many of your poems is very familiar, especially to African Americans. One such poem that comes to mind is "Sisters." Did you intend to send a special message to African American women through this particular work?
I need to get out to Black women. It just means that if I write a poem about Black women, like in this case, I am thinking about them as well as myself. In that poem I thought about the horrors and all the things that Black women go through. They oblige themselves to prevail.
I put so much into that poem. I hope that a good many people have taken much from it. Each line here is absolutely loaded. An essay could be written on each line.
Discuss your formal education in literature.
I've had very little formal education in anything. I went to a junior college in Chicago called Woodrow Wilson Junior College, now it's called Kennedy-King. That is the limit of my formal education. I did not consider pursuing a four-year degree. I knew that I was going to be a writer. I'm much smarter than most of these kids coming up today in the fact that I did not grow up thinking that I was going to make a fortune writing. Of course they have much more hope today. A lot of our Black writers are making millions.
What has your experience been like in higher education as a professor?
Most of the early jobs I held were as a typist for lawyers. I had to make a living. Frank London Brown, a Black novelist who wrote "Trumble Park," was teaching at the University of Chicago and invited me to teach a course in American literature. That was my first teaching experience. When I was teaching at the University of Chicago, they didn't care if I had a degree or not. It was at Roosevelt University, where Frank London Brown also tried to get me a job, that I wasn't allowed to teach because I didn't have a degree. That was in 1961. Several years later, [Roosevelt University] did invite me to come and teach but I didn't go.
Maybe they came to their senses and realized that if you are going to teach a class in poetry writing, it's better to have a practicing poet than someone who has a strong of degrees and has not written anything.
I'm working now at Chicago State University, which is a job Haki [Haki Madhubuti] got for me. He fought for years to get me on that campus and to create the center that is named for me. I try to do what I can to excite these kinds about writing.
When did you discover Black literature and poets? What books did you read growing up?
When I was 15 I discovered a little book called "Caroling Dusk." It featured the writings of poets like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. And the two Cotters - Joseph Cotter Senior and Junior.
It was exciting to see all those writers. Of course I knew about Paul Lawrence Dunbar. We had many of his books in the house, and my father used to recite his works to my brother and myself. One day I told myself that if these people could write poetry and become well known, maybe I would also become well known one day. I knew that I wanted to write novels. I did write a few short stories when I was young.
In your Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Annie Allen," was it the social climate, the message, the character or a combination of those things that appealed to the selection committee?
I never thought about whether it was right for the time. I just wanted to write about a young Black woman, that's what she is by the end of the story. I start her at her birth, a birth in a narrow room. I just wanted to consider what would happen in the life of an individual. I will tell you one thing about that poem that not many people know. I thought about the kind of impression that book would have. I was trying in that long poem, the "Annie Ad" it's called, to be arty and to be ever so poetic. I could never write a poem like that again. I wouldn't have the patience and I don't see the point. There are some good things about the expressions I used. That's probably why I won the Pulitzer.
American to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category. How differently would your literary career have been shaped if you had won the prize in 1994 instead of in 1950?
I wouldn't be the first Black person to have received one, although there have been fewer than we think. It would be different because I would be just one more Black woman who has won the prize. Until May 1950, no Blacks had won any of the significant awards of our time, that's why people keep talking about me in terms of grandeur; just because I happen to be the first. Isn't that ridiculous. Before me there was W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes...you [can] name all of those wonderful writers who certainly deserved whatever prizes were available for writers.
How did your contemporaries respond when you won the Pulitzer?
I was very happy of course. I was 32 and it was my second book. Things were quite different in those days. When one of us got recognition, the others seemed happy about it. Langston Hughes, who was writing a great deal to me, often discussed my work in his column. Langston certainly should have won a Pulitzer a long time ago for all of his work. When I won, he was a like a father beaming over a daughter who was getting this wonderful prize. Sometimes there isn't that much joy over one of us getting this distinction or that distinction.
You are as particular about what you are called as the words that you choose for your poems. Discuss your preference for the term "Black" over "African American."
I don't like the term African American. It is very excluding. I like to think of Blacks as family, and the parts of that family that live in Brazil or Haiti or France or England are not going to allow you to call them African American Because they are not. I would like to read to you my poem that speaks to this.
[Gwendolyn Brooks reading excerpts from "I Am A Black"]:
"According to my teachers,
I am now an African-American
They call me out of my name.
BLACK is an open umbrella
I am Black and A Black forever..."
I've talked to little boys, big boys and big girls and they say that my writing gives them the strength to express their preference. I don't expect to change the world. As a people, we are not of one accord on what we should be called. Some people say it doesn't matter, call me anything. I think that is pitiful too.
In your 1991 book of poetry, "Children Coming Home," you chronicle contemporary issues such as incest in "Uncle Seagram," interracial families in "Our White Mother Says We are Black but Not Very," drug dealing in "Song: White Powder." Do you plan to capture other significant issues of our day - AIDS, crime, the L.A.uprising - in the future poems?
I have a long poem called "Riot," that came out in book form in three parts. I think it is a very good impression of the riot of '68. When the  riot broke out in Los Angeles, I said 'I've got to write about this and started taking notes as I watched it on TV. But then I quit because I said, "my poem "Riot," says as much about the Los Angeles riot than any newer poem I could write.
What does that realization say about our times and about racism?
That we are not making as much progress as we should be making. It's sad, very sad.
What entered into your decision to leave long time publisher Harper and Row [now HarperCollins]?
I was with Harper, my first publisher, from 1945 to 1969, that's quite a while to stay with one publishing house. Dudley Randall [then publisher of Broadside Press] at that time, was giving a platform to young Black poets, people that McMillan and Harpers wouldn't accept. I thought it was the right thing for me to do. Instead of staying in "the Harper harbor" as I used to call them, I decided to go with a Black publisher and give some assistance to them. That's why I decided to go to Broadside Press [in 1968]. I will never, ever go back to those major publishing houses. I have had offers.
--Reprinted from Black Issues in Higher Education, November 3, 1994, vol. 11, no. 18, pp. 16, 20-1.