Rodgers, Carolyn M.

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RODGERS, Carolyn M.

Born 14 December 1942, Chicago, Illinois

Daughter of Clarence and Bazella Colding Rodgers

Carolyn M. Rodgers grew up on Chicago's South Side, a member of a vibrant urban black community that has served as one source for her poetry. She spent much of her younger years as an active member of an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church congregation. Those experiences, as well as the continuing influence of her mother's religious faith, would make themselves into the materials of poetry.

As a child, Rodgers was an avid reader. In addition, her father, an aspiring singer, encouraged her musical talents. In her second year at Hyde Park High School, Rodgers converted to Roman Catholicism. During her high school and college years, she began writing, primarily for herself. While attending Roosevelt University, Rodgers attended a poetry reading by and a reception for the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. This meeting stimulated Rodgers' reading of black writers. She left Roosevelt University in 1963 and began to work with high school dropouts. Returning to school several years later, she received a B.A. from Chicago State University in 1981 and an M. A. from the University of Chicago in 1983.

Although Rodgers had been writing throughout her high school and college years, it was while she was working in the dropout program that she decided she was a writer. Quitting her job in 1968, with some financial and moral encouragement from her first mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks, she began her career as a writer. A subsequent encounter with Hoyt W. Fuller, editor of Negro Digest (later Black World), provided a direct stimulus to Rodgers' literary career. Soon after meeting him, she submitted several pieces to Negro Digest. Her poems and a short story were published and Rodgers became a regular contributor to the magazine. Shortly afterwards, Fuller and several other artists founded the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC [oh-bah-see]), including a musicians' workshop, a theater workshop, an artists' workshop, and a writers' workshop. It was the OBAC Writers' Workshop that would thrive and Rodgers, along with Johari Amini (then Jewel Latimore), Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee), Walter Bradford, Mike Cook, Rhonda Davis, and others provided the nucleus of the leadership of what became a center for the New Black Poetry movement. The same group met as the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Workshop at Brooks' home.

Rodgers' first books of poems, Paper Soul (1968), selected with Brooks' assistance and featuring an introduction by Fuller, was self-published. The book was later distributed by the newly established Third World Press, publishers in 1969 of Songs of a Blackbird. Rodgers also published single poems in broadside form with the young Broadside Press. Described early on by a young actor fan as a "new Langston Hughes," Rodgers translated black vernacular idioms into poetic language and won immediate response from her community and from college audiences. In the introduction to her first book, Fuller wrote of Rodgers' language as "honed with bitterness and tipped with grace, [one that] swaggers along the brutal street and prances into the parlors: it does not know its bounds."

Rodgers' poetry has been widely anthologized, and since the later 1960s she has been in demand as a reader of her own work. OBAC helped pioneer the poetry reading as cultural event, popularizing a style of presentation called "rise and fly," in which each poet briefly presented the material that she or he felt would elicit the greatest crowd response. OBAC writers attempted to institutionalize poetry readings that functioned in the community in the same way as presentations of black music. The New Black Poets were also frequently characterized as Black Revolutionary Poets, an aspect of their writings that became something of a straitjacket for Rodgers and several of her colleagues who had a wider range of subjects than the "revolution."

In 1975 Rodgers published her first volume of poems with a "mainstream" publisher, Doubleday, How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems and the volume was nominated for the National Book Award for 1976. Her next work, The Heart as Ever Green: Poems (1978) also came from Doubleday, before Rodgers switched over to privately publishing under her own imprint, Eden Press, which she began with a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her poems have been widely anthologized (see works section above) and her critical essays, short stories, and reviews have appeared in numerous periodicals and journals (including Black Scholar, Black World, Carolina Quarterly, Colloquy, Ebony, Essence, Focus on Youth, Journal of Black Poetry, and others).

In the introduction to Songs of a Blackbird, David Llorens describes Rodgers as a "storyteller of the highest order." She has also been praised for her sensitive lyrics and musical lines. Angela Jackson, a sister OBAC poet, celebrated Rodgers as a "singer of sass and blues.… Everytime you look at her u see somebody u know.… She a witness. humming her people / to the promis / d land."

As a published writer of acclaim, throughout the years Rodgers has served as a writer-in-residence and taught creative writing and African American literature at many colleges and universities, yet she has continually returned to her roots in Chicago. In addition to her poetry and essays, she has written for the stage and seen her poetry used in dramatic productions Off-Broadway. Rodgers has been the recipient of several book award nominations and won the Poet Laureate Award of the Society of Midland Authors for Songs of a Blackbird, and received a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship.

Other Works:

Two Love Raps (1969). Now Ain't That Love (1969). For H. W. Fuller (1970). For Flip Wilson: Long Rap/ Commonly Known as a Poetic Essay (1971). Poems for Malcolm (1972). Translation: Poems (1980). Love (play, produced 1982). Eden and Other Poems (1983). A Little Lower Than the Angels (1984). Finite Forms (1985). Morning Glory: Poems (1989). Rain (1991). We're Only Human (1994). A Train Called Judah (1996). The Girl With the Blue Hair (1996).

Has also published poems in many anthologies, including: We Speak as Liberators, Brothers and Sisters, Spectrum in Black, Purpose in Literature, Geography of Poets and others in the 1970s; Understanding the New Black Poetry, No More Masks!, Exploring Life Through Literature, Counterpoint, Contemporary Black Poetry, Black Sister Anthology, Sturdy Black Bridges, Black Women Writers, Daughters of Africa and others in the 1980s; In Search of Color Everywhere, Honey Hush, A Rock Against the Wind, Father Songs, My Soul as a Witness, Language Issues and The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2 in the 1990s.

Bibliography:

Evans, M., ed., Black Women Writers (1950-1980) (1984). Kirkland, S. A., "The Black Arts Movement and the Poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Carolyn Rodgers" (thesis, 1993). Parks, C. A., ed., Nommo: Literary Legacy of Black Chicago, 1967-1987 (1987). Redmond, E. B., Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry—A Critical History (1976). Russell, S., Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present (1990).

Reference works:

CAAS (1991). CANR (1989). CP (1991). DLB (1985). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

CLAJ (Sept. 1981).

—FAHAMISHA PATRICIA BROWN

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