COLUMBIA, SC — Allen University has begun collecting nearly 3,000 volumes of poetry in preparation for the opening next year of the Langston Hughes Poetry House, a home for poets of color.
Allen’s new venture, which is modeled on New York’s library and literary center called the Poets House, is the brainchild of Charlene Spearen, an Allen English professor and co-founder of the S.C. Poetry Initiative who now leads Allen’s Humanities Department.
Spearen donated 1,000 volumes of poetry from her personal library to form the core of the collection, which will be housed in the humanities cottage, a bungalow at 3129 Pine St. that sits adjacent to the private, historically black school.
Since then, dozens of poets, including South Carolina-born poet Nikky Finney, who joined USC last year, Nikki Giovanni, now a Virginia Tech English professor, and Kwame Dawes, a poet who served as a professor and distinguished poet in residence at USC for a decade, have sent autographed volumes to add to the collection.
“I had connections to some core poets but now it has its own momentum,” said Spearen. Her assistant, Syrecea Parker, has the task of cataloging the volumes, with help from students, in hopes of opening the house for readings, study and research in spring 2015. There are tentative plans for a writers series this fall in conjunction with the planned opening.
“We sent out 300 emails so far, and they are responding,” including one poet from Africa, Parker said. Another poet, Kenneth McClane, who had heard Langston Hughes read years ago, volunteered to come and read once the poetry house opens for visitors.
While affiliated with the South Carolina Poetry Initiative at USC, Spearen had hoped to establish a poetry house on USC’s campus. When those plans fell through, it was Dawes who encouraged her to try again. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do what you wanted to do at USC at Allen?” she recounted. “He has a big part in the genesis of this.”
Dawes, a formidable force at USC and instrumental in the founding of the S.C. Poetry Initiative, now teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Spearen said it was natural to name the center for Langston Hughes, the 20th century poet whose signature jazz poetry helped launch the Harlem Renaissance.
In November 1937, Hughes gave a reading at Allen in its Chapelle Auditorium. A notice in The State extolled Hughes’ poetic gifts, calling him “the leading Negro poet of the country.” The article went on to note: “C.A. Johnson, head of the Negro schools, announced that a section of the auditorium would be reserved for white people and that he with his co-workers are expecting a large attendance for the recital by both races.”