"I believe one can create one's own inspiration by the level of awareness one has to what is going on around him/her."
-- Pinkie Gordon Lane

Links to Pinkie Gordon Lane's Poetry on the WWW:

- Conspire

- Poetry Cafe

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 poetry?" 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 important 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 academic.  I retired from the university in 1986. Only after that did I devote my full time to the writing of poetry. However, my first two books of poetry ("Wind Thoughts") 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, virtually 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 commercial presses.

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 believe.

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 literature.

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 intuitive?

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 life.

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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