Jun. 17, 2003

The Fortune Cookie Man

by Ron Padgett

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Poem: "The Fortune Cookie Man," by Ron Padgett from New and Selected Poems (David R. Godine, Publisher).

The Fortune Cookie Man

Working for ten years now at the fortune cookie factory and I'm still not allowed to write
any of the fortunes. I couldn't do any worse than they do, what with their You Will Find
Success in the Entertainment Field mentality. I would like to tell someone that they will
find a gorilla in their closet, brooding darkly over the shoes. And that that gorilla will
roll his glassy, animal eyes as if to cry out to the heavens that are burning in bright
orange and red and through which violent clouds are rolling, and open his beast's mouth
and issue a whimper that will fall on the shoes like a buffing rag hot with friction. But
they say no. So if you don't find success in the entertainment field, don't blame me.
I just work here.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Ron Padgett, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1942). He's the author of collections of poetry such as Triangles in the Afternoon, (1979), How to Be a Woodpecker (1983), and You Never Know (2002)

It's the birthday of poet James Weldon Johnson, born in Jacksonville, Florida (1871). Over the course of his life he was a teacher, school principal, journalist, lawyer, songwriter, diplomat, novelist, poet, civil rights crusader, anthologist, and professor. There was no high school in Jacksonville for black students when Johnson was growing up, so his parents sent him to Atlanta University to finish his secondary education. He returned to Jacksonville to work as a teacher, and eventually built a high school there. At the same time, he was studying law and in 1898, he became the first African American since Reconstruction to be admitted to the Florida bar. In 1901, Johnson went to New York with his brother to write songs and perform in a ragtime song and dance act. He wrote more than 200 songs, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing" which has been called the Negro National Anthem. He also got involved in politics and worked for the Teddy Roosevelt Administration, as an American consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 1912, Johnson published a novel called The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). It was about a light-skinned black man who passes for white. Johnson worked for the NAACP. He lobbied for the anti-lynching bill that was killed by a filibuster in the Senate, and he investigated war crimes that had been committed by the United States in Haiti. Between his travels and bureaucratic work and speech writing, he managed to compile anthologies such as The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which was the first collection of poetry by African Americans ever made. He also edited the The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925). Many critics consider his masterpiece God's Trombones (1927) in which he wrote seven poems based on sermons. He had always loved the way black preachers talked, and he wanted to use that style in his poetry. In one of his poem-sermons, Johnson wrote,

"And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
"I'm lonely-
I'll make me a world."

It's the birthday of novelist and journalist John Hersey, born in Tianjin, (TYAHN-jin), China (1914). His parents were missionaries in China and Hersey learned to speak Chinese before he learned English. After college Hersey became a war correspondent to China and Japan, and he covered World War II for Time and Life magazines. He became known for describing real people as though they were characters in a novel. In 1945, Hersey began to do research for a book about postwar Japan. He found a document written by a Jesuit missionary who had survived the atom bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima. Hersey found the priest, who was recovering from radiation sickness, and the priest introduced him to many more survivors. Hersey chose six survivors from the many he talked to, and told their stories as simply and factually as he could in a book called Hiroshima (1946). Hiroshima was incredibly popular. Albert Einstein ordered 1000 copies and distributed them personally to everyone he knew. When Newspapers serialized it, Hersey donated all the proceeds to the American Red Cross.

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