Sunday, July 10, 2011

Eugene B. Redmond's Epic East St. Louis Poem

Redmond reading poem "A Tale of Two Captains & Two Avenues
in the Life of East St. Louis," July 9, 2011

A year or so ago when the organizers of a book that would celebrate the sesquicentennial of East East St. Louis asked Eugene B. Redmond to contribute an essay about an aspect of the city's history, he agreed but with one caveat. Rather than write an essay, he decided to submit a poem about his beloved city.

The result was Redmond's expansive epilogue "A Tale of Two Captains & Two Avenues in the Life of East St. Louis," a more than 350-line poem that charts the city's history, identifying important locales, cultural practices, and dozens of outstanding East St. Louis citizens past and present along the way. The poem appears in The Making of an All-America City: East St. Louis at 150.

As the title suggests, Redmond's poem has beginnings with two prominent leaders--Captain James Piggott a leading settler in the region during the late 1700s in the area that would become East St. Louis and Captain John Robinson, an important figure who led the way establishing "colored" schools, organizations, and institutions in the city during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The poem also concentrates on the long histories of activities that took place on Piggott and Bond Avenues.

The cultural and historical significance of those two avenues and the larger city are on full display in Redmond's poem. That display is even more vibrant when Redmond reads the poem out loud as he did yesterday at the close of the East St. Louis Sesquicentennial Summer Celebration, providing footnotes and elaborations of the families and events that he alludes to in the poem.

Redmond read several excerpts from the poem and provided background information about the poem and primarily the people, key geographical landmarks, and activities over an extended amount of time. Over the course of the poem, he identifies stores, schools, churches, and the people who built them. It's really amazing.

I actually recall stopping by Redmond's home on more than one occasion more than a year ago when he was composing the poem. At the time, he first noted that he had decided to write a poem instead of an essay, and then he mentioned that he was going to focus on "just two streets."

A celebration of the city at 150 years with a focus on just two streets? If I had known then what he was in the process of creating, I would have made stronger requests to look over his shoulder as he was writing, assembling, and revising.  I'm hoping he kept notes and early drafts, as it would be something to see how the whole piece came together.

 Clearly, Redmond was carrying around the ideas that form the basis of this poem for years, no decades, long before the request was made for him to write it. It really must take decades of research and endless conversations with residents in order to produce a poem of this magnitude.

It also matters that Redmond has a long and distinguished career as a poet, scholar, teacher, and cultural historian. This poem "A Tale of Two Captains & Two Avenues in the Life of East St. Louis" is the latest in a career of writing poems that stretches back some 50 years.

In the introductory remarks to the piece, Redmond mentioned in passing that e had studied T. S. Eliot's work in his younger years, so his own poem connected in some ways to that tradition. He added, however, that unlike Eliot, his own language was rooted to Langston Hughes. 

It's likely too that his own long poem draws inspiration from the epics of his other literary hero Melvin B. Tolson. Redmond also regularly taught Robert Hayden's long poem "Middle Passage," and so his poem links, in some ways, to that one as well. Finally, the coverage of black community and distinct cultural places and ideas connects Redmond's piece to Margaret Walker's famous poem "For My People."

The audience at yesterday's event and reading including grade school children, college students, scholars who have studied East St. Louis, and a large number of long-time residents. In many ways, Redmond's poem and reading was for those long-time residents, those folks who know and treasure the history of the place and people as much as he does, but who may not necessarily be as experienced with poetry.  So Redmond's poem was, to use his word, a "songified" or versified rendering of so many people's stories and memories of the city.

As always, there's far more to say about this poem ""A Tale of Two Captains &Two Avenues in the Life of East St. Louis."

Related content: Eugene B. Redmond and the EBR Collection

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