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February 28, 2012 12:07 am

Jeffrey Coleman Presents Poetry from the Civil Rights Movement in VOICES Reading Series


The spring season of the VOICES Reading Series continued with Associate Professor of English Jeffrey Coleman. Coleman presented works from his book of poetry and his upcoming anthology of poetry from the Civil Rights Movement before a crowd of students in Daugherty-Palmer Commons on Feb. 16.

Assistant Professor Karen Anderson introduced Coleman, telling the audience that Coleman’s “critical book, an anthology of stories, is coming out in a minute. And his book of poetry made me cry.”

Associate Professor of English Jeffrey Coleman collected civil rights-era poetry as a hobby for years, and has recently published an anthology on the time period. (Photo Courtesy of Southern Maryland News)
Associate Professor of English Jeffrey Coleman collected civil rights-era poetry as a hobby for years, and has recently published an anthology on the time period. (Photo Courtesy of Southern Maryland News)

His published works include a collection of poetry entitled “Spirits Distilled,” and he has been published in several publications including “Blue Mesa Review,” “Rattle: Poetry for the Twenty-first Century,” and others. Coleman is also a frequent guest lecturer on the history and poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement.

“Communication, creative writing, American studies; those are three very different fields. This diverse education is reflected in Jeff’s unusual versatility as an academic,” Professor Jeff Hammond said. “He is a poet, scholar, and cultural critic, and now an editor. He’s a versatile teacher too.”

According to Coleman, his interest in teaching includes creative writing, contemporary multicultural American literature, literary and cinematic representations of 9/11, and literature and music of social protest.

“The anthology I’ve been working on for probably half my life,” Coleman said. He began collecting poetry on the Civil Rights movement as part of a research project and developed a hobby of it over the years. “It’s been a pleasure to work on this. I’ve met tons of great people and families of deceased writers. And it’s been great, discovering works I’ve never heard of in addition to works that I had heard of.”

Many of the poems in the anthology were eulogies, including the first poem Coleman read entitled “Alabama Centennial” by Naomi Long Madgett.

“Her poetry is often quite reflective of the spirit of the movement in many ways,” Coleman said. “It speaks to the amount of bravery, patience, and frustration that a lot of people felt.”

Another interesting poem that Coleman read was by John Beecher, the great nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The poem, called “The Better Sort of People,” was in the perspective of a privileged aristocratic land-owning white man and talks about how the state’s reputation is damaged by what he calls the “poor white trash” that committed all the crimes during the Civil Rights movement against African Americans.

“When you have a perspective like this it calls attention to the people at the bottom,” Coleman said. “It’s an interesting perspective and one that actually existed. There was a great deal of resentment between the lower classes and the higher classes of whites.”

Many of the poems were emotionally driven, and one particular example was a piece called “On Not Writing an Eulogy” about the assassination of President Kennedy. The poem, written by Richard Frost, took on the perspective of Kennedy in his last moments.

“The interesting thing about this poem is by trying not to write an eulogy, he embodies the tragedy,” Coleman commented.

Coleman concluded the reading on a happy note, with a few uplifting pieces of his own. The next VOICES reading will feature novelist Joan Maloof on March 8.

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