Alabama’s poet laureate, 92-year-old Andrew “Andy” Glaze, sits in his living room armchair, a walker soldiering beside him. His wife, the dancer and actress Adriana Keathley, smiles and sits down across the room. Glaze holds a poem.
“I want to read you something,” Glaze says, announcing the title to be “Mr. Frost.” Prompted by his wife, Glaze speaks up for the recorder and reads his poem about Robert Frost’s encounter with a man “out Jasper way.” Glaze grins at the final quote from Frost about the 107-year-old man. He looks up and confesses, “It still needs some work.”
Like Frost, Glaze attended Harvard. Although Frost, 46 years Glaze’s senior, left school after two years due to illness, Glaze says, “Each spring for seven or eight years, Frost came back to Harvard for a reading. When I was a student…my teacher [Theodore Morrison] often seated me next to Frost at the monthly banquets in the dining hall.”
That, Glaze says, is how Frost came to ask for him during the poet’s visit to Birmingham and how Glaze came to accompany Frost in visiting the centenarian “who lived in a piano box / on half an acre of ravine covered with pine slash” in Glaze’s poem.
More than half a century later, Governor Robert Bentley commissioned Glaze as Poet Laureate of Alabama on November 5, 2012 in the Old Archives Chamber of the Alabama State Capitol. Glaze replaces Sue Brannan Walker, poet and founding editor and publisher of Negative Capability Press.
This honorary office derives from an ancient tradition in which victors were recognized with a crown of laurel leaves. Alabama’s tradition, created by an act of the state legislature in 1931, stems directly from the tradition of the Poet Laureate of the United States. Whereas the librarian at the Library of Congress decides the latter, members of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave decide Alabama’s honorary position every four years.
Last September Irene Latham, poetry editor for The Birmingham Arts Journal and creator of the Alabama School of Fine Arts annual event “My Favorite Poem,” invited Glaze to read at the event. Glaze had recently broken a hip, but despite the precarious nature of ascending the steps to the stage, the poet persisted.
Glaze read “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats, the same poet Glaze chose for his thesis at Harvard. In the poem, the poet confronts his mortality and the triumph of art and the soul over the aging body.
Latham, also a poet and writer, says of Glaze, “He employs simple narrative to unravel bigger truths.”
Randall Williams, publisher at New South Books and editor of Remembering Thunder, says, “The thing remarkable about Andy’s poetry is that it not only has the style and structure of classic poetry, but it’s sort of Whitmanesque, an American landscape of real people and their real struggles.”
Glaze’s poem “Horace” supports Williams’s characterization in its direct reference to Walt Whitman: “…the poet’s job / was to hate the hatefulness— / like Walt….”
Glaze, when asked what poet influenced his work most, answers without hesitation, “William Butler Yeats.” The varied genres tackled by both Yeats and Glaze are analogous.
Born in Tennessee, Glaze grew up in Birmingham and attended local schools —Miss Stillwell’s, a private school for kindergarten and first grade near Five Points South. Although he began classes at Ramsey, his parents decided to send him to Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Glaze earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard and went on to serve as a communications officer in the Air Force in France and Wales.
Back home in Birmingham during the beginnings of the civil rights struggle of mid-century, Glaze worked as a court reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald. Material from that time produced what would become the title poem for I Am The Jefferson County Courthouse (1981).
His first major book of poetry, Damned Ugly Children (1966) was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Remembering Thunder (2002) was his ninth book of poetry. Glaze had by that time also written 11 plays, many produced in New York, and two novels. In 2005 Pudding House Publications published his Greatest Hits 1964-2004.
Glaze says he is only about 100 pages away from having a third novel finished.
Glaze and his first wife moved to New York in 1957. “For two reasons,” Glaze says. The Post-Herald feared reprisal because of articles he had written about the civil rights struggle. He had also testified against a sheriff’s deputy in the defense of two black men. “And my wife and I wanted to go to New York. She was an actress.”
Glaze married Adriana Keathley in 1962 and lived in Manhattan, rubbing shoulders with writers and dancers. Glaze rode his bicycle to and from work for the British Tourist Authority. He decided to write twin poems in the manner of Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, based on his ride east along 54th Street which would be called “Fantasy” and the ride back home west on 53rd “Reality.” The first was originally published in The New Yorker and the latter in Atlantic Monthly.
Of his success, Glaze has written that his father must have “set out to make me a genius.” He had insisted that Glaze take all kinds of lessons growing up. Glaze maintained such a tradition, taking ballet classes at the age 42.
“I was rehearsing in Camelot and fell and tore cartilage in my right knee,” Adriana says. “And so I had to have it, you know, operated on, and after, I was able to kind of think about going back to class. I did work out in our living room in New York — do a little barre, but that was such a bore, and he [Glaze] said, ‘Oh, well. I’ll join you.’ After a while I found a ballet teacher for him, and that’s when he started taking classes and he took them up until the time we moved here ten years ago.” Glaze was 83 by then.
Remembering her husband’s dancing days, Adriana points out the signed commission hanging with Bentley’s signature. Nearby hangs a portrait of a younger Adriana with shorter hair, already silvered. “Done by a former student,” she explains. Glaze stands, silent.
Two artists: the wistful writer and the effervescent dancer. Waiting to set sail on future journeys. Glaze, perhaps remembering the most familiar poem of Yeats: “I will arise now, and go to Innisfree … Nine bean rows will I have there…”
Never mind that Glaze turns 93 on April 21, the poet laureate still has a novel to finish, and who knows how many bean rows “still need work.”
Andrew Glaze will be reading at the 8th annual Alabama Book Fair on Saturday, April 20, 2013, Old Town, Montgomery.