"I believe one can create one's own
inspiration by the level of awareness one has to what is going on around
-- Pinkie Gordon Lane
Links to Pinkie Gordon Lane's Poetry on the WWW:
Photo of Pinkie Gordon Lane, courtesy Poetry Cafe
You can order:
Girl at the Windowby
Pinkie Gordon Lane
Louisiana State University Press: 1991
Pinkie Gordon Lane
Interview by C.K. Tower
Dr. Pinkie Gordon Lane was the first African American
woman to receive a Ph.D. degree from Louisiana State
University and from 1989 to 1992 served as the first African
American Poet Laureate of the state of Louisiana. A native
of Philadelphia, Dr. Lane is a graduate of Spelman College
and Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University). She
is retired from Southern University, where she was a Professor
of English for many years. The author of eight books, including
four volumes of poetry, (Wind Thoughts. Fort Smith, Ark.:
South and West, 1972, A Quiet Poem. Detroit, Mich.: Broadside
Press, 1974, I Never Scream: New and Selected Poems. Detroit:
Lotus, 1985, Girl at the Window. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1991). Her work has been honored with many
significant prizes and has appeared in a number of literary periodicals
and anthologies. Dr. Lane has given lectures, read from her own
works, and conducted workshops in creative writing throughout
the United States, France, and four African countries.
Perihelion Verbatim: When did you first start writing poetry, and what was it that compelled you to write verse?
Pinkie Gordon Lane: I came to the writing of poetry rather late in life. I started out writing
fiction and thought that this was my primary interest. But, and I have told
this story so many times, a friendly chat with a colleague of mine at Southern
University (Baton Rouge) where I taught for so many years, said to me: "You
have the sensibilities of a poet. Have you ever thought about writing
This came to me as a surprise. I had written a few verses in my early years,
but never thought of myself as a "serious" poet. Then he asked me, "Have you
ever read any of Gwendolyn Brooks poetry?" "Who is she?" I asked. Now mind
you, this was about 1960. Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950
for her book ANNIE ALLEN. Yet, 10 years later I had never heard of her.
How could this happen? Well, one must understand that when I was growing up
(in Philadelphia) prior to the Civil Rights movement of the late sixties when
many changes took place, including the initiation of Black Studies in schools
and colleges, black writers were not part of the publishing "establishment."
Those of us who later began to build a literary background of African American
writers had to do it on our own through self-study and exploration.
So, when my friend introduced me to the works of Gwen Brooks' A STREET IN
BRONZEVILLE, this became my initiation into the world of black literature.
For, you see, I had never before read a book of poems by a black woman poet.
She immediately became a literary role model for me. I distinctly remember
saying, "If she can do it, I can do it."
It was then that I abandoned my ambitions to become a fiction writer and
became a poet.
How did you develop your craft, and when did you first publish your verse?
I became a self-taught poet. No, I never had a class in creative writing.
Everything I learned about my craft came through my own initiatives, through
wide reading, and through constant experimentation. Like many beginning
writers of poetry (I think), I started off writing in the traditional mode. I
wrote rhymed verse and sonnets with the Elizabethan and Italian sonnets as my
models. You see, by this time I had had a thorough background as a student of
English and American literature. So I was very well acquainted with the
nineteenth century Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelly.
I still feel that for the student to become a serious poet, a knowledge of
traditional forms gives one a solid background upon which to build. From
there, one can branch out and turn to free verse, if that is the goal.
Otherwise, too often one will actually be writing prose cut up into short
lines made to look like poetry. That is why I feel that a knowledge of
traditional forms for the apprentice poet helps to make one the "conscious
artist," not the accidental practitioner. As for myself, all of this, you must
understand, was not a conscious effort. It simply just happened that way.
When my first poem was published in a literary magazine, PHYLON, which at the
time was put out by Atlanta University, I knew that my destiny was in the
field of poetry rather than in fiction writing. This poem was published in
the early 60's. After that, I consistently published poems, though for the
years I was struggling with fiction-writing, I got nothing published.
You did your Dissertation on Sir Thomas Browne. What was it about this
Elizabethan age writer's work that interested you?
While working on the doctor's degree at Louisiana State University, I became
interested in the late 17th-century writer, Sir Thomas Browne, and decided to
write my dissertation on his prose works because I noted the abundance of
poetic imagery in his writing although he, himself, was a medical doctor. Now
as I look back on it, I am sure that this intensive study of the poetic
metaphor had everything to do with my subsequent use of metaphoric imagery in
my own work. I use the term "metaphorical imagery" very broadly to include
all figurative language: the simile, synecdoche, etc.
When did you begin to feel the transition from a student of poetry, toward
your important role as a teacher of poetics? What are some of the most
things you hope to instill in your students?
Actually, I was a teacher before I was a poet. I had been teaching for a
number of years when, as I indicated above, one of my colleagues introduced me
to the works of Gwendolyn Brooks and "A Street In Bronzeville". And as teacher
at Southern University I primarily taught literature. I no longer am an
I retired from the university in 1986. Only after that did I devote my full
the writing of poetry. However, my first two books of poetry ("Wind
and "The Mystic Female) were published while I was still in the teaching
field. You see, although my income came from teaching at the university, I always
thought of myself as a poet who happened to be teaching, not a teacher who
happened to write poetry.
Keep in mind also, that during those early years it was very difficult,
impossible, for an African American writer to find a publisher, certainly
not by major commercial publishers (Random House, etc.). What really
helped many of us along was the founding of black publishing houses,
Lotus Press (Naomi Long Midget, publisher), Broadside Press
(Dudley Randall). After some of the writers were published by these
small presses, with this exposure they were then picked up by the larger
Also, keep in mind the cultural revolution of the late sixties -- all
part of the Civil Rights movement (sit-ins and marches led by Martin Luther
King, etc.). This was accompanied by the Black Arts Movement. The movement
resulted in consciousness-raising and the initiation of Black Studies in the
schools, the study of Black writers, and the inclusion of the writings of
contemporary Black writers in the textbooks. Prior to that, there were only
token inclusions of a few of the older Black writers: Paul Lawrence Dunbar,
and perhaps occasionally Langston Hughes. Black women writers were
categorically excluded primarily perhaps because they had had no exposure in
print media and were unknown.
My contention is that the Civil Rights movement was more than a political
agenda. It interfaced with a cultural and literary agenda.
As you look back on your writing career, what were the most significant
things that kept you at the craft?
I believe that my own self-motivation was the prime factor in keeping me at my
craft. But also another element enters in. At Southern University, a
predominantly Black institution in Baton Rouge where I taught for 26 years,
we had a Black poetry festival that continued from 1972-1980. From 1974
until it ended, I served as Director of this festival. We renamed it "The
Melvin Butler Black Poetry Festival" after the founder and who died in 1974.
We invited nationally known African American writers, critics, and poets from
all over the country, even though we had a very limited budget. But out off
their generosity they came for the meager honoraria we had to offer, I think,
because it was an opportunity for a special kind of camaraderie that we
enjoyed just from being together. This is how I came to know many of the
poets who have become major voices today: Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks,
Stephen Henderson. Eugene Redmond, May Miller, Naomi Long Madget, Alice
Walker,etc. And, of course, all of this kept me fueled in my own work.
The imagery in your poetry is very lush and sensual; your images incite
the senses, offer the reader layer upon layer of palpable language. It seems to me
that this attention to weaving strong images is in large part what makes your
poems so compelling. Is imagery your primary concern when you sit down to
write a poem?
Yes, I regard the use of imagery the primary driving force in my own work. I
work very hard to turn "conceptual pictures" into words on the page. That is,
first I visualize an image, turn it over in my mind, and search for the words
and translate to the printed page. This is not easy. One has always to be on
guard to avoid the "too easy" image, the cliche, which wants to intrude itself
onto the poem. In writing the poem, I first get the words to the page as
quickly as I can in order not to lose the thought. Then, in the editing
stage, I look closely at the images, rework them if necessary, weed out the
cliche, look for a fresh image, and so on, When I teach writing (only in
workshops now), I always turn my students on to the metaphoric image through
carefully worked-out exercises. It's surprising how quickly they get into
this and come up with some really refreshing images. It's a matter of letting
them know that they can do it. Once this technique is taught to them, I wager
that they will forever look at poetry in a difference way.
How about the sound of a poem, how do you work that out?
As to the sound in poetry, of course this is of prime importance. Since I
read my poetry often in public, I am very much aware as to how it captures the
listener. Rhythm, sound, is the ingredient that makes one's poetry reach a
listening audience who may, or may not, be readers of poetry.
Would you agree, poetic inspiration is something that can't be forced, but
instead must be waited on? If so, are there helpful ways for a writer to get
through these "down times" while keeping up on their writing skills?
It's hard for me to evaluate the degree to which poetic inspiration plays a
part in writing poetry. I remember that when I taught creative writing at
S.U, one of my first statements to the class, "If you wait for inspiration in
this class to write a poem, I'm afraid you won't pass the course." Of course
I say this in jest, but also seriously. I believe one can create one's own
inspiration by the level of awareness one has to what is going on around
him/her. So, in each class period I would give my students stimuli to get
them started writing.
The word "inspiration" is a much overvalued term. "Inspiration" comes from a
steady routine and a serious approach to one's craft. At least, that's what I
If by "down times" you have reference to the so-called "writers' block," of
course there are time when this occurs. For me such times are filled by a
heavy diet of reading -- not only poetry by other poets, but also by anything
in which I am interested. I love to read biographies. The lives of other people
fascinate me. But also I love to read news magazines, National Geographic,
literary criticism, I mean criticism, not necessarily scholarly treatises
which can become very boring though they may be useful to the student of
Do you prefer a particular place/time/atmosphere for writing? How much of
your method in constructing a poem is intentional, and how much if any is
I can write a poem at any place, at any time. I have created a poem while
sitting in my office (when I was teaching at S.U) between classes, while
riding in a car, when relaxing in my bedroom looking out at my backyard
watching small things fly or crawl across my vision). I always create first
in pencil in a spiral notebook always at hand, and then go to the typewriter
to work on line-length in order to see how it will look on the printed page.
Does the approach change if you are revising as opposed to a first draft?
Even though my first draft of poems changes very little, any editing I do will
be to sharpen the image, to economize with words (not to overwrite). After
working with a poem for a fairly reasonable length of time, I will put it
aside for a few days and go back to it with fresh vision. Sometimes a poem
that I thought was OK will come across to me as not OK. I will put this aside
(I never throw anything away). And also, sometimes with a poem that failed to
satisfy me at first draft, a few days later I am surprised and say, "Gee, I
think this will work."
If so, did you also face these kinds of problems pursuing your Ph.D.?
I was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. degree at Louisiana
State University. Yes, prior to my enrollment, African Americans at LSU faced
serious problems with following a degree program. I don't think my enrollment
had anything to do with a change of policy. It was just the political
atmosphere of the time in Louisiana. The Supreme Court decision of 1954,
outlawing segregated education in the public schools, the 1964 Civil Rights
Act outlawing discrimination in public facilities, slowly, but eventually,
played a part in all of this. I think LSU was ready for an African American
student who could prove to them that she could "cut the mustard" so to speak.
What contemporary poets (male or female) inspire you?
Aside from Gwendolyn Brooks, about whom I have already spoken, I was very much
inspired by the work of the late Anne Sexton. I was so taken with her use of
imagery that I read every book of poetry that she published, as well as her
letters published by her daughter Linda Gray Sexton.
I was inspired by Gwen because she was the first African American woman poet I
had ever read. But it was Anne Sexton whose style turned me on. To this day
I greatly admire her as a writer even though as a person she led a tortured
Male poets. John Ciardi, Wm. Carlos Williams, Clarence Major.
We've entered a new age of technology, where some poets have put aside
their pens and paper journals for keyboards and pixels. The World Wide Web and
Electronic Mail are bringing together communities of writers that were not
possible before. What are some of the advantages you see for poets through
accessing these electronic mediums?
Even though, as you say, "the WWW is bringing together communities of writers
that were not before possible," I would not like to see the world of books
abandoned. I am still old-fashioned enough to be the proverbial book worm.
Books have been around for a long, long time. And I think they will survive
the millennium of technology just as they have the onslaught of television --
which many thought would supplant the movie theater. This hasn't happened.
Human beings have an amazing faculty for taking hold of the moment and running
with it. Probably, if anything, the WWW will give a boost to us as poets,
readers, and admiring audiences.
(I have a feeling that somehow I have contradicted myself in the last
response. If so, please bear with me. We humans are full of contradictions.
That's what make us so damnably lovable and interesting! Isn't it?)
Do you feel the world of Internet publishing has as much to offer poets as
hard copy publishing?
It's too soon to tell. We'll have to wait and see.
Finally, what things are coming up for you in your writing life?
I have a new book of poems to be published in the year 2000 by LSU Press
entitled "Elegy For Etheridge". This is the name of one of the poems in the
book, named after Etheridge Knight, the late African American poet who died a
few years ago. I say it is due for publication sometime in the year 2000, that is
Y 2,000 doesn't do us in and send us back to the year 1900. Maybe that will
be the end of WWW publishing! (Just kidding :-)
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