Poetry in symphonic motion

‘Poet-teacher’ Herman Beavers has published a new chapbook binded by music.

Herman Beavers
Herman Beavers, a professor of English and Africana studies in the School of Arts & Sciences. Photo by Department of Africana Studies

“I can’t stop thinking about corn.”

The line had been in his head for years.

Its meaning was a mystery for Herman Beavers, a professor of English and Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences.

“I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what it meant,” Beavers says.

Those six words waited more than a decade to come to life. Beavers tends to write, put it away, and then come back again.

“At some point I had an epiphany, and I knew how to finish the poem,” he says.

That piece, “Hamilton Railroad Station” is one of 15 in Beavers’ new chapbook, “Obsidian Blues.”

Many long-time members of the Penn community came together to celebrate the publication at a September Kelly Writers House (KWH) book party. KWH Faculty Director Al Filreis introduced Beavers as “a poet-critic, poet-teacher, poet-citizen” and a key member of the Writers House board since its founding 22 years ago.

“These are the local voices Herman Beavers has been voicing for many years in his poems, some of them dramatic monologues, as the poems have emerged from within and from his critical readings,” said Filreis at the celebration.

Music threads its way through and binds the poems in “Obsidian Blues”: a guitar, a saxophone, a shiny trumpet, an upright bass.

“Music has always clarified things for me,” Beavers says. “Music always figures into my poetry in some way because around the time I started writing poetry, I started getting really into jazz, and jazz freed me up from thinking about structure.”

“Hamilton Railroad Station” is grouped together with others, like a symphony, in a collection titled “A Tangle of Scars: A Suite in Five Movements.”

The corn in that first line, as it turns out, represents a decision to let go of a woman. Although many of Beavers’ poems are autobiographical, the man in the poem is not a representation of himself. Beavers doesn’t really like corn, and the poem’s subject is having an affair with a married woman and is getting out of town on a train.

At the suggestion of a friend, he changed that first line to the third person, starting “He” instead of “I,” which he says “works better because it helped me to distinguish between what I would say, and what the persona wants to say.”

Obsidian Blues

The poem represents an important turning point for Beavers.

“I started to invent personas out of whole cloth,” he says, “which coincided with my desire to ‘do something different’ in my poems.”

The subjects are characters who have challenges, who have experienced trauma, and who harbor deep regret. African-American culture and experience are evident in the idiom he employs.

Beavers, a professor at Penn since 1989, was born and raised in Cleveland. He was part of the first generation of his family to graduate from high school and go to college. He went to Oberlin College, where he majored in government and sociology and studied creative writing. He then attended Brown’s graduate writing program, followed by Yale, where he received a master’s in African-American studies and a doctorate in American studies.

He is currently writing a manuscript for a full book of poetry based on two brothers, minor characters in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” He is creating their lives and personalities, exposing how they deal with their anger: the older brother with violence, the younger with religion.

In addition, this semester he is co-teaching an undergraduate English course, “August Wilson & Beyond,” which culminates with an on-stage play production, a collaboration between Penn students and members of the West Philadelphia community.

Originally published on .