By Emre K. Erku
Special to The Free Press
---- — South Side, Chicago Poet Philip S. Bryant once referred to his formative years as “misspent youth.”
Back in his Windy City neighborhood during the 1950s and ‘60s, it was more of a conservative atmosphere. People worked blue-collar jobs and made it to church every Sunday. Bryant, who grew up to be an accomplished author and professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., gravitated towards human expression rather than falling in line with traditionalism.
Chicago being one of the original father cities for urban blues and gospel music, it wasn’t hard for the youth to be lured into the world of art.
“It was very rich and vibrant, with a lot of music – which is the central focus of Stompin’ at The Grand Terrace,” said Bryant, describing his early surroundings and how they play into his new book, Stompin’ at The Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse. “And I was more on the art side of things.”
Which is why the author utilizes facets of his upbringing such as music and race and ties it into his material.
“To make it short, Chicago is very racist and socially bifurcated,” said Bryant. “Basically, the character of the neighborhood was shaped by political and social forces.”
In the wake of the 1960s, Chicago was a hotbed of social unrest. Riots plagued the area after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, causing a multitude of violent acts, and leaving predominantly black neighborhoods under states of crisis.
From long hours at metal factories to bloody clashes with Chicago’s finest, music was a way for people to combat all the madness.
“The music definitely helped on all different levels. A wave of people had a way to tell their own story,” Bryant said.
The poet was no exception. His collection of work, especially The Grand Terrace, reflects upon these instances that revolved around the hard time curing remedies of soul, jazz and blues. It is an idea that shapes his mindset as he writes, and writing is no joke to him.
Said Bryant, “Write cleanly, tell the story, and get it right – as Hemingway would say.”
Derek Liebertz, director of the Southern Minnesota Poets Society, a gathering of poet enthusiasts who’ve invited Bryant to give a reading this month, was elated by the author’s presence when he first met him several years ago.“He had great poise and cadence for a well-oiled professor,” said Liebertz. “And everybody really enjoyed his guest speaking.”
Derek’s wife Yvonne, and member of SMPS, agrees the author is something more than special. While enthusiastically describing Bryant’s talent over the phone, Yvonne elaborated:
“He’s read for our group before last year,” shrilled Yvonne. “He’s an amazing poet who tells the stories of his life by intertwining poetry and music.”
And according to the poetry stricken couple, after his last appearance for the Society, several listeners couldn’t help themselves from purchasing his books.
Bryant will be reading from an array of his poems for SMPS Thursday.