Take 5: Shirley Bradley LeFlore, St. Louis poet and oral performer, on new book of poems
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2013: In her poems, Shirley Bradley LeFlore tells stories; and often, those stories are about women.
“I felt that women represent so much, as mothers, being a mother myself, being a girl, being an active person, a traveler, a woman that was always, from a girl, interested in watching people, listening to them,” she says. “I would say that runs through a lot of my work.”
LeFlore’s first book, “Brassbones and Rainbows,” is a collection of poems written across the span of more than 40 years as a poet. During that time, LeFlore has been active in St. Louis as one of the original members of the Black Artists Group, starting the Creative Arts and Expressions Lab in 1981, which developed into a place for artists to perform and have community workshops.
Through CAEL, LeFlore helped present one of the first regional plays on HIV/AIDS, “Deliverance.” She’s also worked as an adjunct professor of women and ethnic literature at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has retired as an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University, where she taught creative writing.
“Rivers of Women,” a play by LeFlore featuring her poetry, ran at the Missouri History Museum this year and is also available in book form. LeFlore will appear at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library at 7 p.m. Aug. 1 to talk about “Brassbones and Rainbows” and “Rivers of Women,” perform, and sign books.
Before that event, LeFlore took time to speak with the St. Louis Beacon about her work, her legacy and the experience that may be inspiring her next project. This conversation has been edited for length.
Beacon: You’re a native of St. Louis. Can you just start by talking about growing up in St. Louis and the impact this place has had on you as an artist?
LeFlore: When I was born, we lived in The Ville. We later moved to Carr Square Village. It was a place where lots of families and children lived. I went to public elementary schools and I went to Sumner High School where I graduated.
St. Louis has a strong impact on a lot of people’s lives, a lot of artists lives. Some live here and some move away. I myself moved away at one time, to the East Coast.
I think it’s very interesting living here, because I was born in segregated St. Louis. But I spent about eight to 10 years in the Girl Scouts, so I was able to do a lot of traveling with them.
I lived in a great neighborhood, it was very family-oriented. We spent a lot of times at parks, Sundays going to watch the river and going to watch the planes. It was just a normal childhood, playing hard, laughing hard, crying hard, going places with my family. And that was my growing up, sitting on the front porch in the evening, playing street games and sidewalk games, which I imagine in some areas may still be the case.
Do you remember when you wrote your first poem or when you first began thinking of yourself as a poet?
LeFlore: When we had family gatherings, my grandmother always wrote poems, and she was one of the major speakers in the church circuit. She’d have her friends over, I think on Wednesdays, and they would discuss different things, and my mother being a beautician, I heard lots and lots of stories from the women in the beauty shop. Later, she moved the business in the house, and so I always managed to be a great eavesdropper, and found some of the stories quite interesting, and then I could mimic those people sometimes.
There were a lot of backyard plays, and I would organize the plays and come up with the ideas for them. Sometimes I’d write little poems and little things and read them to my mother and entertain her when my sister went to bed.
I can’t really pinpoint when I wrote my first poem. I think I began to write some things seriously when I was pregnant with my first daughter. I would just write down how I feel. I really wrote poems about things that were real, and I would imagine how those things would be, and perhaps embellish them that way. I started doing my poetry publicly with the Black Artist Group that was formed in 1967-68.
“Brassbones and Rainbows” is your first collection of poems, yet you’ve been performing your work for years. Was working on this book, with the solid, written word in black and white, different from your work as an oral poet?
LeFlore: As an oral poet, your voice and your cadence and your delivery have a lot to do with it, how effectively your work can get across. It depends on your delivery with oral work. I can take a piece that I wrote, embellish it with sound and diction and conviction and adding my voice and accompanying some of it with songs, either jazz or blues.
This collection is poems I’ve written over the years. I didn’t just sit down and write it. But as I began to get older, I decided I needed to get a collection of my works out.
Earlier on, I began to think of the title “Brassbones and Rainbows,” because for me, life has been much of that, looking at how bad times evolved into better times. That title came to me some years ago, and when people asked me when was I going to have a book out. I’d just say “Brassbones and Rainbows.” But it ended up being a collection from different stages of my work. Was it different? Yes, it’s different in a way because you’ve got to make it come off the page.
The play “Rivers of Women” explores the women who’ve come before you and the ways they remain with you. Your daughter, Lyah Beth LeFlore, produced the play. Do you see yourself in her, and in other young women in the generations that have followed you?
LeFlore: I’d have to say yes, because I think I was a very effective mother, and I think they carry on some of the traditions that I carried on from my grandmother and my mother. When I wrote that, I realized how many poems I had about women. And yes, I realized that there were so many things that women shared, across geography, across race, across class and status.
But I wasn’t always thinking about that when I was writing. In “Rivers of Women,” some of those poems were inspired going all the way back to when I was listening to stories in the beauty shop. Some of it was inspired by my grandmother. Some of it has to do with relationships, when you don’t want to let go and when you do let go. I think a piece of me is in all the work.
Certainly there’ve been a great deal of change in terms of women’s position, but I also came from a family where women did things.
What are you working on next?
LeFlore: I’m contemplating writing on the art of aging. I’ve been speaking to older people, some who appear to be seniors and some who appear to be just who they are and age has just become a part of them.
I’ve also come to realize age makes a difference. In my 50s and 60s I was like, no, it’s cool, it’s fine. But now you wake up and your fingernails are hurting, your eyebrows, and I’m like, oh, this is a trip. I talk about that a lot with my peers, what it’s like getting older.
I may or may not, but I more than likely will do something on the art of aging.