No one needs to tell Leonard Slade the power of words. Add a little rhythmic quality to them and, according to Slade, you can change the world.
Over the past two decades, Slade, a professor of Africana Studies at the University at Albany, has won numerous awards and gained a world-wide audience for his lyrical use of words, producing 18 books of poetry.
Earlier this spring he received special recognition when the Southern Conference on African-American Studies changed the name of its annual award to “The Leonard A. Slade Jr. Poetry Prize.”
In a letter informing him of the honor, Berea College Professor Andrew Baskin, co-editor of The Griot: The Journal of African-American Studies, urged Slade to “continue to publish powerful poetry which can help make the world a better place.”
A native of Conway, North Carolina, and the eldest of nine siblings, Slade grew up on a farm. He and his seven brothers and one sister all went to college, Slade to Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English.
All in the words
Some of Slade’s favorite quotes about poetry:
“Poetry is a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.”
— William Wordsworth
“Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty whose purpose is to elevate the soul.”
— Edgar Allan Poe
“Poetry is life distilled.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks
“It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop into atomic words.”
— Langston Hughes
He continued his education at Virginia State University, where he got his master’s in English, and then went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his doctorate.
He taught at Kentucky State University for 22 years before heading to UAlbany in 1988. Along with teaching Africana Studies, he is an adjunct professor of English at UAlbany, was named a Collins Fellow in 2005 by the school, and was UAlbany’s 2007 Citizen Laureate. Among his several awards are honorary doctorates from Kentucky State and Elizabeth City State University.
Slade lives in Albany just a few miles from campus with his wife, Roberta Hall Slade, and they have one daughter, Minitria Elisabeth Slade, who teaches in the Albany City School District.
When he isn’t teaching or writing, Slade has a new hobby, the game of golf. The jury is still out on just how he’ll do in that endeavor as he’s debating whether or not to purchase a new set of clubs.
Slade will read from his new book, “Nobody Knows: Book of Poems,” at a special recital and soul food party at UAlbany’s Alumni House at noon on Sept. 19. The event is free and open to the public.
Q: Tell us something about your early life in North Carolina.
A: My parents were farmers who had nine children, and they sent us all to college and all nine of us graduated. We were hard-working people, and I had plenty of good role models growing up and at W.S. Creecy High School. All my teachers had their master’s degrees, and I wanted to be just like my English teacher, Theola Moore. She really whetted my intellectual appetite.
Q: When did you discover your love of poetry?
A: I knew in college that I wanted to teach. Dr. Corahgreen Johnstone inspired me once I got to college, and my goal was to teach elementary education.
But then I met Professor Edythe Scott Bagley at Elizabeth City, the sister of Coretta Scott King, and she pulled me aside and asked me, ‘what’s your major?’ When I told her she said, ‘no, you’re not going into elementary education. You’re going to become an English teacher.’
She saw the potential in me, so I decided to become a college English professor. It wasn’t until I got tenure as a full professor that I really started my poetry. My wife, who was doing graduate work at the University of Chicago, encouraged me to apply to the Bennington College Writers Workshop for summer study. I had to send some sample poems, and out of the 8,000 people who applied, I was one of 200 to get in. I felt so honored, and I thought maybe my wife is right. Maybe I do have the potential to make the world a better place with my poetry.
I had also been inspired by Professor George Hendrick, former chair of the Department of English at the University of Illinois, to publish quality books of poetry. Without his ardent support over the years I would not be the professional that I am today. And at Bennington I got to work with two Pulitzer Prize winners in Stephen Dunn and Donald Justice. I learned so much from them, and they convinced me to submit some of my poems to journals for publication.
Q: Do you believe that poetry can change the world?
A: That’s why I write poetry. That’s my job. I don’t know about others but that’s why I do it. I listen to that inner voice that Emerson talks about. Some people say it’s God talking to you, so to me writing poetry is a calling. It can make the world a better place if its used as a moral imperative for rebirth and renewal.
Q: What’s your response when people say they don’t really appreciate poetry?
A: I think those people should become readers and read for information and for pleasure. That’s the first step. Then we broaden our horizons as we read all kinds of different material — newspapers, novels, plays, short stories in magazines — and hopefully we become curious about how writers use the language to objectify ideas and manipulate thoughts and so forth. It’s good to begin with accessible poetry, so read authors that appeal to you.
Q: When do you write poetry?
A: I have this picture of Henry David Thoreau writing “On Walden Pond,” so like Thoreau I do a lot of writing early in the morning when I don’t have all that mental clutter. I can be more creative when I’m relaxed, and when I’m relaxed I can write some decent poetry.
I have to be inspired in some way, so I need some kind of experience, a positive or negative feeling, and I have to feel strongly about whatever issue it is. I can write if I’m happy, or if I’m sad and in pain. I write about good and evil, and I see that as my responsibility.
Q: Robert Frost once said, ‘Writing poetry without meter is like playing tennis without a net.’ Do you agree?
A: I was talking to a graduate student the other day about structure. She wanted to know if I was always worried about structure. I told her to just start writing, don’t worry about rhyme, write in free verse and give the message that you’re trying to convey. Then revisit it if you’re worried about structure. I don’t worry about it too much, but who am I to take on Robert Frost?