After 73 years on Earth and dozens of accolades, you'd think the Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks would be beyond signing books and journals.
Well, she's not. She proved that Wednesday afternoon at the Mount Oread Book Shop, where she sat at a small table in a warm room and put her signature and salutations on at least two dozen books.
"I'll autograph until the I get to the last soul in line," she told onlookers. "Sometimes amazing things are said during autograph sessions.''
Brooks, the poet laureate of Illinois, Pulitzer-Prize winner and Kansas native, will deliver a reading from her works at 7:30 p.m. today at Hoch Auditorium. She was to be honored by Gov. Joan Finney and the Legislature this afternoon in Topeka.
In poetry collections such as "Annie Allen," "In the Mecca" and "Bronzeville Boys and Girls," Brooks has built a reputation for recording the sights, sounds and feelings of African-Americans.
SHE'S ALSO a strong believer in poetry for the people. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Brooks said she sees herself as a reporter, writing down what she sees, and that anyone can do that.
"I think everybody is a poet," Brooks said. "Now, several critics would hop on me. But, for instance, all of you have ideas and feelings. . . . You've all felt anger and exhilaration and anguish. I go to the trouble of putting my feelings down on paper, but that's something any of you could do.''
Brooks was born in 1917 in Topeka, but shortly thereafter her family moved to Chicago's South Side. She still has family there, and she has visited her grandparents several times.
"I've often wondered how I would have turned out writing if I had grown up in Topeka," Brooks said. "My impression is that it was a plain little town with neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods everyone seemed to be close.''
SHE SAID her earliest influence in poetry came from her father, who would read poetry to the family after dinner. She became fascinated with language at age 7, and some of her earliest writings included some Sunday School plays she wrote for her mother as a teen-ager.
"I'm surprised my mother trusted me to do that," she said. "They must have been terrible.''
After graduating from Wilson Junior College in Chicago, Brooks began her professional career in 1941 in Inez Stark Boulton's poetry workshop. By 1950, she had won a Pulitzer for "Annie Allen.''
Her poetry has won acclaim both for its strong images and its striking cadence. Brooks said she pays attention both to what she's saying and how she says it.
"When I have a feeling or an idea I want to express, I put it down on a page," she said. "After that I go over it to see if everything's technically acceptable.''
IN HER work, Brooks has explored the changing conditions of the South Side and the rest of the country, as well as in South Africa. As she completes the second volume of her autobiography, Brooks said, she's thinking of writing rap poems this summer.
Right now, her biggest concern is for children. Brooks judges a poetry contest for Illinois children, and she's working on a project that encompasses the lives of today's youngsters.
"I'm very much interested in what happens to children,'' she said. "I'm writing a book called `Children Coming Home,' and it's going to be about a class of elementary school children being dismissed. It's about the class coming home to various homes, and they encounter different kinds of life, some pain, some joy.''
Back at the book signing earlier Wednesday, Brooks showed some of that concern for children. She signed a copy of her children's poetry book "The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves" for a father and gave him some instructions on its use.
"She (the child) can get all kinds of ideas," Brooks said. "I find that it can be used as a springboard for a lot of serious ideas.''