Poet/author shares love of reading and poetry

January 20, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Ashley Bryan did not stand behind the lectern to deliver his hourlong speech to an auditorium full of students, parents and faculty members at Mercersburg Academy Monday evening.

The poet, painter, illustrator and children's book author stood in the center of the stage reciting poetry and reading from his books, interspersing the performance with his thoughts on life and literature.

Not many lecturers can hold an audience of teenagers spellbound by reading a children's book. Bryan even had the students reciting poetry with him.


As Mercersburg Academy's 2003-04 Jacobs resident, Bryan will be on campus through Wednesday, visiting classes and meeting with students and faculty.

His lecture, "Deep Like the Rivers: African-American Poetry and Spirituals and African Folk Tales," started with a dramatic recitation of Langston Hughes' poem, "My People," which he said "affirms who we are; then we can reach out and draw upon all the other peoples of the world."

Bryan said that because many children disassociate the voice with the printed word, he always holds a book in front of him when he recites poetry for young children, even if he can't find the right page in the book.

"The voice comes from the printed word," he said.

"We know English and American poetry mostly from the page; there are no 'concerts' by someone who knows the poetry and wants to share it," he said. "We bring it alive through the voice - that's the only way poetry really lives."

With an expressive voice and gestures, Bryan read "Beautiful Blackbird," the children's book for which he received the 2004 Coretta Scott King award.

The motif on which the book is based comes from Zambia, he said.

"I use the spirit of oral tradition in the way I tell the story."

In the book, when Ring Dove receives a ring of black on his neck from Blackbird, all the other birds beg Blackbird for black markings of their own.

"A touch of black was all it took," the birds sing when he complies with their wish. "Black is beautiful."

"They were enhanced by their decorations. We are all marked by the inspiration of others," Bryan said, adding that he is influenced by a Japanese artist. "We draw upon those markings that are good. We become the person we'd like to be."

Born in New York City in 1923, the son of immigrants from the Caribbean island of Antigua, Bryan was raised in the Bronx with five siblings. He learned through his early education that poetry lives through the human voice.

Bryan's "Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum" was a Parents' Choice award and won the Coretta Scott King award for illustration, while "Lion and the Ostrich Chicks and Other African Folk Tales," "Ashley Bryan's ABC of African-American Poetry" and "What a Morning! The Christmas Story in Black Spirituals" were selected as Coretta Scott King Honor books.

Bryan lives on an island off the coast of Maine. He said he spends his days painting and his evenings working on his writing, which includes retelling African folk tales and selecting from black American poets.

"When I find a motif I like, I open it for the voice. I use the devices of poetry in my prose. You can hear the voice of the storyteller even if you're reading it," he said at a reception following the speech.

Bryan added that he does some sketches while he's working on a book, but waits until he knows how the words are going to be set on the pages before he paints the final art.

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