At first glance, she couldn’t even strain toward remarkable. In Chicago, there were legions of colored ladies who looked, moved, sounded just like her. Peppering the street-corner markets, they listened intently to the melons, gathered collard leaves into ragged bundles, shooshed flies away from browning bananas. In the hot middle of some Tuesday, they rode the clacking “L” train, squinting at posted maps during the entire trip, terrified at the thought of missing Pulaski or Garfield. They wore stockings two shades too drooped, the sturdy kind that latched to girdles, although the thick hose always seemed to be wound down to a fat roll just beneath their knees. Their eyes were shutting down, gradually dimming everything the sun did, and they pushed Coke-bottle specs up on their noses with wrinkled forefingers while they glared knowingly at you, fast gal, full as you are with the world.
They were the aunties, the m’dears, the ladies who pressed heads, those sweet whatever-their-names down the street from the Baptist church. They were the warm, insistent presence, a lack of electric. Once you focused and realized they were there—standing in front of and behind you in some line, chortling loud and off-key during Sunday service—there was a comfort about them. Just how they kept being everywhere.
On that blustery February day Gwendolyn Brooks, looking like so many colored ladies of a certain age, of a certain dusted stature, seemed a very small part of the chaos surrounding her. Blues Etc., one of Chi’s most storied music haunts, smelled like whiskey and winking, and on that day it was filled with people who were filled with words. For five full hours, beginning in the afternoon and seeping into midnight, dozens of poets would cross the rickety stage on their way to the mic. The event, “Neutral Turf,” was a benefit for Guild Books, a venerable Chicago institution. It was also a balls-out attempt to pull together members of Chicago’s fractured poetry community, which was in the midst of an unprecedented growth spurt. In its burgeoning midst were slammers and academes, formalists and freestylers, adolescents and orators, finger-pointers, ruthless competitors and unrepentant cravers of limelight. Everyone insisted that whatever they did was hotter, doper (that was a word then), more literate, relevant, contemporary, the next big thing. The organizers of Neutral Turf had devised an embarrassingly simple plan: get everyone mildly plastered and just giddy enough to realize that they were all doing the same damn thing.
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I had come without words. My goal, as I remember it, was to drink heavily and laugh at poets. It was winter, which meant that Chi was a windy little ivory hell, and a five-hour respite—complete with blinking neon, warm drinks, and hilariously overwrought metaphors—was definitely in order. ok, I was young. I assumed poetry was relegated to a dusty bookshelf that I couldn’t and didn’t care to reach. I planned to guffaw heartily at odes to soulful flowers clawing their way up through cracks in the concrete.
I didn’t know it yet, but Ms. Gwen was havin’ none of that. She sat in the front row, head scarf triangled and tied, stockings rolled, specs riding her nose. I’m not sure how I knew she was who she was. (Later I learned that every Chicago colored girl is hardwired to recognize Gwendolyn Brooks on sight.) She paid rapt attention to just about every poet, smiling and nodding to rhythms, and making a small “O” sound when a line or phrase reached her in that way. During breaks, she nurtured the newbies, hugged when a hug was warranted, sipped at something icy and bland. Three of the five hours had passed, and she was still there, present in the soft but insistent way of the colored woman. Everywhere, gently, brashly.
When I approached her, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. On a break between poets, I moved close and began, “Miss Brooks, I—” But a dreadlocked young woman—whose musical name, Inka Alasade, I remember to this day—had stepped to the mic and was about to begin her poem. Miss Brooks smiled and turned away from me to face the stage and listen. But she never let go of the hand I had extended in greeting: I’m here. I’ll be back. I am a vessel for what you need to say.
So I held tight to what I did not yet know was a lifeline. I had come to drink and laugh out loud at a language I didn’t think I needed to know, and now I held on as that language flowed from her fingers to mine.
I held on far beyond the eventual continuation of our conversation, during which I would begin to know poetry as necessary breath. I held tight past that day, that neon-splashed room, the procession of both fledgling and comfortably-rooted writers. I clutched that knowing hand while my city finally acknowledged poetry as its heartbeat, as fractured elements forged an alliance and began to build one of the country’s most formidable and adventurous creative communities. And in the center of that community, I burned like an ember, almost consumed by discovery.
I was from the West Side, the part of Chicago everyone tells you to stay away from. Gwendolyn lived on the South Side, where I was raised to believe the “bourgeoise” blacks resided. In Chicago terms, that can be two sides of a cultural and economic abyss. But I saw her often, usually at readings and events sponsored by Guild Books. In my hunger to be suddenly and completely immersed in all things literary and Chicago, I had volunteered to shelve books there on weekends. I met Eduardo Galeano. Guffawed heartily with Studs Terkel. And finally got to have my first real, unhurried conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks.
“I remember you,” she said, just over my shoulder.
I turned around and hugged her, just like that. It was a rash, spontaneous clutch, a way to greet a childhood friend or a lost-ago aunt, not exactly the recommended hello for a casual acquaintance who just happened to be a former poet laureate and official Queen of the Colored Girl. For the moment, those three words legitimized me. She could conceivably have remembered me for my tendency to respond out loud at readings to poems that moved me, or for my habit of sitting up front and center, gazing gape-mouthed at my heroes. Maybe she was recalling Neutral Turf. But I wanted to think that she’d been in an audience somewhere and that I’d been on stage, that she’d heard something I said, and that she liked it. I wanted to believe that, so I didn’t ask, just in case the answer was elsewhere.
We stood in a shadowed corner of the place while the busyness of a revolutionary bookstore went on around us. She pulled volumes down to show me, to tout the writer, to point to a favorite passage. We talked about Don L. Lee, Sterling Plumpp, Angela Jackson, Margaret Burroughs. I displayed an appalling lack of knowledge about what and who had come before me.
In my head swirled unrooted verses waiting for me to believe in them. My very first book, Life According to Motown, was still years away. It would be very much a first-generation-up-north book, a Chicago girl book, the first effort of a “stage poet” on the page, and it would come to exist primarily for two reasons:
1) Chicago stalwart Luis Rodriguez started Tia Chucha Books and asked me if I had a manuscript. Even though I didn’t, I said yes.
2) What Gwendolyn Brooks said to me that day in Guild Books.
I had uttered something that countless other writers have uttered before, a silence-filler of sorts, a throat-clearing that I assumed Ms. Brooks, and anyone else who had ever picked up a pen, would instantly relate to and agree with. I was craving the comfort of common ground when I said, “I have a real problem finding time to write.”
The corner of her mouth twitched, then spread into one of those indulgent smiles that knots you up a little inside. It’s the smile a teacher gives you before handing back a test paper with a grade lower than either of you expected.
Without looking directly at me, Gwendolyn said, “Your problem should be finding time for anything else.”
Silence, then. We continued to pluck certain books from certain shelves, examine glossy covers, read a little to ourselves. More people poured in, the program began, and she was quietly brilliant. When it was over and she was gone, I went home to my poems.
My poems, which suddenly were my home.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...