Reflecting With St. Louis Poet Shirley LeFlore
With a dynamic poetry career spanning more than 50 years, Shirley LeFlore’s artistry has remained rooted in collaborative, community-focused initiatives, while traversing a number of different cultural and political eras. LeFlore has spent time with literary giants like James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker, and has been an influential force behind poetry powerhouse Dr. Michael Castro, St. Louis City’s very first poet laureate. Her book, “Brassbones & Rainbows: The Collected Works of Shirley Bradley LeFlore,” published in 2013, includes a foreword by Amiri Baraka’s widow, Amina Baraka.
LeFlore’s notable trailblazing work in St. Louis includes being a founding member of the Black Artists’ Group, created in 1968, and establishing the Creative Arts and Expressions Lab in 1981. Across her storied career, LeFlore’s trademark collaborative performances—often including dancers or jazz musicians in her spoken-word pieces—were known for being particularly memorable. Her decades of artistic innovation and community-driven work make this years’ Visionary Awards Outstanding Artist recipient one the city’s living legends.
What was your first reaction to finding out that you were a 2017 Visionary Awards recipient?
Well, I was very proud that I had been selected, especially when I found out more about the organization.
A lot of people don’t realize you’re a living legend, having been one of the original members of the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), founded in 1968. Can you tell us a little more about BAG?
A lot of people don’t know a lot about the Black Artists’ Group, but it was actually founded by the jazz musicians. My husband, Floyd LeFlore, was one. Oliver Lake. Malinké Elliot—he was one of the actors. And Julius Hemphill—he was also a musician. They had been playing their own free music for a long time, but the one place where they could develop their own sound and create their own music was BAG. So they came up with the idea of the Black Artists’ Group, and it built from there.
It started out at a place in Gaslight Square, and then we moved downtown to 2600 Washington. That was our main building. That’s when the poets and writers and actors—everybody joined. If you weren’t one of the musicians, you were either their wives or something like that. So, it became more of a family kind of thing. We had our children’s birthdays there and stuff like that. But it was open to the public for Black artists, and it was also set up to teach people in the community. Some of the youngsters came around from the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex and places like that. And we went into those neighborhoods and did performances.
Most of us lived, at that time, in Laclede Towers. And pretty much most of us moved there. And even a couple of musicians that came into St. Louis eventually moved there. Then we had visual artists—Emilio Cruz, he was our major visual artist. He came in from New York and lived there during that time, along with a couple other people. So, it became a family of artists, but open to the community. We’re all still close. It was really a place to encourage the arts.
What was it like to be a Black artist in St. Louis during the Black Arts Movement?
People thought we were weird, people thought we dressed funny. We all wore Afros at the time and a lot of the women in St. Louis didn’t. That was one of the things—we decided to go natural, all of us. That was a big difference; it was like a novelty.
What was the Black artist community like in St. Louis back then? How much has it changed over the course of your 50-plus-year career?
There’s been some change, but I still have a desire for more people in St. Louis to embrace the arts a lot more—not just because it’s cool to do it. There was a time when people thought you were kind of weird for doing these things—which were things that Black people did all the time. Now, I’ve met a lot of the younger artists, especially the writing artists. They come to visit me or sit with me and talk about things. I always try to make myself available to them. Seems like there’s a lot more activity now around it. But it’s hard to say. I find the younger people are very impressive. There’s a lot of young poets that come out now; we didn’t have many young poets back then. And I also worked with a lot of different people: musicians, actors, dancers. I’d like to see that more.
You also started the Creative Arts and Expressions Lab in 1981. Can you tell us more about that organization? What kind of work went on there?
It was a program that I received funding to do in with kids from the city. I was able to mix it up and bring in a lot of kids from different areas in the city. After that summer, I decided to open the building. We’d have music concerts on the weekend from different music groups. I developed a women’s artist group of both Black and white women, and we wrote our own material and performed it. Every weekend there was either a performance from us or the musicians. Groups that came to town, or were traveling through St. Louis, would stop over at the Creative Arts and Expressions Lab and perform. We were all in contact with all the other artists around. That was a real good time.
You also have experience playwriting. Your play, “Rivers of Women,” was performed at the Missouri History Museum in 2013. Can you tell us more about your inspiration for the play and what roles history and lineage play in your art/work?
I had written a lot of poems that focused on women, and I would act them out sometimes as a solo artist. After I put it together, I just started seeing a lot of things that could go in there. I was interested in writing for stage—I worked with some dancers in New York and they’d come in as part of it. The musicians, they would have a part in it, too, even if it was just background singing or whatever. The outlet was there and I used it. And I was grateful I was able to do that.
History and lineage have always been important to me because I’ve known so many great women—not necessarily by name. Like the women who came to my mother’s beauty shop, the women who came to work for my mother, or women I just met. I would just extrapolate their lives. Or sometimes I’d be sitting in a place and just start writing. I’d maybe catch somebody with a certain kind of hat on or something, and I would find that inspiring. Ever since I was young, I always made up stories about these women—who they were, where they were going, where they’d been, where they dreamed of going. So, after looking over my work I just decided, “I’m going to put this together.” And that’s what I did. It certainly helped me to have the musicians to work with. I’ve been very fortunate.
Do you see music as a major part of your poetry and performance?
I think it is. Because when I’m writing, it’s like music—but it’s like dance, too. These images just come alive, and I dress them up and turn them out. That’s the impression I get from women doing certain things. You can develop a texture. With women, you can pull them apart and snap them back together some kind of way. And that’s kind of how I perceived a lot of the writing I’ve done about women. So, I took all the trappings of women, and that’s what I did.
What’s your vision for the future of poetry in St. Louis?
I think any artist coming from St. Louis has a lot to offer the world when they go other places—I did learn that. A lot of stuff we were doing here, some people weren’t even doing in New York at that time.
The future of it? I’m watching some of the younger poets come out now. Some of them think they’re real hot right now, and sometimes I want to tell them “just keep living!” But I see it like I see the future for most people here: I hope that it’s constantly evolving. That’s one of my hopes and dreams, is that the art continues to evolve here in St. Louis. I think it has something to do with people also being able to leave here, meet some other people. You can get stifled just in one place. But my hope, I’ll say, for poetry in this area—as well as other musicians and other artists—is that it will evolve and spread. I still think there’s a rich history of art in this town.
The Visionary Awards celebrates the contributions, specifically, of women in St. Louis. Who are the women that inspire your work?
My grandmother used to write poetry, and I loved her poetry—I loved her voice. Also, I met people like Margaret Walker. I didn’t realize how much we had in common until after she met me. Miss Margaret came from Mississippi. Margaret had that folksy-ism, that sophistication and directness. She’ll tell you how she feels, whether you want her to or not. Gwendolyn Brooks had it—but Margaret more than Miss Gwendolyn because Margaret was from the South. Many people have influenced me, from my children to my mother and my grandmother, to the ladies around the corner, down the street and at the church. The ladies who hung out at night—that always fascinated me. The way they moved, the way they talked. And some of that had to do with the hardness of their life.
What’s next for you? What are you working on or thinking about these days?
What it means to be a woman in her mid-70’s. I just keep living, because every day something new unfolds. I’m a very free spirit, so that allows me to create and recreate. I don’t want to stop creating before I leave here. I see myself making a stronger impact on other people’s lives.