The First Time: Cecily Parks hears Gwendolyn Brooks

Today’s guest for The First Time column, in which poets talk about the first poetry reading they attended, is Cecily Parks, the author of Field Folly Snow (University of Georgia Press, 2008) and the chapbook Cold Work (Poetry Society of America, 2005). Her poem “Silviculture” appears in issue 16 of Memorious.

 One Sunday Evening

I went to high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts where boys were required to wear blazers and ties, and girls were required to wear dresses, skirts, or slacks with blazers, like the boys.  On Sunday evenings after dinner, we congregated in what was called the Memorial Building and sat on the floor while teachers or student groups made announcements about the coming week.  One Sunday evening, Gwendolyn Brooks read her poems to us.

It makes me sad that I can’t remember what year this was.  It makes me sad to think that I probably wasn’t that interested in hearing Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former Poet Laureate, read us her poems.  In high school I was good at biology and planned on becoming a veterinarian.  When I read books, I read novels about animals.  When my English teacher suggested that I write about The Waste Land my senior year, I told him that Eliot’s poem would be too hard for me to analyze.  (What karma I flung into the universe in that moment, only to have the sentiment that “poetry is hard” boomerang back to me innumerable times over the past thirteen years that I’ve been writing and teaching poetry.)

I remember Gwendolyn Brooks as a tiny, old woman with a fierce speaking voice. Was this true?  How many readings had she given at that point?  Did she find it at all remarkable to be reading her poems to a group of privileged students dressed in Sunday School clothes in rural Massachusetts, or is it just me who finds it remarkable?  I teach Gwendolyn Brooks in my poetry classes now.  I love her poems.  I can’t remember anything she read that night, with the exception of what is perhaps her most famous poem, “We Real Cool.”

The Memorial Building, where Gwendolyn Brooks read, was dedicated in the 1950s to the boys from our school who died in World War II.  When the reading ended, we did what we did every Sunday night.  We streamed out of the Memorial Building into the grassy quad and the night.  Mountains and farms encircled us.  Couples disappeared into the woods for a few precious minutes before returning to their dormitories.  Our curfew bore down on us, as it always did.  In my dormitory, my bedroom window overlooked a graveyard of tilting, smooth-stoned graves.  Gwendolyn Brooks, who must have been in her late seventies when I saw her read, would die in 2000, at the age of 83.  My classmates and I were teenagers.  We believed we would never grow old and would never die.

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