Sam Cornish, former poet laureate of Boston and a faculty member at Emerson College for more than two decades, died Monday, August 20, at the age of 82.
“A lived life of talent and conviction; a legacy to learn from,” Emerson Professor Emeritus DeWitt Henry wrote of Cornish on Facebook and shared with Emerson Today.
Cornish taught literature and creative writing at Emerson from 1982 to 2004, developing courses on the Beat Generation, Literature of the American West, the Harlem Renaissance, Gay Literature, and Literature of War in the 20th Century, according to his website. He was poet laureate for nearly seven years, beginning in 2008.
In a Boston Globe obituary, Cornish’s wife, Florella Orowan, said he was proud of his outreach to talented would-be writers as part of his poet laureate duties, as well as his time at Emerson College.
“It excited him to find new talent,” Orowan told the Globe. “That’s why he loved teaching so much. That’s when he was happiest.”
Henry said at Emerson, Cornish championed the “edgy” (Cornish’s words) and pioneered African-American studies at the College. He had a loyal following of students each year, Henry said.
For three years, Henry, founding editor of Ploughshares literary journal, and Cornish would visit town libraries across Massachusetts to promote local literary magazines and small presses. The two shared students, and both were hired by professor James Randall, who was the subject of Cornish’s poem, “Learning with Whiskey” (printed below).
“We argued about literary heroes and celebrated writers,” Henry wrote of his friend and colleague. “Ploughshares Books published Sam’s memoir , which I taught as a model. Sam believed in Ploughshares and its model of collaboration, and when the going was toughest, left me phone messages of encouragement.”
In addition to his 1990 memoir, which Cornish described on his webpage as “an imaginary account in prose and poetry of the Cornish family in American history,” he published a number of poetry collections, including Dead Beats (2011), An Apron Full of Beans: New and Selected Poems (2008), Songs of Jubilee: New and Selected Poems 1969-1983 (1986), and Generations (1971). He wrote two children’s books, co-edited two anthologies, and had work published in a number of anthologies, including The Poetry of Black America (1973) and American Literary Anthology (1970).
He won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and the Somerville Arts/Ibbetson Press Lifetime Achievement Award, according to the Poetry Foundation.
“Learning with Whiskey”
drinking with Jim
without getting drunk
holding on to each word
this is a classroom
with beer chasers
open your head
like a book
you have never read
listen to him
his school is straight up
in the afternoon
kept the bar stools warm
for us listen
I am here to read Creeley LeRoi
what it is
Bowles and Burroughs
to be white
the importance of a red
drinking with Him
school begins at three
two hours before happy