Life on Paper
Who “does life” as a “poet”? One lives as a human being. In that activity, life “as a poet” is included, I guess, along with life as a black-eye pea boiler, life as a baby-maker, life as a lecturer, life as a Listener, life as a typist-for-five-lawyers. I never gave up love, lunch, book-reading, movies, restaurant-romping, strolling, friend-visiting, for “life-as-a-poet”-ing. Poeting has been, always, part of this life, my life as a warm-hearted, resilient, open-eyed human being being human.
— Gwendolyn Brooks, written on a slip of paper in her archives
Where does the poet end and the person begin? When does the draft conclude and the final work emerge? What does it mean for a poem — or a life — to be finished? Spending time with someone’s personal archives tests our notions of finality and completion, and of the relationship between materiality and the self. Gwendolyn Brooks’s literary archives, now in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reveal that she clustered and bundled papers as well as life experiences: she tucked notes inside pieces of paper folded into makeshift pockets, slid photographs behind other photographs in albums, and pasted clippings on top of each other in scrapbooks. She added further layers of meaning with her copious annotations, like the detailed notes she wrote on the backs of many of her photographs (given in quotation marks in the accompanying images) in order to preserve the knowledge of the people and events they captured. Through these intellectual and material additions and recombinations, Brooks destabilized the idea of finality, transforming seemingly finished, self-contained documents into ongoing conversations. As a result, her papers depict, and celebrate, both writing and living as works in progress.
Many of the artifacts and photographs reproduced in this issue are from the Poetry Foundation’s forthcoming exhibit, Matter in the Margins: Gwendolyn Brooks at 100, curated by Anna Chen, June 16–August 25, 2017.
Anna Chen is Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She holds a PhD in English literature from Yale University, and has published on both medieval and modern manuscripts.