By Deborah Tobola
This essay was originally published on June 1, 2019.
Although I teach creative writing in a men’s prison, I’ve been influenced mostly by women writers. When I created a short list of my strongest influences, I discovered, in a six degrees of separation way, that my literary godmother is Gwendolyn Brooks (more on that later).
Along with Brooks, my writing has been influenced by Margaret Wise Brown, Elizabeth Bishop, Sandra Cisneros, Mary Karr and Lucia Berlin. All are poets who also write in other genres.
For perfect rhyme and rhythm, I go to Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Wise Brown. Brooks shows her mastery in eight lines in “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.” She writes: “We real cool. We/Left school. We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight. We/Sing sin. We/Thin gin. We/Jazz June. We/Die soon.”
Brown’s beloved Goodnight Moon offers the same mastery. I’ve read it aloud to my children and grandchild so many times that I know it by heart: “In the great green room/There was a telephone/And a red balloon/And a picture of/The cow jumping over the moon . . .”
Brown has the gift of being able to write from a child’s point of view. Another poet who is very good at this is the much-admired “poet’s poet,” Elizabeth Bishop. Among my favorite Bishop poems are “In the Waiting Room,” “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “Sestina.”
The precision of Bishop’s language and the complexity of her work is breathtaking, a quality shared by Lucia Berlin. Berlin’s astonishing short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Woman, published in 2015, six years after her death, is destined to become an American classic.
Berlin is brilliant at writing about “real” people, the everyday person we may miss in the crowd, a quality she shares with Mary Karr and Sandra Cisneros. Karr, in The Liars’ Club, and Cisneros, in The House on Mango Street, give readers vivid coming-of-age stories in very different parts of America.
Gwendolyn Brooks was a literary powerhouse in her lifetime, and remains one of the most highly regarded American poets. She was the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1950. Margaret Wise Brown, Elizabeth Bishop, Sandra Cisneros, Mary Karr and Lucia Berlin are all connected in some way to Gwendolyn Brooks. For Cisneros, the connection is direct: Brooks wrote a blurb for The House on Mango Street.
For Mary Karr, there is one degree of separation. In addition to her prolific writing career, Brooks was a much-loved teacher. Brooks mentored Etheridge Knight, who began writing in prison. One of Karr’s mentors was Etheridge Knight.
Other intersections are less direct. Brooks and Berlin were awarded American Book Awards within four years of each other. In 2012, Brooks and Bishop were two of ten 20th century poets to be featured on “Forever” postage stamps. Both Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Wise Brown were cited in LitHub’s “The 10 Books That Defined the 1940s.”
Like Mary Karr, my own connection to Gwendolyn Brooks, aside from reading her poems, is through Etheridge Knight. I met him thirty years ago and he is one of my favorite poets to introduce to my prison students.
So, in my tribe of literary mentors, Gwendolyn Brooks is my godmother, the wise one who reminds us, “Words can do wonderful things. They pound, purr. They can urge, they can wheedle, whip, whine. They can sing, sass, singe. They can churn, check, channelize. They can be a ‘hup two three four.’ They can forge a fiery army of a hundred languid men.”
Deborah Tobola’s memoir, Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison was published in 2019 by She Writes Press. She is Founding Artistic Director of the Poetic Justice Project, the first theater company in the U.S. created for formerly incarcerated people. http://deborahtobola.com