A Conversation With Gwendolyn Brooks
The poetic voice extends to the public the visions of the passionate mind. Gwendolyn Brooks’ voice in contemporary black poetry ranges from quiet sensitivity to fierce and angry protest, speaking from the perspective of a black woman in America. Whether quiet or outspoken, Brooks’ poetry brings home to the reader a tangibly real chunk of her perception, which is the true justification for her stature as a poet, more than the Pulitzer Prize awarded for her Annie Allen in 1950, her position as Poet Laureate of Illinois, or the other honors which she has received.
Beginning in 1945 with A Street in Bronzeville, Gwendolyn Brooks has created a body of work which carries a telling statement of black experience. The tone of the title poem of this first book indicates the nature of Brooks’ poetry more than her changing career would at first seem to indicate. Though issued over thirty years ago, the poem openly confronts problems such as abortion in both a frank and personal manner. When dealing with the inextricable web of the personal and the social, an exuberance of spirit and the drive to be and become stand foremost, and anger or tenderness occur as the reaction of this spirit to the situation the poet is confronting.
Probably her most well known and often anthologized poem, “We Real Cool,” (from The Bean Eaters, 1960) illustrates this spirit in Brooks’ writing, and at the same time indicates her mastery of her craft by saying so much in such a short span. Four short stanzas of Black English convey a sense of motion in three word sentences set in stanzas of 7-6-65 words, depicting pride and defiance channeled in a course inevitably yielding a brief intense flaming life which extinguished early.
1967 stands as a turning point in the career of Gwendolyn Brooks. Riot (1969) and Family Pictures (1970 together with her 1972 autobiography Report From Part One) were produced from the perspective of an African woman living in America. The same drive toward being and becoming as is seen in her earlier work is evident, but this new focus provides the framework in which it can be even more effectively utilized by the poet.
When in Bloomington this February (1979), Brooks discussed her poetry with the Artful Dodge while driving to the Ramada Inn after a day of reading and speaking. Amid the traffic noises of Saturday night Bloomington she spoke of the direction of her poetry is taking at present, a direction which promises yet more vital and direct poetry.
Steve Cape: Having heard you read several times, the readings seem a lot different from the poems as they come off when I’m reading them from a book. Does the idea of oral poetry seem more immediate or real to you than printed or written poetry?
Brooks: No. In fact, you might be surprised to know I have a visual appreciation for poetry myself. I’d rather ready anybody’s work than listen to it. I can get something out of listening, but you can’t pick up everything. But what I try to do in reciting is to give whoever is listening an impression of how I felt when I wrote the piece. I try to paint the poem on the air.
SC: Is there any use of mythology in your poems, any myths that you work from or play with in the poems?
Brooks: No. I never really investigated mythology. My daughter enjoyed so much reading Bulfinch’s Mythology, which we always had in the house but which I never read myself. I’m sure though that there are African myths or their counterparts that much could be done with, but I have not tried that.
SC: How would you describe your process of composition, or a poem coming into being?
Brooks: When I’m excited about something or moved by something, I take notes on it immediately so I won’t forget or loose my inspiration.
SC: Gary Snyder when he was here last fall said the same thing, that when he got an initial phrase or an idea, no matter when it was — if it was two in the morning — that he’d write it down (Brooks: oh, yes) and then go to fill it out later. Does that seem like a familiar approach?
Brooks: I’m always taking notes, and then when I have time and can recapture the mood, I start (as I was telling the students this afternoon) forging a first draft, and that’s what it is, real forging. And I try to use words that say what I want to say — not what one of our very famous European poets has said. This is very difficult because all of us American poets have been thoroughly brainwashed into believing that what has already been published is it!
SC: In the short manual on black poetry writing that you wrote,* you comment on poetry being a transient thing and it serving an immediate purpose more than a person intentionally trying to write for posterity or for something that will be permanent.
Brooks: That does not express what I have been doing; whatever I said to that effect was about those black poets in the late sixties, some of whom, not all but some of whom felt that black poetry shouldn’t be written with an eye to posterity billions and trillions of years from now. They felt, some of them, that if they wrote a poem that worked for black people today, it would have served its purpose, and if it died after the poem had done what the poet wanted it to feel — again not all — feel that they do want to be read thousands of years from now. I’m afraid that I’m weak enough to think that it would be very nice if somebody could get some nourishment or healing or just plain rich pleasure out of poems I’m writing today.
SC: Another thing from Black Poetry Writing that I’d like to get a comment on. You broke black poetry down into three stages, a first stage that was a statement of condition, and then moving to a poetry of integration, and then the present poetry being more an assertive, positive, individualistic thing.
Brooks: I was describing my own three stages of creativity. One, I call my “express myself” stage, because I was writing about anything and everything in my environment just because I wanted to express myself — flailing about. And second, my “integration flavoring” stage when I wrote a lot of poems which I hoped would bring black people and white people and all people together, and they didn’t seem to be doing that (laughter) in great numbers at any rate, and a third stage governed by that little credo that some of the Black poets had in the late sixties, “Black poetry is poetry written by blacks, about blacks, and to black,” and then, I’m trying very seriously now to create for myself, develop for myself a kind of poem that will be immediately accessible and interesting, immediately interesting, to all manner of blacks, not just college students though they’re included too. That kind of poem will feature song, will be songlike, and yet still properly called poetry.
SC: Is that where you—?
Brooks: Are now.
SC: What about the future of black poetry in America, do you see any trends which you think are going to be developed?
Brooks: I believe that events will dictate what turns black poetry takes next. A lot of black poetry is being written now that seems to be interior poetry, poetry that goes deeper into the interior to explore, but I believe that the writing concern will be coming back outdoors just as soon as some things become blatantly obvious. A lot of stuff is happening now that I believe will involve us all, and the poets, their writing, will reflect what they’re experiencing, just as it did in the late 60s.
SC: What would a few of these things be?
Brooks: Well, I’m sure your imagination can help you there — when you look at the headlines and you listen to television, and you hear our various leaders urging Carter to get over there and drop a few bombs (laughter).
SC: Everything getting more conservative….
Brooks: Well, I think that is what has been happening, but Conservatism can go- look, I’m no sociologist but at least I think I can say this — Conservatism goes just so far and then there’s a reaction against it, wouldn’t you agree to that? At least that’s what’s been happening so far and I don’t expect the future to be much different. I do know that the people, the blacks on the African continent, don’t seem inclined to lie down. They’re getting fiercer and fiercer, and more and more interested in protecting themselves. I don’t expect that to have a reverse. If you just let your imagination so you’ll see that we’re in for some very lively poetry.
* [Gwendolyn Brooks, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L.Lee), Dudley Randall, Black Poetry Writing, Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975]
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