Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA

Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems That (Don't) Cough Lightly

Episode Summary

Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, reads three of her poems live on stage, entitled, “Winnie,” about the life and legacy of Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, “The Children of the Poor,” and “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee,” poems written a generation ago or longer but which still have amazingly contemporary resonance.

Episode Notes

Works by Gwendolyn Brooks

The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks

Selected Poems

A Street in Bronzeville

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (children’s picture book by Brooks)


Other Related Books or Materials

A Surprised Queenhood in the Black Sun: the Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks

Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Books (Poetry Foundation article and poetry)

Remembering the Great Poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, at 100 (NPR audio news story)

A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks by Alice Faye Duncan


About the Host

Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.

Music is by Yuka

From the Archives

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first series associated with the Toronto Public Library’s multi-year digital initiative, From the Archives, which presents curated and digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s biggest cultural institutions and organizations.

Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.

Audio and transcript used with the permission of the Brooks Estate.


Episode Transcription

Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems That (Don't) Cough Lightly


RANDY: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, produced by the Toronto Public Library. I'm Randy Boyagoda. Today's episode features American poet Gwendolyn Brooks reading her poetry.

Gwendolyn Brooks (GB): They laughed when they heard you wail. And I was laughing down at my house, laughing fit to kill. You got what you wanted for dinner, but brother, you paid the bill. Brother, brother. Brother, you paid the bill. Paid for your dinner, Sammy boy, and you didn't pay with money. You paid with your hide and my heart, Sammy boy, for your taste of pink and white honey.

RANDY: Imagine, just for a moment, you’re Kanye West. Maybe you’re thinking, Not again, but indulge me. So … imagine you’re Kanye West, and you’re ten years old, maybe twelve, and one day, kids from your elementary school are invited to a dinner with a special guest. That guest is an older woman who, you find out, is a poet. In her strong and clear and emphatic voice, she asks if you have a poem to read for her, like the other children do. You don’t. Not yet that is. You run off, write a poem, and then read it for her.

RANDY: Two decades later, conducting media interviews for your latest album, you brag about meeting one of your favourite writers when you were a little kid. She also happens to be the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and later the Poet Laureate of the USA. And you probably enjoy the credibility this gives you as a Black artist self-consciously working within an African American literary-cultural tradition, particularly when you’ve just released an album called College Dropout.

RANDY: I don’t know how much of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry Kanye would have read before leaving school, but you could easily imagine him knowing, as do millions, at least one of her poems. “We real cool” is a short sharp lyric about young Black men who have left school early, for a life of gin and jazz that has them headed straight for early deaths. That catchy, shocking poem first appeared in the August pages of Poetry magazine, in 1959, about ten years after Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize. The recognition came from work that matched an unflinching eye to an artful hand, in evoking the difficult search and rare sources of dignity for poor Blacks otherwise destined to denigrated living on Chicago’s bleak and dangerous South Side.

RANDY: For decades, Brooks brought these lives into the national imaginary, earning prizes and plaudits along the way. Save what was demanded by the poetic line itself, she held nothing back in detailing the brutalities of Black life and its main sources – deep, pervasive white racism, and shallow, elite white sentimentalism.

RANDY: Her work took a very different turn in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when younger Black writers began calling for less collaboration with a cultural establishment that was default white. Unlike some other Black writers with national profiles, like Ralph Ellison for instance, Brooks responded sympathetically to what would be called the Black Arts movement. She left her mainstream publisher and published with small, independent, Black presses from then on, as a form of support and solidarity. Comparatively speaking, her work was reviewed less and won fewer literary prizes after she made the switch. I think she was probably fine with that, and believe me, it takes a writer very committed to her principles to be fine with something like that. I think it was worth it, for Brooks, because she was a writer invested with a supremely democratic sensibility, a writer convinced that a poem really can change the world.

RANDY: You’ll sense as much, in listening to her read from her work in a moment. You’ll notice the emphatic lyricism, the strain in her voice owing as much to her advanced age as to the urgent rhythm of her spare lines and repeated phrasings. Brooks observes, in passing, that she’s not interested in writing “poems that cough lightly,” or seeking a home in the “hollow land of fame.” Instead, she wants to write “big poems” about the rich and raw life of South Side Chicago, poems about women and men and girls and yes, schoolboys capable of more than you think.

RANDY: This was recorded live at the International Festival of Authors in 1995.


Gwendolyn Brooks (GB): I want to begin with an excerpt from my long, long poem, "Winnie," in which I impersonate Winnie Mandela. Those of you who have seen documentaries on her life or saw that... I thought, wonderful picture, "Mandela," will agree with me I think, that she is indeed essential poet.

GB: So here, I have her saying, "Yet I know that I am poet, I pass you my poem. 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. I pass you my poem to tell you we are all vulnerable. The midget, the mighty, the richest, the poor. Men, women, children and trees. I am vulnerable. Hector Pieterson was vulnerable. 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. You don't get all your questions answered in this world. How many answers shall be found in the developing world of my poem? I don't know. Nevertheless, I put my poem, which is my life, into your hands, where it will do the best it can. I am not a tight-faced poet. I am tired of little tight-faced poets."


GB: "Sitting down to shape perfect unimportant pieces. Poems that cough lightly."


GB: "Catch back a sneeze. This is the time for big poems. Roaring up out of sleaze, poems from ice, from vomit and from tainted blood. This is the time for stiff or viscous poems. Big and big."

GB: Oh yes, I have decided to read you a sonnet. Lots of people love sonnets and I have written thousands of sonnets so I ought to read one. I am never gonna write any more sonnets. I don't feel it's a sonnet type time. I feel it's a wild, raw, ragged free verse kind of time.


GB: But this particular sonnet is number four in a series of mine called The Children of the Poor. And I have my heroine, Annie Allen, thinking about her problem, her problems, in issuing her children into the world properly. What can she do to validate her children? Here she's thinking of culture, of art, of poetry, music, sculpture and she's desperate, you can tell. "First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string with feathery sorcery; muzzle the note with hurting love; the music that they wrote bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing for the dear instrument to bear. Devote the bow to silks and honey. Be remote a while from malice and from murdering, but first to arms, to armor. Carry hate in front of you and harmony behind. Be deaf to music and to beauty blind. Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late for having first to civilize a space wherein to play your violin with grace." However, she'd be like my mother, I can guarantee you, and see that her children went to the Art Institute and the Field Museum and the museum of what? Somebody knows? Speak up. Museum of Science and Industry, thank you. Yes.

GB: So I could tell you that having created Annie Allen. Okay, I'm gonna read you a poem. Some of you aren't gonna like it, but then I should have begun by telling you, I believe that a poet should tell his or her personal truth. The truth that speaks of his or her particular vision, experience, empathy. And this poem is called, did I say, Ballad of Pearl May Lee? And it's a love song. My heroine is very much in love, though some of you will doubt that as we go along. When I read this poem on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, a young brother, you know what I mean when I say young brother, some of you out here? Young brother, howled up to me, "I hear you sister, I hear you sister." In just a minute, you'll understand what he meant. This was Langston Hughes' favourite among my poems that he knew. "Then off they took you, off to the jail, a hundred hooting after. And you should have heard me at my house. I cut my lungs with my laughter, laughter, laughter. Cut my lungs with my laughter. They dragged you into a dusty cell. And a rat was in the corner. And what was I doing? Laughing still. Though never was a poor gal lorner, lorner, lorner. Never was a poor gal lorner. Sheriff, he peeped in through the bars. And the red old thing he told you, "You son of a bitch, you're going to hell." 'Cause you wanted white arms to enfold you, enfold you, enfold you. 'Cause you wanted white arms to enfold you.

GB: But you paid for your white arms, Sammy boy, and you didn't pay with money. You paid with your hide and my heart, Sammy boy, for your taste of pink and white honey, honey, honey. Your taste of pink and white honey. Oh, dig me out of my don't-despair. Pull me out of my poor-me. Get me a garment of red to wear. You had it coming surely, surely, surely. You had it coming surely. At school, your girls were the bright little girls. You couldn't abide dark meat. Yellow was for to look at, black for the famished to eat. Yellow was for to look at, black for the famished to eat. You grew up with bright skins on the brain, and me in your Black folks' bed. Often and often you cut me cold, often I wished you dead. Often and often you cut me cold, and often I wished you dead. White girl passed you by one day, and the vixen, she gave you the wink. And your stomach got sick and your legs liquefied. And you thought till you couldn't think. You thought, you thought, you thought till you couldn't think. I fancy you out on the fringe of town. The Moon an owl's eye minding. The sweet and thick of the cricket-belled dark. The fire within you winding, winding.

GB: Winding. The fire within you winding. Say, she was white like milk though, wasn't she? And her breasts were cups of cream. In the back of her Buick. You drank your fill. Then she roused you out of your dream in the back of her Buick, you drank your fill, then she roused you out of your dream. "You raped me nigger," she softly said. The shame was threading through. "You raped me, nigger. And what the hell do you think I'm going to do? What the hell, what the hell do you think I'm going to do? I'll tell every white man in this town. I'll tell them all of my sorrow. You got my body tonight, nigger boy. I'll get your body tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I'll get your body tomorrow." And my glory, but Sammy, she did, she did, and they stole you out of the jail. They wrapped you around a cottonwood tree and they laughed when they heard you wail, laughed, laughed.

GB: They laughed when they heard you wail. And I was laughing down at my house, laughing fit to kill. You got what you wanted for dinner, but brother, you paid the bill. Brother, brother. Brother, you paid the bill. Paid for your dinner, Sammy boy, and you didn't pay with money. You paid with your hide and my heart, Sammy boy, for your taste of pink and white honey. Honey, honey! Your taste of pink and white honey. Oh dig me out of my don't-despair. Pull me out of my poor-me. Get me a garment of red to wear. You had it coming, surely. Surely, surely. You had it coming! Had it coming. You had it coming, surely. Gonna close with...


RANDY: Gwendolyn Brooks was born in 1917, in Topeka Kansas, and moved at a young age to the Bronzeville neighbourhood in Chicago, which became the setting and source for much of her work. She began publishing poetry at the age of thirteen, brought out her first collection in 1945, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. By then also married, to a fellow poet, with whom she had two children, Brooks would go on to a long career as both a writer and advocate for writing itself, often with a strong focus on African-American experience and opportunities. She was State Laureate in Illinois, succeeding Carl Sandberg, and poet-laureate of the United States. Gwendolyn Brooks died in 2000, at home in Chicago.

RANDY: Writers Off the Page: 40 years of TIFA is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick. This podcast has been produced by Gregory McCormick and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou, Michelle De Marco, marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.

For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit writersoffthepage.ca where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in TPL’s collections. For all of Toronto Public Library’s podcast series, check out tpl.ca/podcasts.

Music is by YUKA.

I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode of Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.