My new book—A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS--is an idea that began with American poet, Etheridge Knight. I met him in 1978 when a Memphis museum sponsored artists in the city schools. The museum dispatched Etheridge Knight to Mrs. Fee’s 6th grade class at Snowden Elementary. There I sat in my desk on a front row, while poet Phyllis Tickle introduced her friend to us. Mrs. Tickle called Mr. Knight a “Native Mississippian.” She said he had survived the Korean War and discovered his writing genius while serving time in an Indiana prison. She also shared that it was poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, who helped Etheridge Knight publish his first book of poems.
During my 6th grade year, I was a disciple of Paul Laurence Dunbar. My parents owned his collected works and “In the Morning” was my favorite poem. My Mama would recite it daily as my morning, “wake-up call.”
In the Dunbar tradition, I filled my journals with folksy poems written in the language of my community. When I encountered Mr. Knight in ‘78, I had never met a writer in person, but I loved poetry and listened with interest as he read his work. His voice was like the grumble of a gravel road and he did not feel like a stranger. Decked in a tweed cap and a scruffy beard, he looked like my Daddy.
Ehteridge Knight read his poem, “The Idea of Ancestry.” Only a few phrases made sense to me. However, I received a grand understanding in 1978. I learned that if I wanted, I too, could publish poems and live my life as a poet like Etheridge Knight.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. I am a middle-aged writer, who remembers 6th grade. I remember Etheridge Knight—his voice, his poem, and old tweed cap. Perhaps the poet’s struggle to overcome and his triumph with words could inspire a new generation of readers. In the summer of 2015—an idea took root. I would write a children’s book about Etheridge Knight.
Since the poet died in 1991, I would need Phyllis Tickle’s memories to write his biography. I went to the white pages and found her telephone number. A voice filled with joy answered the phone. After I introduced myself, she apologized saying, “I can’t talk long.” Lung cancer required that she use her breath judiciously. Our call ended. She said, “Send me your questions. Email is best.”
When I found her in 2015, poet Phyllis Tickle was a retired Episcopal lay minister, who had served as Publishers Weekly’s first religion editor. Our email exchange would soon alter my writing plans.
In my first note, I asked about her connection with Etheridge Knight. She called him, “the best of all of us.” Mrs. Tickle explained that Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, was his “faithful and stabilizing friend,” who mentored him and visited the Tickle home when Etheridge lived in Memphis.
Mrs. Tickle was uncertain of the year, but in her reply, she was eager to share a story about Gwendolyn Brooks. She and her husband, Dr. Sam Tickle, were a charismatic pair, famous for hosting literary salons. In honor of Miss Brooks and her Memphis visit, the Tickles filled their living room with a sagacious crowd of poets, playwrights, and professors. Because they understood a Pulitzer Prize poet was a “big thing,” the couple’s four youngest children darted across the room with EEKS and shrills.
When Etheridge arrived with Gwendolyn, the poised poet sat down in a harp-back chair. From the wooden seat, Miss Brooks engaged in a talk about craft. She read poems and enchanted the children with the tinkling sound of her girlish giggle.
Somewhere in the middle of a giggle, Miss Brooks leaned back and a chair spoke broke. Phyllis Tickle wrote to me, “We thought the dadgummed chair should be reverenced afterward as something close to a sacred object.”
The Tickles never repaired the chair. Phyllis wrote, “That would be a sacrilege!”
It is this memory that turned my attention toward Gwendolyn Brooks. If the life of Etheridge Knight was worthy of young readers—surely his literary mother deserved the highest elevation and a biography of her own.
I dropped all writing interests in 2015 to research the life of Gwendolyn Brooks. And when Phyllis Tickle died in the Fall of that year, I searched journals for another soul who could offer a golden understanding of the Pulitzer Prize poet.
I found my golden sage in Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, a professor from Spelman College. She wrote essays and books about Miss Brooks. Already late for a luncheon, Dr. Gayles answered her phone in a rush. When I explained the reason for my call, she praised my ambition and offered an affirming oracle to send me on my way.
Dr. Gayles said, “Gwen has reached for you as an instrument…You are the giver of a gift.”
Alice Faye Duncan © November 2018
Thank you, Alice Faye, for sharing this glimpse and congratulations on your lovely tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks.
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