"Pulling in the natural environment": an interview with Pinkie Gordon Lane.
The following interview was conducted at Pinkie Gordon Lane's home in North Baton Rouge. (1) Our conversation began with Pinkie's memories of the distinguished scholar and writer Margaret Walker, who had just died. Pinkie had been particularly struck by Walker's biography of Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius.
PGL: It's been a long time since I read that book. Margaret says she helped him to write Black Boy. At some point they became alienated--he left her, apparently. And she never got over that rejection. She had a hard time publishing her biography of him, because his wife, Ellen Wright, tried to keep it from being published. There are some stories--off the record--that she [Walker] was climbing in the window where Wright was ... these are stories that circulate among writers! His rejection hurt her until the day she died. I went to one of the parties she had after a conference in Jackson. She had after-conferences parties at her house, and she was a great cook. Her husband was sitting in the corner, and I was sitting on the steps with a plate of food in my lap. I was much younger then ... he said, "Who is that beautiful woman sitting over on the steps?" And Margaret Danner, who had known Margaret all her life said, "He shouldn't have said that, because she will hate you till the day she dies!" Margaret Danner was a very warm, supportive person, so far as I was concerned.
I remember that I went to an event in Jackson, and there were just a few writers there, Alvin Aubert and others--and she [Margaret Walker] had probably never heard who I was--my first book, Wind Thoughts, had just come out. She went around introducing everyone and when she got to me she drew a blank: "and this is Pinkie--she's an old shoe!" So I went up to her afterwards and I said, "Margaret, you haven't read my work." And she said, "Well, there are some poets you like and some you don't." I never forgot that remark. But I think she was just trying to get out of a tight spot.
After that I got to know her much better. We were at a couple of conferences together. Once she was sitting in the hall by herself, and she told me, "You know, my husband is sick." I had the feeling that she wanted some comforting words.
JL: What do you think her value has been and will be for African American writers?
PGL: She is practically worshiped as an icon. Her poetry--her early work--and especially one poem that made her famous, "For My People"--that is probably the most famous poem ever penned by a black person. Maryemma Graham--she writes a lot about Margaret. She found some videos of Margaret's early work. She had written a lot of poems like "For My People," which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. She very much deserved that. She was a precursor of the poets of the late 1950s--the poets of the Cultural Revolution--but she was talking then about black identity in the 1940s. Her later books were published by Broadside Press, Dudley Randall's publishing company.
JL: Tell me about this new book, Elegy for Etheridge. One of the things I've noticed in going over your work yet again, is that there's a strongly elegiac thematic in it from the very beginning--for instance, you have very early in Wind Thoughts the elegy "Miriam"; you have "Finis" there, which is for your husband; you have an elegy for Lois Adrian Miller.
PGL: And not only that, elegiac in tone, John--in this new book I have a group of poems called "Epitaph for the Blues," which was published first in Poems for an Outcast. And they are elegiac. They're love poems, but they're about the pain.
JL: Kind of "fingering the jagged grain," as Ellison said.
PGL: Yes, right.
JL: I noticed also there are other poems that are kind of general in their subject matter but they, too, are elegiac, like "The Plum Ripens," which is also in Wind Thoughts.
PGL: Yes, that was first published in Atlanta University's Phylon. That was my first published poem, and I was really excited.
That elegiac tone has run all through my work. I write to come to terms with pain or to dissipate it, if possible, or to air it.
JL: I wondered if this elegiac thematic in your work has come, in part, not only from the personal relationships and loss of loved ones and memories of painful experiences, but also from the fact that you were in a way an exile, because you left your home and came South, came to Atlanta, and then you came here.
PGL: I was glad to get away from Philadelphia. Some of my happiest times have been since I lived in the South. I was an exile in terms of family--I had no family in Louisiana--my family was originally from Georgia.
JL: Me, too--I'm from Atlanta.
PGL: Oh, really? My mother and father were both from Georgia, and they migrated to Philadelphia. A lot of my relatives--you see, on my mother's side there were just two Georgia boys and two girls, but on my father's side there were 14 offspring, 12 of whom lived to be grown.
JL: Where were they from in Georgia?
PGL: My father's home was in Thomasville, Georgia. And my mother was from Camilla, Georgia.
JL: Down in South Georgia.
PGL: My aunt, my father's youngest sister, lived in Valdosta. Did I mention that I had a cousin who died recently? The daughter of this aunt who lived in Valdosta, her name was Coralyce, is one of the person's I've re-established contact with recently.
JL: Let me go back to the title of your new work, Elegy for Etheridge. That's one of the many things you and I have in common: we both were friends with Etheridge Knight over a period of years.
PGL: I didn't know you knew Etheridge.
JL: I knew him when I lived in Boston. One of my friends there, who is a painter, was very good friends with the poet Elizabeth McKim, Knight's significant other. She was the one who was with him at the end. She was very good friends with my painter friend, that's how I met him. I got him a gig at Harvard. He came over and did a reading, and it was electric.
PGL: I went to a nine-week seminar in Centrum, in Washington State. They have a seminar in literature every year, and they also have one in jazz.
Etheridge came to that seminar. He was one of the persons who read there, but I knew him before then. It must have been 10 years ago, I guess.
I remember his saying someone wanted him to make a contribution or something, and he said, "They don't know that we poor poets don't have any money!" People think because you have name recognition that you must be loaded, but that isn't necessarily true, especially if you are a poet.
JL: Well, he was never a best seller. Not many poets are.
PGL: His first book was Poems from Prison and he was in prison because of narcotics. When he died of cancer, that poem seemed to just float out. I remember he came here once to one of our festivals, our Black Poetry Festivals, and he said, "Poets are not here to amuse or entertain; we are here to enlighten." You know, he had a great deal of insight. He was wonderful with metaphors, and I identify with him strongly; this is what I work for in my poetry. When people ask me about my poetics, I say, I identify very strongly with metaphors. And he was very good at that, if you look at any one of his poems, you'll find he really puts up strong images.
JL: Of course, the most famous one is the poem "The Idea of Ancestry," where he has the picture of his family members, the pictures of them on the wall. It's so moving the way that becomes an expanding metaphor that opens up the whole poem, as it opens up the prison cell.
PGL: That was in his first work, Poems from Prison.
JL: Did you meet him through Sonia? Of course, he was married to Sonia Sanchez, and I know she's a friend of yours that you've admired. That was one of the fabled marriages in African American literature, of course, a very stormy one I understand.
PGL: He has a poem about Sonia, you know. He uses the word "fuck": "Fuck this, luck that.... I wanted my woman back." And he was talking about Sonia in that poem.
No, I didn't meet him through Sonia; I met him through one of the conferences. He came here one time, he was passing through, and he dropped in--I very seldom have drop in callers--he dropped in. He had two writers with him. I think one of them was Joyce.
JL: Joyce Ann Joyce? It very well could be; she knows him.
PGL: I didn't know her at that time. But I remember he had on baggy old overalls that were torn at the knee. I mean, he was very unpretentious.
JL: Well, he had a great sense of humor, too, which I'm sure you appreciate, because you have one, too.
PGL: Do you know that poem about the Titanic?
JL: Oh, yes, in fact, let me tell you my story about him. I went to this dinner party, near Cambridge, and the hostess asked him to recite a poem. And there were some people there who were shocked because they'd never heard the toast. Of course, he was signifying on the "Shine" toast; it was his own remaking of it. I had to explain it to a few people because they didn't know the tradition. They wanted the little flowery after-dinner poem, I guess, and he gave them something different.
PGL: Black poetry very much deals with the realities, and if you expect the rhyme and, as you say, a little after-dinner poem, then you're not going to get it in black poetry. A lot of the poems of the late 60s sounded very much like Margaret Walker's early poem, "For My People." They were very political, they were very angry poems. It was a time when we were coming out, emerging, recognizing ourselves.
JL: You didn't have an Afro, did you?
PGL: Never did. And, also, when you celebrated your blackness, prior to that time, if you called someone black, you'd better be ready to fight. It was a pejorative term. But the concept of "black is beautiful" caught on and now nobody thinks anything of saying "black."
JL: Yes. The term that is used to designate African Americans has changed so many times over the years.
PGL: When I was growing up, it was "colored." If you wanted to be very proper, you said "Negro." If you were in the South, white people said "Nigra"; we used to laugh about that. But colored was the term you used, or sometimes you said "people of color."
JL: I wanted to ask you about the political aspect of African American writing and African American poetry because, of course, one of your famous titles is "I Never Scream." And that was written for The Mystic Female, which is one of your earlier books. I read it, and you can tell me if I'm wrong, as one of the central statements in your artistic credo, "I Never Scream." Because everybody was "screaming" during the black aesthetic movement, which of course was a very important time for the shaping of your own art, it just coincided. But you had to face that issue, didn't you?
PGL: The interesting thing about that, John, is that at the time when you had your very strong protest poetry (I'm talking about the late 60s this is true of Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, LeRoi Jones, Haki Madhubuti--he was Don Lee at that time--and then Hoyt Fuller, who was very strong on that in terms of prose criticism), these people, who had that agenda, rejected Robert Hayden, because Hayden didn't join them in that type of writing, and I got a taste of that because my poetry was not like that. I always wrote my poetry from the very center of myself; a lot of it's based on family. Even though I invited those poets, too, when I was director of the poetry festival at Southern, I would invite all kinds of poets, I never wrote like that but it was hurting. The faculty at Southern, the English faculty, you know, were saying that my poetry wasn't black at all. I told Margaret Danner; Margaret came for one of our festivals. She stayed at my house as my guest. I said, "Margaret, they say that my poetry isn't black enough." I remember what she said, "Oh, don't pay any attention to that. We all have to create our own audience. Just go right on being yourself." And I needed to hear that. But I got the same kind of feedback that Robert Hayden got. He was much better known than I was. Robert was a part of the Baha'i religion; Margaret Danner was too, and he just would not be moved. They just really let him have it because they thought he should be writing about blackness. He just kept on doing what he had been doing. But I'm pretty sure he felt it.
JL: I'm sure he did. In fact, I know Ernest Gaines was in San Francisco when all this was going on and that was one of the major centers of political activity. He was severely criticized by his friends for not being political enough, and he told me that he decided that he would go back to his room and write the best sentence he could that day and that would be his political protest.
PGL: He came here and spoke one time to the group. Someone had raised that question about being militant (I think they used that term, "militant") and I'll never forget his answer. He said, "It's one thing to talk militant. It's something else to be militant."
JL: You and Ernest Gaines and Yusef Komunyakaa and Brenda Marie Osbey and so many other great writers have this common Louisiana heritage. I wonder if you think there is something special about our state, which is such a poor state, a state that a lot of people make fun of, that has produced so many great, great writers. Why is that? I know you consider yourself a Louisiana writer; you're our poet laureate.
PGL: Right. You know, I think the fact that I lived in Louisiana for so many years ... let's see, we came to Louisiana in 1955 or 1956. My husband came here to join the Southern University Department of Education, and I joined the English Department in 1959. But I think the fact that I live in Louisiana is really incidental to my writing. I had to be influenced, I think, by the natural environment.
JL: Well, your poems are so lush with the natural world.
PGL: And I didn't have that in Philadelphia.
JL: No, these are bayous and live oaks.
PGL: Right. So that the natural environment certainly has influenced my metaphors. If I had been living in Philadelphia, I wouldn't have gotten that because I'm very aware of my surroundings. I think what you will find absent in the Louisiana environment is the politics. I don't get into the political agenda.
JL: Gaines does. Some of the others do.
PGL: I don't get into the political agenda.
JL: But you do have poems that talk about racial injustice. Like "Rain Ditch," which is one of my favorite poems that you've penned.
PGL: And that was actually injustice in New Jersey.
JL: That's true, that's true.
PGL: That was New Jersey. I was very much aware of racial injustice, but not because of Louisiana. When I think about it now, I had some ugly experiences in Philadelphia. I remember once going to a theater--do you remember a movie about Frank Buck called Bring 'Em Back Alive?
JL: I didn't see that.
PGL: That's probably before your time. Well, anyway, I was about 11 or 12 years old and my mother loved animals, just as I do now, loved them with a passion. She loved animals so much that she wanted to see that movie. She talked my father into going. So the three of us got dressed up and went to this place called Uptown Theater to see Frank Buck's Bring 'Era Back Alive. The little girl sitting behind the counter when we tried to get our tickets said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, I can't sell a ticket to you people"--you know that term, "you people"--"I can't sell a ticket to you people," and so we were turned away from the theater, you see.
Even then, if we went to a mixed theater, they put us up on the first four rows. I remember when I saw a picture starring Barbara Stanwyck. Every Saturday, I would go to movies with a little friend of mine, a little white girl. She could have sat anywhere she wanted to, but because I was black, I had to sit on the first four rows and we were looking up at the screen. I remember the awful headache that I had from watching that screen at that close range. This was Philadelphia! So experiences like that became a part of my psyche. So whatever political agenda gets into my poetry comes from those kinds of experiences in my life.
JL: But, you know, I find other political statements in your poetry that are not even always related to African American experience. For instance, in Mystic Female, you have a very lyrical poem that's typical of your output then, I think, musing on nature and existence, and it's called "On This Louisiana Day." All of a sudden in the middle of it, you're mounting this great cry of sympathy for the raped girls of Bangladesh. That's a political statement, too. Where did that come from? That must have taken place during the Bangladesh War.
PGL: I had read something I picked up from the newspaper as I typically do, I picked up something current from the newspaper, and it starts a poem. I read that these girls had been raped, and even though they had been victimized, they were ostracized by their family and their community, as if they had committed a crime. That's where that poem came from.
Yeah, my poems are political in the sense that I protest anything that victimizes what I called "the underdog."
JL: I also notice that you take a kind of pride in standing apart from all of these other things, too, and that maybe that's an integral part of your poetry and your aesthetic because in "I Never Scream," you say, "I have a lock-in psyche / leather padded, hinged / I am weather-bound, insulated."
PGL: I hadn't thought of it that way. But in order to survive, you have to have a certain hard core that protects you from the onslaughts of the world. To go through the kind of racial castigation that I did in my early years, I had to learn how not to accept it, but how to keep going in spite of it. Either you're going to succumb to it or you are going to stand up against it. Even in my marriage, I refused to be the submissive housewife, and that caused some of the conflicts I had with my husband. I had a very strong personality, and I refused to play second fiddle.
JL: His name was Ulysses.
PGL: Ulysses. But the family called him Pete.
JL: Let me ask you something. In many of your poems, we see quite a marked influence from your formal literary training; you have a PhD from LSU, the first black woman to get a PhD in English [from LSU]. I've remarked in some of the things I've written on you that this brings a kind of extra dimension to your work, this layer of myth that you frequently lard into it. Did you ever think about the mythic element to your husband and your marriage because his name was Ulysses? You have references in a number of your poems to The Odyssey, Circe, Ulysses, things like that. Have you ever thought about that consciously?
PGL: No. To me, he was Pete. The people who were his colleagues, and other people who knew him, not immediate family, always called him Lane. I never knew anyone who called him Ulysses. But, no, I never made any associations between that name and the Greek mythology.
JL: But you do seem to have a fondness for that myth, that legend.
PGL: Oh, yes. I think my training in literature, PhD, has a lot to do with my identification with literary figures.
JL: One of the things that I've also noticed about your work is that you also dedicate poems to living poets.
PGL: I've got one to LeRoi Jones, who is now Amiri Baraka.
JL: I would agree with what you've just said, but it seems, too, that interest has gravitated more as you've progressed in your own work toward African American writers rather than just any and every writer.
PGL: I got to meet a lot of the contemporary black writers, African American writers, through the festivals that we used to have here [Southern University] every year, especially when I became director. Even though I had a committee and the faculty was very supportive--they loved to be a part of it--I had a very strong hand in deciding who would be invited. I got to know them through that festival and then, seeing them again through conferences, they became kind of an extended family. I identify with them very strongly.
JL: So they sort of replaced the family that you had lost by coming down here.
PGL: Yes, we network, we write to each other, we see each other at conferences, we hug each other, that kind of thing. Do you know Darrell Bourque over in Lafayette?
JL: Yes, I do.
PGL: We support each other. I think that it may have something to do with our common heritage in terms of racism. There's a bonding there.
JL: That was especially true with Etheridge, I know. What do you think is going to happen to his reputation now? Do you hope that your naming your new book partly after him will increase interest in his work now that he is gone?
PGL: Well, that will depend on how much interest there is in my book. If it takes off, then naturally people will want to know, "Well, who is Etheridge?" He had a reputation of his own, but it was a reputation among literary colleagues. He was not a commercial writer--I can say this of a lot of us, I think the same thing is true of my work--we're not commercial in the sense that Maya Angelou is. She's a popular poet. She recently had a debut as a director in the film Down in the Delta, which I'm looking forward to seeing. She was a cabaret singer at one time, and so she's always had this contact with the entertainment field.
JL: I've seen her twice at LSU; you were probably there, too. She filled the auditorium both times. She's just, as you say, an electric performer.
Well, you've always been charismatic yourself, you have always been your self, and you've always written from your own experience.--I wanted to ask you some specific questions I have after going back over your work. There's an "Elegy for Pete"; this is your husband. There's a kind of mystic image of flight. Do you associate flight with a movement of the soul or ...?
PGL: You know, that particular poem, John, was actually written while I was in flight. I was on my way to the hospital before he died. I knew that he was dying because I had gotten this telephone call saying that they had given him everything that they could.
JL: Where were you then?
PGL: I was here in Baton Rouge. He was in the University of Minnesota Hospital. And I got this telephone call from the doctor, saying that his [blood] pressure had continued to drop, but they would keep giving him medicine to bring it back up, he said, "But we have given him the last thing that we know of," he said, "and if it drops this time, there's nothing more that we can do." So I knew when I went there that he was dying. And that poem was actually written while I was on the plane, that's where all those images come from. Of course, they have symbolic significance, too. But I think in that case, it was because of my immediate involvement. Of course, the natural environment always becomes a metaphor for me in my work.
JL: OK, and then there's another poem, another tribute, "College Teacher," dedicated to Dr. Nathaniel P. Tick Tilman. Could you tell me something about him?
PGL: Nathaniel Tilman--his nickname was Tick--was my teacher--that's a sonnet, one of my early poems. I don't write sonnets any more. He was my teacher at Spelman College.
Tilman taught Shakespeare--at least that's the course that I took under him, Shakespeare--and the unusual thing, at least the thing that impressed me about him was that he was the only teacher that I can recall who communed with us outside the classroom. He would have these fish dinners, his wife would cook delicious fried fish. Every semester he would invite his students to his home. And that was an unusual experience for me. We got to know him as a friend, rather than just as a teacher.
JL: He's the only teacher that I think you mention in your poetry, isn't he?
PGL: Yes, probably so, because he's the only one who touched me outside of the classroom.
JL: Was he a good teacher?
PGL: Yes, he was interesting. He could make Shakespeare interesting. He taught other courses, too, I don't remember what else he taught, but he would make these lines come to life, these stories, these tales.
JL: Did he relate Shakespeare to the black experience ever? Maybe with Othello?
PGL: I don't recall his relating this play to the black experience; you see, this predated the cultural revolution of the late 60s. Very few people got into that. Margaret Walker was one, she was way ahead of her time.
JL: Did you ever have teachers present you with African American literature when you were at Spelman?
PGL: No. Everything I learned about African American literature I learned on my own. I mentioned this when I went to a conference in Missouri with Julius Thompson. He had different people talk about different writers-one person talked about Margaret Walker, for instance--I talked about Gwendolyn Brooks. One of the things that I said was, "In my generation, contrary to what is happening now in schools, there was no such thing as Black Studies. We had to learn on our own."
JL: This was true even of African American institutions.
PGL: I said, "My introduction to black literature was through Gwendolyn Brooks in 1962"; at that time, she had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 for Annie Allen. Prior to that she had written A Street in Bronzeville. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet for 10 years, and I had never heard of her until I was introduced to her by a colleague. I went over to the library to check it out. And that introduction was not just an introduction to Gwendolyn Brooks; it was an introduction to black literature. Because once my consciousness was raised to the point that I knew it was out there, then I went to the library and I got everything I could find by black writers, if they were in the libraries. If not, then I'd go to the bookstores and get the books. I was self-taught.
JL: Well, you started with the best, if you started with Brooks.
PGL: Right, right. I was so impressed. I found the first book that she had written--this colleague of mine, I'll never forget it, told me about her; we were in the Union at Southern University.
He wrote poetry, too. I had never written poetry at that time. He said, "I think that you would be a good poet." He said this because I was trying to write fiction, short stories. He said, "Have you ever heard of Gwendolyn Brooks?" and I said, "Who is she?" He said, "Go and check out A Street in Bronzeville." And I went over there and got this book, it so happened that the library had a copy of A Street in Bronzeville. I had never read a whole book of poetry by a black woman poet. And I was so impressed, I said, "Well, if she can do it, I can do it." I forgot about fiction and started writing poetry, which came to me naturally. He was right when he said I had a temperament for poetry, whatever that temperament is.
JL: Then you met Gwendolyn Brooks.
PGL: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, did you know that Gwendolyn Brooks two or three years ago nominated me for a Nobel Prize? I wasn't going to get it, but the point is, she put my name out there, you know.
JL: That's great! (2) I have another question; there's a poem in Wind Thoughts called "This Treasured Book."
PGL: It's a sonnet, one of my early poems.
JL: It's a lovely poem, but my question is, what is the book?
PGL: [Laughter] You got the poem there?
JL: Yes. I'll show it to you.
PGL: [Reads through] You see, this is a sonnet, I started out writing sonnets, and we're talking about a long time ago. It might have been a hypothetical book, you know. Not any particular book.
JL: It's more suggestive that way, to not identify it.
PGL: Right. I started out in the traditional form. My transition to free verse came with my association with contemporary African American poets. Then, I was concerned not so much with trying to make something in iambic pentameter, in rhymed verse, but I was concerned with the metaphors. Whenever I do any editing of my work, it's always to sharpen the image, sharpening the metaphor.
JL: I notice, too, you, like many writers who value writing itself, you admire Henry Dumas. What is it about him that has garnered so much praise within the cadre of black writers who really care about writing?
PGL: Henry Dumas--actually I came to him through Eugene Redmond, who took it upon himself to edit this man's work. You see, he didn't publish anything while he was alive. He was shot by a policeman, as the story goes, in a New York subway, in a case of mistaken identity. But he had all these manuscripts, you know, a huge number of manuscripts that had never been published. Eugene Redmond, with the consent of this man's wife, got the manuscripts and published several books by Dumas. So, I wasn't identifying so much with Dumas; Eugene asked me to write a poem. I very seldom write occasional poems but he asked me to do a poem for an anthology or something or the other, no it was for, I believe for Black American Literature Forum.
JL: Yes, there was a special issue. And it fit with your sense of elegy, too. OK, great.
You also have a poem, "To a Female Poet That I Know." It's an elegy, and it has magnificent metaphors in it. It has, "Your other self will fall into the locket of your mind." It's kind of an effort of one poet to save another. Who is the poet?
PGL: It was for a woman poet that I know, Sarah Webster Fabio. She died of cancer a few years ago. She came here for a festival. I have the books she wrote; they were self-published books. She was another one of those poets who couldn't get published.
But, the story behind that--she was in an automobile accident; her son was driving, I understand, and she had a near-death experience. She managed to come out of it. She was a highly educated person who identified very much with the black movement.
A few years later I invited her here to our festival as one of the speakers. You know, we had a hard time raising money for that festival, the Melvin Butler Festival. We would go out and solicit various business persons to make a contribution. The school would give us some money, too. So the money was very highly earmarked.
Now, that's her story. So she's the poet that that poem was written about. She was a pretty good poet. Couldn't get published--but a lot of us couldn't get published. But she had this desire to be accepted by the African American protest poets. In a sense, she tried too hard for acceptance.
JL: She wasn't writing naturally, she was writing with a purpose.
PGL: Writing to be a part of that and writing to be accepted.
Alvin Aubert did the same thing. Do you know Alvin?
PGL: I think he finally got out of that, and started writing the way that he writes now. His poetry is very much like mine, you know.
JL: You're right.
I wanted to ask you, too, about some of the poems in The Mystic Female. Because that title comes from Asian culture, and one of the things that I've always admired about your work is that you bring in elements from all over the world like the reference to Bangladesh and so forth. Apparently, when you were writing The Mystic Female, you were quite interested in Asian philosophy and religion. How did that come about?
PGL: One of the teachers for Southern was Chinese. She's retired now, her name was San Su Lin.
JL: Oh, yes, you have her listed in your list of beautiful women.
PGL: Yes, she gave me a copy of Lao Tu Sung's philosophy. And so I was very much into reading that when this poem came about. I'm still a feminist, you see.
JL: Of course.
PGL: I could tie in these two concepts together, mystic philosophy and my identification with feminism. So that's how that came about.
JL: I see. Well, I was struck, too, by looking at that book again with that list of people that you pay tribute to. I know quite a few of them.
PGL: They were all women, weren't they?
JL: They were women, but women from a lot of different backgrounds and worlds. They weren't all African American women. Some of the people I'm very fond of here are Athenia Bates Millican, of course, who was just Athenia Bates then, I guess; and Sonia Jefferson, who is a friend of mine who is still here in town, and then you have this Sin Su Lin. Sin Su Lin, then Robbie Madden, Dorothy Newman, Thelma Perkins--that's Huel's wife.
PGL: That's right.
JL: I wanted to ask you about some of the other poems in that volume, too, because you have a very striking poem called, "The Midnight Thoughts of the Town Whore." I'm assuming this comes out of your embracing all women at this time and thinking about the different positions of women in the world and so forth. How did that one come about in particular, though? It really stands out, I mean you don't really write about things like that very often.
PGL: "The Midnight Thoughts of the Town Whore" was purely, I guess, a fabricated poem because I didn't know any prostitutes, and I've forgotten the contents of the poem. But I guess it had to do with my just identifying with women.
I remember I was having dinner one time with Vance Bourjaily, who taught writing at LSU, and he used the term "bimbo." I challenged him on that, you know. I said, "I don't like that term; you're talking about a woman, whatever her station was." And that's probably what I had in mind with that poem, I identified with all women, regardless of their station.
JL: I thought maybe it had something to do, too, with these kinds of poems that, say, Edward Arlington Robinson wrote about, you know, minor figures in the community. He gives them a voice and through that voice they waken us to different kinds of things. It's a very striking poem, with a great title.
PGL: Sue Abbot Boyd liked that poem, too; Boyd was the publisher of South and West.
JL: Who is this?
PGL: Sue Abbott Boyd; she was publisher for the first two volumes of poems with South and West Incorporated. She liked that poem; I think that word "whore" caught her attention. She laughed!
JL: I wanted to ask you, too, about the poem "To Sonia Sanchez." I know you knew her partly through Etheridge and so forth, but what was it about her poems that spoke to you, because she's someone you've always admired?
PGL: I forget how I met Sonia, but I didn't meet her through Etheridge.
At that time, you see, this book was published in 1972, which was right on the tail end of the cultural black revolution. And Sonia Sanchez was in that group of poets, along with Nikki Giovanni, in the late 60s when a lot of these were written. This poem, "to me, too, midnight is no magical bewitching hour," that was a quote from one of her poems, you see they are in quotations marks; "and I, too, do not wish to be among strangers." That's the essence of "Sonia Sanchez, With Love."
JL: Also, I wanted to ask you more about what we've already talked about, your admiration for Gwendolyn Brooks. One of the things that's most striking about Gwendolyn Brooks, and of course this comes out very definitely in "The Mecca" and some of her other poems in The Street in Bronzeville and all that, is her love for Chicago and the way she tries to get a handle on it as not just a city but a kind of location in the mind. You've written quite a number of poems about Baton Rouge; you might want to put them together in A Baton Rouge Suite. Did that come from any admiration for her use of place, the use of the streets of Chicago?
PGL: No, I don't think so. But you know, she always writes in the third person, she writes about the inner city of Chicago, about the people that she knew there or the people she observed. My poems are always written in the first person and about my own personal experiences. When I write about Baton Rouge, it's less about place than it was about my being in that place.
JL: How do you feel about Baton Rouge after all these years?
PGL: Baton Rouge has been good to me. I have a good support system here, a good network. I probably got much further as a poet here than I would have gotten if I had stayed in Philadelphia. But you never know what's in store for you.
JL: Well, I wondered about this link here, I want to return to the Baton Rouge aspect, but one of the things that Gwendolyn Brooks has said, speaking of the black writer, is: "He has the American experience and he also has the black experience, so he's very rich." Is this something you agree with?
PGL: Oh, absolutely. You see, I think probably one of the reasons I didn't get caught up in the ideology of the late 60s. I have always identified with my own race but also with other people I knew of other races. I used to tell people, "Some of my best friends are white people." They don't want to hear that, you know, it's like abandoning them. It's like saying, you know--I don't mean it in the sense that I don't have very good African American friends.
JL: Let me ask you something else; this is kind of personal. I am shocked when people make an issue of color with you.
PGL: I've heard it several times, that I could "be anybody," that I didn't have to be black.
JL: The idea seems to be that you must not have suffered as much as others have because you could pass [for white] supposedly. I was really surprised to witness that said to you. And I wondered how....
PGL: It's because of my complexion, you could be anybody, an Italian, Spanish or anything, you see. What that says to me, is that the term black has nothing to do with color; it's an ethnic identification. The fact that my skin was light does not mean that I was excused from all the indignities that other people had. I was ostracized, I was called "nigger."
I don't remember this but my mother told me that when I was about four or five years old, I came home one day crying. Somebody, and it must have been a little white girl, had called me "a black nigger." I said, "I'm not a black nigger, am I?" I didn't know what it meant, but I could tell from the hostility in her voice that it was something that I wasn't supposed to be pleased about. But you see, the color of my skin hasn't protected me from the same kind of indignities that anyone else has had. And speaking of skin color and whether or not a person recognizes me for my race, I do remember once when I was working in a small town in Georgia, I was walking to town and I went through a white neighborhood. And there was this little kid, he must have been just about two years old. He knew what I was. He said, "Oh, there goes a black ni', a black ni'." He couldn't even say the word "nigger," you know. He didn't have any problem identifying.
JL: Well, I wondered if this is something you have encountered before, though, within the race, because your name is Pinkie, and everybody has memories of the name because of the movie, which I'm sure you've seen.
PGL: I haven't come across that too much. But, I'll tell you what, I haven't been aware of it unless someone makes me aware of it. For example, when I became chairperson of the English department at Southern; I had problems, conflicts, and I had to sort of actually win my way over. One of my colleagues there, named Montgomery King, who also was fair in color, said to me one day, "Pinkie, have you ever thought about the fact that some of the problems you are having are because of the color of your skin?" I said, "No, I hadn't thought about that." He said, "Well, think about it." He said, "You are in a section of this country where there are Creoles. And they have a very negative feeling about Creoles, the black Americans, I mean the dark black...."
JL: Creoles are unique to them here, anyway.
PGL: "... in terms of black skin. And even though you have no connection with that culture, they are probably associating you with the Creole culture, and they are resenting the color of your skin." I said, "I never thought about that." But my experience was that if a person was a racist, to that person I was just a black person or just a nigger or a pickanniny, or whatever derogatory term they use. And I've faced it all my life.
JL: Let me ask you something else. Because one of the things that D. H. Mellon has said about Gwendolyn Brooks ... she praises Gwendolyn Brooks because she uses the two essentials of African American writing, and those are black music, and that's a great subject for you, too, of course, but also black speech. It struck me that most of your work does not use black speech. And that had to be a conscious decision.
PGL: You're talking about dialect.
JL: Dialect, yes. And Brooks does use dialect quite a bit, like "We Real Cool," vernacular. So....
PGL: And I don't use dialect.
JL: No, you don't.
PGL: I mean in my real speech; I write the way I talk.
JL: I thought that was an interesting--I had never thought about that, but looking at the way she was describing Brooks made me look at that aspect of your writing, too.
Let me go back to your husband now--you were talking about flying to his side when he was dying in Minnesota. There were two poems I was looking at--I think these are in Wind Thoughts--there's a poem, "His Body is an Eloquence." Then on the facing page is "Songs to a Dialysis Machine."
PGL: That was a quotation from Gwendolyn Brooks, "his body is an eloquence." There was an interview with her in Phylon, an essay, and she was talking about African Americans. She said, "His very body is an eloquence."
JL: Were you applying that to your husband's body? Or the male ...?
PGL: No, I was talking about black people in general.
JL: OK. So it's not to be seen in conjunction with "The Dialysis Machine."
PGL: No, no, no connection whatsoever.
JL: OK. Let me ask you about "The Dialysis Machine;" that must have been a very difficult poem to write.
PGL: That's going to be in the new book. These poems were actually written while he was dialysizing. I mean, they were done on the scene, you know. I would sit there for six hours while he was dialysizing because I had to be sure that the saline was falling, that he didn't have a clot which would stop the dialysis, put him on and then take him off.
JL: Were they particularly hard to write or were they necessary to write?
PGL: No, they weren't hard to write. I was sitting there with nothing to do and of course I was full of this situation. It was a very confining situation, not only for him but for me, both physically and psychologically. He couldn't go any place that lasted more than a day because he had to go back to dialysis. It also meant that I couldn't go to a conference or go to anything because I had to dialyze him. And then, the fact that he never accepted--he was facing the grim reaper, you know, he had an incurable condition. He went to get a transplant because he thought that he could prolong his life, but something went wrong with the operation. But he also became very difficult to live with, you know? There was nothing romantic at all, at this point, nothing romantic in the relationship, it was just a matter of longevity and habit and, you know, it was a way of life. I had a son at that time, Gordon, was six or seven years old, six or seven when his father died, so that was a bond that was between us, you know.
JL: What about your life after he passed? I mean, how long did it take you to achieve a new kind of approach to life?
PGL: It took at least two or three years; I always pinpoint that it took three years before I could feel like a normal person. I'd have crying spells, I'd have depression, I was in therapy. Did you know Curtis Steele?
PGL: He was a friend of mine, he lives in Canada, he and his wife. But they used to have these sessions. He wouldn't call them therapy sessions because that's a medical term. But we would call them "meetings," twice a month, and there were usually about 10 or 12 of us sitting around there and we were very frank about what was going on inside, you know. I guess it's about as close to therapy as anything could be. We'd go through role-playing to dramatize a situation that was difficult for us, it was very self-revealing. But it took three years before I could stop crying.
JL: Even though there had been this loss of intimacy in the relationship.
PGL: It wasn't mourning; I don't think I was crying because I was mourning, I was crying because my body and my mind and my psyche were going through a transition. That's what that was.
JL: I wanted to ask you about the love poems, too, because that's one of your favorite genres. And I feel I have a new kind of awareness about them, because I reread "Wind Thoughts" last, which is the longest poem of that type that you have in here. Did you recast any of these poems?
PGL: Well, "Lovesong of an Outcast" will be in the new book, but the poem is now called "Elegy for the Blues."
JL: I see. Why did you change the title?
PGL: It was called "Lovesong of an Outcast" because this was an extramarital affair, and this was against all my training and my beliefs. Now....
JL: So this is based on a real event.
PGL: Yeah. Now, I changed the title because I no longer have that, I don't identify with my being an outcast, but I call them the blues because they are unhappy love poems.
JL: Did you change the poem in any way other than the title?
PGL: No, I tried to leave it just as it was in the first one.
Now I'm very careful talking about that because the person is still here. I don't want to embarrass anybody. I still have the love letters in there which I am going to donate to the archives over at LSU at some point. I've already given them, most of the papers I've given them are just letters, but the real rich stuff about my work is still here. I have about 30 or 40 folders for them to see me as a literary person. But the love letters, I think I still have them in the closet there, so I'll donate those to you in my will!
JL: You taught for a long time at Southern, and you know how Southern and LSU are great traditions in Baton Rouge but also in some ways rivals. I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel that you should have left your papers to Southern. Did you think about that?
PGL: I thought about it. But you see, at Southern, I feared they'd be lost--first of all, they didn't ask for them.
JL: OK, that's important.
PGL: They didn't ask for them.
JL: And LSU did.
PGL: And LSU did. Now, when Faye Phillips, the director of special collections at LSU, asked me for my papers, she took me back where the archives were and showed me how it was arranged and everything and what good condition they were in and how they were catalogued and so on. So, it was impressive. I had someone in Baltimore who asked for my papers, too. Amistad has asked for them. The person who wanted them there was Elise Dunn Cain, she was one of my college classmates in 1949. She still works there. They have a good archival system. So I seriously considered sending my papers to Amistad. But I decided to send them to LSU.
JL: You've always had a lot of loyalty to LSU.
PGL: Yes, Faye was so persistent, she's been trying to get these papers for four or five years, and I can never get them together. I'm still dragging my feet to get the rest of them to her. It takes a lot of discipline to get those.... You see this folder? I've got folders everywhere. I really have to set aside a block of time to get the stuff together and organized.
JL: But you were at Southern a long time.
PGL: Twenty-six years.
JL: And you wrote a poem, I think one of your most striking poems, about being chairman of the English department, where you sort of make a claim of your own space that will not be violated even though you'll do your duty and so forth to the department. I wonder if you have any further thoughts about your years at Southern and being chair of the English department and the relation it had to your development as a writer.
PGL: I was the first woman chair. They had a woman who had served as acting chair for a while. And I told you that at first I had some difficulty, which I never thought about again until that episode about the color of my skin, but also there's one faculty member there, I think he still hates me, a white man I had problems with. And I asked a friend of his who was also white, "Why does so-and-so seem to dislike me so much?" He said, "Well, have you ever thought about the fact that you are a woman, and he's not used to being bossed by a woman?" Now there's another side of the picture, the feminist side.
JL: So it's not always a black/white thing, it's a male/female thing.
PGL: A male/female thing. At least he thought, that was his explanation at that particular time. I think there was something else there, too, that could have been part of it. This man was also part of the union at Southern. I never did join the union. I identified with the administration, and I think that had something to do with it. The head of the union at that time was named George Whitfield. I went to one of their meetings, and this fellow thought I was going to join. I said, "I didn't come to join; I came for my own reasons." They thought I came there to spy. But he just took it so intensely--and the thing about it was, I was on the executive committee when they were trying to decide whether to vote him in as tenured and I voted on him to have tenure. That's the biggest mistake I ever have made. I don't think he knows that, I helped him to get tenure.
JL: I wondered if you have had any thoughts about the role of the historically black college because you had such intimate knowledge of it for so long. Were there things that you thought were really valuable about that opportunity for your students that are still maybe valuable?
PGL: Well, you know, there's been an ongoing argument about the role of black colleges, especially when the traditionally white colleges opened their doors and many of the students chose to go to the mixed college rather than to the black college. But these colleges helped us--they took us when nobody else wanted us, for one thing. They developed what talents we had and what potential we had. Nurtured us. The black college is much more nurturing than the white college, much more. Even a large state college like Southern, not to mention the private--see, I went to a private college, Spelman, they were completely nurturing. They were like our parents. But the black college would take students who categorically would not have been not accepted by LSU, they put them in remedial courses and so on, and would develop them. And those who managed to go through four years came out with a good education and with a strong sense of self. "I can do this!" Rather than being rejected by a school that says, "You are not good enough."
Yeah, I think the role of black colleges has been an essential one in terms of history in this country--racism, black culture, ostracism.
One of the reasons I chose Spelman was because I had never been taught by a black teacher, and I wanted to see how it felt to be taught by a black teacher. See, I went to school in Philadelphia. My mother used to talk about Spelman all the time. She was not a college graduate. She went to "Spelman Seminary" for eighth grade. I wouldn't take anything for the experience I had as a Spelman student.
So far as teaching at Southern--it was a growth situation for me, too. I grew as an academic.
JL: Did you teach African American literature? What did you teach?
PGL: Oh, I taught Milton, I taught world literature, taught English literature, one time I taught Chaucer. And I taught the freshman and the sophomore courses.
JL: So you didn't teach African American.
PGL: They didn't have any African American courses there when I first went there, you know. I went there in 1959.
JL: I know, they still don't teach that much African American literature at Southern. It's surprising.
PGL: Who's going to teach the African American literature?
JL: They did teach it before you left, though, didn't they?
PGL: Oh, yeah, well they finally let me teach African American courses. Charles Rowell taught some courses. Thelma Cobb, I believe, taught some courses in African American literature. But they didn't have many courses in just straight African American literature.
JL: Now Charles was at Southern founding Callaloo when you were there, wasn't he?
PGL: Yes, Callaloo was founded at Southern.
JL: Did you have anything to do with that?
PGL: No, other than contribute $100 to help pay for it. I only gave moral support.
JL: But you published in Callaloo.
PGL: I published in some of the early issues of Callaloo.
JL: I wanted to ask you a few more follow-up questions on my re-reading of your poems. First of all, we've been talking about elegy, but another thing that's related to elegy is just simply memory, memory of loved ones. And you have two poems about photos. There's an old photo from a family album.
PGL: My mother.
JL: Which is a really beautiful poem. It's the one about the feather, isn't it?
JL: Why don't you identify her as your mother in the poem?
PGL: I don't mention she's my mother?
JL: I don't think that you do, no.
PGL: Don't I dedicate it to Addie Inez?
JL: There's another one, "Prose Poem Portrait," and it says it's about your mother.
PGL: In that poem that you just mentioned, don't I have a subscript there, "For Addie Inez"?
JL: Maybe you do, I don't know. Let's see, that's in....
PGL: Wind Thoughts?
JL: I think it's in Girl at the Window. Maybe it's in both of them.
PGL: Look at that subscript there.
JL: OK, you're right, you're right. The poem "Old Photo from a Family Album, 1915," is dedicated to two people; one is your mother; the other is Ocydee Williams.
PGL: Ocydee is my aunt.
JL: It wasn't clear to me that Addie Inez was your mother, but I should have remembered "Inez" in the poem about your father.
PGL: Yes, Addie Inez was my mother. Ocydee sent me a picture--when my grandmother died, they began to go through her things and they found this photo. She sent a copy of it to me and said, "Isn't this your mother?" And I said, "Yes, it is my mother. I have one just like it," I said. "However, yours has something that mine doesn't have." It was a photograph that was on the back of a postcard, and on the postcard there was a note to my father. And so Ocydee said, "Oh, why don't you write a poem about that?" So that was why I included Ocydee because she got me inspired by that.
JL: So the picture was not just a picture, it was also a communication, a love communication.
PGL: Yes, communication, a note on the back. "Dear William, Send me a photo or come to our house and make one."
JL: That's fascinating.
I wanted to ask you about the way you relate to photographs now because, I know as I get older, sometimes these old photographs are so painful because the people are dead, and they make you remember you are getting older.
PGL: Let me show you something. I've been going through these albums; that's what that box over there is for, I've been trying to get them into some kind of organized fashion.
JL: This is in order to compose a eulogy for your relative Nita, who just died?
PGL: Yes, well, I did the eulogy before I went through the albums. Another thing that I did was, I went back there and collected all the pictures I had of her. Now that's the way she looked when I remembered her. This is the way she looked in her later years when she died. I mean, she was just a dried up old lady.
JL: Oh, my goodness.
PGL: But she was once a very beautiful woman. So I just went through there and collected all these pictures that I could find of Nita. The earliest one I have was taken in the 1930s. That's Nita there. And I have a poem called "Marion." Marion just adored Nita.
JL: And who was Marion?
PGL: Marion was a person who knew Nita; she was four years older, and I was 15 and she was 19 when she died. One of my earliest memories was Marion because she loved Nita so. I had another picture of her--she was doing something in the ballet. Here's Nita again. She's a pretty woman.
JL: Very pretty.
PGL: And it always does something to me when I see people go from youth to age. It's the fate in life for all of us. Just recently I started reading the obituary column and that's how I found out about Professor Don Stanford at LSU who died recently. He was in the English department and was editor of The Southern Review. I just happened to see his picture, and I went to his funeral. But after that, I just sort of scanned the obituary column, just for ages, and it's just amazing the people dying in their 50s.
JL: Particularly African Americans.
PGL: I thought gee whiz, I guess I'm living on borrowed time! But, I think a lot of it has to do with--of course, good fortune, too, an accident can happen to anybody--but other than that, I think it has to do with the choices we make.
JL: Do you think poetry is good for the health, too?
PGL: It's good for the psyche. It's done a lot for me.
A lot of times students will bring something to me, or at least they did when I was teaching, and they'd say, "Oh, but this really happened!" And I'd say, "Yeah, but what else is new? We're talking about an art form, we're not talking about something that really happened." I'd rather for it not to have happened if you could write a good poem. We're talking about how you use language, how you use metaphors, how you create a perceptual picture, and we're talking about a craft that has to be developed. The fact that something happened is incidental, that's just one portion. They think the message is important. "This really happened!" So what?
JL: Going back to the idea of photos, I was just wondering about your feeling about photos now. You were just talking about how it was sad to see the progression of this relative from the very beautiful woman to the withered little lady.
But Roland Barthes has talked about this idea of a photograph having an aura about it, maybe it's kind of sacred. When you go through these albums as you just did, is there a sacred feeling of connectedness that you feel, or am I just loading ideas into the conversation here?
PGL: Oh, I don't know, but I do love to take pictures. You know, I have a poem about photographs in one of my books. It's a moment that's fleeting and then it's gone.
I don't know that I have an ethereal, sacred side, that's a religious term, and I'm not a religious person--I may be a spiritual person, but I'm not a religious person. I wouldn't use the words "sin" or "sacred," it's not part of my vocabulary. But I do get nostalgic sometimes. And I have a very strong feeling about the passage of time. Now, I saw this young, beautiful, vibrant woman, and I had the same feeling with her that I had with Nita when she was young. Because on the Academy Awards about two or three years ago, they gave Deborah Kerr some kind of life achievement award. And when they pulled her out on the stage, John, I was shocked. She was feeble; she almost fell down. Just a shell of what she was. The only thing about her to recognize was her voice. People's voices don't change very much. And I said, "Gee, this is the way we go." But then I said, this is a progression, you know, life can be so cruel! That saddens me, when I think, why do we have to wither away like that?
JL: Let me ask you about life, though, because another thing that you've written about, with very good results I think, is your son, Gordon. And now he has a family.
PGL: Two little girls.
JL: Yeah, have you written about them yet?
PGL: I wrote a poem for Jessica and sent it to her for a birthday present, but never did submit it for publication. I haven't written anything for the younger one. I don't think I even preserved it. It's probably in my notes somewhere.
JL: You've written about everybody in your family, and now you've got these grandchildren. What's the second one's name?
PGL: Well, the first one is Jessica, and. I just learned that Jessica has her other grandmother's middle name, and this second one, Simone Rose has my middle name.
JL: Is that Nina Simone that she's named after?
PGL: [Laughing] I don't know how they came up with the name Simone. I call her Simone Rose, you know, they just call her Simone, but I always give her both names, Simone Rose. And the older one, Jessica, has her other grandmother's middle name--she's Jessica Ulelia.
JL: That's pretty.
I wanted to ask you about the poems that you are setting in the new collection because in the past, you have had poems that have one title and then in the new setting you'll have another title. I've forgotten what the name of it originally was, I think it was just "Portrait," but in a newer collection you called it "Portrait of an Uncle." Remember that one?
PGL: Yeah, but ... I changed the title?
JL: Yeah, maybe it's in Wind Thoughts. It's just "Portrait," he's not identified as your uncle at all. Was there any reason for that?
PGL: I didn't realize that I had changed it.
JL: That's right. You don't remember changing the title?
PGL: No, I don't know why. I know that when I wrote poems about relatives, they were never very flattering, and they didn't like it so well. The sons of this man, they were my cousins, we grew up together. They didn't like the poem.
JL: This poem, though, about your uncle, it has one of your most amazing images. I know you pride yourself on metaphors. This one is, "His mind was a twisted cork that could not plug up the bowels of his brain." To me, that is an amazing image. How in the world did you come up with that?
PGL: You know, he was a man who was always very kind to me and kind to his children, so far as I know, but he was a tortured human being. He would cuss a lot, loved to drink, as I say in the poem, he used to shoot his dogs, abuse his wife, verbally, I don't think he used to hit her--get in fights. I mean he came home one time, his jaw was all swollen from a fight. I just remember his cursing a lot and being a very unhappy person. But I mean, a man who would go out and shoot dogs.
JL: That's not going to win points with you!
PGL: No, but imagine a man so caught up with rage inside, "I didn't know any other way to express it, so I'll shoot my dogs," you know? A person would have to be tortured to do that.
PGL: And so, you know, "the bowels of his brain."
But when I'm doing images--this is what I told students when I taught creative writing--I said, first of all, an image is a conception. You have a mental picture of something. Then, you want to find words to describe that mental image. And you want to think of an analogy. That's how my metaphors come about. I conceive it, I look for words, and I look for an analogy.
Now I'll tell you who was very influential--Gwendolyn Brooks. But I tell you the most influential to me in terms of imagery, was Anne Sexton. I read all of her books, the first one was To Bedlam and Part Way Back. And of course you know she was a tortured person, she committed suicide when she was 45 years old. Oh, she had been in therapy any number of times. What is it that happens with writers? Robert Reeves jumped off a bridge, killed himself Hemingway shot himself. There must be something about writers, this extra-sensitiveness that makes them do these things. Oh, I was saying that Anne Sexton was very influential to me with her very original images. I was not realizing she was having an influence on me; I wasn't even writing poetry at that time.
JL: "The Girl in the Window" is the title poem here [flips book]. And I wonder why you chose that as the title poem. Are you the girl at the window?
PGL: "The Girl in the Window" ... it wasn't necessarily a metaphor for me. That particular poem grew out of an assignment I made for my class. That grew out of an experience; when my son was nine years old, we traveled to Africa. Also, we had a lot of international students, African students that were there at the college. I was thinking about the experience of Africa, about the "golden animals" (which were really lions), the equator, a blue line that my son thought we would cross--did I tell you that story?
He said, "I want to see the equator"; he wanted the binoculars, "Why?"--"I want to see the equator...."
JL: You were in an airplane?
PGL: In an airplane. We were going to Africa, and the captain--you know how they will point out things below--he says, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are now passing over the equator." Gordon was about in the sixth grade then and I guess they were studying the equator in school. I'm sure his teacher must have said that it was an imaginary line but he didn't hear the word "imaginary." He said, "Give me the binoculars quick!" I said, "What do you want the binoculars for?" He said, "I want to see the equator!" All these experiences were running in together. African students, the trip to Africa....
JL: Was this supposed to be an African woman?
PGL: Well, yes. I had asked the students to bring in a photograph. It could be something you clipped out of a magazine or it could be something out of your family album; bring it to class. I said, I don't want any context for it; I don't want anything in writing, just the picture. But I myself had this picture, it was a profile picture of a woman, she had on African garb. So when they got there, I said, "OK, now, I want you to take that picture and look at it for a few minutes, think about it, let it filter through your consciousness, and write a poem."
JL: It may not have been an African woman?
PGL: It might not have been an African woman, but she looked like she was in African garb.
So I pretended that she was an African student who was homesick, wanted to go back to Africa, you know, there's some nostalgia there. This is purely imagination, this is not something that I was experiencing, except for this lion that we had seen out on safari. In other words, I think the point I was making with my students was you can create a poem. They ask "Did that really happen?" It doesn't have to really happen. Often the best poems come from the imagination.
JL: Let me ask you just a couple more questions. What about the role of music in your work? I want to talk about your affinity for music and the visual in art, too, because we're sitting here in your living room surrounded by these beautiful paintings that you have done. Are you still painting?
PGL: I haven't painted in five or six years. Computers have taken over my life now. But some of these were painted right here in this room. My son was still young and still living at home then. I'd put my easel up and I'd paint right here. You see that picture over there, over the lamp, which I call "French Quarter." It's purely impressionist. I had gone to New Orleans and seen these houses, you know.
JL: Did you ever consider your painting as related to your poetry?
PGL: I went to college with the idea of majoring in art and minoring in English. But I reversed it. And I love color.
JL: Right--well, there's a lot of that in your poetry. What about music? You've never performed yourself, have you?
PGL: I always wanted to play jazz; I never got to play jazz. I think that's why I encouraged Gordon to listen to jazz. Sometimes I'd even dream I was playing jazz on the piano.
JL: This is one of the ways in which your poetry is most in tandem with writers in the tradition, I mean like Michael Harper does in his great Coltrane poem, "A Love Supreme."
PGL: Harper does it consciously with the music, especially in "A Love Supreme"; I don't do it consciously, but a lot of that comes out unconsciously--the poetry, the color, the music. I've had people say when they read them, they get lost with the metaphors. But when they hear me read it, it seems to fall right in place.
You know, I remember once we had an officer at Southern whose daughter was sophomore at Southern. And she came to me one day, she said, she was taking World Literature, "I don't like literature, especially poetry. I don't understand what they're talking about." We taught the Iliad and the Odyssey. I said, "Well, sometimes people have trouble with poetry because of the figures of speech." So I went on to talk about metaphors you know, and similes and figures of speech. "Well, why don't they just say what they mean?" she wanted to know. I said, "Well, they are saying what they mean as best as they can, you know."
But when you hear something read orally, I think it comes across much clearer for some persons.
JL: Is that one of the reasons that you were so interested in this program that you ran at Southern, bringing poets to the school, because poetry is more accessible when it's recited?
PGL: I didn't start that program; that program had been going on for two years. Melvin Butler, who was then chair of the department, was the one who initiated the Black Poetry Festival. He died, he was murdered, you know.
PGL: He died, and they were going to just let it go. I said, "Oh no, this is too good a program to just let it go, let's bring these poets in." And the students always enjoyed it, you know, once they got there. I became the director and carried on for seven more years; it ran for nine consecutive years. And to the best of my knowledge, it was the only festival, black poetry festival, that was consecutive for nine years. I loved the students. They were much more accepting than the faculty who thought they knew what black poetry was. But the students, I would only read a poem if they asked me to, and they were very accepting. They embraced it.
JL: Let's close by talking about your new collection which we have here.
Which poems are you proudest of in terms of the new works?
PGL: Of course, "Elegy for Etheridge" I think is one of my stronger poems. I like this little poem "I Have Forgotten," which is a love poem. I like the Mississippi River poems. The environmental poems seem to get good response whenever I read them but I don't have the personal connection with them that I have with some of the others.
I would say that "Elegy for Etheridge," "I Have Forgotten," and oh, the Port Townsend Poems, I have a strong affinity for that group.
JL: How did they come about?
PGL: Remember I told you about I attended a nine-week seminar up in Port Townsend, Washington? William Stafford was one of the facilitators for that.
JL: When was that?
PGL: Oh, it must have been about 10 years ago. It's a group of poems, about three or four poems [that I've pulled together as the Port Townsend poems]. In terms of technique, I like those.
JL: They are based in the nature that you saw in Washington?
PGL: Yes, in fact, they were created there. A lot of times when I'm sitting in a natural scene, I look at what's around me, and then I pull that into the poem.
JL: Does this suggest that, if you had lived in Port Townsend that you could have spent your career writing about things there, that you are not tied to Louisiana or the South?
PGL: It's possible. Because I look at my natural surroundings, like the rural poems on migration, about my sitting in my bedroom and the birds flocked in the trees. That wouldn't have happened in Philadelphia, for example.
JL: Right. But if you saw something similar in Washington, it would affect you.
PGL: I pull from my natural environment and then go on from there. After pulling in the natural environment, then it becomes internal. It always comes back to Pinkie.
JL: So nothing is ever lost, really.
PGL: Nothing is lost when you're writing a poem.
(1.) This interview was conducted on August 6, 1999.
(2.) Gwendolyn Brooks died shortly after this interview took place.
John Lowe is Professor of English at Louisiana State University, where he teaches African American, Southern, and ethnic literature and theory. He is author of Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy (U of Illinois P, 1994), editor of Conversations with Ernest Gaines (UP of Mississippi, 1995) and Bridging Southern Culture (Louisiana State UP, 2005), and co-editor of The Future of Southern Letters (Oxford UP, 1996). He is currently completing The Americanization of Ethnic Humor, a cross-cultural, multidisciplinary examination of changing patterns in American comic literature.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
|Previous Article:||In the swamp.|
|Next Article:||"Civil" War wounds: William Wells Brown, violence, and the domestic narrative.|