Dr. Marvin Kimbrough and Floyd Freeman
That Essence Rare

by Ken Hunt The language of essence, poetry is perhaps the most effective way to communicate across all facets of society. In Dr. Marvin Kimbrough and Floyd Freeman, two poets frequently seen reading in tandem, the local poetry community has two voices of the African-American experience rich with personal perspective and the history of the sea of change in societal relations the last several decades have witnessed.

Many of Kimbrough's poems lean toward political commentary, often with a historical bent. For instance, she reads about white society initially disparaging blacks for making musical instruments of such things as spoons and ham bones, then appropriating them for mainstream popularity; Freeman accompanies her on said instruments. "Juneteenth" begins, "Whose holiday is Juneteenth, anyway?" and catalogues various past synonyms of (and epithets for) people of color, making the point that freedom from slavery meant being granted status as fellow humans by the former oppressors. "It's a white folks' holiday, Juneteenth is," it ends bluntly. Kimbrough maintains that this theme is not deliberated. "When you get my age" - she laughs - "whatever you think of is historical because you accept a variety of experiences, and [I draw from] a lot of experiences and things that I remember. It's just part of my train of thought, I think." And in fact, the poems found in her chapbook Even Frogs Can Drown are of a more personal, lyrical nature. As for influences, "I like to read poetry, and sometimes I get an idea from just reading or just something that happens in day-to-day activity that might make a poem," she says, naming such authors as Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and local author Jamieson Brook.

Freeman's poetry concerns itself with observations of the author's self and environment. This might mean the poignant "Going Home," which details walking up to the abandoned house where a loved one once lived, or the subversively joyous "Hope," in which laying "her" in a grave is actually the planting of a tree. Freeman emphasizes such events are his only influence. "There's no influence by other writers at all, because I don't believe anybody else writes quite like me," he states. "If it's not almost factual, then it doesn't really work for me." His devotion to writing is visceral, and comes through in an animated explanation. "I need to write - I have to write something, even if it's nothing but words, words, words. That came about when I was a little guy, about five or six years old living in Atlantic City. I had a godmother, and every Christmas the gift was a wrapped book. She believed in reading and from that, I had to read. I would think, `A book, a dumb book,' but when I became a man, I lived 50 feet from the library, and during lunch hour - a half hour - I found myself going there. I'd pick up any book off the shelf and read one or two pages, and the next day I would read another book, not related to what I'd been doing the day before."

Kimbrough calls herself "a late bloomer" when it comes to poetry, writing her first poem in 1978, although most of her poems originate from 1990 to the present. Freeman, on the other hand, tells of shuffling through some documents and finding two short poems from 1944. "I've been doing more writing since I've been here," he notes, having moved to Austin from Philadelphia in 1992. Both have chapbooks published by Freeman's WAMLAC Press - an acronym for "With All My Love And Caring."

Both Kimbrough and Freeman are members of the Catfish Poetry Society, a group of African-American writers founded by Evelyn Anderson four years ago so named because the group initially met at the Catfish Station restaurant on Sixth Street, it has since held residencies at the Carver Library and Huston-Tillotson, and now holds reading on first Saturdays at the Folktales bookshop on Nueces Street. "It's pretty much the same group; however we do get a lot of new people coming in, and it's continuing to be viable," Kimbrough says. Other members include Sheila Foscette, Betty Baker, Zell Miller, Rosalee Martin, and former Black Panther Alli Aweusi.

There is a palpable bond between these two - friends who recently came together from vastly different backgrounds. Kimbrough has been in academics her whole life, having received an undergraduate degree at Huston-Tillotson College, which is where she has worked for the past 35 years and is now the chair of the Department of Humanities. "Huston-Tillotson is, I guess, a family school for me," she says. "My grandmother attended there, as did both my parents. My husband is a graduate, as are two of my children." She received a master's in French and a doctorate in mass communications from the University of Texas.

Kimbrough teaches French, technical writing, classic literature, and other humanities subjects, but as a creative writing educator, she makes poetry a tangible part of the experience. "One of the requirements is that they will attend a public reading and [read at] an open mike, as well as publish a book of poetry," she says, "which not only involves the students but the community." Three books have been published on an annual basis - Rites, Voices, and Poetic Expressions - with a fourth due this year. "Students are the ones that get them together, and Floyd has been nice enough to come and show them how to make the layout," she says.

Freeman began his career as a photojournalist in 1940, with a photograph of a maritime disaster in Atlantic City for the Philadelphia Daily News. He was on the staff of the Philadelphia edition of the Afro-American and freelanced for other African-American weeklies through the Forties. "They had big circulations at the time... it was quite an honor to work for those newspapers and to be a photographer," he says. Of course, it was grueling work. "At a weekly, they required that your printed material be in the office the next day," he relates. "Some of the events would last until midnight and I'd be in the darkroom until two or three." Also during that time, he followed in his father's footsteps and began a 33-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, working from letter carrier up to station inspector. A job-related injury in 1975 sent him into retirement and training at the Antonelli School of Photography in Philadelphia. "They didn't settle for second best," he says. "I thought I knew photography before I went to that school, [then] found out how much I didn't know."

Poetry does not comprise the extent of these authors' creative work. Kimbrough is readying a book of children's stories in which inanimate objects are given human qualities; in a story about the maintenance of family bonds across distance, she gives the example of a mimosa tree near railroad tracks, whose grandchildren are to be moved to a nursery in the city. She is also looking into producing a screenplay written a few years ago. Freeman, on the other hand, is developing a memoir of his childhood in Atlantic City entitled Sand in My Shoes. "It's said that if you live there, you get sand in your shoes, and you can't leave," Freeman says. "It's an unusual city, because it being a tourist city and a convention city, the only time you had employment was in the summertime. They referred to it as four months of hurry, eight months of worry."

"My childhood experiences included a lot of segregation, bigotry, prejudice, and so forth, but that's not really the thrust of the book; it just comes into play as the book evolves," he continues. "You can't help but expose or relate some of it. For instance, our streets were the last streets to be paved, but I didn't know that because it was a black neighborhood, your streets got paved last. It was a good childhood, actually, because there were a lot of open spaces. It was half city and half country." A love of nature runs through Freeman's life; he is also a master horticulturist, and from 1989 to 1991 placed third in a Philadelphia landscaping competition.

Freeman's photographic art began concurrently with his writing. "I have documented things in Atlantic City since I was a child; almost every street scene, street corner, and building in Atlantic City, New Jersey," he says. Like his poetry, his photographs focus on scenes and vignettes of everyday life, caught almost accidentally, and owing as much to his work as a photojournalist as to his aesthetic. "In those days after the war, flash bulbs and film were so scarce that when you went on an assignment - say, go down to UT and take a picture of the kids studying around the tower - they'd give you one sheet of film and that was it. That made me pretty good, because you had to come back with something and you only had one shot at it." He has been exhibited around town since moving here, including a July show at Artspace Gallery.

Kimbrough and Freeman have high regard for Austin's poetry community - especially Freeman, who has the perspective of a different literary environment. "You don't have as large a venue in Philadelphia as you have here, and if you do have it, it's not as accessible," he says. "I've really gotten into reading publicly since I've been here. You can do anything in Austin; it's a place you go to enhance your abilities and explore. Somebody's going to accept you; it might be one other person, or it might be yourself." Says Kimbrough, "I like going all over Austin, because I think this city has a lot to offer, and I just like hearing poets read." They can be seen at such venues as Cafe Solaire and Mexic-Arte Museum, and Kimbrough points to East Austin's Victory Grill, whose Tuesday family nights have expanded to accomodate poetry. "Most of what you hear seems to be steeped in contemporary or historical facts of African-American experience," she says.

And that is the kind of thing that makes Aus-
tin poetry the microcosm of life that it is.