Questions For. . . Sam Cornish
Boston has a long history of producing great writers and poets, but until last year nobody thought to create a poet laureate position to continue the tradition. After a long search, the city has its first poet laureate in Sam Cornish, a long-time professor at Emerson College who is respected for his poems about the African-American experience in the 1970s.
We talked to our first poet laureate about how he got the job, the sound of hoofbeats, and Mayor Tom Menino’s deep intellectual life.
Boston Daily: Congratulations on getting the position. I had you as a professor at Emerson right before you retired.
Sam Cornish: Well, I hope I was good to you.
BD: How did you apply for the poet laureate position?
SC: With some reluctance. A lot of people told me I should do it, including my wife and a couple of close friends saying “Money isn’t everything.” Then I thought about it and thought the money thing was an excuse. I didn’t think they’d be interested in me. I’m a little unorthodox. I think I’m weird and easygoing in my own way, but not weird and easygoing in a way that people expect poets to be, especially ones that are published. I don’t have the dignity or that standoffish manner, which helps. But anyway, I had an interview with the poetry task force, and before I knew it I was poet laureate.
BD: What do you hope to accomplish in that role?
SC: It’s a little hard to say at the moment. I like to think I will be able to take away some of the lofty nature one associates with verse, that sense of the obscure, and do what people like Alan Ginsburg or William Carlos Williams did with the poem: bring it home. Make it about life. Make it a kind of dialog between people that comes through metaphor and tight, controlled language. But most of all that the poem and the book have a source, and that source is a person. And also a listener. That it’s not just something that’s reserved for the classroom and the poetry reading alone.
BD: How do you plan to go about that? Will you go to schools and talk to kids, or are you still plotting?
SC: I’m plotting it out. I want to go in a number of different directions. One is to approach publishers. One way or the other, to see how interested they are, what they’re publishing, and what is available. There’s a need to make recommendations and maybe get writers into the schools with their work, and to get them into the many schools in Boston’s neighborhoods where people don’t necessarily think of going. I’d like to try community centers and people can find me through the phone book. If they’re interested, I’m interested. Any form of outreach is valid.
BD: Do you have any plans to put your poetry online, or start a site for people to do that?
SC: That should be done. How we go about it is another matter. There’s no money available for this thing. There should be some kind of listing of events and publications. There should be some kind of clearinghouse where you can put poems online, or we can go back and forth about them. The blog is the wonderful way for people to get the word out and communicate what they’re doing.
BD: What are some of the poets you like?
SC: Oh, the list is long. There’s always [ee] Cummings and [T.S.] Eliot. Then of course there are the people like Mary Oliver who I think is just wonderful. Emily Dickinson. Of course, Langston Hughes, Alan Ginsburg, who’s so flamboyant and absurd at times. William Carlos Williams.
But a lot of poets I like are ones one never hears of. I’d have to walk around the house and dig things up. I work at the New England Mobile Book Fair so I go through the shelves and I find things. There’s a book I have right here that’s called Bears Dancing in the Northern Air. It’s wonderful. It has this wonderful description of living in a very cold place. It has a wonderful sense of winter, and people dealing with nature and the hardness of living in a desolate place is just out of this world.
BD: Sounds like living here.
SC: Exactly. You find something like this and the sense of struggle and living and how nature overwhelms relationships whether you like poetry or not it is something you fall in love with.
BD: How involved was the mayor in selecting you as poet laureate? He made a big show at the State of the City address in calling you out.
SC: I’m not too sure. He obviously must be involved or he wouldn’t have introduced me. I get the impression Mayor Menino is a person who has a very strong identification with the city population, and that one of the great secrets of Boston is that our mayor has a very interesting cultural and intellectual life.
BD: Did he mention any poets that he likes?
SC: I never got a chance to speak to him. I spoke to the poetry task force. [Menino] is the one who spoke to me and introduced me, so he’s obviously behind it. The people on the task force are just wonderful. I’ll get frequent calls and we talk in an informal way and they do seem to respond to things I say. It’s a very unique working relationship I’ve just started.
BD: You have the position for a year?
SC: Yes, a year or two, I’m not too sure how it works out.
BD: Whenever they change the locks on the door at the library?
SC: Yes, I think that’s it.
SC: I saw that, yes.
BD: Do you think it was a “hurrying hoofbeat” or more of a gallop that Longfellow was going for?
SC: [laughs] I don’t know. Longfellow is in such a remote time and place that it’s very difficult to say what he as a poet intended. Language and it’s meaning seems to vary with time and place. One of my favorite poets is Robert Lowell, but will anyone ever know have the sense of Lowell and what he meant to New England? I’m careful of meanings that poets and writers have.
BD: If I remember correctly, you weren’t a huge fan of poetry in form and you’re more of a free-verse poet.
SC: It’s not that I’m not a fan, I think what you do is you try to find the best means of bringing your voice to a reader. I’m not too sure that given my presence, and my manner, that I wouldn’t be a little pretentious or appear a little unreal if I was a more formal writer because I’m not that kind of a person.
But at the same time, I believe that spoken language has its own qualities, and sometimes its own literary qualities. I think there’s an in-between where there’s truth. There’s a form to my work, but it has more to do with jazz and the Negro spiritual and the conversational tone of the Beats.
The Beats sort of communicated better than any writers in my time, and maybe even in the 20th century, about what it is to be a person in a particular time and place and have friends. They worked beautifully with friendship. Jack Kerouac got that transition from the rural America into an industrialized community and into a post-War America in which things changed drastically. That’s a big mouthful, but you get the idea.