Gwen Brooks Writers Conference — 2002

Gwen Brooks Writers Conference — 2002


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



I talked a bit of theory about “sounding”–how text was stripped of sound and gesture,

and how 21st century technology is making it possible for us

 to put sound and gesture back together with the sense



Books by Gwendolyn Brooks

In Montgomery and Other Poems A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (Kent) / A Street in Bronzeville (1945) / Selected Poems (1963) / In the Mecca  (1968)

 Riot (1969) /  The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1970), Blacks (1987), and Children Coming Home (1992) / Maud Martha (1953)

Report from Part One: An Autobiography  (1972) /  Report from Part Two: Autobiography(1996) / Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology (1971).

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chicago report on

gwendolyn brooks writers conference

wednesday, 23 october to saturday, 26 october, 2002

By Kalamu ya Salaam



Part 1 of 2

we left the shirt-sleeve weather of new orleans headed for chi in october. i had my coat, and needed it. it was rainy and a little colder than cool when we stepped out the airport at midway–speaking of which, the walk from the gate to the exit was so long they should have provided a shuttle flight to go pick up your bags.

i always dig the gwen brooks conference. at 12 years running, this conclave is now the dean of black writers conferences. haki madhubuti and staff at chicago state university are to be congratulated for staying the course, for doing what it takes to sustain and develop an annual event such as this.

the gwen brooks conference is a prime example of haki’s exemplary dedication to institution building. 2002 is also the 35th anniversary of haki’s third world press. while others give speeches and write about revolution and black self determination, haki quietly and consistently walks the walk that others only dream and talk about doing.

there are many reasons that it is difficult to sustain a program like the gwen brooks writers conference, not the least of which is financial resources. what haki has done is staked out territory at chicago state and used the cache of his name and accomplishments as a foundation on which he is erecting a program second to none. others, such as skip gates at harvard, may have more money and more institutional academic credibility, but no one has done for black literature what haki has done with the gwen brooks writers conference. year after year, haki has presented the major movers and shakers of black literature.

and though there may be quibbles about why not present so-and-so or how come this one gets invited back on the regular while that one only appears once or twice in 12 years, what there can be no equivocating about is the fact this conference covers the waterfront of black literature. additionally, haki and staff are building an mfa program in creative writing at chicago state university, a de facto black institution of higher education on the southside of chicago. this is not easy work. just putting a capable staff together can take years, and, for various reasons including interpersonal dynamics, what looks good on paper, might not work in practice. plus, you know we all have our personal biases, we like what we like; we have history, both positive and negative, with various individuals. what is remarkable about what haki is doing is that personal history and political differences are no impediments. this conference is dedicated to the literature and as such haki invites writers of all stylistic stripes, all genres, differing ideologies and individual identities, cross generations and without gender exclusions or exclusivities.

haki has also been attempting to establish a summer writer’s retreat that was traditionally held in upstate new york but which was moved to chicago this year because the new york retreat center had been sold. initially, haki planned to keep the retreat and the conference as separate events but scheduling and resource pressures led to holding the retreat workshops on wednesday and thursday, while the conference as a whole ran from wednesday through saturday, and was headquartered in the student union building.

one other wrinkle was construction and remodeling work going on at csu meant that the facility where the conference usually meets was unavailable so retreat workshops and conference sessions were located in different locations–the two workshops i led on creative non-fiction were in one of the inner sanctums of the library, deep within the maze of book stacks; without a map or a guide, you weren’t going to find it.

i think the retreat suffered from the diffusion of energy as there was no central meeting place for retreat participants and thus no centering of energies. up at otisville, new york there was always a time when everyone was together. we were isolated and that isolation encouraged folk to talk with one another because there literally was nothing else to do. such was not the case at csu. i missed that.

we went straight from the airport to my first workshop and the workshop went well. i introduced the story circle concept, which i learned from working with high schoolers in our students at the center program back in new orleans. story circles were introduced to us by john o’neal, one of the founders of the free southern theatre. essentially, you sit all the participants in a circle and you take turns telling a story based on something that your either experienced or witnessed. the theme or focus point is agreed upon in advance. each person has a set time period to speak, we used three minutes. when one person is speaking everyone else listens and there is no interrupting. we move around the circle until everyone has had a chance to express themselves.

the concept of story circles may sound rather simplistic, but it is an extremely effective method of building community and helping people to reach deep within themselves and bring to the surface ideas and emotions, events and experiences that we all have within but often don’t consciously recall on a day-to-day basis. in the process of telling one’s story, we not only get to know each other better, but we also learn ourselves better as we compare and contrast our stories with those of others.

participants in my workshop ranged from beginning writers to veteran writers like sam greenlee (the spook who sat by the door) and detroit-based writer/activist ibn pori. our workshop went well and from the reports of other workshop leaders, their workshops also went well. it would have been good to have some wrap-up sessions when we were all together so we could share our writer’s retreat experiences and reactions. on thursday, the hip-hop panel opened the conference. moderated by quraysh ali lansana, the panelists were: duriel haris, robert “scoop” jackson, bakari kitwana and oscar brown jr. the presentations were all over the place in a delightfully discursive way. bakari was the most analytical, offering questions and insights based on his important new book on the hip-hop movement, “the hip hop generation: the crisis in african american culture.” duriel, who grew up on club music (mainly, and not surprisingly, “house music”) personalized her presentation in telling us about relating to and supporting a nephew who is into producing hip-hop.

scoop jackson, who has a new book coming out on nike shoes, raised the crucial question, flowing out of the new movie “brown sugar”: when did you fall “out” of love with hip hop? jackson noted that many folk newly into their thirties were now facing the disconcerting realization that they no longer loved the music they grew up on, not because they don’t want to but because they perceive that the vibrancy and vitally of hip hop is gone. in terms of the impact of his presentation as a performance, all of the panelists were eclipsed by oscar brown jr., who sang, rapped, emoted, story-told, insighted and enthralled the audience as only an experienced and hip raconteur can do. in fact, it wasn’t so much what he said, as it was the way he say it and the obvious deep and sincere sharing that he did. you didn’t have to agree with him to be moved by him.

after that panel, i had to move over to the library for the second day of my workshop. we were supposed to end at 1pm, in time to hustle back over to the student union to hear omar tyree deliver a keynote address, but our session ran over as everyone shared work that they were doing, and i talked with participants afterwards.

at 2:15 i participated on the anthology panel with keith gilyard who talked about putting together the poetry anthology “spirit & flame,” and paul coates of black classic press who published ethelbert miller’s new anthology, “beyond the frontier.” i really, really like keith gilyard. his spirit, his intelligence, his humbleness. and paul and i go back decades, knowing each other first as activists and then as followers of literature. each of them was on point in talking about the process, problems and particularities of putting together anthologies. typically to my obstinate ways, i got up and talked a bit of theory about “sounding”–how text was stripped of sound and gesture, and how 21st century technology is making it possible for us to put sound and gesture back together with the sense (cognitive meaning) of language, hence text, sound and light defined in neo-griot terms as books/internet (text), recordings (sound), and digital movies (light). plus, i screened two video shorts: “a luta continua” and “respect your elders.”

a luta was written by and features paulette richards, the associate director of nommo literary society, our writing workshop in new orleans. respect was a story telling piece featuring aimee everett, a high school junior in our students at the center program. both were well received. some, indeed, many may ask what this has to do with anthologies: well, i believe that anthologies of the future will not simply be books. the future appreciation of our literature will probably more accurately reflect the wholistic sense of black cultural work which emphasizes interrelatedness rather than discreet self-contained units. as i tried to quickly indicate, gesture and sound are essential to a full appreciation of our use of language, to our fullest creation of literature. and though i define myself as a writer, i do not restrict the term “writing” simply to mean to scratching symbols on paper or on a computer screen.

i view writing as a concrete means of recording speech and experiences, ideas and emotions. my appreciation is that making a movie or an album is another way of writing, and that each of the three modes has it’s strengths and weaknesses: text emphasizes sense, sound emphasizes emotions, and sight emphasizes judgements/aesthetics (our concepts of goodness and beauty). but you know, i only had twenty minutes, so i riffed a few bars of neo-griot conceptualizations and showed the videos and sat down.

afterwards, the brothers in the audio visual department made a monitor available to me and we wheeled it into the small room being used as a lounge by the participating writers. i would spend most of the following day in that room, talking with fellow writers and playing videos. but back to thursday. there was a “media panel” featuring chicago area media professionals. the panel was moderated by brenda eatman aghahowa and featured: richard steele, melody-spann-cooper, dawn turner trice and vernon jarrett, who is considered the dean of chicago black journalists. i enjoyed the panel for the glimpse and gist it gave of print and broadcast journalists in chicago.

radio station owner melody spann-cooper spoke about being raised in radio at wvon by her father purvis spann. spann-cooper’s presentation pinpointed one of the major ways in which american entitled-ness and power gets passed on from generation to generation. one learns early from one’s parents and from being immersed in the day to day workings of a given profession; unfortunately, most of we people of color seldom are immersed in a self-determined environment, in an environment where ownership and control are in our parents hands, and thus, although we may have a yearning for self-determination in the form of economic ownership, there is no day to day example. instead, most of us end up in neo-slavery, working 9-to-5 for someone else’s benefit. in fact, rather than preparing us to build and develop our own communities, far too many institutions of higher learning, do nothing but turn out little wheels: bright young people whose most fervent wish is to secure a “good job.”

melody spann-cooper wanted more, wanted to own a radio station. and, as is typical of the american system, once folk of color get in a position to be at the table, they chance the rules of the game. individual ownership no longer can compete with corporate mega-media conglomerates. there is a whole interlocking question of the concentration of media wealth and productive capacity, de-regulation of broadcasting, republican policies, capital concentration, etc. all of which work together to mitigate the effectiveness of individual ownership in a time of economic globalization.

i think of chicago as the black nationalist capital of america and that ideological impulse manifests itself in terms of an emphasis on entrepreneurship. while the other panelists offered insights, what they offered is consistent with what one would hear in any major city where black journalists and writers are working within the existing system. what is delightful about chicago is that one will always hear at least one someone, and usually more than one, advocating a fierce dedication to self-determination that runs as a parallel universe to those who are simply trying to succeed within the mainstream.

this black fierceness was particularly evident in vernon jarrett who walked away from the kind of media jobs that many would damn near die to get. jarret t’s finely honed intelligence is unsurrendering in his dedication to his people. and though jarrett could talk for days about credentials and accolades, high profile positions and rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of industry, he chooses to focus on his personal experiences of sitting at the feet of and learning from black giants such as dubois and robeson, and sharing the importance of his work and reading programs with high school youth.

i believe that it is critically important for us to spotlight the insights and work of people such as melody spann-cooper and vernon jarrett. it is relatively easy to feature those who are doing well by mainstream standards and to overlook those in the trenches, carrying the torch for community building and self-determination among our people. and on a program such as the gwen brooks writers conference, i believe it would amount to treason, were this emphasis to be absent. but, hey, this is chicago, haki is at the helm, and no way is there not going to be an emphasis on kujichagulia (self-determination).

i love this about the conference. indeed, emphasizing self-determination is what gwen brooks was all about not just in the focus of her writing, which privileged and profiled the lives of the black working class, but also in ms. brooks own daily doings which ranged from holding workshops in her home and working in a community-based program teaching gang members to appreciate reading and writing, to personally funding writing programs and prizes, and moving her writings from harper, a mainstream major, to third world press, the leading black independent publisher. no other black writing conference has this focused insistence and example of self-determination. later that evening we had a poetry reading featuring, in order of appearance: keith gilyard, kelly ellis, gwendolyn mitchell, kalamu ya salaam, and sterling plumpp. we were on a strict time clock because there was the “open mic” competition to follow. i like listening to my poetic peers read, even if i’m not stylistically moved by their work. i love the opportunity to listen to and learn from how others do their thing. some have a fine ear for phrasing and word combinations, some display a laser-specific intelligence and attention to the nuances of observation and description, others are just plain funny or witty in their declaiming of life’s ups and downs. occasionally, i will hear someone who gets to fresh approaches or unique, and often-oft-kilter, characterizations of familiar situations.

on this particular panel, it was kelly ellis who grabbed my attention. she read a hybrid piece in a style sometimes called “prose poetry.” there was a narrative line about a driving trip south to new orleans. but it was the phrasing and the attention to details, what she selected to tell us and what she left out, the way she hooked up the particulars, mashing and mixing insights and reactions. if this were visual art, it would probably be a mixed-media collage. more so than in her handling of more traditional poetic modes, this piece stirred my imagination and i was extremely glad to hear her take the risk of doing something different.

keith gilyard read a long poem about a friend returned from jail. there were some fine lines in that piece. gwen mitchell read introspective portraits that focused on women and sterling plumpp extended his blues aesthetic into the realms of jazz. hearing sterling, it became immediately apparent to me that plumpp is heavily influenced by sonny rollins. later i asked plumpp about my observation and plumpp acknowledged that yes, rollins was an inspiration. a lot of people think that black poetry that is music-based is simply a case of singing a song or including song titles and musician names as references, but a blues and/or jazz aesthetic in poetry is much more profound than mere “listing” or even performance imitation.

those of us really into the music, understand that the music is multifaceted. plumpp’s work is evidence of someone who understands the subtleties and nuances of the music.

   photo left: Sterling Plumpp

 i did two pieces: one build on variations of lionel hampton’s “flying home” and the second a prose poem called “miles davis” that musically utilizes miles’ treatment of monk’s round midnight. there was a wonderful moment while i was performing. keith gilyard, who plays trumpet, was sitting next to the podium. i got to the part of the song where there is a staccato riff and trane blows in, i could hear keith scatting the phrase in unison with me. that’s what i’m talking about, not just general references, but music specific. keith and i laughed about it afterwards.

end of part 1 see

Chicago Report 2  

Literary Production


    A Street in Bronzeville (1945)     Annie Allen (1949)     Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956)     The Bean Eaters (1960)     Selected Poems (1963)     We Real Cool (1966)     The Wall (1967)     In the Mecca (1968)     Family Pictures (1970)     Riot (1970)     Black Steel: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (1971)     The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971)     Aloneness (1971)     Aurora (1972)     Beckonings (1975)     Black Love (1981)     To Disembark (1981)     The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (1986)     Blacks (1987)     Winnie (1988)

    Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (1989)

    Children Coming Home (1991)

    In Montgomery and Other Poems (2003)

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update 14 December 2011




Home  Kalamu ya Salaam 

Related files:   Gwen Brooks Bio  In Montgomery Reviews   In Montgomery Contents   Black Love  Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle    Duke Ellington    Wendy Stand Up with Your Proud Hair!  

Gwen Brooks Writers Conference — 2002   Chicago Report 2

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