Poetry Reading with Alice Walker at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio
I'm going to read to hell with dying which is the first successful story I ever wrote or in any case is the first published Dori of mine and I wrote it when I was a senior at Sarah Lawrence and it is based on a real person. In fact the person Mista sweet is real. But all the rest is made up and it is in a sense an attempt to say thank you to this man who died while I was away from home and could not be with him. To hell with dying. To hell with dying my father would say these children want Mr. Sweet. This just sweet was a diabetic and an alcoholic and a guitar player and lived down the road from us on an eclectic cotton farm. My older brothers and sisters got the most
benefit from Mr. Sweet. Well when they were growing up he had quite a few years ahead of him and so was capable of being called back from the brink of death any number of times whenever the voice of my father reached him as he lay expiring To hell with dying man. My father would say pushing the wife away from the bedside in tears although she knew the death was not necessarily the last one. Unless Mr Sweet really wanted it to be these children want Mista sweet and they did want him or at a signal from father they would come crowding around the bed and throw themselves on the covers and whoever was the smallest at the time would kiss him all over his wrinkled brown face and begin to tickle them so that he would laugh fall down on his stomach and his mustache which was long and sort of straggly which shake all over like Spanish moss and was also that color. Mr. Sweet had been ambitious as a boy wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or sailor only to find that black men fared better. They are not since he could become none of these
things he turned to fishing as his only earnest Korea and playing the guitar as his only claim to doing anything extraordinarily well. His son the only one that he and his wife Miss Mary had was shiftless as the day is long and spent money as if he were trying to see the bottom of the mint. Which Mr. Sweet would tell him was the clean brown palm of his hand. Miss Mary loved her baby however and worked hard to get him the quote little necessities of life which turned out mostly to be women. Mr. Sweet was a tall thin ish man with thick kinky hair going dead white. He was dark brown. His eyes were very Squinty and sort of bluish. And he chewed Brown mule tobacco. He was constantly on the verge of being blind drunk for he brewed his own liquor and was not in the least a stingy sort of man. I was always very melancholy and sad so frequently when he was feeling good. He danced around the yard with us usually keeling over just as my mother came to see what the commotion was
toward all of us children he was very kind and had the grace to be shy with us which is unusual in grown ups. He had great respect for my mother but she never held his drunkenness against him and would let us play with him even when he was about to fall in the fire place from drink. Although most of us we sometimes lose complete control or nearly complete control of his head and neck so that he would loll in his chair. His mind remained strangely acute and his speech not too affected. His ability to be drunk and sober at the same time made him an ideal playmate where he was as weak as we were and we could usually best him in wrestling while all the while keeping a fairly coherent conversation going. We never felt anything in this week's age when we played with him. We loved his wrinkles and would draw some on our brows to be like him and his white hair was my special treasure and he knew it and would never come to visit us just after he'd had his hair cut off at the barber shop.
Once he came to our house for something probably to see my father about fertilisation for his crops because although he never paid the slightest attention to his crops he like to know what things would be best to use on them if he ever did. Anyhow he had not Tom with his head since he just had it shaved off at the barber shop. He wore huge straw hat to keep out the sun and also to keep his head away from me. But as soon as I saw him I ran up and demanded that he take me up and kiss me with his funny beard which smelled so strongly of tobacco. Looking forward to burying my small fingers into his woolly hair I threw away his hat only to find he had done something to his hair but it was no longer there. I let out a squall which made my mother think that Mr. Sweet it finally dropped me in the well or something and from that day I've been wary of men and hats. However not long after Mr. Sweet showed up with his hair grown out and just as wide and kinky and impenetrable as it ever was Mr. Sweet used to call me his
princess and I believed it. He made me feel pretty at father and six and simply outrageously devastating at the blazing age of eight and a half when he came to our house with his guitar the whole family would stop whatever they were doing to sit around him and listen to him play. He liked to play Sweet Georgia Brown. That was what he called me sometimes. And also he liked to play Caledonia and all sorts of sweet sad wonderful songs which he sometimes made up. It was from one of these songs that I learned that he had had to marry Miss Mary when he had in fact love somebody else. Now living in Chicago or as he pronounced it destroyed Michigan. He was not sure that Jolie her baby was also his baby. Sometimes he would cry and that was an indication that he was about to die again and so we would all get prepared. But we were sure to be called upon. I was seven the first time I remember actually participating in one of Mr suites revivals. My parents told me I had participated before I had been the one chosen to kiss
him and tickle him long before I knew the right of this to sweets rehabilitation. He had come to our house. It was a few years after his wife's death. I was very sad and also typically very drunk. He sat on the floor next to me and my older brother the rest of the children were grown up and lived elsewhere and began to play his guitar and cry. I held his head in my arms and wished I could have been old enough to have been the woman he loved so much and that I had not been lost years and years ago. When he was leaving my mother said to us that we'd better sleep light that night but we'd probably have to go over to Mr. sweets before day. And we did. But soon after we had gone home to bed one of the neighbors knocked on our door and called my father and said that Mr Sweet was sinking fast and he wanted to get in a word before crossover. He better shake a leg and get out of this week's house while all the neighbors knew to come to our house if something was wrong with Mr Sweet. But they didn't know how we always managed to make him
well or at least stop him stop him from dying. When he was often so near death as soon as we heard the cry we got up. My brother and I and my mother and father and put on our clothes we hurried out of the house and down the road. But we were always afraid that we might somebody someday be too light and this wheat would get tired of dallying. When we got to the house a very poor shack really we found the front room full of neighbors and relatives and someone met us at the door and said that it was all very sad. That old Mr. Sweet little a little with his family name although we've mostly ignored it was about to kick the bucket. My parents were advised not to take my brother and me into the death room seeing we were so young and all but we were so much more custom to the death room than he that we ignored him and dashed in without giving his warning a second thought. I was almost in tears. But these deaths upset me fearfully and the thought of how much depended on me and my brother who was such a
ham most of the time made me very nervous. The doctor was bending over the bed and turned back to tell us or at least the tenth time in the history of my family that alas almost a sweet little was dying and that the children had best not see the face of implacable death. I didn't know what implacable was but whatever it was Mr. Sweet was not. My father pushed him rather abruptly abruptly out of the way saying as he always did and very loudly what he was saying it to Mr Sweet. To hell with dying then these children want Mr. Sweet. Which was my cue to throw myself upon the bed and kiss Mr. Sweet all around the whiskers and under the eyes and around the collar of his night shirt where he smelled so strongly of all sorts of things mostly liniment. I was very good at bringing him around for as soon as I saw that he was struggling to open his eyes. I knew he was going to be alright and so could finish my revival sure of success. As soon as his eyes were open
he would begin to smile. And that way I knew that I had surely won. Once though I got a tremendous scare but he could not open his eyes. And later I learned that he had had a stroke and that one side of his face was stiff and hard to get into motion. When he began to smile I could tickle him in earnest because I was sure that nothing would get in the way of his laughter although once he began to cough so hard that he almost threw me off his stomach. But at that time I was very small. Little more than a baby and my bushy hair had gotten in his nose. When we were sure he would listen to us we would ask him why he was in bed and when he was coming to see us again and could we play his guitar which was more than likely leaning against the bed his eyes would get all misty and he would sometimes cry out loud but we never let it embarrass us. But he knew that we loved him and that we sometimes cried too for no reason. My parents would leave the room to just the three of us. Mr Sweet By that time would be propped up in bed with a number of pillows behind his head
and with me sitting and lying on his shoulder and along his chest. Even when he had trouble breathing he would not ask me to get down looking into my eyes he would shake his white head and run a scratchy old finger all around my hairline which was rather low down nearly to my eyebrows. My brother was very generous in all this. He let me do all the revival ing he had done it for years before I was born and so was glad to be able to pass it on to someone new. What do you do while I talk to Mr. Sweatt was pretending to play the guitar in fact pretend that he was a young version of Mr. Sweet and it always made Mr. Sweet glad to think that someone wanted to be like him. Of course we did not know this then we played the thing by ear and whatever he seemed to like we did. We were desperately afraid that he was just going to take off one day and leave us. It didn't occur to us that we were doing anything
special. We hadn't learned that death was final when it comes. We thought nothing of triumphing over it so many times and in fact became contemptuous of people who let themselves be carried away. It did not occur to us that if our own father had been dying we could not have stopped it. That was the suite was the only person over whom we had power. When Mr. Sweet was in his 80s I was studying in the university many miles from home. I saw him whenever I went home but he was never on the verge of dying that I could tell. And I began to feel that my anxiety for his health and psychological well-being was unnecessary. By this time he not only had a mustache but a long flowing snow white beard which I loved and calmed and braided but ours. He was very peaceful fragile gentle and the only jarring note about him was his old steel guitar which he still played in the same sad sweet down home blues way. On this week's 90th
birthday I was finishing my doctorate in Massachusetts and had been making arrangements to go home for several weeks rest. That morning I got a telegram telling me that Mr. Sweet was dying again and could I please drop everything and come home. Of course I could. My dissertation could wait and my teachers would understand. When I explained to them when I got back I ran to the phone call the airport and within hours I was speeding along the dusty road in the SDA suites. The house was more dilapidated than when I was last there. Barely a shack but it was overgrown with yellow roses which my family had planted many years ago. The air was heavy and sweet and very peaceful. I felt strange walking through the gate and up the old rickety steps but the strangeness left me as I caught sight of the long white beard I love so well blowing down the thin body over the familiar quilt cover that was just sweet. His eyes were
closed tight and his hands crossed over his stomach were thin and delicate no longer scratchy. I remembered how Always before I had run and jumped up on him just anywhere. Now I knew he would not be able to support my weight. I looked around at my parents and was surprised to see that my father and mother also looked old and frail. My father his own hair very Gray leaned over the quietly sleeping old man who incidentally still smelled of wine and tobacco and said as he done so many times. To hell with dying man my daughter is home to see Mr. Sweet. My brother had not been able to come as he was in the war in Asia. I bent down and gently opened the closed eyes and gradually they began to open. But closed wide stone lips twitched a little then parted in a warm slightly embarrassed smile. Let's just wait because see me and he recognized
me and his eyes looked very spry and twinkly for a moment. I put my head down on the pillow next to his and we just looked at each other for a long time. Then he began to trace my peculiar hairline with a thin smooth thing that I closed my eyes when his finger halted above my ear. He used to rejoice at the dirt in my ears when I was little and his hand stayed cupped around my cheek. When I opened my eyes sure that I had reached him in time his were closed. Even at twenty four how could I believe that I had failed. That Mr. Sweet was really gone. He had never gone before. But when I looked up at my parents I saw that they were holding back tears. But I had loved him dearly. He was like a piece of rare and delicate china which was always being saved from breaking and which finally fell. I looked long at the old place the wrinkled forehead the red lips the hands that still reached out to me.
Soon I felt my father pushing something cool into my hands. It was Mr Sweet's guitar. He had asked them once before to give it to me. He had known that even if I came next time he would not be able to respond in the OHL way. He did not want me to feel that my trip had been for nothing. The old guitar I plucked the strings Home Sweet Georgia Brown the magical mist a sweet lingered still in the cool steel box through the window I could catch the fragrant delicate scent of tender yellow roses. The man on the high old fashioned bed with the quilt cover lit and the flowing white beard had been my first love.
I'm going to read next some poems from revolutionary petunias and I think I'll just read poems at random. There are various sections in the book and one section is about revolutionaries and lovers and the poems occur at just the point where both things seem impossible. This is one called Lost my voice of course and is dedicated to a childhood bully who always wanted to believe that people must see reality the same way that she did and if they did not she would beat them and into submission. I lost my voice. Of course you said pawns of love and flowers are luxury the revolution cannot afford.
Here are the warm and juicy vocal chords slithery from my throat. Allow me to press them up on your fingers as you have pressed that bloody voice of yours in places it could not know to speak nor how to trust. And this is one of my favorite poems because it illustrates how people are often capable of telling us what to do even the smallest things and yet their own lives cannot testify to what they are saying. The old warrior Tara did you hear. After everything the old warrior Tara died a natural death at home in bed just reward for
having proclaimed abroad that true believers never doubt and true revolutionaries never smile. And this one he said Come. He said Come let me explore at you. Somebody must do it. And wouldn't you prefer a brother come show me your face all scarred with tears. Unburden your heart before the opportunity passes away. And then there's a section of what I suppose could be called Love Poems except that in Love It seems to me there must always also be some rebellion and some rage. So there's a lot of love rebellion rage and a combination.
This one is called no fixed place. You go where you will take the long lashes that guard your eyes and sweep a path across this earth. But see if it is not true that voluptuous blood though held to the tinkling quiet but choked back stream will yet rush out to age shy love and flood out the brain to make a clean and sacred place for itself. There is no fixed place on earth for man or woman. It will not help that you believe in miracles. And then another one from the same section forbiddance things they say you are not for me and I try and my result but barely turning brain to know they do not matter.
These relics of past disasters in March against the rebellion of our time they will fail as all the others have. But our fate will not be this. To smile and salute the pain to limp behind their steel boot of happiness. Grieving for forbidden things. And this one while love is unfashionable while love is unfashionable let us live on fashionably seeing the world a complex ball in small hands. Love our blackest garment. Let us be poor in all but truth and courage handed down by the old spirits. Let us be intimate with ancestral ghosts and music of the
undead while love is dangerous. Let us walk bareheaded beside the great river. Let us gather blossoms under fire. The poems in my new book Goodnight with a Lee. I'll see you in the morning. Are fairly different. The title good night with Louis I'll see you in the morning comes from something my mother said at my father's funeral. Members other members of the family passed out cried scream and beat their breasts tore their hair. But my mother said what became this poem looking down into my father's dead face for the last time. My mother said without tears without smiles without
regrets but with civility. Good night. Willie I'll see you in the morning. And it was then I knew that the healing of all our wounds is forgiveness that permits a promise of our return at the end. Now I'm going to read some poems from the beginning of this book the ones that I consider my new erotic love Pons and I think one of the pleasures of being a poet is the gradual ability to understand what is neurotic and what isn't. The first one is called did this happen to your mother. Did your sister throw up a lot. I love a man who is not worth my love. Did this happen to your mother. Did your grandmother wake up for no good reason in the middle of the night. I
thought love could be controlled. It cannot. Only behavior can be controlled by biting your tongue purple rather than speak mauling your lips obliterating his number two. The early to be able to phone. Love has made me sick. Did your sister throw up a lot that your cousin complained of a painful knot in her back. Did your aunt always seem to have something else troubling her mind. I thought love would adapt itself to my needs but needs grow too fast. They come up like weeds through cracks in the conversation. There are silences in the dark through everything you thought was concrete. Such needful love has to be chopped out or forced to wilt back poisoned by disapproval from its own soil. This is bad news for the conservationist. My hand shakes before this
killing. My stomach sits jumpy in my chest my chest is the Grand Canyon sprawled empty over the world. Whoever he is he is not worth all this and I will never clenched my teeth long enough to tell him so. And another one from this group is called gifted. He said Here is my soul. I did not want his soul but I am a Southerner and very polite. I took it lightly as it was offered but did not chain it down. I loved it and tended it. I would hand it back as good as new. He said How dare you want my soul give it back. How greedy you are. It is a trait I had not noticed before. I said but your soul never left you. It was only a heavy
thought from your childhood past to me for safe keeping. But he never believed me until the end. He called me possessive and held his soul so tightly it shrunk to fit his hand. And the last poem is never offer your heart to someone who eats hearts never offer your heart to someone who eats hearts who finds heart meat delicious but not rare. Who sucks the juices drop by drop and bloody Chand grins like a god. Never offer your heart to a heart gravy lover. You're stewed over seasoned heart consumed. He will sop up your grief with bread and send it shuttling from side to side in his mouth like bubble gum. If you find yourself in love with a person
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- Alice Walker (b. February 9, 1944) presented a poetry reading of her poems at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Walker became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement while attending Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1960s. Issues of race and gender were prominent in her writings. She read following poems from her books: To Hell With Dying (1988) Mr. Sweet Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973) Lost My Voice, Of Course The Old Warrior Terror He Said Come No Fixed Place Forbidden Things While Love is Unfashionable Good Night Willie Lee, Ill See You in the Morning (1979) Did This Happen To Your Mother, Did Your Sister Throw-up A lot Gift Never Offer Your Heart to Someone Who Eats Hearts
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- APA: Poetry Reading with Alice Walker at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio. Boston, MA: WYSO, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-27-qv3bz61s41