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We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois

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April 18, 2017

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Interviews
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In the 1960s, the Illinois Bell Telephone Company distributed a series of pamphlets aiming to “present expert testimony on the many resources and opportunities for progress in Illinois.” This interview is reprinted from one of those pamphlets, used courtesy of AT&T.


Gwendolyn Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950. This award is just one of many the distinguished Chicago poet has received for her four books of poetry and one novel.

Miss Brooks writes of the crowded streets of Chicago, of the life of the poor, of shared hardships. But, as one critic put it, “She always thinks in terms of the people involved, not merely the social causes. Hers is the sensitive poetry of a devoted humanist.”

As an intellectual product of Illinois, Miss Brooks here becomes a voice reflecting the cultural strengths of our state.

Paul M. Angle, the interviewer, is a noted Illinois historian who has authored eleven books dealing with Illinois history. He is director-emeritus of the Chicago Historical Society, and has served as Illinois State Historian.


Angle: How did you happen to become a writer?

Brooks: I always enjoyed reading when I was a child. Pretty soon, I suppose, it occurred to me that it might be wonderful if I could create something, too. I began putting rhymes together when I was seven, so I’m told by my mother. And continued. I was encouraged by both my mother and father.

Angle: At what stage in your life, if you can identify it, did it appear to you that you could become a professional writer?

Brooks: I have never liked that phrase, “professional writer.” I haven’t thought of writing in that sense. Indeed, one who chooses to become a poet does well not to think of money or even of making a living by the writing of verse. I wrote poetry because I wanted to. I knew I’d always compose poetry, whether it was published or not. For a long time it was not.

Angle: I’m sure that the term “professional writer” isn’t a very good one. And yet could we use it in the sense of one’s work being published?

Brooks: I would not say so, because I feel that a writer should be very selective about what he publishes. And if he is selective he isn’t going to have a great deal to publish. But I’m not thinking primarily of poets. I can’t conceive of a “professional” poet. Well—Edgar Guest, perhaps?

Angle: I suppose you’re right. Nevertheless, I had a reason for my question. In the last two or three years of his life I knew Vachel Lindsay. I was living in Springfield at that time and he was most irate because the city directory people didn’t want to list him simply as “poet,” which he contended he was. Anyhow, I use the term “professional” for a steady writer whose works are published. Was it always your ambition from childhood to write, or was it a compelling necessity rather than an ambition?

Brooks: It was a necessity. "Ambition" doesn’t seem a proper word to describe what I felt as I grew up and continued to write. I enjoyed it very much, and I was convinced that it would be good to “enchant” others with these products of my mind. Once, I considered burying my precious manuscripts in the back yard so that in the future—at some time in the hundreds of years to come—they would be discovered and loved.

Angle: You wrote because you wanted to.

Brooks: Yes.

Angle: And you still write because you want to?

Brooks: Yes, I still write because I want to, but there is a difference now. Recently, I confided to friends how much more fun writing was in those years of my youth, when I had no publishing prospects. I was free. If things were not right, what difference did it make? But now, when I have pretty good prospects of having what I write published, I’m very concerned. I want to be sure that everything is good, and this imposes a constraint.

Angle: Do you find writing hard work?

Brooks: Yes. It is hard work. It gets harder all the time.

Angle: Partly because of the compulsion you have to come as close to perfection as you think you’re capable of coming?

Brooks: That’s true.

Angle: Now let me ask you another question. It is said that during much of his career Marcel Proust wrote in a windowless, soundproof room, shutting himself off from not only intrusion, but also humanity insofar as it was possible for him to do so. Could you write under such circumstances? Or would you want to write under such circumstances?

Brooks: Yes, I would enjoy it. That’s one of my problems—finding extended privacy. I’m thinking now of going away at the end of a summer—some summer—to a hotel in which I would have just such a situation. I would stay in my room and have my meals delivered; and I would write, write, write.

Angle: That sounds pretty good. But in fact you do have to write in an environment. You cannot, month in and month out, exclude the surroundings in which you live.

Brooks: No. I cannot.

Angle: Now, do you find that environment—and let’s use the term in a broad sense—encouraging, thwarting, or of no significance?

Brooks: You say do I find the environment encouraging, thwarting or . . .

Angle: Of no significance—having no effect upon the creative process.

Brooks: You don’t have noise in mind, do you?

Angle: No, something else.

Brooks: Then I have to say that I find I am not disturbed by my environment. In my twenties, when I wrote a good deal of my better-known poetry, I lived on 63rd Street—at 623 East 63rd Street—and there was a good deal of life in the raw all about me. You might feel that this would be disturbing, but it was not. It contributed to my writing process. I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street. I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then on the other. There was my material.

Angle: I think this experience comes out in some of your poems of this period. So the human environment in which you have lived has contributed to your poetry and has not affected it adversely.

Brooks: No, indeed, it hasn’t affected it adversely, but has helped me.

Angle: How about personal contacts? I mean by that: do you feel it is desirable for you to be in frequent touch with other writers?

Brooks: No. When I was young I belonged to writing groups and I drew a lot from them. I tell young writers today that it is fine to belong to a writing group. You can derive sustenance from your fellows. That’s all very helpful. But when you are older it is likely that you will want no more of such “togetherness.”

Angle: Do you feel that the fact that you are a writer sets you apart from other people?

Brooks: No. No, I have never felt this. I am a human being who enjoys writing poetry.

Angle: And other people do not consider you to be rather peculiar?

Brooks: Oh, all along people have considered me to be “rather peculiar.” When I was a teen my teen friends wondered, as they partied and danced, why I was happy to stay in my tiny room and write. They thought this was very odd and that I was doomed to failure, that I would never have boyfriends, a marriage, children. Even now many who admire the things that have happened to me do not regard me with entire seriousness. “I must finish this,” I tell them. “I must start that . . . . I can’t go here, I can’t go there . . . .” “You can interrupt what you’re doing,” they seem to feel. “It’s only pen and paper.”

Do you believe, as I do, that it is not the instinct of man to love Art? Man will have occasional recourse to Art, may admire, may respect, may salute. May gasp. But in the presence of Art man is not continuously comfortable. Christmas is Art. A funeral is Art. But in almost every instance man is glad to get away, to spread his arms, to shake, dog-like, to shout “I’m free.”

Angle: I know something of your feeling because I have had the experience myself, not in Chicago but in smaller towns. Because I was spending so much time writing, people rather looked at me with some degree of—I would like to say wonderment—but I think pity would be the better word. I wondered whether this was your experience. Apparently it is not.

Brooks: I have said that many people do feel that there is something strange about being a writer and about being content to remain a writer. On the other hand I have said that I do not feel apart from other people. I am an ordinary human being who is impelled to write poetry.

Angle: I suppose what I’m trying to lead up to is this question: Is the Chicago environment conducive to a writing career? Or does it have any effect on you one way or the other?

Brooks: I’ve always lived in Chicago, so I have no good basis for comparison. When I was a child I used to think that I would write better if I lived in the country. I’d see movies where children were running in the country and picking flowers. I’d meet people who knew the names of flowers and the names of trees and the names of birds. That was fine. But I feel now that it was better for me to have grown up in Chicago because in my writing I am proud to feature people and their concerns—their troubles as well as their joys. The city is the place to observe man en masse and in his infinite variety.

Angle: And this city furnishes you an environment which you find entirely satisfactory as far as your own career is concerned. It does not impede you as a writer in any way?

Brooks: It nourishes.

Angle: So you would have no desire to follow the example of so many Chicago writers and head off to New York?

Brooks: No, I intend to live in Chicago for my forever.

Angle: Do you think that the fact that you are a Negro placed you under any handicap in a writing career?

Brooks: If it has, I don’t know about it. Certain things might have happened that I don’t know about, but I can’t say that I have been hindered because of my race in the field of writing. I am not aware of this being true. I have written poems. I have submitted poems to editors and publishers. When the poems were poor they were returned (as a rule!). When they were other than poor they were published. Everything that I have written that I wanted to see published has been published, with the exception of one juvenile which needs a couple adjustments. And for many years I have had writing invitations from editors and publishers.

I have something further to say on the subject, however. I do believe that it is true, as Karl Shapiro says, that many white anthologists will not admit black writers to their pages. Mr. Shapiro wrote (in a foreword to Melvin Tolson’s “Harlem Gallery”): “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts.”

There are exceptions to my exception, of course. Sometimes Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson may be found. Sometimes I may be found. Sometimes LeRoi Jones may be found, but never with his best work, which is the poetry of The Dead Lecturer. Never Kent Foreman, Don Lee, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, David Lhorens, Ted Joans, G. C. Oden, Julia Fields, Robert Hayden, Conrad Rivers, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker. (You will find these people in the Negro anthologies, in Hughes’s and Bontemps’s anthologies.)

Angle: What is your feeling about the civil rights movement?

Brooks: First of all I must say that I am not a social scientist. I like to refer the interested to Lerone Bennett, Hoyt Fuller, or John Henrik Clarke, whose minds I respect. I am impressed constantly by my acquaintances that the important thing is to have statistics, and I do not have statistics. I can merely say that I think it is necessary, this movement, and that it was bound to evolve sooner or later. Sooner or later there was bound to be an accelerated press for civil rights. I am surprised it did not happen before it did. The impatient seeds, of course, were always about. Has any oppressed and repressed group endured outrage, without a yip, forever?

Angle: Do you think there has been real progress in the last twelve or thirteen years toward civil rights? Toward equality of status, toward equality of opportunity?

Brooks: There has been progress, yes, with most of the advance initiated or stimulated (pleasantly or unpleasantly) by the black man himself. But the thing that is stressed by the people who have their hearts and bodies on the line is that progress, a little bit more each year, is not enough. The point is that people are people and they have “inalienable rights.” (Where have I heard that before?) The civil rights situation is like a pregnancy. It will get worse, I believe, before it gets better. What the usual pregnancy comes to is a decent baby. That is what we all hope will be the end product of this stress. It is customary, at the end of a pregnancy, to have for your pains a decent baby.

Angle: A decent society in which no distinction is made between people of color. And that is the end or goal of the civil rights movement.

Brooks: Insofar as I know. But I must “announce” that there is an auxiliary problem. I must “announce” that many Negroes (they prefer to be called blacks, simply; for where, they ask, is “Negroland”?) no longer want any part of even wonderful whites. They have suffered so many crushes that now they are turning to themselves (finding “white” there too and feverishly scraping it out!). And they love blackness. They make a banner of blackness. What will be the end, as regards this intensifying compulsion? I am not able to tell you. When white and black meet today, sometimes there is a ready understanding that there has been an encounter between two human beings. But often there is only, or chiefly, an awareness that Two Colors are in the room.

Angle: Do you believe that the aforementioned goal is sustainable within the reasonable future? You see I’m using some pretty broad terms that are not very clearly defined.

Brooks: I do feel that it is attainable, but I couldn’t say when it will be achieved, because I don’t know what the people of either race will be doing in the near feature. I can’t say that the agitation will end in ten years, or twenty years, or one hundred years.

Angle: Would you care to say anything more on this subject? I am talking to you primarily as a writer, but I think the civil rights movement has a relationship to a writing career. Not perhaps yours, but you are not likely to find, I would think, very many Negro writers, unless basic education improves. You would agree, I suppose, that a certain fundamental education of good quality is essential as far as writing is concerned?

Brooks: Yes, I believe that a writer, as well as anyone else, should have as much education as he can manage. I urge those children who ask me “How do you become a writer?” to stay in school, of course, and along with that, to read as much as possible. The book-involvement afforded by today’s schoolhouse is not sufficient, because no curriculum is complete.

Angle: Is the poet affected by today’s social unrest?

Brooks: The poet, first and foremost an individual with a personal vision, is also a member of society. What affects society affects a poet. So I, starting out, usually in the grip of a high and private suffusion, may find by the time I have arrived at a last line that there is quite some public clamor in my product.

Angle: Let’s change the subject. We have been talking in terms of the Chicago environment. What do you think could be done in Chicago to further writing?

Brooks: Most of the colleges are becoming more and more interested in fostering creative writing, and many of them have writers-in-residence. I have creative writing classes, currently, in three colleges here: Elmhurst College, Columbia College, and Northeastern Illinois State College. There is a good deal of activity of that kind now in and about the city.

Angle: Do you think a person can be taught to write? In the light of your own experience?

Brooks: There are certain hard specifics that can be taught. Sonnet rules. Guards against free verse imperilings. Iambic pentameter. When I was twenty-three, I joined a poetry-writing group organized and led by Inez Cunningham Stark, of whom you may have heard. Dead now, she was a familiar art figure here for decades. At the time, she was a reader for the magazine Poetry. She came to the Southside Community Art Center and taught us many things that helped me most. At that time, I was subscribing too obediently to the older poets. She introduced me to many of the moderns.

Angle: Has this had a beneficial effect upon your writing?

Brooks: I believe so, yes. I learned to fear the cliché.

Angle: Let me ask you about Poetry magazine. Do you think it plays a significant role in the cultural life of Chicago?

Brooks: I hope Poetry magazine will always be here. (I especially like its habit of accepting manuscripts only from newcomers, in the summer months.) I do think that it would be fine to have other magazines too. I think we are in great need of more literary magazines of high quality.

Angle: The universities are doing something along that line.

Brooks: Tri-Quarterly at Northwestern, edited by Charles Newman, is important.

Angle: I think you’ve answered the main, primary questions that I wanted to ask. Now let me summarize your statements, and see if you would like to amplify or correct them. You find Chicago a perfectly satisfactory place in which to work, as a writer—except for the immediate problems of privacy which all of us have to struggle with. Am I correct in that? You have no quarrel with it.

Brooks: I favor this environment for myself. The kind of work that I am doing needs a busy city as a background.

Angle: And you do not feel you, as a Negro, are under any disadvantage in writing.

Brooks: I would say that you put that question a little differently before. As I remember, you asked me if being a Negro has adversely affected my career. That’s what I was answering. My answer continues to be no. Indeed, listen to this—once a well-known poet, Ralph Pomeroy, told me he envied me very much, because I “would never have to go in search of a theme!” To pursue the subject: when I was thirteen, or twelve, I began sending manuscripts to magazines. Most of them came back, and they should have come back. Not until I was twenty-one or twenty-two did I write any poems that I would want seen today.

I can’t say that the manuscripts came back because I was Negro; they came back because they were not good. That is my experience. Now, you might get different answers from other writers of my race, and properly so; but that is what I have to say about my own experience.

Angle: And you think that there are feasibly ways to encourage and stimulate writers—ways that we are not exploiting to anything like their possibilities at the present time, both in Chicago and the state of Illinois.

Brooks: Yes. I do have this evil, poisoning side-observation to make: There are too many books already!

Angle: Would you mind putting your convictions in your own words?

Brooks: I feel that awards and fellowships are very encouraging to writers. They offer writers the most important asset of all—time in which to write. And I feel that the advantages might be fostered by the state or by such organizations as the Illinois Arts Council, the Mayor’s Cultural Committee, and by the schools. I feel that a good deal of work can be done in the primary grades to encourage development of the talents that will be imposing in our immediate future.

Angle: That interesting. I never thought of that possibility in the primary grades. I have assumed that the secondary schools, the high schools, were the places in which to do it.

Brooks: I get a more exciting response from the elementary schools. I’ve sponsored contests in two elementary schools and two high schools. Cornell and Burnside schools and Hirsch and Marshall high schools. The younger children were basic, the high school students were careful. I think it’s good to get them while they are young and encourage . . .

Angle: Self-expression?

Brooks: I want to use the word “freshness.” It is good to foster the freshness that they have.

Angle: Well, maybe you’ll think of a better word. It’s pretty good as far as I’m concerned.

Brooks: I am a writer perhaps because I am not exactly a talker! It has always been hard for me to say exactly what I mean in speech. But if I have written a clumsiness, I may erase it.

Angle: How important do you think the correct use of the English language is for a writer?

Brooks: I feel that it is absolutely commendable! Is there a special reason for asking me this?

Angle: Yes. So many people seem to think that they don’t have to be very careful about the language, that on newspapers copy editors will clean it up and that in publishers’ offices tenses will be made to agree. So they write in slovenly fashion.

Brooks: Is that right? I certainly don’t approve of it. Language should be used with care and precision.

Angle: What about style? What about Ezra Pound? Many of his writings have no relationship to correct grammatical usages? Am I right?

Brooks: I thought that Ezra Pound was a master of English—that he knows what to do with words.

Angle: The grammar that he uses . . .

Brooks: Where there are “veerings,” I’m sure they are intended—done for a special reason. I can’t think of a poem just now that he has written in which anything was amiss. Grammatically speaking!

Angle: Let’s talk a little more about Chicago. We have here the mayor’s Committee for Economic and Cultural Development. It has a subcommittee concerned primarily with the cultural life in Chicago. What do you think that group, either by itself or by stimulating other groups, could do to make writing more productive? Is it a matter of awards, fellowships, or what? I think you have pointed out somewhere that we are much more inclined to support and subsidize music and the performing arts than we are to subsidize the individual creativeness of the author.

Brooks: That is true. I think that the beginnings must be made with the young. Let us take art to those who are not going to get it otherwise. I believe, for instance, creative writing workshops for the very many interested young would be rewarding. I am working in this way now through Oscar Brown’s Alley Theatre projects on the South Side of Chicago, and the talent I find is exciting, the eagerness inspiring. I don’t believe that such groups should be masterminded by their adult initiators indefinitely, and I’m assisting one of the young men in the group to take over my “duties” when a year has passed. I would like him to emphasize, especially, involving some of the very able members of South Side teen gangs.

Angle: I would like to apply my general question, if it is possible to do so, to creative writing. I remember attending a luncheon of a group which makes annual awards to writers. It had just given an author $1,000 in recognition of a newly published book. He remembered that the money would have done him five times as much good when he was writing the book as it did coming after publication. That’s the trouble with awards.

Brooks: I think the schools might do something along this line. As I have said, I sponsored poetry competitions in South Side and West Side schools a few years ago, and the children seemed very eager to write and to express their thoughts. The schools that allowed the contests seemed willing to cooperate. Teachers did the judging; I refuse to do that. Reports were gratifying. I think more of this sort of thing might be done throughout the city.

Angle: Would you think that the schools are the best medium, perhaps, for teaching and encouraging writing?

Brooks: Not necessarily. I think that people such as myself, in the field of writing, could very well become involved personally, as well as financially, and encourage and assist these young people from whom our future talents may be expected.

Angle: And you think this could be done throughout the state?

Brooks: Yes, I do. There are small orchestras here and there, and there are painting societies, and I think that writing should not be neglected. There is much “art money” in Illinois. Very little of it is apportioned to writers. Very little of it is spent in ways that will encourage a favorable climate for effective literary activity. Money should go straight to the people who can us it creatively and forthwith.

Angle: The orchestras and the painting groups do seem to have a readier entrée to supporting funds than has the writer.

Brooks: I wonder why that is?

Angle: I suppose it could be a matter of mechanics. The orchestra is an established and tangible thing. The writer is struggling in his own study with a manuscript which perhaps nobody knows about. How are you going to reach him, and help him at the critical stage when he really needs help? When he is collecting rejection slips he doesn’t know whether he can afford to go on or not. All too often he is working at a full-time job and trying to write at nights and over weekends. How can you encourage him to persist in the strong uphill fight that writing all too often turns out to be?

Brooks: I believe we have to make it known that we are willing to help. We writers who are more or less “established”—hateful word—must declare our disposition to assist, must draw out the hidden struggler. Fellowships might be given by the state or the city; and large awards will bring out many talented writers whose existence has never been suspected!

Angle: Of course such awards are being given, and the most substantial ones are being offered today by quite a few publishers.

Brooks: Good.

Angle: Unfortunately, we do not have many Illinois publishers. We have some very good ones, but nothing like the number you will find in New York. Of course, these awards are not limited to geographical locations.

Brooks: I suggested to the Illinois Arts Council, of which I was a member, that it would be a fine thing to give a very large award here, which would be called “The Illinois Arts Award”, or—

Angle: The “Illinois Award for Literature” . . . .

Brooks: That is what Robert Cromie, a Council advisor at the time, formally named it. I think I startled them by suggesting that $10,000 would not be too much to give. Perhaps that may happen some day.

Angle: And this kind of thing you believe to be the best means of fostering writing?

Brooks: Certainly one of the best. For there aren’t too many things you can do for a writer. The best thing you can do for a writer is to keep him from starving, and to provide some degree of free time for him.

Angle: I suppose you are right. Do you know of any state that is doing more along this line than Illinois?

Brooks: I don’t know anything about this, but I keep hearing that New York is doing a good deal.

Angle: New York has a very active arts council, although it is young. Our Illinois Arts Council is young too, and it might be induced to branch out in such directions as you have suggested. I don’t think I have asked you whether there were aspects of life in Chicago that you thought were unusually stimulating to a writer?

Brooks: We all know that the University of Chicago is a center of arts activities, but there are other centers here too. We have the Hull House Theatre, the Skyloft Players, and there are some very exciting things going on at Columbia College, the communication arts school. William Russo’s Center for New Music is there, and there is a local repertory there—the Chicago Opera Theatre; and there is the new Story Workshop which has quite a reputation throughout the country . . . .

Angle: Can you tell me a little more about the Story Workshop?

Brooks: I have not attended it, but the persons who have feel that it has helped them develop new sensitivities to words; that they are learning much about themselves, as well as about things that may be done with language.

Angle: How is the Story Workshop reached?

Brooks: It is a regular course now offered by Columbia College, and the students . . .

Angle: . . . Enroll and pay a tuition fee?

Brooks: Yes.

Angle: And do you have to be registered in Columbia College to do that?

Brooks: I believe so, yes.

Angle: And if I were an aspiring writer, I couldn’t go and attend, even though I paid a fee?

Brooks: I believe that the students are favored because John Schultz does not want a large group—he wants to manage no more than sixteen during the extent of the course. Enthusiastic interest such as yours, however, might induce Mirron Alexandroff, Columbia’s president, to try extending this operation.

Angle: I should like to ask you what may be my final question. You have already answered it but I would like to emphasize it again. For the awakened writer, or one who has some awareness of capacity in this field, the most important thing that he or she can do by way of preparation is to get as much of an education as possible. Am I right in that?

Brooks: I feel that a writer should get as much education as possible, but just going to school is not enough; if it were, all owners of doctorates would be inspired writers. But you and I know that many a Dr. Puffanblow writes a duller piece than does Susie Butterball, the high school sophomore. A writer needs to read almost more than his eyes can bear, to know what is going, and what has gone on, not only in his own field but in related fields. And a writer needs general knowledge. And a writer needs to write. And a writer needs to live richly with eyes open, and heart, too.

Angle: Is there anything that you would like to say further that we haven’t touched on?

Brooks: Well, here are answers to questions I am often asked. 1. What is the significance of the Pulitzer Prize? I would say that it is a pleasant salute. It is a smile, usually accepted. 2. Why do you write poetry? I like the concentration, the crush; I like working with language, as others like working with paints and clay, or notes. 3. Has much of your poetry a racial element? Yes, it is organic, not imposed. It is my privilege to present Negroes not as curios but as people. 4. What is your Poet’s Promise? “Vivify the contemporary fact,” said Whitman. I like to vivify the universal fact, when it occurs to me. But the universal wears contemporary clothing very well.

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