Her Word Is Their Bond

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the beginning was the word. And poets have never forgotten it.

On this day, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks has come to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, carrying a black bag full of words to share. Like Christmas morning, people show up early, expectation written on their faces.

These are people of passion, students and community members who dance, make films, create art and, write poetry. They know Brooks has a word for them, in that black carry-all bag of hers. And their art, and their poetry and their dance will be better for it.

"How many of you write poetry?" Brooks asks, standing in front of a podium in Langley Hall.

Hands pop up everywhere.

"I thought there might be a lot," says Brooks, who is participating in the school's "Poetry Today" series.

"I have some ideas on that subject and I'd like to share them with you."

And she begins.

"In writing your poem, tell the truth as you know it. Tell your truth. Don't try to sugar it up. Don't force your poem to be nice or proper or normal or happy if it does not want to be. Remember that poetry is life distilled and that life is not always nice or proper or normal or happy or smooth or even-edged."

For two hours, Brooks pulls them close with words, delivered like unwrapped presents. But a gift from a poet is highly unpredictable. She makes them laugh, then leaves them staring in utter silence.

Those who listen well receive not a lesson on her truth, but an understanding of the value of their own. An understanding that their own participation is wholly necessary for her poems--for any poem--to fulfill its maximum value.

Reading from a poem called "Winnie," Brooks tells them:

A poem doesn't do everything for you/ You are supposed to go on with your thinking/ You are supposed to enrich/ The other person's poem with your extensions/ Your uniquely personal understandings,/ Thus making the poem serve you.

. . . My Poem is life, and not finished/ It shall never be finished/ My Poem is life, and can grow/ Wherever life can grow, it will/ it will sprout out/ And do the best it can/ I give you what I have. . . .

At 79 years old, Brooks' life has been full of poetry.

She was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the first black woman to be named consultant-in-poetry, the position later known as poet laureate of the United States. In 1994, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor given by the federal government for achievement in the humanities.

Currently, Brooks is a distinguished professor at Chicago State University.

Giving, it seems, is part of her being.

Inside the hall, all eyes are on Brooks, who is regal yet regular folk, touchable and real. Her face is smooth brown, creased in places but uncracked. And her eyes, big behind brown-rimmed glasses, are on them.

The books from her bag sit on the podium, opened to the proper page, but she rarely looks down. She looks into the eyes of individuals and speaks.

"I am not a tight-faced poet/ I am tired of little tight-faced poets sitting down to/ shape, perfect, unimportant pieces./ Poems that cough lightly--catch back a sneeze./ This is the time for Big Poems,/ roaring up out of the sleaze,/ poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood." . . .

In a voice that knows the words, like Coltrane knew the notes, she hits syllables, accents them, speaks words in an intriguing tone.

She gives the audience stories about poems she has written.

"A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon," is a poem about the death of Emmett Till, a Chicago youth who was savagely murdered in Money, Miss., in 1955, after he allegedly whistled at a white woman.

His body was found in the Tallahatchie River, shot, beaten, bound with barbed wire and weighted down.

"This case meant a lot to me . . . because my own son was 14 at the same time," Brooks tells them. "He was very mischievous and he might have been in big trouble if he was in Money, Miss."

Brooks' poem is centered on the man who stood trial for Till's murder and his wife, the woman at whom Till allegedly whistled.

" . . . For sometimes she fancied he looked at her as though/ Measuring her. As if he considered, Had she been worth It?/ Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little/ stuttering bravado,/ The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes. . . .

There is silence when the poem is finished.

She explains that a haunting poem, "The Mother," is not about her, as some English and literature teachers have claimed, but about a woman she once knew named Pearl, who had many abortions.

"Abortions will not let you forget./ You remember the children you got that you did not get." . . .

She reads poetry about children, including one about an uncle who loves a nephew too much. She reads the classic, "We Real Cool," and a poem about love that always surprises young people when she reads it in schools.

"I know they're saying to themselves, 'Look at that old woman talking about love. What does she know about love?' "

But Brooks, a mother of two children who was married for 57 years, knows.

"I assure you [my children] arrived the usual way," she says as the audience laughs.

One woman wants to know if it is true that a writer can say too much, explain too much.

"My wish is to say no more than is absolutely necessary," Brooks replies.

A young woman with close-cropped hair wants to know if Brooks has always felt comfortable reading to audiences.

"I'm speaking to ones," Brooks says to her. "A bunch of ones."

Another asks if it is at all odd that her writing comes mixed up, part prose, part poetry. Brooks assures her.

"If that's the way your messages come, then that's how they should come."

At 6 p.m. the reading is over and the audience stands and claps, then forms a line in front of Brooks, waiting to have her sign a poster or give a hug or talk of poetry or dance or art.

S. Pearl Sharp has driven from Los Angeles to hear Brooks.

"I always learn from her," says Sharp, herself a poet and documentarian. "I learn in terms of writing but also in terms of her humanity as a poet. Her concern about other poets is so important."

Once Brooks paid Sharp's expenses to a poetry conference--as she has for other poets--a kindness Sharp will never forget.

"I always feel like I've been fed when I hear her, spiritually and creatively," she says.

Donyale Nao, a film student, sees parallels in what she does with images and the task of a poet.

"In poetry she paints images with her words," Nao says.

And Keisha Clarke, a slender, bright-eyed dance student, says that in her spring concert she will portray a butterfly and maybe, just maybe, people watching her will feel some of what she felt hearing Brooks.

The line dwindles finally, but a few stragglers keep talking until finally Brooks must be led away to a dinner in her honor.

At that moment one thing is clear: Those in the habit of giving deserve to be protected even from love. It is clear why a faculty member interrupted a 10-minute interview, saying to Brooks, "I'll rescue you now," as if the reporter has been taking small bites from the poet's hands.

In that interview, Brooks answered questions about life as a poet, and life as a nation's treasured poet. Each day it is the poems, not the fame, that matters.

"You get up, get washed if you're going out," she laughs, describing her ordinariness. "Maybe have a cup of herb tea. Put on the navy beans.

"Besides, you never achieve everything you want to. . . . I want to write about people's experiences with drugs. Always something left to do."

And always something left to say. But, at that moment, the only words left to say are "Thank you," one collective "Thank you."

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