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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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(An interview with Countee Cullen)

By Leon Smith

The Magpie, January 1938, v. 22, n. 1., p. 42.

Gallantly, I sallied forth to interview the poet, Countee Cullen, with all the customary fears of the student journalist about to conduct his first interview. Since I was not entirely unacquainted with the poet, my fears were not so much those of making an embarrassing faux pas, but more the fears (noting the poet's evident reluctance in granting an interview) of being unable to secure enough information to present an interesting picture of the famed poet to the readers of the Magpie. Whether or not my fears were justified remains to be seen.

Countee Cullen is, at present, living with his family in New York City. Born and raised in the atmosphere of the Methodist church, (his father, Reverend F. A. Cullen, being the pastor of a large church), the poet has had a problem reconciling a Christian upbringing with a pagan inclination. His poetry, largely influenced by his love of the poet Keats, has been acclaimed by critics both in America and Europe.

The interview begins with a rather trite question:

"How did you become interested in writing poetry?"

"When I was in my second term at Clinton, my English teacher, Mr. Cronin, had an idea that high school students could write acceptable verse. I wrote the poem, 'To A Swimmer.' and received my mark of 'A' or 'B' and thought no more about it until much later a friend showed me the poem in a copy of the magazine, 'Modern School.' Mr. Cronin, in an article in the magazine, had used my poem to illustrate his point."

"And after that I suppose you wrote reams of verse?"

"Yes—as you know, nothing inspires one to write more than the seeing of one's name in print. After that, I literally swamped the Magpie with poetry. I used to write poems for every holiday in the year and I even wrote a school song which, fortunately, was never used.

"In my eighth term at Clinton, I became Editor-in-Chief of the Magpie, (the senior edition), and editor of the Clinton News. Graduating from Clinton with the gold medal for scholarship, I entered N. Y. U. where, to my chagrin, I fell down in my scholarship because of my inability to pass the sciences. I am sure that when I graduated from N. Y. U. in 1925, I was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key, not because of an 'A' rating, I fear, but because I was a poet."

"Did you publish anything while at N.Y.U.?"

—"I published a number of poems in the college magazine, and in magazines like Scribner's and Vanity Fair, but while I was at N.Y.U. my first group of poems were accepted for publication by Harper and Color was published in 1925 and was received kindly by both the public and the critics. After the publication of Color, I received my M.A. from Harvard, and in 1926 was taken by my father on my first trip abroad.

"Returning to America, I immediately took up my duties as assistant editor of the magazine, Opportunity, and in 1927 I published my second book of verse, Copper Sun, followed by an anthology of Negro verse, Caroling Dusk.

"In 1928 I published The Ballad of the Brown Girl and on the basis of Color and Copper Sun, I received a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. I went to Paris where I spent the best two years of my life."

"What sort of place did you live in while in Paris?"

"I lived on a very charming street in Paris in a modernized studio. The street, so very small, had a pompous name, for as it faced an immense park it was called —Rue de L'Avenue de la Parc Montceau."

"Did you find it easy to work in Paris?"

"On the whole, I found it very difficult to work. There was so much to be seen, so many things to do. At night friends would be popping in and out at all hours so there was no question of sleep. Yet, in spite of distractions, I did manage to return to America in 1930 with the manuscript of The Black Christ under my arm.

"The Black Christ was published in 1929, followed by my only novel, One Way to Heaven in 1931. In 1934, I became a teacher in the New York public schools. 1935 saw the publication of my latest book, The Medes and Some Poems, a translation of the old Grecian drama along with a few poems. I am teaching now at the Frederick Douglass Junior High School."

"Since you have tried your hand at poetry and the novel, I suppose we may next expect a play from you?"

"Well at present I am engrossed in the revision of a play, St. Louis Woman, written by Arna Bontemps and me, for production by the Federal Theatre."

"You will forgive this stock question, but who are your favorite poets?"

"My favorite of all is, of course, Keats, and among the moderns, two totally different figures, Housman and E. A. Robinson."

"Of your own poems and books which do you like best?"

"Heritage is my favorite among my poems, and among my books, Color."

"Your plans for the future are—?"

"Are non-existent. The urge for writing poetry seems to have left me—but I hope it's only dormant."

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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