Six students were honored for their poetry Tuesday night at the Gwendolyn Brooks Centenary Celebration and Poetry Contest. The event marked the end of a semester-long celebration honoring the former Illinois Poet Laureates’ 100th birthday.
First place winner Kierra Banks and finalists Blake Garber, Lawren Hall, Trenton Lige and Pierre Paul wrote poems inspired by Brooks’ own poetry and read their writings at the celebration.
Kevin Stein, Illinois Poet Laureate and Caterpillar professor of English at Bradley, spoke at the event and read an original poem before the contest winners were announced.
“When I was named [Poet] Laureate and I faced what is clearly the daunting task of following Ms. Brooks, who was, yes, a genius as a writer and in her dealings with human beings, it was a daunting task,” Stein said. “Ms. Brooks believed, as I believe, that poems belong in mouths and in ears, and books belong in folks’ hands.”
Banks, a senior English and psychology double major, got involved in January as the event’s semester-long intern. She helped organize the related celebrations and a poetry read-in, as well as advertise the events and poetry contest.
“Initially, I hadn’t read a lot of her poetry,” Banks said. “I had recently read ‘A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,’” Banks said. “I just really loved those poems, and I thought they were really striking.”
Banks said the semester-long celebration was meant to reach out to campus and the surrounding community. Brooks, who was the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Price for Poetry, commonly wrote about the everyday struggles of those in her community.
“I feel like it was really important to share, not just with African Americans or black people, but with … everybody,” Banks said.
Banks said she was inspired to participate by Brooks’ work while she was a poet.
“She focused a lot on being proud to be black,” Banks said. “Even today it isn’t talked about as much as I think it should be, and I think her poetry looks at the beauty in being black. It’s really honest and raw. It lives on; it’s timeless poetry.”
The event closed with a keynote speech and poetry reading by Quraysh Ali Lansana, a Chicago-based poet and the last student Brooks taught before she passed away in 2000.
“You are our future, you are our promise,” Lansana said to the student poets in the room. “You are our hope. All of you here in this school are what’s going to save the world. Period.”