Poetry read-in ‘keeps people’s souls alive’

Bradley’s English Department hosted a Gwendolyn Brooks poetry read-in Wednesday in Michel Student Center in order to honor the third Poet Laureate of Illinois. photo by Maddie Gehling

Bradley’s English Department hosted a Gwendolyn Brooks poetry read-in Wednesday in Michel Student Center in order to honor the third Poet Laureate of Illinois.
photo by Maddie Gehling

To celebrate her centennial birthday, Bradley’s English Department hosted a Gwendolyn Brooks poetry read-in all day Wednesday in Michel Student Center amidst the hustle and bustle of a regular day on campus.

Brooks was the third Poet Laureate of Illinois – before Bradley professor of English Kevin Stein assumed the position in 2003 – and published a number of poems about her life in Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Brooks [has] a long association with trying to bring poetry and art to people who wouldn’t normally be interested in or have access to [that],” Danielle Glassmeyer, associate professor of English and an organizer of the read-in, said.

For eight hours, students, faculty and passers-by stopped in the Student Center Atrium to listen to Brooks’ poems read back-to-back selections by their peers. Some participants signed up for time slots in advance; others were impromptu.

“A read-in is a classic move that’s associated with the Civil Rights Movement,” Glassmeyer said. “In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English is having an African American read-in this month [across the country], so there’s a national tie-in, as well.”

According to event organizers, the Brooks read-in was meant to educate the entire Bradley community about her life and works.

“So many students are unaware of Gwendolyn Brooks and her importance, and the fact that in Illinois, we had an African American Poet Laureate,” Anne Herbert, English Department tenured lecturer and an organizer of the read-in, said. “Her poetry is fascinating; it’s really stunningly beautiful.”

More than 100 people participated in the read-in – whether by sitting and listening to poems or reading one themselves.

“We did talk about doing this in the Wyckoff Room of the library – a place more quiet and private – but we consciously chose here because of the sense of ‘guerilla poetry’,” Glassmeyer said. “It pops up in unexpected places. People will walk by [on the balcony] and they’ll spend two or three poems up there.”

For Herbert, the event meant bringing her students out of their comfort zones.

“It’s an exciting time for me because I think it’s great to introduce the Bradley community [to Brooks],” Herbert said. “I teach Introduction to African American Literature, so I got my students involved by either reading a poem here … or throughout the semester, we’re going to read more [of Brooks] poems and perform them in class.”

Throughout the spring semester, the English Department plans to share more information about Brooks’ poetry and her legacy. The department is currently holding a Brooks-inspired poetry competition and will also distribute posters and pamphlets featuring Brooks’ poems and facts about her life.

In April, the department plans to host a Gwendolyn Brooks celebration featuring visits from former students of Brooks, as well as poetry readings from the competition’s winners.

“[Brooks] challenges the boundaries of what [poetry is], where poetry belongs,” Glassmeyer said. “The Black Arts Movement is all about that … You can’t have people enjoy equality – it’s nice if it’s political and economical [equality], but there has to be that art. You have to keep people’s souls alive … Everybody can write a poem. Everybody can read a poem.”

The deadline for the 2017 Gwendolyn Brooks poetry competition is March 3. The Gwendolyn Brooks celebration will take place at 7 p.m. April 18 in the Peplow Pavillion.

For more information regarding the upcoming Gwendolyn Brooks events, contact Glassmeyer at dglassmeyer@bradley.edu.

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