Monday, February 11, 2019

Alice Faye Duncan on Beloved Prize-Winning Poet Gwendolyn Brooks

Author Alice Faye Duncan is on a roll right now. Just last month her nonfiction picture book Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop (Boyds Mills Press, 2018), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, won a Coretta Scott King Honor for illustration, among a bouquet of other honors. And now she's out with another powerhouse book, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks (Sterling Children's Books), which published last month.

Here on the South Side of Chicago, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks is a patron saint. She attended local schools, began her writing career at age 11, and called Chicago her "headquarters." A neighborhood park displays a statue in her honor, one of just two statues in the entire city featuring a representation of a real female historical figure rather than a female ideal. Anything "Gwendolyn" is worth exploring, frankly, so stumbling across a new book celebrating the life of this wildly talented writer, I was enthralled. 

A Song celebrates Gwendolyn Brooks' life — the role her parents played and how the community influenced her — in free verse while at the same time showcasing a few of her poems for young readers to discover. Illustrated by Xia Gordon, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks is certainly worth spotlighting for Black History Month, but it should be part of classroom discussions the whole year through —for lessons relating to poetry and language, perseverance, barrier breaking, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, Civil Rights struggles, to name just a few.

I reached out to Alice, who works as a school librarian in Memphis, to find out what inspired her to write about this Chicago literary luminary. Creative wonder that she is, Alice answered in an acrostic rather than traditional Q & A format. Enjoy her response below!

Gwendolyn Brooks lived on the South Side of Chicago for ALL of her life.  However, she was born in Topeka, Kansas.

When I was a kid, I read her poems in Poetry Anthologies and English Text Books. Song in the Front Yard was a favorite. 

Etheridge Knight visited my Memphis school when I was in the sixth grade. It was 1978. He was my first encounter with a living poet. 

Nobody knew Etheridge Knight when he showed-up that day. Poet Phyllis Tickle made the introduction, and I was smitten. 

Digging around Knight's life in 2015 turned my attention to Gwendolyn Brooks. She nurtured his poetic genius from an Indiana jail. 

Only Good Friends love you through incessant mess-ups. Miss Brooks remained devoted to EK through all of his flubs and foibles.  

Love is like that. I learned from research that Gwendolyn Brooks practiced kindness as a religion. She was not churchy or holy-rollie. 

Young people weighed heavy on her heart. She wrote about them and for them in poems like We Real Cool and Life of Lincoln West.

No poem swings alliteration, assonance, and allegory like a GB poem. She mastered figurative language with undulating grace. 

Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her poetry book Annie Allen. She was the first Black writer to win the prestigious prize. 

Reviewers praised her skill for composing polished sonnets, while she also exalted the earthy language and spirit of common folk. 

One is inclined to compare Miss Brooks to a Black Candle giving light across the ages. She said, "We are each other's harvest."

One is inclined to compare her to a flower, furious and flourishing, teaching us how to BLOOM during these inhospitable conditions. 

Keziah Brooks (Gwen's mother) prophesied to South Side Neighbors back in 1925 that Gwen would be a poet, "Like Paul Dunbar."

Spirit NEVER told my Mama that I would rise to meet Dunbar's star. I was a lazy student college teacher called me, "Gifted."

An Acrostic Poem by Alice Faye Duncan (2019)

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