Boston's First Bard

During his annual address, Mayor Tom Menino revealed the identity of a new addition to Boston's cultural scene.

"Our city's first Poet Laureate is with us tonight, Sam Cornish," the Mayor announced to audience applause.

WBUR's Andrea Shea profiles Boston's new Bard. .

ANDREA SHEA: Sam Cornish lives with his wife in Brighton, but he was born in Baltimore. Now in his 70s, Cornish wrote during the Civil Rights movement. He says he crafted this very brief poem during that time and recites it here from memory.

SAM CORNISH: 'Ray Charles. Do you dig Ray Charles, when the blues are silent and he rolls up his sleeves?' Now in writing that I was responding to the image of Ray Charles as the soul singer, as a pop singer, and that we respond to the artist for what they do for us, but we are never sensitive to the artist or where his or her art may come from. And there was an inner misery in Ray Charles and I wanted to speak to that.

ANDREA SHEA: Cornish has been speaking to the human experience, through verse, for years. He's published over a dozen books and pamphlets of poetry. He's listed in both the 'Oxford Encyclopedia of African-American Literature' and 'Contemporary American Literature.' Cornish taught at Emerson College and now he's adding Boston Poet Laureate to his resume. The poet says he sees himself more as a literary ambassador then, let's say, a politician.

SAM CORNISH: One of the things I've been intrigued by is the possibility of readings taking place in senior centers, nursing homes, living rooms, grocery stores, being able to bring what poetry has to offer to people where they live and where they are.

JOE BERGIN: It's really a dream come true. A city of Boston's stature with it's literary tradition richly deserves its own Poet Laureate.

ANDREA SHEA: That's Joseph Bergin, a member of the Carpenter Poets of Jamaica Plain and a major driving force behind the initial creation of the Poet Laureate position. Sam Cornish's appointment was unanimous according to Bergin, who's also a member of the selection committee, because of the poet's skill, record and air of dignity.

JOE BERGIN: He's our man, and I'm sure Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is smiling down upon us today.

ANDREA SHEA: But the Poet Laureate concept was controversial when it was first introduced about a year and a half ago. Talk radio hosts, bloggers and columnists attacked it, saying it was a waste of government time and money. Some in Boston's writing community worried the appointee would simply pay lip-service to the administration with pretty lines about dedications of new buildings. Chris Castellani was one of those people. He's the Artist Director at Grub Street, a creative writing workshop near Boston Common. He says it's clear Sam Cornish likes to stir things up and he doesn't represent a 'safe' choice for the task force or the Mayor.

CHRIS CASTELLANI: It seems like in this choice that they really do mean the Poet Laureate to be someone who will make an attempt to bring poetry to the people, and who will act as a kind of conscience for the city and to me that's an exciting choice.

ANDREA SHEA: Sam Cornish himself is excited to get cracking in his new position, which earns him an annual, corporate-supported stipend of $2,000. His first task, after moving into his office in the Boston Public Library, is to organize a public poetry reading for African American History Month.

For WBUR, I'm Andrea Shea.

This program aired on January 16, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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