The late poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. | Photo by Nora Brooks Blakely
The poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who died in 2000 at the age of 83, would have been 100 years old this year. In Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area, Brooks has become something of an institution. There are no fewer than five schools across the state named after the late poet.
Last month, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Rubloff Auditorium hosted all five living African-American winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the Chicago Tribune reported. The night climaxed with the tony crowd chanting Brook’s famous 1959 poem, “We Real Cool.” And that was just the start of a spate of Brooks centenary celebrations happening all over the state this year.
Beyond Illinois, however, the legacy of Brooks — the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to be appointed a Poet Laureate, a position she held in Illinois from 1969 until her death — can still sometimes seem unjustly underappreciated, says Peter Kahn, Oak Park and River Forest High School English teacher and Spoken Word Club sponsor.
That’s partly why Kahn set out to compile hundreds of poems, written by poets both famous and up-and-coming (including around 20 OPRF alums), based on lines from several Brooks poems, including “We Real Cool.”
The result is The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, which was published this year by the University of Arkansas Press.
“Golden Shovel” was inspired by a poem written less than a decade ago by National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes called “The Golden Shovel.” The last words of each line in Hayes’ work are words from at least one line pulled from Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”
According to a description that appears on the jacket of the anthology, “The poems are, in a way, secretly encoded to enable both a horizontal reading of the new poem and vertical reading down the right-hand margin of Brooks’ original.”
Hayes writes the forward for the book and his “Golden Shovel” is the first poem in a collection of at least 200 other Golden Shovel poems by some of the greatest living poets in the country, including Brooks admirers like Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove — herself a Pulitzer Prize winner and the first African American U.S. Poet Laureate.
Kahn said it took approximately three years of frequent emails and follow-ups to compile the book, which he co-edited along with poets Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith. The fact that he’s a teacher, he added, may have helped ease his pitch.
“In some instances, people would send me a poem on the day I requested it,” Kahn said last week. “In other instances, I emailed three or four times over the course of 2-3 years. I think mentioning that students were involved was helpful.”
The Golden Shovel poems by Kahn — whose poem, “Gray,” is based on a line from Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building” — and two dozen of his former students are also featured in the book.
For Chicago poet Asia Calcagno, who said Kahn introduced her to poetry while she was a student at OPRF roughly a decade ago, the anthology was as much an ode to Brooks’ life work as it is to her poetry.
“I think Peter cared a lot about getting different generations involved in the book, similar to how Gwendolyn cared about youth and the arts,” said Calcagno. “Peter didn’t just want popular poets but also young poets who are starting to come into their own voice.”
Calcagno’s poem, “Gravestones,” is based on a line from Brooks’ poem, “Riot,” about a linen and wool-clad, Jaguar-owning white man named John Cabot, “out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,” who stumbles upon a group of “black and loud” blacks during a domestic disturbance.
One of the poem’s last lines, “You are a desperate man, and the desperate die expensively today,” runs down the left margins of Calcagno’s poem about a deep, philosophical conversation she once had with a friend during a smoke break.
“I don’t think I realized how profound [Brooks] was until I was starting college,” Calcagno, a former school teacher, said. “Her being a woman of color from Chicago who had a deep appreciation for youth and education and the arts — everything in my life has revolved around those things.”
Adam Levin, another of Kahn’s former students and his current Spoken Word teaching assistant at OPRF, said the opportunity to be published beside poets like Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, was “incredibly humbling.”
“I think it’s a testament to Peter, that he’d be willing to do that for his former students,” Levin said. “People like me almost never submit poems to anything for publication. He asked me to do it and stayed on me, having me re-write drafts until I had something worth being in the book.”
Kahn said he was simply taking his cues from Brooks, whom he met three times when the poet was still alive. Each time, he said, the poet exhibited the kind of humility and openness that endeared her to so many poets and non-poets alike.
“I was always blown away at her combination of being so humble, yet so fierce and so accessible and so genius,” said Kahn. “Those are words you wouldn’t normally associate with one another. She was extremely generous with her time and her own money. I think that’s partly why we were able to get so many people like Nikki Giovanni, who looked up to Brooks, I imagine, not just as a writer but also a mentor.”
Those qualities in the late poet may be what makes Levin’s Golden Shovel poem, “We were gonna go through with it, and then we lost it,” so profound. He borrows part of the last line from Brooks’ “The Mother.”
“Believe me, I loved you all,” writes Brooks. “Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you all.” VFP