The Nashville native and Harvard grad worked as a court reporter in Alabama during the civil rights era, and later spent a long stretch of his career with the British Tourist Authority in New York before returning to Alabama in the ’80s. After years of being firmly settled back in Birmingham, Glaze has been named poet laureate for the state. Prior to assuming his four-year term (which began Tuesday), he spoke with The Star about his renewed appreciation for the South, his memories of rubbing elbows with old Harvard pal — and national poet laureate — Robert Frost, and what’s needed to bring poetry back into fashion.
Q: There have only been 10 poet laureates in the state’s history. How does it feel to be number 11?
A: Well, it feels very nice. By an odd coincidence my first wife’s father [William Young Elliot] was also a poet laureate. It’s a great honor. I don’t always admire all the poetry I read, but I do the best I can.
Q: In this role, what is expected of you?
A: I wish I knew. They gave me a watch and a placard, and so far that’s about it. I hope somebody at some point will ask me to read a few poems. Nobody likes poetry. You just have to get used to that.
Q: Why do you say that?
A: Because, except for reading it in class, most people really aren’t interested in what it’s all about. Poetry is a wonderful discipline, but it’s very, very low on the totem pole in this era.
Q: Why do you feel people don’t want to take the time to study what poetry really means?
A: Well, they don’t understand it. I think it depends largely on how people have been raised, how they’ve been schooled. People don’t understand what goes on.
Q: You maintained a relationship with former U.S. poet laureate Robert Frost while you were a student at Harvard — what do you remember most from that era?
A: My English teacher was a man named Ted Morrison. I lived in Liverett House, and Liverett House had a dinner every month for all the people who used to be there and those who were pupils who went to Liverett. Morrison kept sitting me next to Robert Frost.
Other than being a poet, Frost was a very ordinary man. The kinds of things he liked and the kinds of things he did are the sort of things that almost anybody would be involved with if they were in a situation like that. He just happened to write great poetry, which is hard to come by.
That, incidentally, is one of the problems about poetry. So many people don’t understand it, don’t know why it exists. Real poetry is music. It’s music set to a tune, but most people don’t understand what it is or what it’s there for.
Q: When you begin to write, what inspires you?
A: Basically, language. I think in terms of words. And I do that coming or going. That’s the way my mind works. When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time writing prose poems, but I don’t enjoy that as much now as I used to.
Q: Before choosing to settle back in Alabama, you left for several years to live in New York, and later Florida. What spurred your decision?
A: I left Alabama because I couldn’t stand the racial situation. This was back quite a few years ago, when it was much worse than it is now. There were aspects of life in Alabama that I didn’t enjoy. When my wife and I were thinking about leaving Miami, which is where she was from, the more we talked about various people and various places, the more I realized that Birmingham — it’s in such a central place — that it was a good place to live, and I had relatives here.
I’ve never regretted it because I think Birmingham has gotten to be a beautiful city, and Alabama has grown to be a good place to live.
Q: Before being a poet, you were a reporter at the fabled Birmingham Post-Herald. You started as a courthouse reporter during the dawn of the civil rights movement — what was that was the experience like?
A: The Post-Herald was the liberal paper. The news was always very conservative. The Post-Herald was fighting for its life because already newspapers were having a rough time of it, and that’s continued. I spent a year going to the courthouse every afternoon, after a morning of going around and writing stories about whatever might be happening in the courthouse. As you know the Birmingham court house also contains the sheriff and the law people.
I was there in the courthouse as its reporter for two years and then a racial incident happened, and my city editor felt that I wasn’t safe. So they took me off that beat and put me on another one.
Q: With all of the work that you have done and things you have been able to accomplish, what do you want your legacy to be?
A: Well, I’ve written three novels, 11 plays, and nine books of poetry. If I’m to be remembered at all, I guess those are going to have to do the job. But basically, I just enjoy life.
I’m one of the few people who’s still alive who went across the Atlantic on the Q-E II during WWII. That’s one of my accomplishments, with 15,000 soldiers who were from Brooklyn — and here I was, a little Alabama boy.
One of my teachers [told me] that I had a real gift. I had never thought about having a gift or of being a poet. I was somebody who wrote poems, that was all. And I still tend to think that way. I don’t think highly of most of what is written as poetry these days. I’ve gotten several letters from people who say that they’re glad after all these years that I’ve finally made it to the poet laureate.
Q: What are the markings of a good poem?
A: If it’s well constructed. If it says something, and it also says it in ways which make your hair stand on end a little bit. A poem is a little bit like a religion — it is a way of celebrating things. There’s so much bad poetry that it’s hard sometimes to weed it out and make sure that it gets noticed. I was reading today a review of a book by Emily Dickinson. I had never realized that the things which make Emily so well known are derived from the fact that she was an epileptic. It all had to do with her way of looking at these things in a surprising way. Her brain was a little bit askew. She’s my favorite poet.
Q: Why is she your favorite?
A: Because she says so much in so few lines. You have to learn how to say a lot in a small space. But of course some of the greatest poets … they tell stories, but that has not been the way it’s mostly happened in this country.
Q: Do you have any special plans that you want to accomplish during your tenure a as poet laureate?
A: I hope that at some point I’ll get some readings. I enjoy reading — it’s something I do well, and to have something on paper is very useful at my age. I still take yoga and try to keep in good shape, because I’ve been athletic all my life.
Q: Are those your secrets to a long life?
A: It’s certainly a help. I come from a long-life family, so if I keep my fingers crossed, maybe everything will come out alright. But I’ve gotta finish this novel I’m working on. It’s a mystery novel, but I can’t help a few poetic-type sayings wandering into the culpas.