Christopher Gilbert Biography
Christopher Gilbert, often known as Chris Gilbert, won the 1983 Walt Whitman Award for his poetry collection Across the Mutual Landscape. He was recognized as a major force among the black American poets of the 1970s and 1980s who chanted and sang their poetry for enthusiastic audiences.
Gilbert was born on August 1, 1949, in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Floyd and Rosie (Walker) Gilbert. He grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and several of his poems describe his experiences growing up in that town, which was dominated by the automobile industry. In "Pushing" he wrote of stopping at a high-priced grocery store on his way to school, and having the owner follow him and his friends about the store, telling them "you better be going your way–// buy something or else you got to leave.' // We'd rattle the pennies we had and go // but coming home buy some nutchews to stay // and try his nerve again, because we didn't steal // but warmed ourselves till Ray would ask why–// till, like big brothers will, one day I guessed, // 'Some things you do because you want to. Some things you do because you can't.'" In the poem "Time with Stevie Wonder in It," Gilbert recalled wintry nights in which his parents and their friends "would group in the long night–// tune frequencies to the Black stations // blasting out of Memphis, Nashville, // still playing what was played down south–// Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Ruth Brown, Muddy and Wolf. //…// This was our rule following–// buy at J.C. Penney and Woolworth's, // work at Diamond Reo, Oldsmobile, Fisher Body."
But Gilbert left Lansing, earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1972, then his master's degree and doctorate in psychology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1975 and 1986 respectively. During the years in which he earned his education, Gilbert worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist, he did research, and he taught psychology. He worked as a staff psychologist and consultant at the Judge Baker Guidance Center in Boston and as a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He also served as staff psychologist at the Cambridge Family and Children's Services.
At night, on weekends, and sometimes in the early morning, Gilbert wrote poetry. He was quoted in Contemporary Authors Online as saying: "Sometimes I wrote between breaths." Before long, Gilbert became a well-known figure in Boston and Cambridge poetry circles. He participated in Etheridge Knight's Free People's Poetry Workshops and wrote for the Little Apple, a Worcester journal of arts and literature. Many of his poems first appeared in the Worcester Review, published by the Worcester County Poetry Association.
Gilbert's poetry collection, Across the Mutual Landscape, was awarded the 1983 Walt Whitman Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Awarded annually to poets who had not published a standard-edition poetry collection, the prize included both cash and publication by an Academy-selected press. The poems in Across the Mutual Landscape, or earlier versions, had been published previously in various periodicals including the American Literary Review, Black American Literature Forum, Dark Horse, Mother Jones, Nimrod, Obsidian, The Runner, Small Moon, Sunbury, Telephone, Umbral, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Graywolf Press in Port Townsend, Washington, with help from a Washington State Arts Commission grant, published Across the Mutual Landscape to good reviews. The poet Denise Levertov wrote for the book jacket: "Chris Gilbert's poems are dense with intellectual content and infused with lyrical imagination; his critique of society, his exploration of its interaction with his own soul or spirit, his elegiac celebrations of Robert Hayden or Muriel Rukeyser or invocations of jazz and its artists, don't form separate categories but flow in and out of one another."
Like many of his contemporaries Gilbert's poetry was influenced by jazz and made full use of jazz rhythms. Contemporary Authors quoted him: "I see the poem itself as a situation. Its formation is thought which must be musically stated. The situation is charged. The situation is sensuous. The situation is moving forward. The situation is music. Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, placing himself in the exact center of things, finding himself naked in his whole world except for his desire and his skill, could be listened to for a chart of the coming into newness that is the poem's formation."
In poems like "Pitch," Gilbert integrated the personal with a broader world:
"Today it will snow. In the east // a bus is bombed in Herzliya. // In the Atlantic, Canadian sealers // are breaking ice towards an island // and the waiting baby seals. //…I get a call from home // telling how in the Olds parts plant // when the line shuts down for break // my brother pulls his trumpet out–// Orpheus among the abandoned car bodies–// and he blows: //…and, Chris, you know how Gary can be, // don't matter who's around. but one thing // out on the job they listen to him. // seems everyone, no matter who, if he is // who he is he makes us catch our breaths. // and we start questioning, despite whatever troubles, //…we sing through // to declare the future here. and this beats troubles. // for a while."
In 1986 Gilbert took a year off from his career in psychology to write poetry full time at the Robert Frost Center in Franconia, New Hampshire. He was quoted by Contemporary Authors at the time: "I feel that my own ability to write poetry wants this; it wants its experience to be grounded in the firsthand world gained through contact with lives and people, with me—as subject—as an empathy, with a reflection toward one's deeper and longer life, with goals, with a concept of use. It is my way of making a living."
In the early 1990s Gilbert became a psychology professor at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts. He developed an internet-based general psychology course. He also conducted a study evaluating Bristol's Writing Lab in relation to student retention and academic success and he developed a cross-discipline student writing assessment model.
Chris Gilbert's poems have appeared in numerous anthologies including City River of Voices, a 1992 West End Press anthology of poets who lived or worked in Cambridge, and The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, published by CavanKerry Press in 2004. His elegy to Robert Hayden was reprinted in Inventions in Farewell, published by Norton in 2001. Gilbert also contributed two chapters to The Practice of Poetry.
Across the Mutual Landscape (includes "Pushing," "Muriel Rukeyser as Energy," "Time with Stevie Wonder in It," "Fire Gotten Brighter," and "Pitch"), Graywolf Press, 1984.
Gilbert's poems have appeared magazines and in numerous anthologies, including Fifty Years of American Poetry: Anniversary Volume for the Academy of American Poets (1984), The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets (1985), The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach (1992), City River of Voices (1992), Playing the Changes: From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse (1994), Inventions in Farewell (2001), The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place (2004), and Approaching Literature in the 21st Century (2005).
Worcester Review, 1996, pp. 131-36.
"Christopher Gilbert," Contemporary Authors Online, Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (September 30, 2004).
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