By Liz Blood
After last week's debut of poet Vida Cross's book, Bronzeville at Night: 1949, Liz Blood chatted with Cross about the influences on her work including painter Archibald J. Motley, writer Langston Hughes, and living in Chicago. They discussed bringing writing, music, and painting together, different manifestations of segregation, and the blend of fiction and nonfiction in Cross's poetry.
The cover art for your new book, "Bronzeville at Night,” was painted by Archibald J. Motley, Jr. Why did you choose it?
I’m a Chicagoan and had seen his work for many years in passing. When I was in grad school in Iowa I had two prints of his and I became very familiar with seeing him. Then I went to the Art Institute of Chicago and walked through the halls and would see his work all the time. [Motley was an alumnus of the institute.]
At the Art Institute of Chicago I took a course on the jazz aesthetic. My mentor Calvin Forbes, who taught that course, took us through many cultures and histories, talking about musical influence and, with that in mind, I started looking at art and music—bringing visual images and writing together and looking at Motley’s work in relation to music. I guess I was seeing the paintings in many ways: as cultural pieces, historic pieces, reflections of African American people, and pieces that reflected color like blue and red and white. And his journey as a person, not just as an artist, through the Bronzeville area and the city of Chicago.
I didn’t start bringing Motley and writing together until about two years after I graduated, but he was always on my mind. It just became a natural progression to choose him. Maybe it chose me, I don’t know.
How does Motley's representation of Bronzeville relate to your own lived experience?
My husband is from Bronzeville, I’m not. Bronzeville is the area African Americans migrated to during the Great Migration, which I think took place in Chicago twice. The first wave was integrated into society and the second wave—they were isolated into Bronzeville. Now, I’m not the historian.
Louis Armstrong lived in there. One of the first black filmmakers lived in there. Around the 40s, that’s where black people lived. Then it went into a transition of being very poor. As the economy abandoned people, you had a lot of poverty and huge projects in that area. Ida B. Wells Homes, Stateway Gardens—all projects that influenced the area. Then you had the 90s and 2000, and people decided that they liked that area, so a large number of black people went back there. My grandparents had lived there, but were bought out. In 2000, I bought and still live there. Now it’s very diverse. It’s a really sought-after place to live.
The actual name is Douglas, but black people called it and call it Bronzeville to reference blackness. One of the ways you know it’s not a real name is people keep changing it for real estate purposes. So the name doesn’t stick. No one who is trying to buy a $700-million property is going to call it Bronzeville.
Chicago is a tough city to understand both if you live there and if you’re an outsider. Even when you live there you don’t see it the same way people from the outside see it. I think we normalize its segregation. Also, Chicago benefits from it. Our segregated areas are now tourist attractions. You can tour Bronzeville, Little Italy, Greek Town, Chinatown, you know. There are so many areas that you can go and visit specifically for some cultural enjoyment.
Segregation in Chicago is real and the problems are segregated and the solutions are segregated. It’s very unusual. When you live in an all black area, diversity is not real in the way that you might see or exist outside of Chicago, where you live in segregated environments often. Being away from Chicago, I see segregation can exist differently. For example, you can be in a segregated environment although there are diverse people walking around everywhere. There can be elements of segregation that aren’t visible. I don’t think I knew that until I lived away from Chicago.
Tell me about your interest in Langston Hughes. Your bio at Awst says you’re interested in “the poetic research of Langston Hughes.” What does poetic research mean?
Langston Hughes went around documenting black culture. He didn’t do it in the same way that other black people like James W. Johnson or W.E.B Du Bois did. He was looking at humor, blues—blues music, blues humor. He developed his poetry and writings around that. So not only was I looking at Motley’s paintings, I was looking at my own development of a blues sound, using blues humor, the blues community, blues culture. That was something that Langston Hughes did a good job of documenting and researching. If I have captured blues music—and this is my first book—that’s not good enough. My goal is to capture blues humor and pain.
Can you call out a particular poem in your book that does that?
Maybe the one that does a lot for me is “The Witchdoctor” poem. The obvious one is “Jack McAdoo" and “Love me Tomorrow.” Even “The Spell for a Dramatic Person.”
Why did you choose to divide the book into the three sections, The Neighborhood Peoples, The Children/The Chitlins, and The Preacher and His Wife?
One of the elements of jazz is you always see kids. There’s this thing about kids learning from the adults—learning how to play the sax, the piano, peeking in the windows. There’s this whole romantic back and forth about the music and young people. In Motley’s paintings you see kids out on the street at night. So, I knew I would have children, but the children lived different lives. They don’t live the romantic life of humor and sorrow. They pretty much live a life of tragedy. I wanted to separate that and isolate it in the book. They have to be wise beyond their years. They have to endure things that they should not have to. And so I wanted that to be separate. If I hadn’t had children in the book I would’ve put it all together, but because of them, it’s divided the way that it is.
Throughout your book there are some recurring characters in your poems, like the Witchdoctor, Bodacious, Asunda, the preacher, the quilt maker, and more. Tell me a little about them.
I see the book as fictional. When I wrote it, I thought of it as fictional. There are a few pieces that hit closer to home because there are a few loose references to family here and there, like my aunt passing away, or because I kept my grandparents in mind as I wrote it, some of the things they went through or did.
The neighborhood people—many of them are fictional. Jack McAdoo is fictional, the witchdoctor is not. Well, he’s not a real person exactly. He was based on a character in Motley’s paintings who was a real person who, maybe up until the 70s, was an African American male who lived in Bronzeville and walked around with a chicken on his shoulder. I fictionalized his life but he was a real person. Motley has a painting, “Casey and May”—he is in the middle of it.
Bodacious is fictional. There was a friend of mine who went to college with us. Everyone called her Bodacious. The character in the poem is not based on her. But she did put a stop to everyone calling her Bodacious. Once she gave it away, I decided that I would use it.
The quilt maker is fictional, but is based on several images in Motley’s paintings that made me think of a quilt. So when I created the poem I referenced those painting(s).
“The Neighborhood” poem might be a little true in that I have an aunt named Anna Grace. She passed away a couple of years ago but I wrote the poem way before that. I wrote it because she was so dissatisfied with her name. She was so upset with her name. In our family, names are very important. There’s something about them for us—the story of your name, where it came from, how you got it, the pride that comes with it. There is a lot of passion and mystery and subtle secrets surrounding the names in our family. So to me that poem is really relatable.
Most people think the book is true. Most of it is not. My mom and sister are going to read this book—we’re all getting together tomorrow. I think they might put me on front street. They might go to town on me. There are elements of our family in there but it’s fictional in my mind. We’ll see.
Vida Cross is a blues poet. Bronzeville at Night: 1949 references her ancestry as a third generation Chicagoan, a Bronzeville resident, the artwork of Archibald J. Motley Jr., and the poetic research of Langston Hughes. She received an MFA in Writing and an MFA in Filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an MA in English from Iowa State University and a BA in English-writing and History from Knox College. She is a Cave Canem Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Creativity and Constraint Anthology for Wising Up Press, A Civil Rights Retrospective with the Black Earth Institute, Tabula Poetica with Chapman University, Transitions Magazine at the Hutchinson Institute, the Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems 2008-2009, The Literary Review with Fairleigh Dickinson University, Reed Magazine at Reed College, and The Journal of Film and Video from The University of Illinois at Chicago.
She will be reading at the Poetry Fest in Chicago on 4/29/17 at 9:00 am. Additional reading dates are being coordinated and will be posted via social media. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date with our events.