Calvin Forbes

(b. 1945)

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(b.1945), poet, lecturer, and educator.

Calvin Forbes was born the seventh of eight children in Newark, New Jersey, to Jacob and Mary Short Forbes. He was the first of the six boys in his family to graduate from high school, and he attended Rutgers University briefly before entering the New School for Social Research in New York City. There Forbes studied with poet José García Villa, who taught him the fundamentals of writing.

Forbes continued to educate himself through travel, and he was on the move frequently throughout the 1960s. He traveled widely in Europe and hitchhiked from coast to coast in America with only a suitcase, a sleeping bag, and a portable typewriter as his baggage. Forbes also lived in Hawaii for a short time; his stay there was instrumental to his writing the poems for his first volume, Blue Monday (1974). Observing Hawaii's Asian American culture, Forbes began to think of his own African American heritage as a culture that belonged to him, and as an element that belonged in his writing.

Not surprisingly, then, many poems in Blue Monday are autobiographical in their nature. “The Middle Life”, for example, reflects Forbes's background in the church, and “For My Mother” tells the story of his parents' courtship and their migration from Greenville, North Carolina, to the North. In addition to drawing on family stories and memories in his writing, Forbes also culls stories and phrases from African American oral tradition and frequently employs colloquial and idiomatic language in his poetry. Further, Forbes puts his love for blues music to work in Blue Monday, threading the mood and wry philosophy that underpin blues lyrics throughout his poems.

Critics have praised Forbes's first book for its metaphoric complexity, noting that he successfully employs synecdoche to make individual images represent the whole of the poem, like the poets John Donne and Gwendolyn Brooks—writers whose work he admires. Detractors, on the other hand, have argued that elements of blues singing work against Forbes when he tries to incorporate them into poetry: they suggest that blues music allows for a shifting of imagery and an emotional distance that sometimes weaken his work. The critics agree, however, that Blue Monday represents an innovative attempt to find an original poetic voice.

Forbes's second book, From the Book of Shine, was published in 1979 as a limited edition text (the book was also published in 1980 by Razorback Press in Wales as a limited edition). He creates a number of poems based on an African American folk character named Shine about whom he heard stories as a young boy; Forbes expands on the folk story by giving Shine a female counterpart, Glow, and poems like “Blind Date with a Voice” and “A Post Card from Colorado” plot the development of their relationship. Here Forbes's work shows the influence of writers such as Sterling A. Brown; like Brown, Forbes uses the African American folk hero to create poems filled with irony and subtle humor. However, in contrast with Brown's work, throughout the volume humor gives way to a strong sense of despair about living in a racist society.


Subjects: Literature.

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