Twenty years after leaving Baltimore, writer and poet Sam Cornish still finds memories of his old hometown deeply etched on his mind.
"Everything I've written has been set in Baltimore," he says. "After living elsewhere I realize how lucky I am to have been born there."
He shares many of these recollections in a new book, "1935: A Memoir" (Ploughshares Books, $9.95 paperback), in which he uses prose and poetry to tell the story of growing up black in Baltimore.
Mr. Cornish, who now lives in Brighton, Mass., with his second wife, Florella, and teaches black studies and writing at Boston's Emerson College, says he was impelled to take a different tack from that of black writers such as Maya Angelou and Anne Moody. Their works seemed too one-dimensional, he says, stressing the downside of black experience while slighting the many positive values inherent in the black community.
"I wanted to show what it was like to live in a society where there were families and a structured community that once was segregated and that had a past," he says in a phone interview from Boston. "And I wanted to stress the values, which existed then and are still there."
At least one critic agrees. Alan Cheuse, critic for National Public Radio, calls the work "a powerful collage of portraits," noting, "Simple observations, simple details, they pile up atop one another to make an appealing sensuous moment from the past alive in the present."
Drawing on a wealth of childhood memories, Mr. Cornish creates a vivid picture of his life in the book. He was born 55 years ago, he writes, in a small apartment over a grocery on McCulloh Street. Illuminated by oil lamps, the house had neither gas nor electricity. Water was heated in a bucket on a wood-burning stove. The toilet froze in winter. This was Depression-era Baltimore.
But his humble life didn't keep him from books. Skinny and not very athletic, he would hole up at home reading, he says, devouring everything from contemporary authors, such as Faulkner, Steinbeck, Caldwell and Gertrude Stein, to classics, such as "Paradise Lost" and "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." He credits teachers and librarians for encouraging him in this.
"I grew up with the sense that literature is a necessary and important part of your life," he says today.
In his early 20s, Mr. Cornish served a two-year stint in the Army and found a much different world than he knew.
"You found yourself in interracial society, talking to people you might not talk to otherwise," he says. "I remember one guy who 'knew' everything. He'd say, 'What are we going to talk about today?' To meet the challenge I'd go to the library and get five or six books and read them all. By doing that I acquired a great deal of information and fantastic reading habits." It was at this time he started writing poetry.
Back in Baltimore he knocked around for awhile, doing odd jobs and trying to figure out what to do with his life. He was drawn to the civil rights movement, which was starting to rumble, and took part in the 1963 March on Washington. That experience inspired him to write a poem, which appeared soon after in a newsletter.
"I was really excited," he says of his first published work. "It gave me the chance to bear witness to an important moment of history."
In 1965 his first collection of verse, "In This Corner," was brought out in chapbook form by a small local press. Emboldened by this modest success, Mr. Cornish slipped a copy of the book under the door of the late Elliot Coleman, founder and for 30 years director of the Writing Seminar at the Johns Hopkins University. Coleman wrote back inviting him to sit in on his classes, and the two became friends.
"Coleman had a lot to do with my wanting to go to college and to write and to be a poet," says Mr. Cornish. "I admired his standard of behavior. He was important to me as a man and as a role model."
He also spent long hours in the literature room of the Enoch Pratt's Central Branch and became well-known to such figures as Richard H. Hart, then head of the library's literature and language division.
Mr. Hart, now retired, remembers Mr. Cornish as showing definite promise. "He hadn't had the advantages that would enable him to develop early and he didn't have the literary sophistication, but he did have talent," he says. "And he was much concerned with the cause of black people."
At the time, Mr. Cornish could often be found giving talks and reading poetry in schools and neighborhood centers. He also started Chicory, an anthology of poetry by young writers in the black ghetto. Consisting of stapled mimeographed sheets, the review came out monthly and was widely distributed. A New York publisher subsequently brought out a hardcover edition of some of the pieces.