Real Cool

Because we were theater nerds — RJ and I and who else? Pam maybe — we were asked by Mr. Martello to clean the backstage area and scrub the bathroom because Maine South was hosting a guest speaker of great importance. This was probably 1979.

I remember cleaning the counters for her. And putting flowers in the bathroom. I remember hearing her read her poetry. She was diminutive and grand.

The speaker was Gwendolyn Brooks.

I was jazzed by her colloquialisms. By her direct language. Though small of size, she was huge to us, to us in the lily whitest of white suburbs. Her poetry sang.

I especially remember her reading, “We real cool.” And I remember reading it on the page — how she set out the way to read it out loud by the way she broke the lines. She made us pause. At that time, too, I was learning about ‘the Pinter Pause,’ and I was excited by the pauses that poetic language could invite.

 The “We”—you’re supposed to stop after the “we” and think about validity; of course, there’s no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty.

-Gwendolyn Brooks

So this is February, Black History Month. And I’m pretty much in love with poetry written in spoken language. And I thank God for Ms. Brooks, and Maine South for introducing me to her poetry. In high school, before I learned of Ms. Brooks’ work, I had fallen hard, as young people do, for Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. We’re so lucky to have such a history of amazing women poets in this country. The dramatic work of poet laureate Amanda Gorman continues and expands this poetic tradition.

By hearing Ms. Brooks read her work, I discovered that poetry could merge with drama. That poetry allowed you to try out a new voice. Just as acting allows you to embody a new person. I celebrate the newness of voice and vision of great poets in this country.

Snow day.

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