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Remembering Sam Cornish
We at Mass Poetry were saddened to hear of poet Sam Cornish's passing. Sam was a beloved friend and supporter of Mass Poetry. We will miss him greatly but know that his voice will live on through his inspiring body of work. 

Sam Cornish served as Boston’s first Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2014. He authored seven poetry books, most recently Dead Beats (Ibbetson Street, 2011). He taught workshops at the Boston Public Library and read at the 2010 Boston Mayoral Inauguration, Boston Athenaeum, Strand Theatre, and University of Bologna, Italy. In 2012, Boston Latin Academy, Roxbury Community College, and Boston Public Library presented his new and selected works, An Apron Full of Beans (CavanKerry Press, 2008) as theater. He was the recipient of an NEA Fellowship, the St. Botolph Society Foundation Award, the Somerville Arts/Ibbetson Press Lifetime Achievement Award, and a nominee for ALA Notable Book Award and a ForeWord Magazine Finalist in 2008. He participated at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and his poem, “Horseface,” was selected for Mass Poetry’s Common Threads collection in 2012.

Of Cornish’s service to the arts in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh tweeted, “… [his] trailblazing work in the community continues to impact the City's literary sector. I'm grateful for his contributions to the cause of poetry.”

Remembering Sam Cornish
by Doug Holder

It was not the best time of my life. I was living in a dingy apartment in Brighton with an alcoholic roommate, who kept me up at night with his slurred version of the American Songbook. When I got up in the morning and headed to the T on Commonwealth Ave, I used to see this older, African-American gentleman with a small grayish Afro, taking pictures with a comically small camera at the passing scene and the urban landscape. He seemed to be totally eccentric and totally absorbed in this arcane project. I immediately admired him. One day someone told me that he was a Boston poetry legend, the one and only Sam Cornish.

At this time I was on the cusp of thirty, and still posturing as a poet. For me--who viewed himself as some bohemian, underground type--Cornish was a source of fascination. I think I was first formally introduced to Cornish by my friend, the current Brookline poet laureate Zvi Sesling. Sesling knew Cornish when Cornish owned a small used bookstore in Coolidge Corner in Brookline. The thing about Sam was he was a bit like comfort food. Let me explain. Poet Afaa Michael Weaver said he and Sam used to visit Cornish's favorite "meatloaf and mashed potatoes" restaurant in Boston, to chat, argue, and wax nostalgic about their hometown of Baltimore. So in a very competitive and elitist Boston poetry world, he was my meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He made me feel good in my own skin, he encouraged me, he made me feel valued; he made me feel like the real McCoy.

Over the years Sam and I shared shots together, we read together--I had him read at Endicott College where I teach--and awarded him the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award at the Somerville News Writers Festival. He used to tell me stories about Baltimore--growing up in poverty, the communist bookstores he would frequent, the jazz singers he knew--well, all that jazz. And funny--Sam was jazzy. He was always improvising in his work, a lot of short riffs, shooting off in tendrils into the ether and back again.

Surprisingly enough, Sam told me he didn't feel part of the Black Arts Movement in the 60s and 70s. He told me in an interview, "What might distinguish me from parts of this generation in the movement, folks like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, etc. was that I was influenced by different writers than members of the Black Arts Movement. Some of the poets in the movement came from a conventional middle class negro background: doctors, lawyers and teachers. I come from a poor family, raised by my mother and grandmother. My mother was forced to go on welfare when she couldn't work anymore. I went to a neighborhood school and frequented the public libraries."

And so his background--a humble, hardscrabble one--defined his sensibility that served him well as the first Boston Poet Laureate. He was a poet of the people. He reached out to the novice poet, the bards of the nursing homes, the stumble bums, poseurs, the addict, the hooker, the kids from the 'hood--even this middle class Jewish kid from a high-toned suburb of New York City.

My press, Ibbetson Street, published a small collection of his, Dead Beats. His poetry is stripped down, but every word counts--we get the essence straight, no chaser. Sam talked about his style in an interview: "For me it is a choice of language. I would say it is the influence of the hard world or the naturalistic writer, where you use language employed in common speech. At the same time you recognize the lyric possibilities--in language."

Sam had a long teaching career at Emerson College in Boston and was loved by faculty and staff. This is pretty good for a guy who never finished college. He got his education on the streets, in the great city public libraries--he had been around the block like many of us--but he just stayed longer looking at it.

For me that iconic image of him walking down Commonwealth Ave, with his little camera around his neck, his piercing gimlet eyes behind the thick glasses, says it all about the poet and the man.

Sam Cornish reading "Horseface"
by Sam Cornish

was so dark they
called her purple she
appeared at dances
without a date
she sat and stood
feet keeping time
silent and alone
little Mary (Horseface) stroked her
hair and sighed
little Mary so
black her skin
sings and shines
so black they talk
behind her back
oh she was so
black her father
passed out
(he wanted to lighten
the race) my wife did
this to me he said and left
without a word said
it must be some nigger
blacker than
little Mary
to me (Horseface
to some black
Mary to others)
stood on the road waved
at trains [maybe daddy is passin
through] ran
toward cars making dust
in the afternoons sought love
from people going north
as her father did
somewhere lighter
somewhere better
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