Forbes, Calvin 1945–
Calvin Forbes 1945–
A poet in the tradition of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, Calvin Forbes evokes African-American speech, music, and experience in his works. At the same time, like that of Brooks, his language is compact, sometimes difficult, and generally far removed from everyday forms of expression. Some of his best-known poems are based on the figure of Shine, a hero of traditional African-American storytelling who was said to have survived the wreck of the Titanic by swimming to safety. Yet Forbes’s Shine poems are not like folktales; instead they place Shine in a contemporary context and turn him into something of an alter ego for Forbes himself. Forbes has had an academic career that has often found him teaching at prestigious institutions, but he has been restless, moving from place to place in search of new experiences and artistic influences.
The seventh of eight children, Calvin Forbes was born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 6, 1945. After going to public schools in Newark he enrolled at New Jersey’s Rutgers University but soon transferred to the more unconventional and arts-oriented New School for Social Research in New York City to study poetry. He also taught himself a good deal about the art of poetry, reading books of poetry before shelving them while working at the New York Public Library and the New School’s library.
Before finishing his undergraduate degree, Forbes left the university to explore the world. He hitchhiked through much of the United States, lived in Mexico for a while, and spent time in Hawaii. It was during his travels that Forbes began writing poetry seriously. Some of his work was published in a Hawaiian collection, and in 1968 his poems appeared in Poetry and American Scholar, both prestigious publications aimed at academic audiences and serious poetry enthusiasts.
Those publications got the attention of university writing programs that were trying to add African-American faculty members after the explosion in black artistic creativity that accompanied the ferment of the 1960s. Forbes was hired as an assistant professor of English by Emerson College in Boston in 1969. He continued to teach at Emerson for four years, meanwhile writing the poems that would be collected in his first book, Blue Monday. That book was published by Wesleyan University Press in 1974, and in that academic year Forbes moved from Emerson to Boston’s Tufts University.
Forbes’s early poetry covered a variety of subjects. Like many other African-American poets of his time, he often wrote about his own experiences and feelings and set those experiences against the broader black experience. “Child // Of the sun look out: as you get black you // Burn. Is everything in its place except me?” he asked in “The Other Side of the World” (1974). The title Blue Monday linked Forbes’s poetry to the tradition of the blues, but unlike Langston Hughes, Forbes rarely, if ever, cast his poems in the actual form of a blues lyric. Instead his references to the blues were indirect. He often wrote about the general history of African-American oppression using highly unusual
At a Glance…
Born on May 6, 1945, in Newark, NJ. Education: Attended Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, and New School for Social Research (now New School University), New York, NY; Brown University, MFA, 1978.
Career: Emerson College, Boston, MA, assistant professor of English, 1969-73; Tufts University, Medford, MA, assistant professor of English, 1973-74, 1975-77; Denmark, France, and England, lecturer, 1974-75; Howard University, Washington, DC, writer-in-residence, 1982-83; University of the West Indies, guest lecturer, 1982-83; Washington College, Chestertown, MD, assistant professor of creative writing, 1988-89; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, associate professor, 1991-.
Awards: Fulbright Fellowship, 1974.
Memberships: Modern Language Association, College Language Association.
Addresses: Office —Art Institute of Chicago, 37 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL 60603.
imagery, and his poems were densely woven little nets in which each individual part often encapsulated or was tightly connected to the poem as a whole.
A year after being hired at Tufts, Forbes took a year off and visited Denmark, France, and England, spending the 1974-75 academic year giving lectures with the financial support of a Fulbright fellowship. He returned to Tufts from 1975 to 1977, moving on to a position as writer-in-residence at Howard University in Washington, D.C. It was during this period that Forbes began writing poems featuring the figure of Shine, sometimes trying them out on audiences at live poetry readings. Forbes returned to school in the late 1970s and was awarded a Master of Fine Arts degree by Brown University in 1978.
In 1979 he published some of the Shine poems in a volume entitled From the Book of Shine. Over the years, poems by Forbes appeared in a variety of magazines, and his works began to show up in anthologies of new American poetry. These included Messages: A Thematic Anthology of Poetry, edited by X.J. Kennedy, and The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African American Poetry, edited by Clarence Major. In the 1980s, Forbes continued his peripatetic ways, spending the 1982-83 academic year teaching at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica on a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He then moved on to a teaching post at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and finally, in 1991, to an associate professorship at the Art Institute of Chicago. He has taught courses there in poetry, literature, and jazz history.
The total number of poems Forbes has written in small in comparison with other poets, and when The Shine Poems was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2001, it was his third book. The character of Shine appeared in only the last quarter of the book, with some of the other poems dealing with Forbes’s own experiences. At one point, the poet converses with Shine: “Shine, Shine where you been—// Back and around the world again. // I’ve seen things that best remain unsaid. // One sure thing I learned: KISS // ASS and you shall receive.”
Forbes’ poetry is “simplicity shacked up with complexity,” according to publicity materials on the LSU Press Web site. His new poems had the same kinds of dense structures that he had long cultivated, and, perhaps influenced by jazz music, he reveled in the chance to make language and ideas take unexpected 90-degree turns. Yet a basic human emotion lay at the root of many of his poems “Picture of a Man,” from The Shine Poems, depicted fatherhood in direct terms: “And I know then what another man // meant when he said // maybe I could have loved // better // but I couldn’t have loved more. // I thought of a woman/like that once. // This child is all I have left.”
Shine, as recreated by Forbes, was not the boasting, superhuman figure of legend but a modern African American. He has a girlfriend, Glow, and a child, Shade, and he, like his creator perhaps, is uncertain of his place in the world: “For he’s the witness // To the confusion and perceives evil, anger // As folly: // His fate’s a nuisance. // He goes home gloomy, moaning // About moonlit rain // Falling // Falling—// How he could be alive // and nobody know it.” In the words of Washington Post reviewer Lorenzo Wellington, “Forbes’s crestfallen Shine is nobody’s hero, everybody’s fool and a rather depressed dude. He spends most of his time longing for visions of Eden, and barely scraping by.”
Wellington’s review of The Shine Poems was mixed, contending that in the book’s opening sections “the author skips around too much to satisfy the rhythmic and imagistic possibilities he slyly initiates.” Elsewhere, however, the book received some strongly positive reviews. Commenting that Forbes’s poems “possess a strong sense of voice, cultural presence, and necessity,” William Doreski observed in the African American Review that in Forbes’s work “blues rhythm isn’t just a question of beat: It requires syntax that is compressed and truncated to raise the emotional level of the lyric and underscore the emotional as well as the physical rhythm of both words and music.” In the slight output and spare works of Calvin Forbes, the African-American tradition found a mode of expression that encompassed both grassroots black culture and the complex art of poetry.
Blue Monday, Wesleyan University Press, 1974.
From the Book of Shine, Burning Deck Press, 1979.
The Shine Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
Harris, Trudier, and Thadious M. Davis, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale Group, 1985.
African American Review, Summer 2002, p. 349.
Chicago Review, Fall 2001, p. 151.
Library Journal, November 1, 2000, p. 103.
Washington Post, April 8, 2001, p. T10; June 17, 2001, p. T12.
“Calvin Forbes,” Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=467 (June 10, 2004).
“Calvin Forbes,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 10, 2004).
“The Shine Poems,” Louisiana State University Press, www.lsu.edu/lsupress/catalog/spring2001_books/spring2001/forbes.html (June 10, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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