The Powerful Coe

1 Oct

Catching up with Charles Coe, an enduring voice where streetscape changes but race issues linger

By Tom Meek
Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Poet Charles Coe is the subject a film screening Wednesday as part of the 22nd Roxbury Film Festival’s opening night lineup. (Photo: Gordon Webster)

As noted in Sunday’s Film Ahead column, the 22nd Roxbury Film Festival kicks off virtually Wednesday, with “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show” by Yoruba Richen, about Johnny Carson stepping aside to let Belafonte host in the wake of race riots in the late ’60s, and the short “Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business” by Christine Turner.

What’s Cambridge-centric about the opening night lineup is the inclusion of another short: Roberto Mighty’s “Charles Coe: Man of Letters,” about the longtime Cambridge resident, poet and musician. If you’ve ever been to a Cambridge or Boston area poetry reading you’ve probably heard Coe deliver one of his truths in his signature baritone voice. Or you may have seen his recent photographic exhibit at the Boston Public Library, “What You Don’t Know about Me” (2018), or as part of Rashin Fahandej’s “A Father’s Lullaby” exhibit at the ICA last year.

Though Coe did not write poetry seriously until the 1990s and published his first collection, “Picnic on the Moon,” in 1999, to date he’s published three collections of poems, been a Boston artist in residence and earned an honorary doctorate – not bad for a guy who never got a bachelor’s degree.

“You know, I swear I was just buying notebooks and pencils with my mom for school,” Coe says, “and the I blinked and I’m turning 68.”

Coe, born in Indianapolis, dropped out of college and played bass in a rock cover band (Motown and Top 40) in Nashville, Tennessee, before making his way to Boston in the mid 1970s.


The trailer for Roberto Mighty’s “Charles Coe: Man of Letters”:Video Player00:0001:35


Before a nearly 20-year career at the Mass Cultural Council, Coe worked as a musician around the city and in the food industry. “I worked at a place called The Hungry Persian on Brattle Street,” Coe said.

It and every other eatery he named are no more. Being in the Hub for so long, Coe has seen a lot come and go.

And remain the same.

As a black man he’s experienced his fair share of infamous Boston racism, as captured in his poem “For the Ancient Boston Bar with Neon Shamrocks in the Windows, Recently Departed,” about an Irish bar where he was not welcomed. Coe said he was experiencing “great grief and dismay” anew over what is happening across the country. “Didn’t we fight those battles?” he asks incredulously. To Coe racism is like tuberculosis: “You think it’s contained and controlled, but you just need the right conditions for it to flare up. And that creature in the Oval Office is doing everything he can to set it off.”

With a degree of lament, Coe adds, “every generation is going to have to fight these battles.”

Coe keeps busy teaching poetry at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, watching the Patriots (he describes football “as a game of chess with rhinoceroses”) and playing the didgeridoo in his Huron Village flat. Next up for Coe isn’t another collection of poems, but a memoir focused on his sister Carol, who died of liver cancer five years ago. Coe says he’s “coming up against what I tell my students about: You cannot always be the hero of the story. You are a character, not an observer, and you must be honest about that character’s actions and motivations.”

Below is another poem by Coe from his second collection “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” that called to me when I heard at the last Cambridge Arts River Festival.

A Conversation with My Younger Self

Congratulations to you, newly hatched grownup,
first solo apartment, boxes scattered about like soldiers
exhausted after a long march, King Kong poster taped to the wall,
a little crooked, now guarding the kitchen.
The friends who helped you move are long gone,
empty beer bottles and pizza boxes all that remain.
Of course, hooking up the stereo was your first priority
and now Jimi Hendrix roars through these little rooms
like a low-flying fighter jet.
I peer at you through time’s gauze curtain and realize
how much I want to say. I want to tell you to go outside
and look at the stars, because sometimes it’s good to feel small.
I want to tell you a woman’s love is a precious thing,
not just a Saturday night’s entertainment.
I want to tell you to turn down the stereo and call your mother.
I want to tell you all this and so much more,
but you can’t hear a word I say, because this isn’t
a conversation; it’s the world’s oldest bad joke,
and I’m the punch line, this white-haired ghost brimming
with after-the-fact wisdom, on a boat pulling away from shore,
sliding through dark water to some destination unknown, hopping up and down
on one leg to get your attention, waving my arms and shouting,
as if what I’m saying might actually make a difference.
And maybe you glance up for a moment
puzzled by some disturbance in the air
as you eat one last slice of cold pizza
off some dead grandmother’s thrift shop dinner plate.

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