The line had been in his head for years: “I can’t stop thinking about corn.” Its meaning was a mystery for Herman Beavers, a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what it meant,” Beavers said.
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.”
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 book party. Penn Professor Al Filreis introduced Beavers as “a poet-critic, poet-teacher, poet-citizen” and a key member of the Kelly Writers House board since its beginning 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,” Filreis, Writers House faculty director, told the nearly 50 people at the book party.
The subjects of the poems are characters who have challenges, who have experienced trauma and who harbor deep regret. Beavers has been writing about those types of characters for most of his life. African-American culture and experience are evident in the idiom he employs.
Filreis, a professor of English and poetry, cited a particular passage:
Looka here, boy, don’t let no
body tell you truth’ll
make you free.
It won’t do nothin
but kill you
and you be mad rest
your natural-born life.”
--“An Old Man Remembers the Guitar”
“What has always been remarkable about Herman’s poetry is his ability with personae and African American idiom -- how he enters, with deep empathy, the psyches and souls of seemingly ordinary people, his unpretentious street and country philosophers,” said Alicia Askenase, a writer who taught a poetry workshop Beavers took in the 1990s, an experience that he said encouraged him to continue pursuing poetry.
“Herman is the medium for the voices of these wise common folk. It is with a singular skill that he conveys such genuine wisdom and humanity.”
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,” said Beavers, who listened to FM radio growing up. “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 taught me a different approach to structure.”
“Hamilton Railroad Station” is grouped together with others, like a symphony, 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, this man 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 works better because it helped me to distinguish between what I would say, and what the persona wants to say,” Beavers said.
The poem represents an important turning point for him, he said.
“I started to invent personas out of whole cloth, which coincided with my desire to ‘do something different’ in my poems.”
Maybe that explains
why he’s come to hate
the sight of a cornstalk stripped
to nothing, its green husk
shrugged to the ground, like
the dress sliding off a woman
with better things to do.
--“Hamilton Railroad Station”
Beavers has been a professor in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences since 1989 in both the English and Africana Studies departments. He was born and raised in Cleveland and was in the first generation of his family to graduate from high school and go to college.
He went first to nearby Oberlin College, where he majored in government and sociology and also studied creative writing. He then went to Brown University in the graduate writing program, followed by Yale University, where he received a master’s in African-American studies and a Ph.D. in American studies.
Beavers regularly writes scholarly arguments, a different pursuit than poetry. He was at a crossroads when he signed up for that $15 poetry workshop series taught by Askenase at a local bookstore.
“I thought I was more or less done as a poet. I couldn’t hear the music in my head,” he said. “Everything I wrote I thought was just terrible.”
It was at the workshop that he started working out the line about the corn. “Poems are interesting because sometimes you have no any idea what the poem wants to be. You think you know what it wants to be, but the poem has other ideas,” he said. “One of the things I learned in the workshop is there’s no such thing as a bad poem, just a poem that hasn’t found its subject matter yet.”
Obsidian Blues actually emerged from a rejection. He submitted a book manuscript for a contest by publisher Agape Editions. Although his manuscript was not chosen, the editor came back and asked if Beavers would write a chapbook.
Now he is continuing work on 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.
Beavers is currently co-teaching an undergraduate English course, “August Wilson & Beyond,” which culminates in an on-stage play production, a collaboration between Penn students and members of the West Philadelphia community.
Beavers is also dedicated to a new pursuit, learning to play jazz on the piano he and his wife bought long ago for their two children.
“I think the meticulousness of playing the piano has helped me as a poet,” he said.
View Herman Beavers reading poems from Obsidian Blues at the Kelly Writers House.
Obsidian Blues is available as a free, downloadable e-book at Agape Editions.