October 11, 2012

Four decades of poetic excellence


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Charles Fort reads new and collected works at Black Poetry Day Wednesday evening at SUNY Plattsburgh.

His works in progress are a novel, “The Last Black Hippie in Connecticut,” and a book of poems comprised of 100 villanelles.

He is equally adept at formal poetry as well as free verse.

“The writing started as far back as second grade, reading everything I could in the public library,” said Fort, who is back in Connecticut caring for his mother.

A jock-poet, he studied English as an undergrad at Siena Heights College in Adrian, Mich.

A McDowell Fellow, he attended Cranbrook Writer’s Conference thrice in Michigan and Bread Loaf twice in Vermont.

“I just knew where to go and how to get there, literally, in my hippie-hitchhiking days,” he said.

During one of his Bread Loaf stints up on the mountain, Robert Hayden, poet/essayist/educator, was a guest reader.

“They mocked him and started making fun of him because he was black and nearly blind,” Fort said. “He never called himself a black poet even though he wrote powerful work about lynchings, Frederick Douglass and other — quote, unquote — political poems. I wrote a poem for Robert Hayden in honor of him.”

Fort holds an old-school Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Bowling Green University in Ohio.

Then, it was rare for an African-American to participate in creative-writing programs, but he points out that in those typewriting days, there were very few such programs, and one could count them on his hands and toes and those of Carolyn Forche.

His teachers, mentors and guest poets to the various colleges he has taught at are a Who’s Who of American letters: Isaac Asimov, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Mark Strand, Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” he said.

He began his academic career at Xavier University in New Orleans. There, he was the editor and co-founder of the “Xavier Review.” He was tenured first at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and later at Southern Connecticut State University.

At the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Fort was Distinguished Paul W. Reynolds and Clarice Kingston Reynolds Endowed chair in English from 1997 to 2007.

He was a visiting professor for the Oklahoma State University at Stillwater MFA/Ph.D. creative-writing program from 2010 to 2011.

His “We did not Fear the Father: New and Selected Poems” was published earlier this year by Red Hen Press. “Mrs. Belladonna’s Supper Club Waltz: New and Selected Prose Poems” was also published this year.

“I write librettos set to choirs and full orchestra, poems to saxophone. I use letters as notes,” he said. “I perform with every instrument in the world.”

His influences — poetics and fiction — include Jean Toomer, Hawthorne, Poe, Eliot, Yates, Ellison and John Edgar Wideman.

He cites Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.”

“We’re influenced by all those who came before us. That anxiety provides us with that creativity.”

Fort’s advice to young writers and readers:

“Read everything, even that which damns you.”

Email Robin Caudell:

IF YOU GO WHO: Charles Fort reads at Black Poetry Day. WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday. WHERE: Krinovitz Recital Hall, Hawkins Hall, SUNY Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: Free.