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APRIL 2005

Michael S. Harper, Poet Laureate Emeritus, Rhode Island

Studied Poetry: I’m not a native Rhode Islander but came to Brown University in 1970. I came from San Francisco where I thought I’d remain since it was the city I preferred to live in.  I’d lost my first neighborhood, Brooklyn, NY, at thirteen.  It took me a decade or more to recover.  The critic Robert Bone pointed this out to me at a program we shared on the artistry of Romare Bearden. I was born in the same house as my mother, and delivered at home by the same man, her father and my grandfather.

My mother taught me to read before kindergarten; my first book A Thousand and One Nights. I graduated from high school in Los Angeles, 1955, the year Charlie Parker died: Susan Miller Dorsey High School was the name of the school, built on an anti-earthquake plan, and named for the first superintendent of Los Angeles City School District, a graduate of Vassar College.

I attended Dorsey from 1952-1955 and never returned to the campus until thirty-one years later, on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s natal day. I gave a talk and a poetry reading and a reception was held in the library of the administration building, the only two-storied building on campus. “Dear Michael S. Harper: Welcome Home” was written on a banner strewn across the library proper. I realized on entering I’d never been in the room as a student, a kind of epiphany, and a wake-up call to my lost neighborhood of Brooklyn. In “Civics” class in 1954 on my brother’s birthday, the Brown v. Board of Education decision was announced in the news. We never discussed the decision in Civics. Though I was a good student by test I went on to City College in Los Angeles, and after a few years and part time work to supplement necessities, including the purchase of my own automobile, became a transfer student at Los Angeles State College. Both City and State Colleges shared the same campus on Vermont Avenue. I studied a premedical course and took courses across the curriculum. By the time I got to Brown I had taught in several community colleges, at Reed and Lewis & Clark Colleges in Portland, Oregon, and published a few poems in various journals. I began as a playwright, then met Henri Coulette, a poet, and Wirt Williams, a novelist, at L. A. State. Both had attended the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. I wanted to travel to Paris after my undergraduate days: Richard Wright had recently died, and I had begun to think about international politics with the Sharpeville Incident in South Africa. When I applied for a passport I received a draft notice instead. Hurriedly I applied, in early January, 1961, to Paul Engle’s Writers Workshop and entered ‘the Athens of the Midwest’ just before JFK’s inauguration. I was later to teach his son, JFK, Jr. at Brown in a literature course: South African Literature in English in the early 80’s.

Writing: My career began in the U.S. Postal Service at the Terminal Annex in downtown Los Angeles, working ‘airmail’ and mastering the canceling machine as a part time clerk on Tour 3. My father worked in the registry section, and later invented ‘express mail’ as a supervisor. I remember working with Charles Mingus’s sister in ‘airmail;’ she and I were locked in a dysfunctional elevator on lunch break, and I had to assist her climbing out the transom when the elevator stopped dead. She was pregnant at the time and took aim at my posturing, reminding me that most of the clerks in airmail were readers, many with Ph.D’s: she told me to stop carrying Dostoevski’s The Idiot in my back pocket. I remembered that Wright himself had worked in the post office in Chicago; when I wasn’t writing one act plays on musicians I plotted out the antics of clerks waiting for their off-days so they could write a novel or a collection of stories. I began to listen to my co-workers for subject matter. On the facing table was a deadline, and regular work, and I sometimes could select other part-timers to work our mandatory four hours before the helicopter landed and took off from the roof of the TA to LAX. I wrote many a draft while mimicking the tales of mail handlers and clerks.

Inspiration: From books and movies. I always had a paper route, learned to navigate the city. I was a loner. And I read in the open stacks in the LACC and LA State Libraries: the same library before LA State moved to a Mexican neighborhood on the San Bernardino Freeway. Three changes of buses and streetcars until I bought my own automobile: 2-3 hours on public transportation, each way. Like my earlier days on the New York subway system I rode a lot and watched people.

Mentors:Henri Coulette was my first poetry teacher, a recent graduate of the Writers Workshop, and a native Angeleno. His first poem I studied was one called “Intaglio” written in iambic pentameter, about ‘three girls and a boy in a paper hat,’ whom the poet allowed to grow up in the storyline of the poem. Later, I met the woman who’d drawn the ‘intaglio,’ Sylvia Petrie, whose husband was a classmate in the Writers Workskop, Paul Petrie, who spent most of his career at URI in Kingston, RI. He’s now retired and I never met him but he was good enough, as a poet, to be poet laureate. Coulette, Wirt Williams, and Christopher Isherwood were my three influences as an undergraduate. Isherwood didn’t believe in teaching ‘writing’ but brought his friends to class he taught as his specialty, “Literature Between the Wars,” all English writers: Auden, Huxley, Charles Laughton (his next door neighbor), Elsa Lancaster, Gerald Heard, Stephen Spender. Isherwood’s father died in World War I, which he never mentioned; he encouraged me to write plays about characters I knew or invented; then he’d suggest I send them off to Encounter Magazine, which was edited by S. Spender. Within a week I had all manuscripts returned, mostly without comment. With so many visitors dropping by unannounced you were fearful of missing class. Even after working graveyard shift.

Favorite Poets and Artists: Musicians to begin with: Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, John Coltrane. “Bags & Trane” because they were innovators and were also pioneers. Then I realized I wasn’t going to be a musician I just kept reading in the open stacks, from A to Z.  Irwin Swerdlow taught me O’Neill and his specialty, the Provincetown Players. He’d taught at Dillard University in New Orleans, and loaned me his signed copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I took his “Epic of Search” and read all the epics in translation, from Tolstoy to Balzac and Zola. We quarreled about T. S. Eliot’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” TSE’s review of O’Neill’s play, which was terrible. Swerdlow had the same draft board as Richard Wright in Brooklyn. When I went to Iowa I went in mid-year having missed the ESQUIRE symposium on fiction: Mailer, Baldwin, Philip Roth, in the spring of 1960. Then Roth gave me nine units of “C” in fiction and a seminar. My paper was on William Golding and the fable. Isherwood had loaned me three of Golding’s novels published in the UK; also the plays of Arnold Wesker. Roth accused me of writing a ‘pornographic novella’ before Portnoy’s Complaint, an eighty-page tour de force told from the point of view of an altar boy full of catechism and fantasy. Obviously I had read James Joyce and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which was published in the same issue of Partisan Review (1957) with the one essay on Golding’s work reviewed in America, and that volume stolen from the library. So Mr. Roth and I went to war over politics and aesthetics. No doubt his intentions were honorable; mine were not. I knew that Baldwin, born in 1924 in Harlem, and me, born in Brooklyn, 1938 did not know each other; in fact, we were not from the same neighborhood. Baldwin was from DeWitt Clinton and I from P.S. 25. And the story goes on, but not here.

Gwendolyn Brooks gave me my career by selecting my first book, Dear John, Dear Coltrane from the slush pile at Pittsburgh where she was one of the judges. Brooks also taught me how to write a concise ballad; her “We Real Cool” is the best urban ballad I know; my first ballad was on Bessie Smith. I stole the refrain line from Billie Holiday’s “Love & Romance”—Brooks wrote me an unsolicited letter about my book, then entitled Black Spring, which I had to change because of conflict with Henry Miller’s novel, a novel which I’d actually read. Then I was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry. I did not win, but I had my ‘fifteen minutes of fame.’ I was one of the initiators of a Ralph Ellison Festival on his retirement from NYU as Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at Brown University. I also published Robert Hayden’s American Journal (Effendi Press) in limited edition, when Hayden was consultant-in-poetry at the Library of Congress, now poet laureate. And I selected Sterling A. Brown’s Collected Poems for the National Poetry Series in 1980, then presented a copy of the book to Gunnar Myrdal, author of An American Dilemma, and resident of Stockholm, Sweden. Brooks, Ellison, Hayden, Brown. All were pioneers. All were touched by The Federal Writers Project of their various neighborhoods. I also had the pleasure of writing their citations as honorands at Brown University, along with Stevie Wonder, Nathan A. Scott, Jr., Maya Angelou, and Chinua Achebe.

Challenges:The birth of my three children, and the death of two others of hyaline membrane disease/respiratory distress syndrome.

Professionally, the friendship of President Howard Swearer, Brown University, who named me to the Israel J. Kapstein Professorship in English. He was the model for national service I most admired. I was never a joiner. I refused to pledge fraternities or participate in hazing. I lived in San Francisco during the 60’s as the only city I felt comfortable in without any sense of belonging. Having lost my first homeland I found I could live anywhere: as long as I could ‘hear the people talk’ and not look back: someone might be gaining on you.

The titles of my books are my indebtedness to storytelling. I usually had a title before I’d written the script so finding the texts was my ‘equipment for living.’ I been down so long that down don’t worry me; ‘and when I worries, I sleep.’

Advice:Metaphor is the most important conveyance for civic responsibility, what we call ‘citizenship’ where mistakes are opportunities. Meet Life’s Terms But Never Accept Them. Or, as Jean Toomer, author of Cane and Essentials would say, “Let the doing be the exercise, not the exhibition.”

Your competition is the ancestors in the best libraries anywhere; read Lincoln’s speeches for economy and originality; read the law so you can construct good sentences. Revise...revise. Always trust your instincts if you have no other guidelines, but do your own research. And don’t be afraid to’ “change the gender” (which means to give your best rhetorical impulse that challenges your own “mechanical” thinking.) #



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