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In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks arrived from Chicago in Washington D.C., to become America’s first Black person to hold the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.
Early in her term, she read at the Howard Woodson High School in D.C. As she began to recite her signature poem, “We Real Cool,” students popped up around the library, chanting her lines and snapping their fingers.
“I loved that,” she told the Library of Congress’s Alan Jabbour and poet E. Ethelbert Miller, who were interviewing her for HoCoPoLitSo’s first author interview show, which would become The Writing Life. “Young people like it because it has a kind of insouciance and a staccato effect that they enjoy.”
More than thirty years before, she had won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, but by the mid 1980s, Brooks had reached the pinnacle of her success. The very young poet and activist Miller and Jabbour interviewed Brooks in 1986 in a small room at the Library of Congress, supervised and produced by HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Here is that interview in full.
Brooks had also recited “We Real Cool” September 30, 1985, in front of a packed audience, after 300 people had been turned away from the Library of Congress’s auditorium. Her most anthologized work, the poem had become one that audiences would request.
The Library of Congress, just this past April, digitized and uploaded the recording of that reading, during which Brooks says, “At this point I better recite ‘We Real Cool’ before I forget. I know some of you are sick and tired of this poem, because if you see my name, you see it. It’s been published in a good many school textbooks, but it has also been banned here and there—chiefly because, I understand, the word ‘jazz’ has been considered a sexual reference. That was not my intention, though I have no objection if it helps anybody—but I was thinking of music when I used the word ‘jazz.’ ”
In the HoCoPoLitSo interview, Brooks explains the short poem’s origin, which still speaks volumes to the nation’s treatment of young black people.
“I wrote it because I was passing by a pool hall in my neighborhood in Chicago one afternoon. And I saw, as I said in the poem, seven boys shooting pool,” Brooks said during the episode. “I wondered what they felt about themselves. I decided they felt not quite valid, certainly they were insecure, not cherished by the society, therefore, they would feel that they should, well, spit in the face of the establishment. I used the month of June as an establishment symbol. Whereas the rest of us love and respect June and wait for it to come so we can enjoy it. They would “jazz June,” derange it, scratch at it, do anything that would annoy the establishment.”
When Brooks recites the poem, she drops her voice at the end of the lines on the word “we.” She told interviewer George Stavros in 1969 that she does so because the protagonists are questioning their own validity.
“I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don’t bother to question every day, of course,” Brooks explained.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing life, revered American poet Gwendolyn Brooks sat down in 1986 to talk with Alan Jabbour, director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklore division, and E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.
Brooks was the Library of Congress’ 29th consultant in poetry, and tells the story in this program of winning the Pulitzer at age 32, and getting the phone call in the dark because the electric company had cut off their power because they couldn’t afford to pay the bill. She recites “We Real Cool,” a poem she says has lasted because of its “insouciance and staccato effect.” She talks about her introduction to black nationalism, feminism and James Baldwin. Brooks says, “I like for blacks to be proud of what they have come from. They need to learn they have much to be proud of.”