In Conversations – Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading
This year, the 20th-Annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading was happening on Langston Hughes’ birthday. This annual event was coordinated by Anne Edmonds Clanton, and co-sponsored by RISD Museum, RISD’s Writing Center, and Literary Arts & Studies Department.
I was able to catch up with Anne for a brief chat right before the event and her son David, was helping her around. Anne gave credit to Deborah Clemons from RISD Museum for co-coordinating the event over the years and other community members for their contribution. Anne said it was started with a thought of carrying the legacy of Langston Hughes by celebrating his birthday with reading out loud his poems then turned into an annual community event for the past twenty years. She mentioned the first reading had 19 readers and the readers and audience grew over the years. On Langston Hughes 100th birthday, the community reading was lined up with one hundred readers to match. When I asked which poem she was going to read, Anne replied instantly: “The Juke Box Love Song – because it’s a favorite of mine! The last two sentences of the poem says ‘Dance with you till day–Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.’…I always thought myself as a Harlem girl. I love New York and I especially love Harlem. It said that he (Langston Hughes) liked Harlem before he even got there.” You can see an iPhone video of Anne’s reading here.
The Annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading was conceived as a program of the Langston Hughes Center for the Arts and Education in 1995 and Anne Edmonds Clanton was the director. This reading was created by Anne Clanton and a former RISD Museum Educator, Susan Glasheen. Susan hosted the initial reading when Anne was away. It has been a tremendous responsibility for Anne to carry on the legacy of the tradition with some help from others. The RISD Museum has presented the readings since its inception and the dissolution of the Center till today.
Langston Hughes’s poems, dating from the Harlem Renaissance through the 1960s, continue to resonate today. These powerful, poignant and often humorous works are read aloud by members of the community and leaders of diverse backgrounds, including educators, story tellers, corporate executives, writers, musicians and artists. The musical landscape provided by the Daniel Ian Smith Jazz Trio, with Daniel Ian Smith on saxophone, John Baboian on guitar, and Keala Kaumeheiwa on bass.
It’s been 15 years for Daniel Ian Smith Jazz Trio to be part of the Annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading. Daniel remembered there used to be a high school group accompanies by one particular teacher who is retired. He spoke of how their attendance are missed at the reading now. In accompany to the readers and the poems, the trio would play pieces when requested or improvise at the moment accordingly to the poems. Daniel cited a quote from one of his teachers- “the best music is when is written sounded improvised; when it was improvised it sounded written”. To Daniel Ian Smith, Langston Hughes’ poetry reminded him of jazz that “is always very in the moment yet come from the heart- thoughtful and free” and “is the epiphany of being undaunted and fearless in reaching out and speaking things are important in our society and culture”.
When concluding the chat with Anne, she mentioned the size of the reading and the amount of readers always had to be kept in mind since the day is normally landed on a Super Bowl Sunday. “The Super Bowl Sunday used to happen in the end of February but they (NFL) have changed it… I thought about writing to them!”
Why not? I would take Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading over Super Bowl.
At the end of the reading this year, Shawn Anthony Christian, gave his remarks and tribute both to Langston Hughes’ poetry and to Anne; here are some passages from that:
“Today, I want to reflect on Langston Hughes as a Poet of His People and as the People’s Poet. To consider Hughes’ identity and his legacy in these ways is to echo what all of us assembled here today surely believe: Langston Hughes is still our poet, and we are his people.”
“And if you know about Hughes’ life, beyond his poetry, then you know something of the struggles he endured and that contrasted the joys of life he poignantly celebrated. Being a poet of his people and the people’s poet was especially heavy and difficult at times, but Hughes lived its truth.”
“And appropriately, remembering every poem, every stanza, every line, and every word that Hughes wrote, especially through every person, every experience, every place, every joy, every pain, and every hope that he encountered, is an awesome undertaking. I cannot imagine how long it would take to sustain such memory. But, twenty years seems a damned good place to start. Not a bad legacy Anne Clanton, our sister, mentor, and dear friend. Not a bad legacy at all!”
Let’s salute to Anne Edmonds Clanton and to her 20 years’ undertaking of Annual Langston Hughes Community Reading. And thanks to RISD Museum for hosting the event. It’s not simple community gathering but a commitment and celebration. It’s a healing process and factual reflection of how the Langston Hughes’ bequest as the people’s Poet; and Anne’s impact on bring his poetry to the people.
Thank you, Anne!
In celebration of the 20 year anniversary of the reading, I decide to also include some voices from the community; we will add on more.
What has been your experience working with Anne on this event?
Deborah Clemons: I have worked with Anne over the past 10 years to realize this vision. Each year brings nuanced interpretations of familiar works and exciting performative takes on different poems. It is always vibrant, captivating, moving, unexpected, and entertaining. I have laughed, I have cried. It is an honor to be a part of making this experience happen.
The reading offers an opportunity for the Museum to host a community event that deeply engages with extensive examples of an individual artist. Through this extended exposure a sense of Langston Hughes’ creative process is shared. At RISD, artists and designers develop, experiment and create and the Museum provides the space for inspiration, preservation, and interpretation. It is an intersection of art, ideas, and community.
Rick, as a Rhode Island state poet laureate, how do you describe Langston Hughes poetry? Why did you think that his poetry continues to generate such a devoted following? Can you please tell us about your involvement with this community event?
Rick Benjamin: Like many people, I grew up with Langston Hughes’s poetry. It was in the water; it was in our blood. When Mahalia Jackson, cried out for MLK to “tell them about the dream,” during his famous speech that day in Washington, both of them & most of their audience (who were engaged in their own call & response) knew that lexicon & language about dreaming upon both delivered & undelivered promises (particularly around visions of rights & democracy) from Hughes’s poetry. It had been part of a cultural vernacular for four decades by then. What’s obvious to most people is the sound of his poetry: he likes, rhyme, rhythm— he has an exceptionally deft touch & great ear as a technician. At the same time, these melodic attributes tend to mask (I’m using this word with some intention) pretty volatile & discordant views. There are many moments when they constitute an audible & ironic backdrop to what he’s actually saying, & I think many listeners & readers miss the more penetrating & subversive elements. Maybe we’re so conditioned toward harmony that we miss dissonance, even when it’s obvious! This tension in Langston Hughes’s poetry is what I especially love.
I love living in a place that honors the life & legacy of someone who has meant so much to American poetry & to so many lives (among them my own). A deep bow to Anne Clanton for keeping this ritual alive for so many years in our small (but clearly, at times, enlightened) pocket of the world. For so many years I have been up in Vermont during Langston Hughes’s birthday weekend, so it was an unremitting pleasure to be among kindred spirits giving voice to wisdom this year.
You have been involved in this community reading since the very beginning, can you please tell us something about the reading?
Ray Rickman: I was invited by Anne Clanton to be a reader the very first year (20 years ago) and I have never missed a reading during these 20 years. Twice snow cut the size of the audience but I walked the 14 blocks and gave the reading of my life. The smaller the audience the bigger my voice. But Sunday with a near full house I gave my best reading ever. I always do in honor of Mr. Hughes. Langston Hughes is the giant among African American poets. Even Maya Angelou and Countee Cullen can’t keep up with this giant. He wrote more poems that covered more subjects than the other great poets. I loved his braveness in the face of J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI. I love how he loved Harlem and Black America. I loved how Hughes loved jazz and the blues. Other than Maya Angelou no oneelse could write poems that women can read and be both sassy and directional in their thoughts. A wonderful poet who could write love poems like no other male writer and poems that flow off of everyone’s lips. As you know Mr. Hughes had a secretary named George Huston Bass who created Rites and Reason Theater at Brown University. So we here in Rhode Island got connected to his spirit with the help of George Bass. I loved listening to Ramona Bass read on Sunday and felt the spirit of Langston Hughes in the room.
How do you feel about this poetry reading?
Robb Dimmick: As a dealer, along with Ray Rickman, of rare and out-of-print African American books, Langston Hughes has always been a staple of our shop and our personal bookshelves. Finding Hughes in dust jacket or, better, signed in his gorgeous green script, are moments of euphoria. Passing them on to discerning clients and collectors give us great satisfaction as keepers of the light. Early on, we sold copies of his books to Anne Clanton, who, along with the late George Houston Bass (personal secretary to Hughes), founded the Langston Hughes Center for the Arts in the 1980s. When Anne began the annual Hughes poetry readings twenty years ago, I was there as one of its first readers, and have been ever since. These gatherings, a lasting legacy, give voice to the beauty, power, politics and joy Hughes’ poetry embodies; they promote literacy; increase our understanding of African American genius; and they build a beloved community of Black and White, rare in our state. What more could Langston Hughes or we ask for?
Sam, you are the youngest reader this year, what grade are you in? Why do you like Langston Hughes poetry and choose to read “Democracy”?
Sam Goldstein: I’m in sixth grade. I studied Langston Hughes in school last year and I admired that he wasn’t afraid to say what he believed. My mom encouraged me to be in the reading and I thought it would be fun. I thought “Democracy” was interesting because it’s very relevant to what’s happening in the world right now.
What is your personal connection with Langston Hughes poetry and Anne & this reading?
Valerie Tutson: I have known about the poetry reading for much longer and more often than I have been able to participate. 20 years ago, Anne E. Clanton and I lived in the same house. We had already known each other for years before then. Anne is one of the first people I met in Providence when I arrived in 1983 as a freshman at Brown University. I was taking a class with Julie Strandberg on Children’s Theater, and we were working with students at the Langston Hughes Center for the Arts. My mentor, the late George Houston Bass, co-founder of Rites and Reason Theater at Brown, and personal secretary to Langston Hughes, encouraged me to work with Anne at the Center once that class was over. I did, all through college, teaching drama to Providence children. It is one of the reasons I am still here today.
When Anne first talked about doing the Poetry Reading I was often on the road traveling with my own storytelling, so I could rarely commit. Several times over the years I have come as an audience member and LOVED it! I love the diversity of the readers; I love the music; I love the simple elegance of the afternoon. And, it was great fun to share a poem on Sunday.
This year, I found myself reciting along with some of the readers, some of my favorite Hughes poems from the “dream” series. I was reminded of the beautiful children I worked with in the 1980s and early 1990s who learned these poems and performed them on stage at the Langston Hughes Center. I was smiling, thrilled the words still roll on my tongue, and hopeful, that wherever those kids, now grown, are, they, too, will recall the wonderful words of Mr. Hughes from time to time!
What do you think about Lansgton’s Hughes poetry’s impact today and Ann’s legacy?
Rose Weaver: I have participated reading from the beginning, when it began, until I moved to Los Angeles. In fact, Backlash Blues was the piece I did back in the day. Mr. Hughe’s poetry continues to shine an honest light on political and social issues and concerns that existed then and exist today. Which is very sad and scary. Because his words express the sentiment that the hearts and minds of too many people remain closed to making our society truly loving, equal and just for all. But as he also did then, his poetry and prose reminds us to look at each other and share in the mutual humor found in all our cultures; to laugh at ourselves, embrace each other, then go out and do something constructive to bring us closer together.
Anne’s commitment to the memory of Langston Hughes, and bringing our diverse community together for a common reflective experience, has remained steady throughout these years. To honor her in perpetuity it could be called Ann Clanton’s Annual Langston Hughes Poetry Readings. We need to carry on the program in her honor and I for one do give my commitment to do just that.
What does Langston Hughes’ poetry means to you?
Bill Harley: Hughes had a vision of the America I want to be, and called for us to live up to that vision. But he wasn’t doctrinaire, he was very human.
Why did you choose to read “A Ballad of Negro History”?
Sylvia Ann Soares: My reading was Langston Hughes’ “A Ballad of Negro History.” At first choosing, it was evident that today, many names are not in the poem. But, as I worked on it, I realized they are all there. All African Americans striving to overcome in this yet inequitable society have been and will be added to the ethos of that poem. “To the words of colored congressmen, the Halls of Congress rang. Handy wrote the blues. Williams and Walker sang. Still on southern trees today Dark bodies hang.” I got a chill when I first saw the words, “Still on southern trees today Dark bodies hang.” They reflect today’s attitude and actions against Blacks in too many locations. Langston’s documentation of Black life from comedy to the insightful social reflection to powerful protest is a beacon, a reminder of the work to be done. Still, Langston writes for all times, for all people, his weaving of words and cadence captures the heart flow, resonating deeply with compassion of all who read or hear his eternal voice.