WILD RIVER BOOKS: Surprise Encounters: Sorry, This is a Private Party
The year was 1996. The place was Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
Through great good luck, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) accepted our invitation to return to the Dodge Poetry Festival, where she was again a hit. She was an American Poet Laureate at the time when the post was called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She also encouraged and welcomed the poetry of children and often sent them a check for $25, $50, or $100 from her home in Chicago.
I had invited her to a small luncheon with a couple of trustees and other poets in the Meetinghouse.
As she approached the door by the kitchen and started to enter, an assistant cook went over and told her—a small black woman—“Sorry, this is a private party.”
The renowned poet turned and walked away. I ran after her, apologized, and invited her to come back please. She said, politely but firmly, “No thanks.”
A few months later, Brooks was back in New Jersey for a reading at the Montclair Art Museum. Over dinner, a white foundation person described at length what it was like to be a black person in the city of Newark. Brooks, who had chronicled with immense originality the African American experience in poetry, listened.
My heart sank a second time.
At the festival, Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the star attractions when she spoke her poetry in a compelling rhythm.
“We Real Cool” goes like this: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon. And “The Mother,” which begins: Abortions will not let you forget. You remember the children you got that you did not get, The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair, The singers and workers that never handled the air. You will never neglect or beat Them, or silence or buy with a sweet. You will never wind up the sucking-thumb Or scuttle off ghosts that come. You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh, Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
Among hundreds of memorable lines is her thought, from Windy Place:
To be in love Is to touch things with a lighter hand.
Scott McVay was founding executive director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He was the sixteenth president of the Chautauqua Institution. He is fascinated by the songs of nature, propelled by the six-octave humpback whale’s song, and the songs of humanity, driven by poetry of the planet throughout history and today.