Our Chautauqua event is less than a month away, and in preparation for the free performances, we spoke with the scholar-performers headlining the events. The performances run from July 5th to July 16th. This week’s interview is with Dorothy Mains Prince, performing scholar of Gwendolyn Brooks.
Q. What drew you to Gwendolyn Brooks?
Prince: I don’t know what specifically drew me to Gwendolyn. However, I know what has kept me coming back and exploring her works for many years. It is her creative ability to paint real portraits of people. From her first book of poetry in 1945 to her last published collection in 2001, Brooks was “proud to feature people and their concerns- their troubles as well as their joys.”
Q. What is your favorite work by Brooks and why?
Prince: I don’t have a favorite work. I enjoy too many to cite one particular poem.
Q. Poetry has been described as “bread for the journey.” What journey do you think Brooks is traveling on with poetry? What does she want her readers to go on?
Prince: Gwendolyn Brooks described herself as a “People” poet. She was an intense observer and lover of people. She desired to write about Black people not as “curios” but simply as people. She wanted her readers to truly see and understand her characters as real people. And in turn, come to a greater understanding of “self.”
Q. If you could go back in time and meet Brooks, what would you say to her?
Prince: I had the great privilege of meeting Gwendolyn Brooks in 1991. And I said very little to her. It was a time to listen and appreciate the talent and knowledge of this exceptional writer and humanitarian.
Q. In our 2001 Chautauqua, you portrayed poet Phillis Wheatley. Do you see any similarities between Wheatley and Brooks?
Prince: There are several interesting similarities between Phillis Wheatley (1761?- 1784) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). Both were recognized early as not being ordinary. They began writing around the age of seven. They were encouraged and supported in their desire to write by the women in their lives; Phillis by her slave mistress, Susanna Wheatley and Brooks by her mother, Keziah Wims Brooks. They both had to fight to have their works published in a world that refused at first to recognize them as having the capacity to write with such extraordinary proficiency. They both defied the odds and continued to do what they were born to do. Phillis Wheatley was America’s first African-American woman of letters to have a book of poetry published in 1773, and Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.
Q. In addition to Langston Hughes, Brooks’ work was influenced by fellow poet Amiri Baraka and others who were a part of the Black Nationalist Movement. Do you see a place for poetry and similar forms of expression within the #BlackLIvesMatters Movement?
Prince: Yes, I do. Just as Brooks in the 1960’s recognized the power of poetry and the need for human expression, her poetry today speaks to the hearts and minds of 21st century civil rights activists.
“This is the urgency: Live! And have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.”