Sam I am
He's easily one of the most unassuming guys you'll ever see. Shuffling down a long aisle in an echoing warehouse, stacks of books in hand, alphabetizing authors through his thick bifocals, Sam Cornish would appear to be an unlikely poet, much less a national-award-winning one, educated at Johns Hopkins. And even less a poet laureate, the city’s first, anointed to promote poetry across Boston.
Until you get him talking. Then, the world of Sam reveals itself. Racism. Womanhood. Music. City life. It’s anyone’s guess what he’ll pop off, really—yet whatever Sam happens to think about and however he words those ideas, they will be thoughtful and fresh, as much as a delight as finding a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk.
Quietly, cautiously, we came to the city.
That line opened Sam’s piece about marching for civil rights on the National Mall in Washington. And it had, in fact, been a quiet, cautious arrival for the young man from Baltimore, who’d been raised by his mother and grandmother after losing his father as a toddler. They lived on welfare, chicken and God, Sam says. He also lived on dreams, mostly found in books, which he devoured. Just as soon as he was eligible, Sam was drafted by the army; he was 90 pounds, black, and sent to very white military enclaves in Texas and Alabama, where he says he faced segregation head on. Once he was served tea in a dirty cup, another time involved direct racial slurs. Sam fought back with words, tougher than his tongue, images stronger than his slight physique.
In Baltimore Ruth Brown sang bad
Songs about her brown
Body but I saw white boys hit
Streets looking for colored
Sam exited the military with a few things he knew for sure: education equaled opportunity, and everyone’s voice counts. He threw himself in political activitism, wrote about racism and what it means to be an outsider. He got involved in educational curriculums and wrote one life-changing poem about his experience protesting in Washington, which he randomly submitted it to a writing professor at Johns Hopkins University. He was offered a scholarship. Since then, Sam has been known as a gifted and, one could argue, unsung figure in the Black Arts movement. Modern, precise, at times harsh, Sam Cornish does not shrink away from big subjects: Martin Luther King’s assassination, slavery, family bonds. For the city of Boston, his job is to make poetry accessible…to encourage us to think, to read, to write, to dream. His is a life that may have begun in poverty but, with a powerful mind, reached other heights.
Then my shoes were holes
Held together by threats
And good luck
But I read Camus and listened