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Cornish recites at Media Lab


Bartos Theatre, MIT Wiesner Building.

April 12.


THE THIRD READING of this semester's Poetry at the Media Lab Series featured Sam Cornish, poet and teacher of Afro-American literature and creative writing at Emerson College. Ruth Whitman of the MIT Writing Program, a one-time teacher of Cornish, gave the introduction. To echo both Whitman's introduction and the remarks of critics, Cornish is a poet who writes about the black experience honestly, simply, and powerfully.

Many of the pieces Cornish read were from a work in progress in which the life of an autobiographically-based black poet is followed from his birth in 1935 to the present. The work, which has been funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Council for the Arts, contains both prose and poetry, and Cornish read some of both.

The amusing "Horseface" introduces <>

an extremely dark black girl the young Cornish knew in school at a time when being so black was grounds enough to be considered ugly; years later their paths crossed again, and she was now considered a beautiful woman. Another amusing poem, "Have you heard the little Presbyterian children sing?", brought the audience back to the poet's days of dressing up in clean white Sunday clothes and going <>

to church. "Streets Like Country Roads" brought us along on a walk with Cornish's brother.

Some of Cornish's work discusses the effects of the Great Depression and World War II on black life. "Eddie loves little Lulu" is about a numbers man who carries around a roll of money and who loves Sundays: "God made Sunday for Fried Chicken and reading the Comics of the Baltimore Sun." Another piece showed us the disappointed faces of black men, like his father, who traveled north to the big cities hoping for prosperity, but finding poverty. Other pieces took us to the movie houses and barber shops of Harlem where Cornish lived during that era.

"Why I did not give that seat to that man in 1937," a personal poem in the voice of Rosa Parks, brought the audience into the civil rights era. "Colored People Zora Neal Hurston Would Not Like" is an autobiographical prose piece in which a black boy and girl in a college library get to know each other among books and card catalogs. "Crosswords" addresses the effect of the red scare on intellectuals and writers.

Mixed in with his new work were selections from his collected works. "My brother is Home-made" introduced the audience to his brother who was bigger and tougher than he was. His brother was more into the street scene, and "to prove a point grew darker than most."

Cornish acknowledged his love of black music and his desire to include it in his work. Scattered throughout the evening were comments about the musicians of each of the periods his works covered. His memories of Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong enlivened his descriptions of the atmosphere in which his poems are set. He also read two tributes: "Mississippi John Hurt" and the poem with which he finished the reading, "Ray Charles."

In response to some questions from members of the audience, Cornish told the audience about his experience as a black writer. He commented about the expectation by non-blacks that all black writers are militant. Also, he spoke of a book he submitted for publication which was turned down for its "extremism." Later, when racial violence grew, he re-submitted his book, and it was accepted.


On April 26, the next reading in the series will feature Adrienne Rich, a distinguished author of 14 books of poetry that have been translated into nine languages. The final reading of the series will be a student/staff reading on the last day of classes, May 17. -- JS