PORT TOWNSEND – Poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ words once caught the attention of 17-year-old Gary Copeland Lilley.
He was working for the summer in New Jersey when he and his friends walked into what used to be called a main store.
“We’re really cool. We
“Left school. We
“Expect late. We
“Hit right. We
“Sing about sin. We
“Thin gin. We
“June Jazz. We
“Die soon. ”
Brooks’ poem, on a poster hanging on the wall, “blew our heads completely. It was like she wrote this stuff for us, ”Lilley said.
This was around 1968. In 1994, Lilley was teaching young students in Washington, DC.
“I presented this poem, and these kids said, ‘She’s writing about us. “”
When he later met Brooks, Lilley added, “I had to tell him what his poem meant to me as a young man, and now what it means to hip-hop boys.”
These eight lines are “an act of defiance”, signaling that Lilley and his friends and students could stand up and speak out. No matter what.
Lilley himself has since written eight books, including “Black Poem,” “Alpha Zulu,” and “High Water Everywhere,” while sharing his passion for poetry with students across the country.
A native of Sandy Cross, North Carolina, he came to Port Townsend in 2008 via Asheville, North Carolina, New York and the many other places he studied, lived and taught.
This month, George Marie, director of the writing program at Centrum, announced that Lilley is the new artistic curator of the Port Townsend Writers Conference, the summer gathering founded in 1974.
First, Lilley said he wanted to diversify the conference – and “not just the faculty. I’m talking about the participants, ”he said.
Lilley’s mission also includes “removing the privilege of poetry,” dispelling the belief that only a certain class of people write this stuff.
Her life experience proves the opposite: Lilley taught in prisons, institutes, colleges and at Jefferson Community School in Port Townsend.
“I wanted to teach the American novel,” he told students in grades 6 through 12.
From 2009 to 2011, that meant variety, from “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck to “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins.
“They really got involved,” said Lilley, who teaches and learns from literature in Port Townsend.
A graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, he was first drawn to the Centrum Writers’ Conference in the Pacific Northwest. He also takes part, with great joy, in the gospel program of the Acoustic Blues workshop.
“Back home, my church is small, maybe 50, 60 people. We have that in the gospel choir here, ”he said.
As for the Writers’ Conference, it has room for poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, all of which can be their own genre of music.
“Poetry informs everything,” Lilley said, adding that a poem activates not only the rhythm, but those aha moments that come with effort.
“There must be a discovery,” he said.
When he sits down to write, he doesn’t need to know how everything is going.
Inspiration abounds for Lilley: he is in love with the poets Victoria Chang and Diane Seuss, one who writes her own kind of sonnets.
“Yes, they’re all 14 lines,” he said. “But they don’t have a rhyme scheme. She counts the syllables, but it’s not rigid. And the things she writes about: real life stuff.
All of Centrum’s workshops are undergoing renovations in the wake of the pandemic as the organization acquires equipment to live stream workshops and other activities.
Plans for the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, scheduled for July 17-24, are for an in-person event, Marie said.
“But we also expect it to be a hybrid, with in-line components. Should there be another push [of COVID-19], if there should be another unforeseen event, then we can pivot, ”she added.
The composition of Lilley’s faculty will be announced in the coming weeks, then registrations for the writers’ conference will open in January.
The free public readings traditionally held every night of the conference will recur, Marie promised.
Regardless of how the rally is organized, 2022 “is about moving forward,” Lilley said.
“The salvation of poetry must come from writers of color,” he said. “It’s no surprise when you look at people who have been left out for so long. They turned to their own resources, ”to create something entirely new.
“Centrum supports you 100% on this point,” Marie told Lilley.
“We are grateful to see a change. ”
Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] news.com.