Art urges voyages
The year that is drawing to a close was my tenth year in Chicago and the centenary of the great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Her poem "We Real Cool" is as deeply engrained in the American poetry canon as anything I can think of, any Whitman or Dickinson just as iconic as its clipped, haunting lines. I won a copy of her collection Blacks for being a finalist in the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards three years ago and the centennial celebrations have reminded me to revisit it.
I had read "We Real Cool" and a few other Brooks classics before, but the GBOMA competition was how I learned of her legendary generosity, how it was money from her own pocket that paid the first prizes, and how she took children's poems just as seriously as adults'. Civic-mindedness is an admirable quality in a poet. It's easy to stay home tinkering with words, less so to be generous with your time and patient with others' ideas.
A wonderful play called No Blue Memories dramatized the seven pool players of "We Real Cool" in shadow puppets, scattering their pool balls and clustering in the corner of the bar as Jamila Woods sang the poem.
It was in the play that I learned of the dedication poem Gwendolyn Brooks wrote for the Chicago Picasso sculpture, which has now graced our downtown Daley Plaza for 50 years.
The poem exemplifies Brooks' good humor and astute sense of detail. In explaining it, she sums up what makes people ambivalent about art, and poetry too:
We feel that something is required of us that perhaps we aren't altogether able to give.
Art, in this formulation, is something like exercise: it stretches you, demands much of you. It's a form of self-improvement, a task you take on that makes you uncomfortable, but somehow better. Which isn't all art is for: in certain lights, like when it's wearing a giant Bears helmet, the Chicago Picasso can be quite useless. But being willing to say "Art hurts" in a dedication, an occasion that's so often anodyne and pointless, is both brave and compassionate. I love this about Brooks' writing. She is eminently bullshit-free.
Eve Ewing, a Chicago poet, writer, and sociologist, collaborated on the script for No Blue Memories. Like Gwendolyn Brooks, whose correspondence with a man in prison was included in the play, Ewing has a history of supporting people who are incarcerated. I heard her read at the 15th anniversary party for Chicago Books to Women in Prison, where I have been volunteering. She closed with the last poem in her excellent book Electric Arches, "Affirmation," and introduced it by saying that she wrote it to be easily memorized as a mantra. This is poetry not as self-improvement, but as survival strategy. The words are a way of staying with your breath and with your mind in an oppressive situation. They are a way of being free. Art urges voyages, even for those who can't change much in their physical circumstances.
I could write a lot more about Gwendolyn Brooks, but instead I will close this letter and this year of reading, writing and surviving with her own words, from "Paul Robeson":
We are each other's harvest:
We are each other's business:
We are each other's magnitude and bond.
Here's to a 2018 filled with hope, justice, and good things to read.