Performer, writer and educator Shirley LeFlore is St. Louis’ new poet laureate
There has been more than a year of back and forth over who should succeed St. Louis’ first poet laureate, Michael Castro. But the moral of this story is the triumph of artist Shirley LeFlore. She was sworn in as Castro’s successor in a civic ceremony on November 9 at City Hall.
“It’s in the St. Louis archives – in the history books – so in 200 years people will be able to look back and see that you were our Poet Laureate,” her daughter Lyah Beth LeFlore told her mother. “Make sure Bella knows that,” Shirley LeFlore said in response, speaking of Lyah’s 5-year-old daughter – her youngest grandchild.
LeFlore will serve until April 2019, when Jane Ellen Ibur will assume the title.
“I feel great because this is the city I was born in,” LeFlore said of receiving the honor. “I’m so happy. My story runs deep with St. Louis. I’m 78 and have been doing this for 50 years.
Her history includes performances with the famous Black Artist Group (commonly referred to as BAG) in the late 1960s. She is one of the few original BAG surviving members. She has performed all over the world – one of the most notable being the time she toured Europe as a featured artist with R&B legend Fontella Bass. The places were as big as the Powell Symphony Hall and as picturesque as a small church or a nightclub or a “hole in the wall” lounge.
“Some of the places I’ve been to, you wouldn’t want anyone to know you went there to read poetry,” LeFlore said. “But if people asked me, I would go.”
For LeFlore, it was more about the message she was trying to convey than the setting – and the lesson.
“My work allowed me to expose all kinds of people to the kind of story that I thought they needed to know,” said LeFlore.
Related: Saint-Louis Poet Laureate Castro Resigns Due to Delay in Choosing a New Poet
Her history includes work as a teaching artist in various school districts and educational programs in the city of St. Louis and the County of St. Louis, as well as as the assistant dean of student tenure at the University. Webster.
Stage, film and “black” star Jenifer Lewis told the crowd that LeFlore “saved her life” when she returned to her alma mater to promote her book, which also mentions LeFlore. Michael J. Bracey, another Webster student who was advised by LeFlore, provided the photos for “Rivers of Women,” the play adapted from LeFlore’s poems which was printed in book form.
“They [students] could talk to me – about school, of course, and other things that were going on with them in the world, ”LeFlore said of his days at Webster. “It was a great learning experience for them, but it was also a good learning experience for me. Being there helped me tune in better and listen to them – most of the time, that’s really all they needed.
An ear for poetry and darkness
“If you are serious about what you are doing, keep doing it, keep studying it, keep mastering it and let it live inside of you,” LeFlore said. “Listen – especially when you’re starting out. You must listen. “
LeFlore developed her style of poetry when she was little while listening to her mother’s clients at the beauty salon, and later when operating her business outside of the family home. “They thought I was sitting playing jacks, but I would listen,” LeFlore said.
She listened to the way they spoke and the things they said – especially when they were talking about men and their relationships. “I was a good listener when I was little and I grew up to keep that,” said LeFlore.
She would come home, pull out her little black and white composition book, and write about whoever she liked. Even seven decades later, LeFlore has spoken about his old subjects in a way that resembles poetry.
“In the beauty salon, you have all kinds of women doing all kinds of things,” LeFlore said. “You have housekeepers, housekeepers and women with high employment levels. And even though they are talking about the same thing, they are saying it in a different way.
Sometimes the only reason they came there was to leave their things to my mom – and I would listen. “
The way they said it was just as striking as what they said – sometimes more striking.
“I think black people have a special way with language – in all parts of the world – but especially in St. Louis,” LeFlore said. “You can hear them talk and say ‘this is someone from St. Louis’.”
Those days she spent in her mother’s store were the inspiration for “Rivers of Women”. Inspired by LeFlore’s poem of the same name, “Rivers of Women” was adapted for the stage and directed by Lyah Beth LeFlore and sold out at the History Museum in 2013.
“I remember things and I just write poems about how they look,” LeFlore said. “If they sounded funny, I would write that. If they sounded desperate, I would write that too. But more than anything, it’s their language that inspired me.
The resounding message of her words – though subjects and topics may vary – is to illustrate black pride and celebrate the many forms of black beauty, which she says makes her date all the more special. .
“I feel honored because most people weren’t writing about how black people talk, what they say and what they do,” LeFlore said. “In my writing, I have always thought it was important for me to capture this and make it an important part of my work and my performance.”
This article originally appeared in St. Louis American, which is a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.