Celebrating Gwendolyn Brooks with Revise the Psalm

Tess Staff Image

I am a Kansan. Many people know this about me because of the way my fists ball up when I hear the phrase “fly-over state.” Midwesterners are usually a humble bunch, but if the opportunity for intense pride arises, we hold on to it like Dorothy held on to Toto’s basket. (Okay, that one hurt. Sorry.) While some of our points of pride are a mystery to others (Cawker City’s World’s Largest Ball of Twine, Garden City’s World’s Largest Hairball and any number of other Largest Balls of Whatever found along I-70), some of our most beloved Kansas artifacts are real treasures.

Even though she lived in Topeka for just over a month, Gwendolyn Brooks was indeed born there. 2017 would have marked her 100th birthday, and towns all over Kansas were alight with celebratory readings, walks and exhibits throughout the year. Beyond the state borders, fresh anthologies and rejuvenated collections were released in honor of the woman who penned some of the most iconic poetry of our time.

Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku edited one such anthology, called Revise the Psalm: Work Inspired by the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks. In it, artists, writers and poets make their visual and verbal tributes to a life of compassion and creativity. With each piece included in this collection, a different aspect of Brooks’ voice is magnified. Delivered in eight parts and including two bibliographies, this book could easily be used as a textbook in Brooks 101. In the introduction, the editors describe this as a “diverse chorus of survival narratives, a gathering of works that challenge conventional dogma.” And it really does read like a chorus, like a brilliant symphony of words and images.

Most of the contributors in this book honor Brooks through subject matter, mood or method. In Avery R. Young’s “blk(s),” for example, the sharp, succinct style of his words evoke poems like “We Real Cool” and “the vacant lot.” Like Brooks, Young explores punctuation and manipulates sound just as one might play with a kaleidoscope, relishing in the new patterns it creates.

weena crispy
blk brudda(s) call her
ooon fufu

weena roun(d)
blk eczema polka
dot her leg(s)

brudda(s) walk up
to her puff
dey cheek(s) go
boogah

The same lyrical wickedness one finds in “We Real Cool” seeps into this poem, and loop-de-loops through each line into the next. Its words are both a full and bitter taste in the reader’s mouth.

This anthology is an extraordinary, extensive tribute to the woman referred to by editors Lansana and Jackson-Opoku as “the inimitable Miss Brooks.” Grab a copy and experience the depths of her influence for yourself.

Turn the page for inspiration

Check out Revise the Psalm

Tess Wilson works in Civic Information Services at Main, and occasionally assists Teen Mentors during programming at the Labs. She is a collector of anything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisition was an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University.