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WCU celebrates one-hundred years of Gwendolyn Brooks poetry

Samantha Walsh, Special to the Quad

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On Monday, Sept. 25, a presentation organized by the Poetry Faculty Advisory Committee and hosted by Professor Kristine Ervin was held in Main Hall 200 from 12-1 p.m. celebrating the life and legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks, a Black, female poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Roughly 45 people were in attendance. Three panelists discussed the effect Brooks had on literature and spoke about how she impacted their lives as well.

Members of the panel discussed Gwendolyn Brooks as an African-American, female and feminist author, touching on topics such as abortion in her poem “The Mother.” They further communicated the difficulty Brooks faced growing up as an African-American woman, and how she approached topics of African-American identity and African-American power in her poetry.

Gwendolyn Brooks was born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. Shortly after she was born, her family moved to Chicago. When Brooks was 13-years-old, she published her first poem “Evantide.” By the time she turned 17, Brooks was regularly publishing poetry in her local newspaper in Chicago. Brooks would later win a Pulitzer Prize for her work “Annie Allen,” making her the first-ever African-American to win the prize. Her other works include “The Mother,” “We Real Cool” and “Sadie and Maud.” She published one novel titled “Maud Martha” which was composed of vignettes detailing the life of a Black woman living under racial prejudice.

The three panelists of the event have varying experiences with writing. Quraysh Ali Lansana is an author of eight poetry books, three textbooks, three children’s books and an editor of eight anthologies. He has also coauthored a book of pedagogy. Lansana has served as the director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing. He is drawn to Brooks’ work about African-American life specifically, as well as the “tangibility” of her work. Lansana has described her work as being “believable,” while describing a great “musicality” in her poetry. He has been able to meet Brooks herself, and describes her as a “kind, generous” person with a “dry sense of humor” and being both “loving and stern.” He has also remarked on her love of children and youth.

The second panelist featured at this event was poet and journalist Celeste Doaks. Doaks is the author of poetry collections such as “Cornrows and Cornfields,” which has been listed as one of the best poetry books of 2015 by Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Additionally, she wrote “Not Without Laughter,” which was very recently named Best Poetry Collection of 2017 by the Baltimore City Paper. She also teaches creative writing at Morgan State University. When asked how she felt about Brooks setting the stage for African American poets and authors, she said; “She is the stage.” Doaks has stated that she felt that Brooks has been neglected by the poetry community, despite the impact Brooks has made on the community itself. Despite this, Doaks believes that Gwendolyn Brooks serves as a champion for poor, African-American people through her honest writing.

Upon asking student attendee Siobhan Gleason what she felt was most impactful, she said that she admired that Brooks moved away from her larger publishing companies to move towards smaller, African-American press companies. She hopes that one thing students can take away from this panel is that poetry is not outdated or old, and that anybody can do it. “She wrote poetry for a younger audience and a new generation later in life,” Gleason said, “and she wrote poetry that was about regular people. I think a lot of people think poetry has to be about big events or famous people, which isn’t true.”

The poetry center is located at 823 South High Street, West Chester, Pa. and can be contacted at [email protected], or by phone at 610-436-3235. Ervin can be contacted at [email protected]

Samantha Walsh is a second-year student majoring in special education and English with a minor in autism studies. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The Student News Service of West Chester University
WCU celebrates one-hundred years of Gwendolyn Brooks poetry