Eugene Redmond - scholar, educator, poet - reflects on his work and his city
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 29, 2013 - On Dec. 1, 2012, Eugene Redmond - poet, scholar, educator and the poet laureate of East St. Louis – celebrated his 75th birthday. His life and work have touched many people over those years, including mine.
Next month, a new collection of his work, “Arkansippi Memwars: Poetry, Prose & Chants, 1962-2012,” will be published, so it was a good time talk with him about his work and his abiding love of the city that shaped him.
I have met and talked with Redmond many times. But our first meeting is still the most memorable.
In October 1991, a memorial service was held at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis to honor the recent passing of its most famous alumni: Miles Dewey Davis III.
The legendary trumpeter had been a larger-than-life musical legend that changed the direction of jazz several times during his four-plus decades career as a musician.
Davis also left a legacy as a mesmerizing, polarizing cultural icon who combined a brash, hip attitude with a keen sense of how to market that image. And in the post-World War II era when the civil rights movement had begun to build momentum and strength, Davis presented himself as a proud black man unafraid to stand up to for himself – in the music industry and in the wider world of the white establishment.
But Davis had a deeper, more profound meaning to those he left behind in East St. Louis when he moved away after he graduated from high school in 1944 to immerse himself in the New York City jazz scene. Miles became a totem for East St. Louis – an emblem of achievement to a downtrodden city that desperately needed inspiration, as well as a revered ancestor who had helped inspire several subsequent generations of up-and-coming musicians.
'Milestones: The Birth of an Ancestor'
Dressed up in pain
The flatted-fifth began its funereal climb
Up the tribal stairwell.
Grief-radiant as it
Bulged and gleamed with moans
Spread like laughter or Ethiopia’s wings
Mourned its own percussive rise
In the hoarse East Saint Louis air.
Bore witness to the roaring calm
The garrulous silence
The caskets of tears
The gushing stillness:
The death of the Cool
Became the birth of an Ancestor.
The memorial service for Davis at his alma mater featured speeches by several educators, family members and musicians such as Eddie Randle Sr., who hired Davis when the trumpeter was a high school sophomore to play in Randle’s band, the Blue Devils – the hottest jazz group in the St. Louis area in the early 1940s.
But the most moving speaker that day was Redmond, who read the prologue of a poem he had written specially for the occasion. Redmond called it “Milestones: The Birth of an Ancestor.” And when he read it at the conclusion of Davis’ memorial service, Redmond’s words captured that inescapable bond that existed between the trumpet legend and the city that shaped his musical apprenticeship.
Redmond’s words were a powerful tribute to Davis that day in 1991. But that poem – and all of Redmond’s writings -- also underscores his own deep and abiding love for East St. Louis. It’s a city that has seen the depths of crushing poverty, despair and racism, but has also produced artists like Davis, dancer Katherine Dunham, jazz vocalist Leon Thomas and Redmond himself.
Redmond’s literary accomplishments include seven volumes of poetry, as well as his 1991 collection, “The Eye in the Ceiling: Selected Poems,” which won an American Book Award. Redmond’s 1976 book, “Drumvoices: The Mission of African-American Poetry, A Critical History,” is a groundbreaking work that firmly established the credentials of African-American writers within the academic world.
But Redmond’s writing credentials are just one aspect of his achievements. His earned a bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a master’s from Washington University, became a writer–in--residence at Oberlin College, then spent more than 15 years on the faculty at California State University Sacramento, followed by two decades as a professor at SIUE.
In addition, Redmond was the co-founder and editor of the “East St. Louis Monitor” newspaper during the 1960s. He also worked with legendary dancer Katherine Dunham at her Performing Arts and Training Center in the late 1960s. And he continues to edit “Drumvoices Review,” the literary journal he founded in 1986 that continues to be an outlet for young poets – especially those whom Redmond works with in his East St. Louis-based Writer’s Club.
Alex Detrick reads a poem selected by Redmond.
Redmond’s 75th birthday celebration began in late November last year with a four-day celebration that began with poetry readings, included a ceremony at City Hall and ended with a gala dinner on Redmond’s actual birthday, Dec. 1.
Despite all the recent acclaim and many awards over the years, Redmond still regards an honor he received in 1976 as one that has given him the most pride: being named poet laureate of East St. Louis.
East St. Louis
“I was named the first poet laureate of any city in the United States,” Redmond says during a recent interview at his apartment on the east side. “Growing up in East St. Louis is what made me a writer. I think back about everything I experienced there, and it all is part of everything I describe in my poetry.
Harper Barnes on Redmond:
In the Laclede Town days, we both wrote for the “Mill Valley Intelligencer.” I always enjoy people’s reactions when I tell them that Eugene is the poet laureate of East St. Louis. They think that’s a little crazy, but they don’t know Eugene. He’s the type of person who elevates the energy of any room he’s in.
When I was researching my book about the riots in East St. Louis, “Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement,” Eugene drove me through the city. I was immediately struck by his deep sense of history about the place. We would drive down almost any street and he could tell me how it looked when he was growing up – and he also knew the earlier history of each area.
Eugene is incredibly learned with a national reputation as a scholar. But he also has a lot of soul, he’s a wonderful poet, and most importantly, he’s given so much of himself to pull young people there into being writers and poets themselves. He’s created writers out of people who literally never would have thought about being writers. And that’s amazing.
“I remember railroad tracks in every direction,” recalls Redmond. “And I remember the ritual slaughtering of pigs by families in the neighborhood, where everyone had a job as part of it and knew what to do. Men getting together to help build additions to shotgun shack houses when relatives moved up from the south and needed a place to stay. Listening to people playing music on their front porches using a one string bass made of a broomstick and a washtub – with bottles filled with water at different levels to produce different tones and someone playing with paper over a comb.”
Redmond wasn’t born in East St. Louis, but his family moved there from St. Louis before his first birthday. He was one of nine children, and his mother, Emma Jean, died when Redmond was 9 years old. By that time, his father, John Henry, was only intermittently at home.
“My father worked selling TVs when they first came out,” says Redmond. “And the company he worked for was cheating their customers. He was the one who was forced to take the fall with the law and so he had to move away and I rarely saw him after that. But he still molded me and shaped the way I looked at the world. When we were walking he would talk to me about whatever we happened to see and ask me what I thought. That made me very aware of everything around me while I was growing up.”
After his mother’s death, Eugene was sent to live with his grandmother, who lived nearby. He found himself in a new environment – one run by the strict rules of his grandmother’s religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist.
“There was no bacon or pork chops anymore, recalls Redmond. “But there was plenty of reading of the Bible and companion books. That was my first literature, and I had to memorize everything, since church elders could stop you anytime and ask questions about passages you had to know. I think that led to me being focused enough to remember things and become a writer.”
Despite the discipline of living within Seventh Day Adventist doctrines, Redmond was vitally in touch with the decidedly secular side of East St. Louis during his youth – especially the world of music. He sold newspapers as well as shining shoes, and quickly learned the benefits of peddling papers and shoeshines at local clubs and bars – many of which featured musicians.
Redmond talks about how his life is intertwined with SIUE.
“I went to places like the Bucket of Blood, the Red Top, the Cotton Club, the Cosmo Club, the Blue Flame, Tricky Sam’s, the Harlem Club and other places that I could get into at my age,” he remembers. “That was definitely a side of East St. Louis culture that was as important a part of the culture as the church. It was mostly blues I heard, but jazz as well. And that music has been part of everything I’ve written since then. If you grew up in East St. Louis and you breathed, you took in and let out the blues.”
Redmond’s actual start as a writer began in his high school years; and once again, music was involved. In addition to playing in an amateur blues and R&B band in his teens, Redmond also wrote lyrics for doowop vocal groups, which were a common sight on many street corners in the city.
“I was the one who wrote the lyrics,” he says. “I wasn’t the most talented singer, but even then I could write. And that’s where it all started for me as a writer and especially a poet.”
After he graduated from high school, Redmond took a few courses at a community college, but soon decided to join the Marines. He served overseas in Japan, learned the language and read voraciously while also honing his skills as a writer.
“I read so much my nickname in the Marines was ‘Dictionary,” says Redmond with a laugh. “I’d also write articles for the armed forces paper, and even wrote a novel – a detective/thriller that I never have published. But it was a great learning experience!”
Determined to rediscover heritage
After his three years of service in the Marines, Redmond returned to East St. Louis in 1961 with a determination to go to college and pursue a career as a writer. He enrolled in SIU-Edwardsville, and soon found a mentor – Professor Vernon Theodore Hornback.
For more information about Redmond, visit his website.
The Eugene Redmond Writer’s Club meets the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m. in Building B, Room 2083 of the Southern Illinois University East St. Louis Center on Converse Ave.
Redmond will read from his new book, “Arkansippi Memwars: Poetry, Prose & Chants, 1962-2012,” on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 2 p.m. at Afro World, 7276 Natural Bridge Rd. For more information, call 314-389-5194.
“I was mistakenly enrolled in his honors English class,” recalls Redmond. “And he met with me after the first class and told me I should think about trying a lower level course. But at the next class, he happened to say something in Japanese, and I was able to respond to him. And it turned out many of the works in the class curriculum were ones I had read in the Marines. So we ended up being friends, and I learned so much from him!
“Once he had read some of my work, he told me to read the poetry of e.e. cummings, because he could see I liked to play with words. That reinforced my approach, and it has become a major element of my writing style since then.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1964, Redmond studied for his master’s degree at Washington University – also working as the co-founder and editor of the “East St. Louis Monitor,” a paper that focused on the growing civil rights movement and the struggle for black identity – in a city rife with political corruption and growing economic difficulties.
For Redmond, the turmoil of the 1960s resulted in a strong focus on political activism – but also a determination to rediscover and communicate the heritage of African-American culture.
As he continued to build a reputation in the academic world, Redmond found an outlet for his efforts to reconnect with the East St. Louis community with its cultural heritage when he began to work with Katherine Dunham.
Dunham, who had achieved international fame as a dancer and as the founder of the first African-American dance company, decided to move to East St. Louis in 1964. She began working with SIUE as an artist-in-residence, and soon met Redmond.
In 1967, she founded the Performing Arts Training Center in conjunction with SIUE in East St. Louis and brought in Redmond to work with young people in the program.
“That was an opportunity for me to reach out to students in the program and in the East St. Louis schools in general,” says Redmond. “I saw my role as being what’s called a griot in African culture – a historian of the culture, passing it on to another generation.”
Oliver Lake on Redmond:
My memories of Eugene go back to Laclede Town in 1968 and the early days of playing music there and the start of BAG. He was not an immediate and direct influence on my writing through his poetry. I was more indebted at the time to Ajulé Rutlin’s style – and I did follow that path. But Eugene has remained a good friend over the years.
What strikes me most about him beyond his work as a poet is his incredible influence as a mentor – especially to young artists through his poetry. Eugene has such a different and very creative approach to writing, one that really emphasizes his unique way of working with words to bring new meaning and creating new contexts. And he’s still going strong at 75!
In his role with Dunham’s program, Redmond also began working with musicians and artists in St. Louis who became the founders of the Black Artists Group (BAG) – musicians such as Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Floyd LeFlore, poets like Shirley LeFlore and Ajulé Rutlin, theatrical directors Vincent Terrell and Malinké Elliott and visual artists like Oliver Jackson.
“I remember reading poetry at the Circle Coffee Shop in Laclede Town when Oliver Lake was playing there,” says Redmond. “When BAG started and they got funding, Katherine Dunham was also involved in that, so there was a lot of interaction. I remember Julius Hemphill coming over to the Performing Arts Training Center to teach music. And Oliver Jackson and I eventually went to Oberlin College in Ohio together in 1969 to be a writer-in-residence. Then Professor Hornbeck, who was teaching at Cal State in Sacramento, suggested I come out and apply for a teaching position.”
At Cal State, Redmond was instrumental in starting African-American and multi-cultural degree programs there. He remained an English professor there until 1984, when he returned to East St. Louis – and a place on the faculty at SIUE.
Redmond is now professor emeritus at SIUE. He recently donated his literary collection to its Lovejoy Library and is the process of cataloguing the thousands of photos, books, newspaper articles and writings.
Redmond has just finished a new collection of his work, “Arkansippi Mewars: Poetry, Prose & Chants, 1962-2012,” which will be published in early February. He continues his work with the “Drumvoices” review as well as with the Eugene Redmond Writer’s Club, and is working on book on the cultural history of East St. Louis for the Institute of Urban Research.
“This new book won’t be a history of East St. Louis,” explains Redmond. “It will be my impressions of the city, as well as sketches and anecdotes I’m collecting. There’s even going to be a chapter on East St. Louis nicknames, which I find fascinating! I’m hoping to have it finished by June for publication sometime this fall.”
It’s clear that, although Redmond has traveled the world and spent considerable time away from East St. Louis, the city possesses a hold on his heart and his imagination.
“For me, East St. Louis is the key,” he concludes. “It’s the pathway I found to take my experiences and explain them to the world – through the prism of East St. Louis. Aristotle had Athens. James Joyce had Dublin. Other writers had places they used as inspiration. I have East St. Louis.”