The following is a guest post by Caitlin Rizzo, staffer for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.
Today the Poetry and Literature Center’s friends from the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society debuted a remastered video of former director of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center Alan Jabbour and Howard University professor E. Ethelbert Miller interviewing then-Consultant in Poetry Gwendolyn Brooks. The video was shot in the Poetry Room of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center.
In the video, Brooks discusses her poems, her award-winning career, and perhaps most importantly her role as a mentor to a great many aspiring poets. Brooks speaks naturally, plainly and eloquently, so that what becomes most apparent is her great generosity to her fellow writers. Even at the height of her success as a poet, Brooks made time and space to support the communities that had once fostered her as a young writer.
In our attic, she hosted many a workshop as well as groups of children and young writers alike. Brooks was the last consultant to hold residency in the Poetry Office (and now our newest poet laureate will be picking up the tradition in January), but in her time she made a legacy of transparency and accessibility that brought poetry to the nation. It’s humbling to know that long before I came to the Poetry and Literature Center, Gwendolyn Brooks received and responded to every single letter that ventured through this door.
Brooks hoped that one of her letters or her words would give a young writer that “magic moment,” as she calls it in the interview, which would spark a lifetime of possibility. She advises young writers to read and write voraciously about their daily lives.
In a particularly powerful moment, she warns about the one question she hears most from all aspiring writers (regardless of age). It’s a question that has become very concerning to me, as it seems to come ringing from our phones every day here at the Center: How do I get my poems published? Brooks calls this question “disheartening,” and after hearing it time after time, I can’t help but agree.
Brooks hoped to give poetry to the people; she wanted to share that “magic moment” when a poem alters the way a person understands themselves, their surroundings, and comes alive. Publishing a poem is an amazing feat, but it should never be the end of the journey. Poems become most powerful when they are shared; even the root of the word “publish,” literally to make public, expresses this.
To give a poem to the world is to share in an intimacy with others, to share with strangers a continuing journey filled with moments of joy and wonder, of confusion and discovery. A great poet like Gwendolyn Brooks creates such magic, which we find in her poems years after their publication and her death. This is how poetry sustains us.