Inventing a New Poetic Form To Honor Gwendolyn Brooks
A Roundtable Conversation with Poets from The Golden Shovel Anthology
Along with Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith, I am co-editor of The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks (The University of Arkansas Press). The anthology is based on a new form created by Terrance Hayes, who wrote the anthology’s foreword. It borrows a line from a Brooks poem and runs it down the right margin of a newly created poem. The Golden Shovel Anthology is intended to celebrate the literary legacy and generous spirit of Ms. Brooks, following after Professor Hayes’ initial intent.
Natasha Trethewey wrote of the anthology, “The Golden Shovel is quite simply a brilliant assembly of the work of poets I have admired for years and ones that I have just come to know and admire.” One of my favorite aspects of the five-plus-year process of assembling the anthology is that it allowed me to include the work of my students alongside many writers I had never met, but long admired.
Peter Kahn: What are your recollections or stories associated with Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks?
Michael Collier: One of the events that sets the literary tone, such as it is, for the year in Washington, DC is the announcement of what used to be known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, now the United States Poet Laureate. Gwendolyn Brooks was the last Consultant in Poetry, 1985-1986, and, at the time, only the second African-American to be appointed since the establishment of the position in 1937. (Since then there have been two more, Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey.) I had missed Brooks’ inaugural reading. Unlike most of the other Consultants who took up residency in DC, Ms. Brooks traveled by train every week, back and forth between her home in Chicago and DC. The two days she spent in DC, she welcomed poets, teachers, school groups, and many others to her office at the Library.
Near the end of her term, one of my colleagues at Maryland, Professor Joyce Joyce, arranged for Ms. Brooks to read at the university. At the time, I was an adjunct instructor and wasn’t much a part of organizing events, although Joyce made sure that I knew about the reading and urged me to attend and to bring my students, which I did. She also told me there would be a surprise.
The surprise was that she had invited Len Bias to come to the reading in order to present Ms. Brooks a bouquet of flowers. Apparently, Bias was excited by the idea.
Len Bias was the most talented and famous basketball player in the history of the University of Maryland. On June 17, 1986, he was selected by the Boston Celtics as their first-round draft pick. The picture I remember of that day is Bias at a press conference, wearing a Celtics’ hat and holding up an iconic kelly-green jersey with #30 on it. On June 19, he died of a cocaine overdose. Although the University of Maryland, where I’ve been teaching since 1984, is impossibly large, Len Bias was such a star that his glitter and glamor was felt by everyone. He was a Richard Cory of hoops. It would be an understatement to say that his death turned the campus community upside down. Jesse Jackson came and spoke to 11,000 mourners at a campus memorial service. It also led to a major, though half-successful, attempt by the NCAA to tighten academic standards and provide more all-around guidance to athletes of high-profile sports such as football and basketball. Bias, it was discovered, had stopped going to classes his final semester, which surprised no one who knew anything about big-money college sports.
Joyce later told C. Fraser Smith, the author of Lenny, Lefty, and the Chancellor, a book about the Bias tragedy, that she wanted to bring “him into the realm of academia, and he was pleased I respected him enough to ask.” Smith reports that “Joyce wanted to show a link between the excellence of black basketball players and black poets, to show the artistry of both.” Unfortunately, the reading was on the same night as the basketball awards banquet. Nevertheless, Bias agreed to come at the end of Ms. Brooks’ reading and present the flowers.
The reading was held in the Art and Sociology building which contained a large, but ugly, stadium-style, lecture hall. By the time the reading started, all of the seats were taken so students were standing at the back of the hall and sitting in the aisles. The atmosphere was voluble with anticipation but quieted quickly as Joyce got up to introduce Ms. Brooks. Ms. Brooks mentioned in a valedictory way that she was at the end of her tenure as Consultant. She said this modestly. The modesty of her person, however, soon gave way when she began to read to the controlled fierceness of her poems. What exactly she read I can’t recall. What I do recall, vividly, is the encounter between Brooks and Bias. I will say no more because that’s what the poem is about.
PK: As an educator, what do you see as the value of teaching the Golden Shovel form and of utilizing the Golden Shovel Anthology?
Langston Kerman: Too often poetry is perceived as this strange mutation that only a select population will ever make sense of. Instead, The Golden Shovel, both as a form and as an anthology, eases that process and shows that poetry can be both a simple welcoming and a challenging reshaping. If nothing else, this book will stand as wonderful evidence for any student who might claim they “could never do what the poets in the books do,” and instead prove that the poets of the books are doing the same thing as themselves.
Adam Levin: I see the Golden Shovel form as a puzzle, and it adds an extra wrinkle to writing that might challenge a student of poetry in a different way than a traditional form like a haiku might challenge them. It also lends itself to finding different ways to bend, break, and mend words, and teaches how to use enjambment and line breaks with intention. I’ve marveled at poets who can utilize Golden Shovel effectively in the same way I do poets who have mastered other difficult forms like sestinas or pantoums.
Raymond Antrobus: I have a selection of “go-to” lesson plans on standby which have been tried and tested by students of all experiences / backgrounds. (I should mention, as well as schools I have taught in prisons, youth centers, Pupil Referral Units, refugee shelters, etc.) My Golden Shovel lessons are some of the most successful with participants who are ready to write but are daunted by the idea of poetry. Having an anthology with some of the western world’s most esteemed poets next to students is a powerful example of democracy.
Michael Collier: A Golden Shovel is a wonderful demonstration of the fact that form is play but very purposeful and serious play. Purposeful because it creates a structure, a scaffolding, and provides pattern. Serious because it leads you to an unknown place, as mine led me to the heartbreaking death of Len Bias. A Golden Shovel also demonstrates the power of juxtaposition and the secret intelligence of arbitrary relationships. And maybe best, it’s a completely accessible form. You can actually SEE how it’s done and you can try it. No excuses for not.
PK: Can you share your Golden Shovel poem and can you talk a little bit about why you chose the particular Brooks poem, as well as your process in writing your Golden Shovel poem?
LK: “This Feels Permanent”
I am hurting the way trees hurt. The
screams hollowed in some fallen philosophy. Grasses
taunt like skeletons. It’s been months since you first started forgetting.
This must be the way trees think of their lumberjack. Yes he is their
murderer. Yes he unwound their rings in a plaid blaze.
Yes he is mostly saw and jagged and spit and
unmoved by bistro tables and hardcovers. Still he is consenting.
I miss you like the dying miss the knife. Please—be anything to
cut through this silence melting into brown.
The poem came out of a breakup that was happening at the time, and my frustration in desiring someone who was so apparently bad for me. The Brooks’ line “The grasses forgetting their blaze and consenting to brown” feels like this masterful articulation of the inevitable. She says so much about the ending of things without ever using official “ending” language, in a very similar way to a person not yet ready to let go of their fallen relationship. It was as if Brooks was able to weaponize her own concision, and cut to a truth that never needed to be explained. In that way, it felt like the perfect tool for articulating a feeling that I, in the wake of the relationship, never wanted to explain further.
AL: “We were gonna go through with it, and then we lost it.”
You are one of three people who know. I
didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up—if people knew
that’s when shit goes wrong. But it did, so now you
know. Man, I love this girl so much. I do. Even though
she puts me through so much shit, man. Sometimes, faintly,
I hear the second heartbeat again. (Remember you don’t know this, and
if you tell anyone, we’re never speaking anymore. Ever.) I
wait until she’s asleep and pull out the paper with baby names we loved,
and read over them and they run together and I
start crying. You would’ve been a godfather. You would’ve loved
being someone’s godfather. Imagine something so much smaller than you
so large once it’s in your arms. Then it’s gone. But the love never is. At all.
I chose the line I did, from Ms. Brooks’ poem “The Mother,” because the first line (“Abortions will not let you forget”) reminded me of something that someone close to me experienced, which was something I’d wanted to write about for a very long time. The line I chose to run along the ends of those in the poem (“Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All”) struck an emotional chord with me that I hadn’t experienced when I’d tried to write Golden Shovel poems before, and I took that to mean it was the line I had to use. In actually sitting down to write it, I tried to present the poem as uninterrupted conversation, as opposed to a poem, because I’d tried and failed at writing in the form before, so I wanted to take a fresh approach to it. I’m really happy it ended up working the way it did.
RA: “The Artist”
There are good reasons to tweezer each
word that you give a body
to pronounce your stance on what has
carried your cells with its
language of what you might call living for art.
The line “each body has its art” is the opening line of the second poem from the sonnet series, Gay Chaps at the Bar, called “still do I keep my look, my identity…”, because great poetry can’t really be paraphrased, I’ll just say, read it, it’s amazing.
I write Golden Shovels fast, rarely going over them. There are a number of Golden Shovels where I initially think, “yes, this is something” and I labour over it, then lose something that felt like a kind of magic. I overthought it. Some lines / ideas have been lifted directly from my Golden Shovel into other poems. The Golden Shovel poem in the anthology even built on the following line which isn’t included in my poem – “each body has its precious prescribed pose” — the energy of that idea seeped into my Golden Shovel poem. This approach was actually inspired by an 11-year-old student, struggling with her literacy. For her, if I built up her confidence and she wrote fast, her results were so much more interesting and powerful, so I hoped the same would be true for me. I think that’s what’s amazing about this as a form, it gives you a cage with enough room to put the animal in it.
MC: “Len Bias, a Bouquet of Flowers, and Ms. Brooks”
He arrives in the middle of her reading. She
has to stop and taking the flowers he’s brought kisses
the beautiful young man whose yellow socks are her
doughty sweater’s antithesis. What’s said between them is killed
by applause, but not his smile, which is the smile of a boy
standing in the silence he’s created, and
not her magnified stare, which says she
understands why he’s arrived late, is
already leaving, and that he is sorry.
The line of Brooks I employ for my Golden Shovel is from “The Last Quatrain from the Ballad of Emmett Till” (‘She kisses her killed boy. And she is sorry.’) The kiss, the death, the sorrow. Given what would happen to Bias in less than two months, the line is chillingly uncanny and heartbreaking. I wanted to tell this little-known but poignant story about a great poet and a great basketball player.
Langston Kerman was a popular, but shy high school junior when, in 2003, he joined the Spoken Word Club I created at Oak Park/River Forest High School in Chicago and became a two-time member of our Louder Than a Bomb slam team, the largest poetry slam in the world. He found his voice through poetry, becoming one of the youngest winners of the Gwendolyn Brooks open mic competition and eventually earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He went on to become a high school English teacher in Boston.
Adam Levin, too, found his voice through poetry. He joined the Oak Park/River Forest High School Spoken Word Club as a freshman in 2003 and like Langston, became a two-time member of our slam team and earned a full-tuition scholarship to the First Wave program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a popular and well-respected local rapper, doing remarkable work as an educator through Young Chicago Authors, including a weekly rap workshop called Emcee Wreckshop, and continues to mentor young people and lead the Hip Hop Wing of the Spoken Word Club.
Raymond Antrobus came to poetry a little later than Langston and Adam, but it certainly had a profound impact on him. I was fortunate enough to have him as a graduate student at Goldsmiths-University of London in 2012 where he was in the MA Writer/Teacher Programme and the Spoken Word Education Training Programme I created. He has taught and performed poetry around the world and continues to do great work in the community he grew up in.
Michael Collier is much lauded as a writer, including being a finalist for such prestigious awards as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also something of a legend for his generosity and mentorship. I was fortunate enough to hear him feted at AWP by among others, Golden Shovel Anthology contributors, A Van Jordan and Tom Sleigh. After over twenty years as director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Michael announced his retirement. The “specific incident” involving Ms. Brooks in Professor Collier’s Golden Shovel poem is one of the most memorable stories I encountered in reading hundreds of poems for the anthology.