Former prof. named Boston poet laureate

by Beacon Staff • January 30, 2008

"It was unexpected and overwhelming to be chosen, but for a poet, it's the kind of visibility you can't get unless you shoot someone," said Samuel Cornish, a former writing, literature and publishing professor at Emerson College.,Boston's first-ever poet laureate is just like most people: he'd much rather be in the Boston Public Library than in jail.

"It was unexpected and overwhelming to be chosen, but for a poet, it's the kind of visibility you can't get unless you shoot someone," said Samuel Cornish, a former writing, literature and publishing professor at Emerson College.

Massachusetts is one of the last states to appoint a poet laureate for its capital city. According to the Library of Congress Web site, Arizona, Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania are the only states that do not have the position filled.

However, city officials decided to honor Boston's vibrant poetry scene by bestowing the title on Cornish.

The free-spirited 72-year-old, who moved to Boston from Baltimore in the '60s and is remembered for wandering the downtown streets barefoot in the '70s, said he will use his new title to inject poetry back into the city's veins.

Cornish said his years at Emerson were the breeding ground for his philanthropic outlook at his new job.

"I taught by interacting with students, and you get a lot more out of them and out of teaching them that way than you do if you isolate yourself," Cornish said.

He said his plans include tours of the Boston community, poetry workshops and an event to commemorate Black History Month in February.

Alice Hennessey, director of the city's poet laureate selection committee, told the Boston Globe the committee was taken with his commitment to education and the ideas expressed in his poetry.

Out of 15 applicants, she said Cornish was chosen for his expansive literary background and his promotion of poetry across the city.

Emerson alumnus James W. Cook, who had Cornish as a teacher and calls him a mentor, said Cornish's warmth allows him to be not just a great literary resource, but a friend.

Cook, who named his son Sam after Cornish, fondly recalled his former professors reaction to he and his fiancee's engagement.

"Sam was screening a movie in class," said Cook. "He left to go to a liquor store nearby, bought us a bottle of champagne, came back into the classroom and put it down next to my wife's backpack. He was always a little unorthodox, but that's just a testament to the kind of guy Sam is."

Cornish said he makes an effort to create a balance between literary clout and real-world experience.

"Poetry is often an isolated world of self-indulgence, but it doesn't have to be," he said. "I want to cut across the racial and social barriers of society."

Cornish said he is currently working on a book about the immigration experience of Eastern-European Jews, which will blend non-fiction and poetry.

However, he said poetry isn't his only preoccupation these days.

"I spend time with my wife, and I've gotten into casinos." Cornish said. "I'm a penny slot guy."

According to a press release from Mayor Thomas M. Menino's office, Cornish has written 13 books of poetry, been anthologized 25 times, been published in the Boston Herald, Boston Globe, Harvard Book Review, Essence Magazine and has edited several collections of poetry. In 1967, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts fellow.

Cook said the weight of such an official honor as poet laureate on a writer's shoulders could become his downfall. However, he said in Cornish's case, the future of Boston's poetry is in the right hands.

"I think Sam is a great choice because his poetry is so accessible," Cook said. "It really speaks to the working class, to race, to poverty."