PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —In two events at Brown on April 17, friends, colleagues, former students and admirers of the late, acclaimed poet Michael S. Harper gathered to pay tribute to his life and legacy.
The Brown literary arts department hosted “Song: I Want a Witness,” a two-part tribute that began with an afternoon talk on Harper’s life and writing by Robert Stepto, a professor of English, African American studies and American studies at Yale, and Anthony Walton, a poet and writer-in-residence at Bowdoin College. In the evening, Afaa Weaver, poet and professor of English at Simmons College, hosted an event in which 17 writers, colleagues, family members and former students gathered to read his works and share memories.
Harper, who died in May 2016, was the first Israel J. Kapstein Professor of Literary Arts at Brown, and a beloved teacher, mentor and colleague during his 43-year tenure at the University. Author of 10 books of poetry, including “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” and most recently “Songlines in the Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems,” Harper was recipient of the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime service to American poetry and was honored as Rhode Island’s first state poet laureate.
In the first event of the day, a gathering in the Lownes Room of the John Hay Library, Stepto recalled how he met Harper at a poetry workshop in 1969 and established a close working relationship with him after they both attended a summer institute on W.E.B. Du Bois in 1972. The pair went on to co-edit the book “Chant of Saints,” a collection of African American literature, art and scholarship.
Harper, Stepto said, considered his own education a “miseducation” and developed his work by finding literary mentors who were not his formal teachers. He also strove to honor influential writers like Sterling A. Brown and Gwendolyn Brooks, “intuitively knowing that our forebears should hear our thanks while still alive,” Stepto said.
Walton, who studied with Harper and co-edited with him the anthology “Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep,” a collection of poetry by African Americans since 1945, described Harper as “a great humanitarian, philanthropist, an evangelist, an angel.”
“Many of us here have accomplished what we have accomplished or have what we have because of him,” Walton said, adding that Harper was unstinting in his generosity and gifted with the knowledge of how to “operate with honor and integrity as a black man in the always-troubled world of the United States.”
Harper “married a hard-edged and uncompromising modernism” with the notion of poet as "griot, or someone who keeps the truth alive,” Walton said.
Attendees of the evening reading, held in the McCormack Family Theater, were welcomed by a jazz performance by student musicians Alex Han and Josh Kirschenbaum. That prelude honored Harper’s self-conception as a poet.
In a preface to his poems in “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature,” he wrote: “My poems are rhythmic rather than metric; the pulse is jazz; the tradition generally oral; my major influences musical; my debts, mostly to the musicians who taught me to see about experience, pain and love, and who made it artful and archetypal.”
Among the presenters who read and shared recollections were J. Edgar Tidwell, a professor of English at the University of Kansas, fiction writer and Brown alumnus Alison Bundy, poet and Brown lecturer Catherine Imbriglio, poet and Brown professor emeritus Keith Waldrop and many other friends, family members and colleagues.
Gale Nelson, the academic program director for literary arts, noted that people had traveled from Minnesota, Kansas, Philadelphia and elsewhere “just to speak for a couple of minutes” at the tribute. “His importance in those people’s lives was made clear by their presence and by what they said about him,” he added.
Weaver closed the event by reading a poem Harper’s daughter, Rachel Harper, wrote for her father. At a reception afterwards, those gathered were able to hear a recording of Michael Harper reading two of his works, “At the Cemetery” and “Notes on Coltrane.”