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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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Rendezvous with Life

An Interview with Countee Cullen

By James Baldwin

The Magpie, Winter 1942, v. 26, n. 1, p. 19.

I have a rendezvous with Life
And all travailling lovely things
Like groping seeds and beating wings
And cracked lips warring with a fife.
I am betrothed to Beauty, scarred
With suffering though she may be;
In that she bears pain splendidly
Her comeliness may not be marred.

The above lines were written twenty years ago by a Clinton schoolboy who in his senior year became Editor-in-chief of the Clinton News and of the Senior Issue of the Magpie. He handled both assignments with assurance and ease. Later he was to become one of Clinton's most distinguished alumni. His name is Countee Cullen.

"My first published poem," Mr. Cullen told me in a deserted classroom in the Frederick Douglass Junior High School where he now teaches, "was published without my knowledge in the Clinton News. It seems that there was a controversy between a Clinton teacher and an outsider in which the outsider held that high school students were unable to write acceptable verse, and the Clinton teacher held that they were. My poem was published to prove the Clinton teacher's contention—and it did," said Mr. Cullen, modestly.

That was the beginning of a distinguished career as a writer.

Countee Cullen was born May 30, 1903, the son of a Methodist minister and his devout wife. His father is still pastor of a church at One Hundred Twenty-eighth Street and Seventh Avenue. "My parents," Countee said, "had no objection to my being a poet, as writing poetry cannot be considered a means of making a livelihood."

"Why not?" inquired your startled reporter.

"Poetry," explained Mr. Cullen, "is something which few people enjoy and which fewer people understand. A publishing house publishes poetry only to give the establishment tone. It never expects to make much money on the transaction. And it seldom does."

Yours truly, who had been under the impression that one simply published a book, and sat back and watched the shekels roll in, sat aghast. "I never knew that," I said. "I guess a teaching job comes in pretty handy, then."

"Yes," he admitted. "Also, I like to teach."

Mr. Cullen then briefly reviewed how he had received his bachelor's degree at New York University, his Master of Arts at Harvard, and how in 1925 his first book of poetry was published. It established him at once as one of the important of the younger Negro poets and brought him in 1926 the post of assistant editor on the Negro magazine, Opportunity. In 1928 he received the Guggenheim Fellowship in Paris. The Guggenheim Fellowship, he explained to me, enables an author to live for a year, do nothing but write and still be alive at the end of the year. It sounds like something out of Shangri-la.

When his twelve month paradise had ended, Mr. Cullen came again to grips with earthly practicalities, and the exigencies of making a living. Eventually, he became a teacher of French in the aforementioned junior high school.

To date, Mr. Cullen has published six books of poetry, one of them being an anthology of Negro poetry, called Caroling Dusk. His latest, The Lost Zoo, written by request, he talked of as follows:

"Some of the children I was teaching had read of my work and wanted to become better acquainted with it. However, most of it was too far over their heads for them to be able to appreciate it. They asked me to write something that they could understand. The Lost Zoo is the result."

Needless to say, I rushed home and investigated the book. I found it a very charming fantasy told in verse except for its prologue and epilogue which are in prose. The title page says it was written by Christopher Cat and Countee P. Cullen. The prologue explains that Chris is Mr. Cullen's pet cat who has been with Mr. Cullen so long that they have even learned to talk to each other. Chris tells him the story of the lost zoo and Mr. Cullen passes it on to us. Chris supplies all the footnotes to the text and a wiser or more charming cat you have never met. However, you probably would not be too anxious to see him in a dark alley. There's something eerie about a cat who not only laughs but can, on occasion, be bitingly sarcastic.

The Lost Zoo tells the story of all the animals who were left behind when Noah built the ark. There was a sleep-a-mite more (the name describes him), the Squilililigee (the name gives you a clue as well as anything else might), the Wake-Up-World (who had twelve eyes of different colors) and "the Snake that walked upon his tail" (the female couldn't, just the male). All these animals and a great many more were left behind and drowned, and the story of the mass catastrophe is one of the author's most engaging pieces of work. It was written for children but this blasé grown-up enjoyed it more than the home-work he was supposed to have been doing.

Asking Mr. Cullen, as per custom, for some secret of success, I was told "There is no secret to success except hard work and getting something indefinable which we call the 'breaks.' In order for a writer to succeed, I suggest three things—read and write—and wait."

"Have you found," I asked, "that there is much prejudice against the Negro in the literary world?"

Mr. Cullen shook his head. "No," he said, "in this field one gets pretty much what he deserves.... If you're really something, nothing can hold you back. In the artistic field, society recognizes the Negro as an equal and, in some cases, as a superior member. When one considers the social and political plights of the Negro today, that is, indeed, an encouraging sign."

Mr. Cullen expects to have his latest book, "Autobiography of a Cat" published early in 1942. "It will be in prose," he said, "and one of my few attempts to get at the masses."

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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