Shirley LeFlore: St. Louis First Lady of Poetry Honors Rivers of Women
By Marsha Cann
Interview edited for publication
African Voices magazine interviewed master poet Shirley LeFlore about her journey as an artist and mentor to hundreds of artists including actress/author Jenifer Lewis. Long time close friend and protégé Marsha Cann conducted the free flowing conversation in August 2018. It is with great sadness we learned Ms. LeFlore made her transition on May 12, 2019. On Mother’s Day, the world lost a great voice in literature and daughter of the Black Arts Movement. In honor of her many contributions, African Voices is paying tribute to her legacy as a powerful artist whose work will continue to inspire generations of aspiring poets.
With a dynamic poetry career spanning more than 50 years, LeFlore’s artistry has remained rooted in collaborative, community-focused initiatives, while traversing a number of different cultural and political eras. LeFlore has spent time with literary giants like James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker. Her book, Brassbones & Rainbows: The Collected Works of Shirley Bradley LeFlore was published in 2013, includes a foreword by Amiri Baraka’s widow, Amina Baraka. LeFlore became St. Louis’ second Poet Laureate in 2018.
LeFlore’s notable trailblazing work in St. Louis includes being a founding member of the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), created in 1968, and establishing the Creative Arts and Expressions Lab in 1981. LeFlore presented trademark collaborative performances—often including dancers or jazz musicians in her spoken-word pieces. Her decades of artistic innovation and community-driven work in St. Louis, New York and New Jersey is why African Voiceshas chosen Shirley Bradley LeFlore as the featured artist of this 25thAnniversary celebration issue.
AV: First of all let me thank you for agreeing to this interview, it is truly a privilege for me. Thanks Shirley for giving me my first paid gig as a poet. It was in 1983 at St. Louis University…As our journey has continued, our work together has continued. It has been my privilege and I am sincerely grateful that you have been my mentor and one of my greatest inspirations.
SL: Yeah. We have done some great work together Marsha.
AV: I know you have been writing professionally for fifty-two years now. Do you remember when you were first inspired to write poetry?
SL: I was in elementary school. When I saw things I liked or heard things I liked… I’d write about guys I liked. I was just a kid, about 8 or 9. I liked to write about anything. Most of the people in my family told stories, my grandmother especially, she was also an avid writer…I just felt I did it cause she did it. I remember in high school, when I’d be on the streetcar on my way to school. As kids got on, I would watch who had lunches and who didn’t. I know that sounds silly but I would make up stories about who had lunches and who didn’t and when I’d get home I would tighten it up with my mother. She used to let me to talk to her about what I was writing. She listened and gave me feedback. That was very encouraging.
AV: [Many] people don’t realize you’re a living legend, having been one of the original members of the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), founded in St. Louis back in 1968. Can you talk a little about BAG?
SL: A lot of people don’t know much about the Black Artists’ Group, but it was actually founded by the jazz musicians. My husband, Floyd LeFlore, was one. Oliver Lake. Malinké Elliot—he was one of the actors. And Julius Hemphill—he was also a musician. They had been playing their own free music for a long time, but the one place where they could develop their own sound and create their own music was BAG. So they came up with the idea of the Black Artists’ Group, and it built from there.
It became a family of artists, but open to the community. We’re all still close. It was really a place to encourage the arts.
AV: Do you see music as a major part of your poetry and performance?
SL: I think it is. Because when I’m writing, it’s like music—but it’s like dance, too. These images just come alive, and I dress them up and turn them out. That’s the impression I get from women doing certain things. You can develop a texture. With women, you can pull them apart and snap them back together some kind of way. That’s how I perceived a lot of the writing I’ve done about women. So, I took all the trappings of women, and that’s what I did.
AV: You’ve led many workshops over the years. I value the experience I had thirty years ago, as one of your students in CAEL (Creative Arts and Expression Lab). Can you talk about that project?
SL: CAEL was the name of the center I opened in the central west end here in St. Louis. Initially the poetry workshop was for women that came to the center, Black and white women who wanted to write came to CAEL. It was very unique and groundbreaking and some great work came out of it. There wasn’t a lot of writing going on in the city and there were limited neighborhood arts groups at that time. I felt a need to connect with people writing and I found it rewarding to work with other writers. This led to me being invited to come to schools and lead workshops.
AV: That’s great. I know I do better work and get more inspiration when I’m working with other writers. I am always thrilled to find a good workshop.
SL: I agree. Writers need to be open. In workshops you’re able to open up a lot when you’re discussing and talk about the writing…people can talk about their highs and lows in writing…why they wrote certain things… I always encourage that because in the workshop process they are able to evaluate their work, see where they’re coming from, get the feedback and encouragement they need to keep writing and enjoy it.
When something moves you, write about it…things happening in the world… things you wanna see happen…things you enjoy and things that disturb you. Write about it. The writing helps you process things.
AV: Congratulations on your latest book of poetry Brassbones and Rainbows. You also have experience playwriting. Your play, “Rivers of Women,” was performed at the Missouri History Museum in 2013. I actually got the chance to be a part of this production – that was a thrilling opportunity for me. Can you talk about your inspiration for the play and what roles history and lineage play in your work?
SL: I had written a lot of poems that focused on women, and I would act them out sometimes as a solo artist. After I put it together, I just started seeing a lot of things that could go in there. I was interested in writing for [the] stage. I worked with some dancers in New York and they’d come in as part of it. The musicians, they would have a part in it, too. The outlet was there and I used it. I was grateful I was able to do that.
History and lineage have always been important to me because I’ve known so many great women—not necessarily by name. Like the women who came to my mother’s beauty shop, or women I just met. I would just extrapolate their lives. Or sometimes I’d be sitting in a place and just start writing. I’d maybe catch somebody with a certain kind of hat on or something, and I would find that inspiring. Ever since I was young, I always made up stories about these women—who they were, where they were going, where they’d been, where they dreamed of going. So, after looking over my work I just decided, “I’m going to put this together.” And that’s what I did. It certainly helped me to have the musicians to work with. I’ve been very fortunate. It got so much respect here in St. Louis at the History Museum it would be sold out.
AV: Yes and it got booked again the next year, and was an even stronger production. I was so happy and proud to be a part of that.
You have worked as a college professor, a dean and teaching artist. What stands out for you about that experience?
SL: It’s interesting you asked that because Jenifer Lewis is here in St. Louis with her new book…and she was one of my students when I was working at Webster College…I was just at a brunch with her yesterday… She had invited me to this brunch to acknowledge some of the special people in her life. I was so honored to be there. I valued my time with her at Webster. She was saying how much I had inspired her when she was my student. That’s what a teacher wants to hear. That was a good feeling.
AV: How wonderful! So what do you consider your biggest accomplishment as a writer/performer?
SL: When I lived in New York and New Jersey, especially New Jersey…that was a very rewarding time. I did a lot of writing workshops…and had some great readings…The writing was like everyday. Connecting with other artists, a community of artists was the best. The energy was strong, stimulating, and my creative work grew and reflected the collaborative arts culture I was a part of.
AV: Congratulations on your recent Visionary Award, which celebrates the contributions, specifically, of women in St. Louis. Who are the women that inspire your work?
SL: My grandmother used to write poetry and I loved her poetry. I loved her voice. Also, I met people like Margaret Walker. I didn’t realize how much we had in common until after she met me. Miss Margaret came from Mississippi. Margaret had that folksy-ism, that sophistication and directness. She’ll tell you how she feels, whether you want her to or not. Gwendolyn Brooks had it—but Margaret more than Miss Gwendolyn because Margaret was from the South. Many people have influenced me, from my children to my mother and my grandmother, to the ladies around the corner, down the street and at the church. The ladies who hung out at night—that always fascinated me. The way they moved, the way they talked. And some of that had to do with the hardness of their life.
AV: Describe your experience with African Voices.
SL: Well, it was Ladying, he was my close friend, my poetry brother and Carolyn was so sweet to me, they were dynamic…I’m so proud of them! I’ve been supporting them since the early days – that was like twenty-something years ago.
AV: Yes, twenty-five to be exact…I’m so proud to be interviewing you for the 25th Anniversary celebration of African Voices.
SL: Yeah, I just liked them…I would go wherever they were reading, when I lived in New York and New Jersey. I was particularly impressed with Ladying, that boy is bad!
AV: I agree, I just recently heard him for the first time, and you’re right – his work is powerful. I was moved to tears.
Shirley, you have inspired many, including your three beautiful and amazingly talented daughters. You have inspired them to blossom in their own artistic ways. Can you share a little about what that means to you?
SL: Yes, my oldest, Tammy and my youngest, Lyah, are both published novelists and most people don’t know it but my middle daughter, Jacie really writes well also.
AV: I did not know that, I knew that she was a culinary artist and talented decorator.
SL: Yeah…I encouraged them…let them know I liked what they were doing.
AV: You are so blessed to have three daughters who have blossomed into such strong women, such creative forces in their own rights.
SL: I’m really proud of them too Marsha.
AV: Yeah, I know you are. You raised them well.
SL: I think it’s important for parents to recognize whatever talents their children have…let them know you recognize their gifts and support them in reaching their goals.
AV: What is your advice to the new writer?
SL: Be alert to what is going on around them, to the people around them, in their community, things they are involved in and be sensitive to the lives of the people around them.
AV: What is your vision for the future of poetry in St. Louis?
SL: I think any artist coming from St. Louis has a lot to offer the world when they go other places—I did learn that. One of my hopes and dreams is that the art continues to evolve here in St. Louis. I think it has something to do with people also being able to leave here, travel, meet some other people. You can get stifled just in one place. But my hope, I’ll say, for poetry in this area—as well as for musicians and other artists—is that it will evolve and spread. I still think there’s a rich history of art in this town.
AV: What is your next project?
SL: Well Marsha, to be honest, Lyah is working on writing my life story so to speak.
AV: So you all are living together now, right and that is facilitating this project?
SL: Yes and by us living together, I just moved [in] with her, she’s writing what I can’t write…I’m having problems seeing right now. Lyah is helping me. I am talking it out and she’s writing.
AV: How do you see your role as an artist in these times?
SL: [I want to] keep being a voice for evolution. I’m enjoying finding outwhat it means to be a woman in her mid-70s. I just keep living, because every day something new unfolds. I’m a very free spirit, so that allows me to create and recreate. I don’t want to stop creating before I leave here. I see myself making a stronger impact on other people’s lives.
Poem for a Black Woman
I house the legend of Mutima
The heartbeat of the earth
I am the offspring of the moon and the sun
Thrust from the energy of Africa
I am the Black Woman
I am the symbol of love
The channel of creation
The vibration of peace
The anger of storms
The pain of suffering
I am the Black Woman
I have seen the first rain
And the last fire
I am the seasoner of souls
I have many tales untold
My womb has been stretched
Across the mouth of the universe
To create rhythms and nations
My body has borne witness to birth
My spirit the taster of death
I have seen the 13thmonth
The year 3000 before the year 03
I have cradled the newborn’s cry
Yours and mine
Collected the old man’s moan
Made diamonds out of stone
Found gold in my soul
I am the right hand of God
The equal part of Man
The spirit of Life
I am the Black Woman
© 2013 Shirley LeFlore, Brassbones & Rainbows