Gloria Oden

Open Letter: Memory Speak!

Dear Rich,

Daniel Hoffman and I were in the same English class in high school (we never knew each other), adored the same English teacher (he dedicated his Poe to her) and at the same age, sixteen, went off to college. Daniel became the former Poetry Consultant, a title now known as Poet Laureate

He to Columbia with Mark Van Doren, and I to Howard with Eva B. Dykes and Merze Tate and Alain Locke. Sterling Brown was on campus when I arrived (1940) soon disappeared into government work as did a number of the university professors (undergraduate and professional).

From first grade on through college and law school I wrote poems. Upon graduation I remained in DC, taking advantage of the war-related opportunity for a government job. No poetry. In 1951 I returned home to New Rochelle and began looking for work in NYC. As my father had pointed out to his family and parishioner, adults were responsible for "keeping a roof over their head; a plate of soup on the table; a suit of clothes on their back." As black Americans well knew, if they didn't have a profession, they could not expect much of life. I was educated to teach or pursue the law. I did not care to do either and found a job clerking for The National Infantile Paralysis Foundation headed by Basil O'Connor.

Ever since taking a course in New Rochelle High School on International Relations where it was obligatory to read The New York Times every day and pursue some topic or country (would you believe it but mine was Bosnia and Herzogovina) I had continued to do and particularly the Book Reviews. Especially Sunday's and that small section written by J. Donald Adams. One Sunday Mark Van Doren substituted for him and he wrote that a poet needs to put his work out before the public to find out how much of a poet he was. I had noticed that Exposition Press was always in the listing of books published each day and so I decided to collect what I had written -sonnets - and send them to the house. When they responded I, then learned for the first time, that one could self-publish and that they would publish me if I could come up with the money. I did.

Where I was working, a young woman and recent graduate of one of the seven-sister colleges heard about it and introduced me to the work of Richard Wilbur. She also introduced me to the small group that was studying with Kimon Friar and invited me to become a member. I did and that was my introduction to the world of poetry. I was stunned and when James Merrill showed up I was amazed as I did not know of any young people writing poetry. Another result of publishing was that Nathan Sherman, who had published a labor paper in New Haven and before that had done PR for Yale University, took an interest in my writing, prodding me to apply for a John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship that was available. I did and Arna Bontemps awarded one to me. I had no idea of who he was nor did ever we meet.

In 1955 (?)/6 Anatole Broyard reviewed Elizabeth Bishop's book of poems for the NYT. My Whitney fellowship had been renewed and I was in my apartment on Madison St. (not avenue) when I read it. Kimon had many good things to say about her work and excited by his review I, blindly, wrote to her in Petropolis. She got it and wrote back. We continued to write each other and when I told her that MM was suggesting me for Yaddo, she wrote that she had been there, enjoyed it and she, too, would recommend me. What I did not know at the time was that she and MM were friends and learned about their friendship only many years later.

It was the time of the In-gathering in Israel, and I lived there for three months before returning home to take classes with Louise Bogan and Leonie Adams. It ought be observed here that no other African-Americans ever showed up in these classes and seldom for the readings and lectures I attended at NYU or the YMHA.

During this time, I learned of a writers conference to be held at a college on Staten Island and that Marianne Moore was to be one of its main speakers. Kimon had spoken so highly of her I had to hear her and so I went and she singled me out to meet with her, Marianne Moore was a delight. The first thing she did was to feed me a sandwich of cream cheese and have me drink a glass of milk because I looked a bit thin to her. Then she took me piece by piece through everything I had handed in and critiqued. She had read it all before hand and when I left she gave me several legal-size yellow-lined pages of her criticisms bearing at the top "Full of merit; threatened by trifles." Joy!

In the beginning, because of prejudice against women poets, I would sign my poems G. C. Oden. MM did not approve and I changed it to plain Gloria Oden. However, when I published my research I included the C.

She asked me whether I had applied to Yaddo. I told her no because I didn't know what it was. She told me and that I should apply and that she would recommend me to her friend Dr. Morton Zabel of the University of Chicago who sat on the committee. In doing that I learned that I needed three recommendations. So I asked Kimon, and Saunders Redding who had praised me in his review of my self-published book. Wouldn't you know it? Redding was at Yaddo when my letter was forwarded to him and he wrote back that he had recommended me to Elizabeth Ames. I was accepted for a two-month stay and met the poet Stephen Stepanchev with whom I still keep in touch.

When I had come back from Israel, I moved into an apartment on Henry Street in lower Manhattan. I had to give it up to go to Yaddo, and when I returned from there I found an apartment on East Fourth Street, the East Village. This made my visits to Cooper Union for its free lectures on MWF easy as it was about four blocks away. John Ciardi was listed for one lecture and I made it my business to be there. That was because as of 1959 I had begun to tentatively send my poems out as MM suggested I do. The rejection I had from the Saturday review was accompanied by a note from him asking to see more. I sent others, each time (luckily) saying that the one he had rejected had be accepted elsewhere. Not by any magazine of SR's eminence but by small ones such as The Blue River Poetry Journal, Quicksilver, Oak Leaves, to name a few. Finally, he took one and asked to meet me after the lecture. We did and he asked if I had applied to Breadloaf. Again, I did not know anything about it. When asked how I should do that he said I should apply to the Director. Who is that I asked, and he told me he was. I was chagrinned.

Breadloaf was quite an experience. This was the first time I met any young black writers. Along with me was John A. Williams (fiction), Sylvester Leaks (fiction) as scholarship holders, and Herbert W. Martin won acclaim for his portrayal of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Leaks novel was to have been called "Trouble, Blues, and Trouble." I don't think it was ever published and I have not seen him since then.

Two young white writers there were Richard Yates ("Revolutionary Road")(born in Yonkers like me but on the other side of town) and Edward Wallant ("The Pawnbroker") (Who at that time worked two blocks away from where I did). Beyond Ciardi introducing me to Robert Frost, I had the great pleasure of having Dudley Fitts favorably criticize my work before an assembled crowd.

Saunders Redding, Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes were the troika of black American writing as I came alive to the literary world. I did not meet Redding until after I had been to Yaddo. He recommended me to Langston Hughes who invited me to dinner and to accompany him to some gathering at the Poetry Society of American. After that, he would call me at midnite for a chat which I was honored to have but also a bit annoyed because I went to bed at ten in order to have enough sleep for my job. I did not pursued the Village lifestyle except to accept a couple of invitations to read my poems.

In 1962/3 (?) Betty Kray began this business of poets reading in the schools. I and Leroi Jones (Baraka) were the only two poets she knew of. He was a surprise to me and we met once (I believe with Jim Harrison) to read for high school students. That first year we were paid $150 for each reading. The next year the amount was lessened to $75.

It is right about here I lose track of myself, but if I recall correctly, when I came back from Breadloaf I found a job at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, a law firm in mid-town Manhattan. At that time Pauli Murray, whom I knew as a graduate from Howard's law school the year before me. She was all legal eagle, at that time, and I was surprised to learn later of her interest in poetry. She was a practicing lawyer, I was working in personnel.

Sometime in the mid-sixties The New School held a Black Writer's Conference. I participated with Leroi J. and Sam Allen whose first book of poetry was published in France. Robert Hayden was there and that was the only time I met him. The Conference, however, was more about fiction than anything with its focus quite naturally on racism. Since I seldom read fiction I was more curious about who was writing what than not. When I was in elementary school one sister had taught a night course under the WPA on black history and I was aware of the African kingdoms of Songhay, Mele, etc., so a lot of what I was hearing seemed old hat. But more significantly the accent was on racial abuse which, by and large, I had known little about because of the situation I found myself in growing up. From elementary school on through high school in highly integrated schools, there were few to no other black children in either the classes I took. Why that was is another story but not anything I gave any thought to while going to school. Because I never went to other children's home to play (and they never came to mine) when I went off to Howard (the family unversity) that was quite a change. If you ever get a chance to read RESURRECTIONS there is a poem in there about my mother taking me to Howard dressed in a pink dotted-Swiss dress with a big bow on the back, a large bow on my hair and wearing Mary-Janes. No lie.

Not until Redding took notice of me and mentioned me to Allen did I make an ongoing contact with another black poet. It was a strange relationship in that he would call me every once in a while and chat and only once did I ever go anywhere with him. But he was taciturn, I guess, as he was on a CBS program with Malcolm X and never one opened his mouth. I don't remember now how it was we met but I think it was through my second husband-to-be (John Price Bell (Google Edward Price Bell) who came with him to a meeting at John O. Killens house where he had been invited. I don't remember how I got there.

I met Mark Van Doren once. I sent him The Naked Frame (myself published book) and he invited me to come and meet him at Columbia. I did. Thereafter, on and off ,I sent him copies of the poems I was publishing in those tiny magazines. He kept my spirits up with his notes that, too, are at UMBC.

I left Paul, Weiss, etc. because an opportunity came up to publish a magazine in opposition content to Ebony. It was called The Urbanite. In it I published a long poem but in it I published a long poem by Ciardi, but none by me. Instead a bit of a novel I never wrote. When it tanked I found a job at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), where I stayed for the next five years continuing to publish my verse in small magazines. From there, I went to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers before, after a year and a half leaving for my foray into book publishing at Appleton-Century-Crofts where I supervised all mathematics and science books. A little over a year later I left for Holt, Rinehart and Winston to do the same thing.

It was while I was at AIP, I was given the opportunity to teach a course in black poetry. I leaped at it because I didn't know anything about it. On Saturdays, I would go to the Public Library on 42nd Street and do research into assorted topics. At Howard all students were required to take a course on black history. I had been absorbed by it to a degree and now I had a reason to learn as much about black poets as I could. So I found out who they had been up to Dunbar and Hughes. Building on that research I went two years later to the State University at Stony Brook. When I came to the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), (1971) however, I was brought into the English Department to teach creative writing.

It was in 1962 that Arna Bontemps asked permission to use some of my poems in an anthology he was about to bring out. I had given Langston permission the year before for the same poems. Bontemps was out first in 1963, Hughes in 1964, and in 1967 Robert Hayden joined with Kaleidescope. Now after thirty years since the last was there an anthology devoted to black poets. It was a surprise to see so many, particularly Naomi Long Madgett whose father, when I was in high school, pastored the Baptist church a block down the street from my father's St. Catherine Methodist. We were never to meet until some thirty odd years later.

Right before I joined the faculty at UMBC I met Sonia Sanchez. I had been invited by a young woman I met to come and meet with her group. I went and in the group was Sonia. She read a lovely poem - not of the kind for which she became famous for - and I learned that she, too, had been studying with Louise Bogan. We met once, years later in Boston where we were giving a reading. Helen Vendler attended and, later, we had small correspondence.

Never particularly vigorous at publishing, I began teetering off in the 1980s. The thrust of the new voices of black American poetry were much more focussed on politics and race. At Howard in the early 1940s I had marched with Pauli Murray in boycott of a coffee shop in the heart of the black DC community. But my poetry was not geared for animus. I preferred black historical research and wrote on Charlotte Forten, whose diary Edmund Wilson wrote about in the New Yorker.

I wrote about going to lectures at Cooper Union. I did that for two years with such regularity that even though you could not enter the Great Hall before 7:30 they would let me in at seven. Wonderful lectures on all kinds of subjects opening me up to a larger world than I had ever dreamed of.

Not until 1974 was I catapulted into writing poems again. My mother an eldest sister were slain by some still unknown intruder. The poems I wrote as a consequence were never submitted to any magazine and published unheralded as RESURRECTIONS. Likewise APPEARANCES. Rexroth was a great encourager who I met when he come to NYC to see James Laughlin.

My husband died in 1995; I retired in 1996, and moved to Charlestown in 1997. When I did, I gave my letters from her, Ciardi, Langston Hughes, Bukowski, and MM to UMBC because I had no place to keep them in my studio apartment. Plus as the only living member of my immediate family I thought that the best place to have them.

I think this about covers my life in poetry: chance. My life from my beginning was a restricted one. I wasn't raised on the street, in the neighborhood, but within a family where, as the youngest, I was remote in years from my sisters in brothers who united as one. My father took seriously his role in those harsh years his role as a leader in the community and having his children as examples. I resented it growing up but the value of it - self discipline, focus - I can now appreciate as fair trade-off.

Such has been my life. Not literary, as we think of it, but.... I am sure but if you realize how today young poets know each other, have opportunities to publish each other, move themselves forward in the literary world, you see how much of a hit and miss it was for me. Had I never met any of the persons I mentioned, I would not exist as a poet.