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That Magic Moment

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Gwendolyn Brooks, the 29th Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress.

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Very nice article, Caitlin!

  2. I have added poems from an anthology focusing
    on Black writers to my before , 4, Poem A Day
    Books, the three so named, from Zoland Press,
    the 180 collection ed. by Billy Collins, but now I
    found in one of Pittsburgh’s new “Street Libraries”
    ( litle “cupboards” outside some houses with
    books to take, and leave your own) the Vintage
    Book of African American Peotry. This book
    includes so many more than the few kind of
    token poems one gets even in so called
    enlightened high school classes, ( even college
    classes in my day, (I’m 76). So, gradually I
    grow into the garden of verses ( the title of the
    first poem book I was ever aware of ) offered by
    my to be sure narrow but at least gradually
    widening world. I find when I turn with regularity
    to the poems of others, the ones that ARE published, my own longing to be published (
    which I admit I do not support with aggressive
    “sending”, lessens some. We have, and have
    always has more poetry “out there” than we can
    begin to eat in a day.

  3. I have saved a handwritten thank-you note from Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks, a note she mailed to me in 1994, postmarked from Chicago. If this note would be of interest to the LOC, I would be pleased to donate it.

    The LOC re-mastered video is a treasure! Ms. Brooks’s use therein of the word “insouciance” illuminates my understanding of the word “non-chalance” in one of her poems. Also, I love her use therein of the word “nuance-ful”. 🙂

  4. Amazing and Inspirational! Thank you Caitlin and the Poetry Office for sharing this with us!

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