There was more than a year of back-and-forth about who should succeed St. Louis’ inaugural Poet Laureate Michael Castro. But the moral of this story is the triumph of artist Shirley LeFlore. She was sworn in as Castro’s successor during a civic ceremony on Nov. 9 at City Hall.
“This goes down in St. Louis records – in the history books – so 200 years from now people can look back and see that you were our Poet Laureate,” her daughter Lyah Beth LeFlore told her mother. “Make sure Bella knows,” Shirley LeFlore said in response, speaking of Lyah’s 5-year-old daughter – her youngest grandchild.
LeFlore will serve until April 2019, when Jane Ellen Ibur assumes the title.
“I feel very good about it because this is the town I was born in,” LeFlore said of receiving the honor. “I’m so happy. My history is deep with St. Louis. I’m 78 years old – and I’ve been doing this for 50 years.”
Her history includes performing with the famed Black Artist Group (commonly known as BAG) in the late 1960s. She is one of only a few surviving original BAG members. She has performed all over the world – one of the most notable being the time she toured in Europe as a featured artist with late R&B legend Fontella Bass. The venues have been as large as Powell Symphony Hall and as quaint as a tiny church or “hole in the wall” nightclub or lounge.
“Some of the places I’ve gone, you wouldn’t want anybody to know you went there to read poetry,” LeFlore said. “But if people asked me, I would go.”
For LeFlore it was more about the message she was trying to convey than the setting – and the lesson.
“My work has allowed me to expose all kinds of people to the kind of history that I thought they needed to know,” LeFlore said.
Her history includes work as a teaching artist in various school districts and educational programs throughout St. Louis City and St. Louis County as well as an assistant dean of students tenure at Webster University.
Stage, film and “black-ish” star Jenifer Lewis told the crowd that LeFlore “saved her life” when she returned to her college alma mater to promote her book, which also mentions LeFlore. Michael J. Bracey, a fellow Webster student who was advised by LeFlore, provided the photos for “Rivers of Women,” the stage play adapted from LeFlore’s poems that was printed in book form.
“They [students] could talk to me – about school, naturally, and other things that were happening with them in the world,” LeFlore said of her days at Webster. “It was a great learning experience for them, but it was also a good learning experience for me. Being able to be there helped me be able to tune in better and listen to them – most of the time that’s really all they needed.”
An ear for poetry, and blackness
“If you’re serious about what you do, keep doing it, keep studying it, keep mastering it and let it live inside of you,” LeFlore said. “Listen – especially when you first start out. You need to listen.”
LeFlore developed her style of poetry as a small child when she eavesdropped on her mother’s clients at the beauty salon, and later when she operated her business out of the family home. “They thought I was sitting around playing jacks, but I would be listening,” LeFlore said.
She would listen to the way they talked and the things they said – especially when they talked about men and their relationships. “I was a good listener as a little kid and I grew up to keep that,” LeFlore said.
She would get back home, pull out her little black and white composition book and write about whomever struck her fancy. Even seven decades later, LeFlore spoke about her former subjects in a way that sounds like poetry.
“In the beauty shop you’ve got all kinds of women that do all kinds of things,” LeFlore said. “You’ve got washer women, cleaning women and high-job women. And even if they are talking about the same thing, they say it in a different way.
Sometimes the only reason they would come in there was to spill out their business to my mother – and I would be listening.”
The way they said it was just as striking as what they said – sometimes more striking.
“I think black people have a special way with language – in every part of the world – but especially in St. Louis,” LeFlore said. “Somethings you can you hear them talk and say, ‘that’s somebody from St. Louis’.”
Those days she spent at her mother’s shop was the inspiration behind “Rivers of Women.” Inspired by LeFlore’s poem of the same name, “Rivers of Women” was adapted for the stage and directed by Lyah Beth LeFlore and played before sold-out crowds at the History Museum in 2013.
“I remembered things and I just write poems about how they looked,” LeFlore said. “If they looked funny, I would write that. If they looked desperate, I would write that too. But more than anything it was their language that inspired me.”
The resounding message of her words – even though the subjects and topics may vary – is that of illustrating black pride and celebrating the many forms black beauty, which she feels makes her appointment all the more special.
“I feel honored because most people weren’t writing about how black people talk, what they say and what they do,” LeFlore said. “In my writing, I’ve always felt that it was important for me to capture that and make it an important part of my work and my performances.”
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis American, which is a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.