When I first knew Sam Cornish he was editing a little magazine called Mimeo and stocking shelves at the Paperback Booksmith in Harvard Square. I had sent him some poems, which he accepted but never published because the magazine folded. A few months later, he left Boston to work at the Child Development Center in Washington, where he befriended Maxine Kumin and Jay Wright. After a year he returned to work in the CDC Boston-area office, devising eccentric but compelling teaching materials. One afternoon we met at a bar in Park Square. He grilled me about Boston bars, especially those in Southie and the Town. Could he safely drink there? What would tough Irish working men say to a black man in a bar on East Broadway? It took a while for me to realize that these were teasing questions, probing to see if I believed he would actually go to a place like Whitey Bulger’s bar. But if he wouldn’t, it wasn’t because he was black—black faces showed up in those bars without incident—but because he was Sam Cornish, a singularity not a stereotype, and chose his bars using an algorithm I‘d never figure out..
Sam loved movies. Not film or cinema, but movies. Hollywood westerns, Alfred Hitchcock’s American films, anything with an Elmer Bernstein or Bernard Herrmann score, anything starring John Wayne. He loved comics as well, and amassed huge stacks of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and other titles of that ilk. His favorite novels were James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, followed closely by Richard Wright’s Native Son. As a poet he learned from William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes. He wrote about Bigger Thomas, jazzmen, Harriet Tubman, and people, stories, and street scenes from his childhood in Baltimore’s grim black neighborhoods. At the Enos Pratt Free Library he edited a magazine of children’s writing named Chicory, after that favorite urban weed with its startling blue flowers erupting in vacant lots. As a peripatetic teacher and later as Boston’s first poet laureate he brought an earthy wit to elementary and high-school classrooms all over the city and beyond. Teaching at Emerson College, directing the Literature program of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, working at New England Mobile Bookfair on weekends, he was a fixture on the literary scene. No one who met him would forget him, or confuse him with anyone else.
Although he embodied the black urban experience, he resisted the role of angry black man. Despite repeated offers, he refused to publish with Broadside Press or Third World Press. Generations, his first major collection, appeared with Beacon Press in 1970. It sported an introduction by Ruth Whitman rather than by someone from the Black Arts Movement. Some of Sam’s colleagues were unhappy about this; but pleasing others by conforming to their expectations was never Sam’s way. Yet some of his poems are among the most uncompromising, most militant work of the last half-century. What could be more to the point than his eponymous poem about Ray Charles?
in his throat
& he rolls
This challenge to the white embrace of black music asks whether we can appreciate the pain of being a black performer in a white world. It is not about “cultural appropriation”—Sam knew full well that culture necessarily appropriates culture all the time—but about facing up to this one suffering person, feeling how his music expresses him not as an abstraction but as a black man struggling to live in his skin, resorting to heroin to assuage a sad impossible hurt no white person can fully grasp. Sam chose to publish with a white publisher because he wanted to confront a white audience with poems like this. African Americans didn’t need Sam to tell them who they were or what their lives were like.
For some years Sam and I lived near each other in Cambridge—Sam on Broadway, and me around the corner on Harvard Street. We worked together on Poetry in the Schools assignments, driving out to high schools in Newton or Sudbury or taking the T to elementary schools in Roxbury, Dorchester, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain. A couple of times a week Sam would dish up one of his notorious dinners: spaghetti with his peculiar sauce. He would mix tomato sauce and bourbon, slice hot dogs into it, spice it with the hottest peppers he could find, and slow-cook the mess for hours. He invited all sorts of people to dinner, including up-and-coming young poets like Tom Lux and John Yau, and visiting celebrities like Leonard Bernstein, Amiri Baraka, and the Dalai Lama. Bernstein was at Harvard delivering his 1973 Norton lectures, the Dalai Lama was staying with mutual friends on Chauncy Street, and Baraka came to Cambridge to persuade Sam to capitulate and publish a book with a—any—black publisher. Bernstein competed with Sam’s raconteur-ship, the Dalai Lama ate several helpings of atomic spaghetti, and Baraka went away dissatisfied but safely cushioned with bourbon. Those of us who weren’t famous happily basked in Sam’s polite, understated challenge to every authority figure he met.
In 1975 Sam married Florella Orowan, a music student who specialized in film scores, and who would later become a graphic designer. The wedding happened in my large, rent-controlled Harvard Street apartment. In honor of the event, I painted the living room, polished the floors, and even cleaned the bathroom. A day or two later, we all caught the train to New York and roamed the bookshops together. We combed the Fourth Avenue booksellers, the Gotham, the Argosy, and the Strand. We saw six or eight movies in seedy Times Square theaters including a couple of porn flicks. That was Sam’s idea of a honeymoon. We all concurred.
After Sam and Florella moved to Brighton and I married Carole and relocated to New Hampshire we saw each other less often, but the spaghetti dinners continued. Every other month or so Carole and I drove to Brighton for hours of gossip, serious talk, and spaghetti. For a few years Sam and Florella ran Fiction, Literature, and the Arts, a bookshop in the arcade at Coolidge Corner, Brookline. They could just as well have run it from home. Their apartment was a solid mass of books. Crowded shelves covered every wall. Piles of book slouched on the floor. At Christmas Sam would lavish on us treasures unearthed from the back room of their shop or, later, from the deepest recesses of New England Mobile Book Fair.
On a couple of occasions, I brought Sam to Keene State College, where I taught creative writing and ran the reading series. Sam would visit classes, joshing with the students, and would present his reading in an offhand manner that still conveyed real seriousness. What did my students make of poems like “Empty Doorways”?
Empty doorways come straight
Faces growing in the windows,
quiet women hanging clothes in the backyard,
indians are falling in the streets.
I hear Malcom X is dead;
they become white.
Sam’s poems hover on the edge of suggestion. They make most poetry, including mine, seem impossibly garrulous. The students stared as if someone had arrived from another planet, but then invariably would ask me to bring him back. His poems and presence stuck with them.
For Sam’s sixtieth birthday, Carole organized a session on his work at the American Literature Association Conference in Baltimore. One of the participants offered a vivid account of Sam’s Baltimore days when he worked at the library and devised evil alcohol-soaked meals for his co-workers. Another speaker failed to show up, so I was recruited to ad lib a paper on Sam’s prosody. As Ruth Whitman noted, Sam “was born with perfect pitch.” You can’t change a word, much less a line break, in his best poems. However, since I didn’t have his books handy and had to quote from memory, I probably mangled more than a little of that perfection. Sam seemed a little uneasy about being back in Baltimore, but took it all with good humor.
In 1998 Carole published a book with Cambridge University Press entitled Writing America Black. It contains a chapter on Sam’s poetry. As usual with Sam, he had trouble processing this academic exercise. On the one hand, he appreciated the attention to his poetry; on the other hand, he was wary. Cambridge was an uncomfortably prestigious press. Why would it want a book that discussed his work? The white world had scarred him more than he openly admitted; I don’t think he ever dropped his guard.
Sam become Boston’s first poet laureate in 2008. I thought it a fine and most appropriate honor for both Sam and the city, but I wonder what Mayor Menino thought of poems like “Forecast,” the Afterword to Generations:
All will die
watch out for
the man with the soap
and the towels
Could this cosmic washroom attendant be someone we know? As the poetry scene of the last decades of the twentieth century fades from memory, Sam’s poetry still has something gruff, direct, but subtle to tell us. We would do well to listen.