When the L.A. Festival brought Gwendolyn Brooks to town recently, to participate in a Sunday double bill, it must have seemed like a grand plan. Brooks (the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the poet laureate of Illinois who succeeded Carl Sandburg in that post) was one of seven women on an afternoon panel discussion at Leimert Park's Vision Complex, a restored old theater on an inviting block with cafes and a bright green lawn out front. Then she was whisked across town to read her work at the Getty Museum.
But it was all wrong. Brooks' appearance at the Vision Complex was a tease. Too many panelists to do anyone any justice: the seven poets (especially Saundra Sharpe, who seems an obvious heir to Brooks' throne) were all well worth programs unto themselves. The crowd--mixed, boisterous, thrilled to be there, many of them long-time Brooks fans--got 15 minutes of her. Little bits of her. Not enough of her.
Brooks, at 76, looks 50. She talks robustly (half-preacher, half-Don Pardo--the TV announcer) and has the mannerisms of a much younger woman. She definitely doesn't fit the image of the poet: she's not thin, not ethereal, not arty. She's stout, working-class and has a very strong face.
Somehow she manages to be both salt-of-the-earth and theatrical. She's a ham on stage. Under her spell after five minutes, you want to spend hours with her. You want her to be your teacher, your mother. You know two hours with her would whip you into shape better than a year of therapy.
I just wish she'd stayed at the Vision Complex with its more spirited audience. It was all wrong to whisk her off to the Getty. There were Rolls and limos and chauffeurs at the Getty. The first eight rows (out of maybe 16) were reserved for high mucky-mucks. Docents were ready to protect the reserved seats with their lives. Others who came early to get good seats, to see their idol up close, were relegated to the back of the bus as the privileged folk sauntered in fashionably late. There was something creepy about it.
Brooks' performance was riveting, even in this genteel atmosphere. Much of her work reflects a lifetime of careful observation of the lives around her on the south side of Chicago. Lives totally devoid of reserved seats. She intertwined her poetry and commentary so seamlessly that I came away not quite sure what was a poem and what was an aside. When she asked the audience if they noticed how "white girls" always shake their hair even when it isn't in their eyes, was that a poem? Her poem "Behind the Scenes," inspired by a presidential press conference, paid homage to the workers who "got there early" to polish the marble and spruce up the room.
She told several stories, one about the poet Robert Bly's meager sense of humor. She talked about her husband of 54 years. She said she likes to describe him as "standing erect" because it makes people smirk.
It's not that the privileged members of the audience didn't like Gwendolyn Brooks. They really did. But they tend not to shout "Amen!" or "I heard that!" They don't cheer. They don't stomp. More's the pity.