Jeffrey Coleman Presents Poetry from the Civil Rights Movement in VOICES Reading Series

The spring season of the VOICES Reading Series continued with Associate Professor of English Jeffrey Coleman. Coleman presented works from his book of poetry and his upcoming anthology of poetry from the Civil Rights Movement before a crowd of students in Daugherty-Palmer Commons on Feb. 16.

Assistant Professor Karen Anderson introduced Coleman, telling the audience that Coleman’s “critical book, an anthology of stories, is coming out in a minute. And his book of poetry made me cry.”

His published works include a collection of poetry entitled “Spirits Distilled,” and he has been published in several publications including “Blue Mesa Review,” “Rattle: Poetry for the Twenty-first Century,” and others. Coleman is also a frequent guest lecturer on the history and poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement.

“Communication, creative writing, American studies; those are three very different fields. This diverse education is reflected in Jeff’s unusual versatility as an academic,” Professor Jeff Hammond said. “He is a poet, scholar, and cultural critic, and now an editor. He’s a versatile teacher too.”

According to Coleman, his interest in teaching includes creative writing, contemporary multicultural American literature, literary and cinematic representations of 9/11, and literature and music of social protest.

“The anthology I’ve been working on for probably half my life,” Coleman said. He began collecting poetry on the Civil Rights movement as part of a research project and developed a hobby of it over the years. “It’s been a pleasure to work on this. I’ve met tons of great people and families of deceased writers. And it’s been great, discovering works I’ve never heard of in addition to works that I had heard of.”

Many of the poems in the anthology were eulogies, including the first poem Coleman read entitled “Alabama Centennial” by Naomi Long Madgett.

“Her poetry is often quite reflective of the spirit of the movement in many ways,” Coleman said. “It speaks to the amount of bravery, patience, and frustration that a lot of people felt.”

Another interesting poem that Coleman read was by John Beecher, the great nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The poem, called “The Better Sort of People,” was in the perspective of a privileged aristocratic land-owning white man and talks about how the state’s reputation is damaged by what he calls the “poor white trash” that committed all the crimes during the Civil Rights movement against African Americans.

“When you have a perspective like this it calls attention to the people at the bottom,” Coleman said. “It’s an interesting perspective and one that actually existed. There was a great deal of resentment between the lower classes and the higher classes of whites.”

Many of the poems were emotionally driven, and one particular example was a piece called “On Not Writing an Eulogy” about the assassination of President Kennedy. The poem, written by Richard Frost, took on the perspective of Kennedy in his last moments.

“The interesting thing about this poem is by trying not to write an eulogy, he embodies the tragedy,” Coleman commented.

Coleman concluded the reading on a happy note, with a few uplifting pieces of his own. The next VOICES reading will feature novelist Joan Maloof on March 8.

Voices: Legal Laureates

On the evening of Oct. 28, poets Brian Gilmore and Karl Carter read and discussed their poetry. Despite such similarities as some of their poems being based on their experiences as both practicing lawyers and prolific poets in Washington, D.C., Gilmore and Carter had different styles that nonetheless complemented each other.

Gilmore presented his poetry first; the poems he chose to read touched on various points from his early teenage years through his years in law school.

His poem “Revolution” described living under and rebelling against the teachings of his father until “The will of the monarch [Gimore’s father] became our will.” This was a fitting poem to start with because it described Gilmore’s growth in maturity.

The following poems described this gradual progression of maturity as he traveled through school, learning through relationships with roommates, trials such as his family being accused of being Communist sympathizers, and drugs, like “…malt liquor, that magical elixir.”

Gilmore’s poetry was infused with humor, often eliciting chuckles from the audience. The works Gilmore read suggested a lifetime of growth and optimism as he struggled against the vicissitudes of life.
When the poets switched and Carter stepped up to podium and began reading, the audience was exposed to a much different experience.

While it was clear that both poets were influenced by the environments and times they were living in, Carter’s poetry much more directly struggled with and attempted to understand the historical and cultural influences in his life.

His poems were personal in a different manner from Gilmore’s poetry. In his poem “Heroes” he approaches the subject of the civil rights movement and African-American leaders through history. Reflecting on their influence he said, “I am somewhere between battles/…I sit lost, weeping.”

The Black Panthers, various musicians such as Langston Hughes, and sharecroppers all made appearances in Gilmore’s poetry. Carter’s poetry, in contrast, was self-reflective, as he attempted to connect to his personal as well as his cultural history. Images of the South, of “barren fields” and “empty plantation houses” are redolent of Carter’s search for meaning in his travels.

Audience members enjoyed the performance as well as the variation in the poetry. Senior Carla Bacon said, “All their poems were very culturally relevant to them. They all had stories within the poems.”
Sophomore Emily Burdeshaw said, “I liked the informal feel to [Gilmore’s] poetry.” Carter’s poems “were short. You didn’t expect [the poem] to end, but you absorbed the images that were given.”