Kansas Humanities Council Press Release
Rearrange the first four letters in the name “Topeka” and you get “Poet.” The wordplay is fitting when you think of all the poets who have had their start in Topeka. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka. Langston Hughes describes the Topeka Library as the place where “books began to happen to me.” Nationally-recognized contemporary poets Kevin Young, Ben Lerner, and 2015-2017 Poet Laureate of Kansas Eric McHenry were all raised in Topeka. The list of poets born, raised, or living in Topeka goes on and on.
This summer, Topeka is honoring the enduring legacy of Topeka native Gwendolyn Brooks with Brooksfest: A Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Celebration, supported by a KHC Humanities grant. Although she’s identified as a Chicago poet — she lived there most of her life — Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka on June 7, 1917, and a number of her relatives still live in the area. In addition to being one of the most influential and popular poets of the 20th century, Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, was named the poet laureate of Illinois and served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Brooksfest takes place Saturday, June 10 at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The location is significant due to the fact that Brooks’s mother, Keziah Wims Brooks, taught at the Monroe School, the building that now houses the historic site.
Designed to bring the Topeka community together, Brooksfest features a presentation by Keynote Speaker Kevin Young, future poetry editor for the New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Other speakers include Elizabeth Farnsworth, longtime correspondent and anchor of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, winners and runners-up in the citywide Gwendolyn Brooks-themed student poetry contest, and more. The day begins with a Poetry Walk along the Landon Trail.
Eric McHenry, one of the organizers of Brooksfest, says the goal of the event is to “highlight the strong connections of a profoundly influential poet — to show young Topekans that they come from the same neighborhoods that a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the New Yorker’s poetry editor came from and that there might be a publication and even a Pulitzer in their future. More broadly, we hope to demonstrate that poetry and literature can enrich the lives of all of us.”