He Borrows Dunbar's Voice

10.19.2005 | Culture and SocietyWhen Herbert Woodward Martin was growing up in Birmingham, Ala., his classmates taunted him when he read aloud Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry.

The youth bore an uncanny resemblance to Dunbar, a Dayton native and the first black to achieve national eminence as a poet. Because the schoolchildren had to memorize Dunbar's works, "they took out their dislike for poetry on me," remembers Martin. "Either I've repressed that or gotten over it."

Now himself an acclaimed poet, Martin hears only applause when he reads Dunbar's work today. Well, "reads" is not exactly the right word. Dressed in a turn-of-the-century morning coat and striped trousers, Martin "borrows" Dunbar's voice to bring the poet's verse to life. At times, he exhibits the spiritual frenzy of a black preacher in a folk sermon. In other moments, he delivers Dunbar's humorous refrains with the rat-a-tat speed and perfect timing of a successful late-night TV comedian.

Martin, a sought-after performer who's taken his one-man show around the nation, will perform close to home in an 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, production, "An Evening with Paul Laurence Dunbar," in the Kennedy Union Boll Theatre at the University of Dayton.

It's part of the University of Dayton's Arts Series and Celebrate Dunbar!, a series of public events being held during the next year to honor the life and works of Dunbar 100 years after his death. On campus, UD arts groups are offering a number of events under the theme "Year of Diverse Voices" to commemorate Dunbar.

Tickets are $14 for the general public; $5 for students; and $8 for UD faculty, staff and alumni. To order tickets, call (937) 229-2545 or click here [http://artsseries.udayton.edu/].

Dunbar penned a large body of dialect and standard English poems, essays, novels and short stories before he died at the age of 33. Martin, professor emeritus of English and poet-in-residence at the University of Dayton, has studied and performed Dunbar's work for a large portion of his professional life.

"I was drawn to Dunbar's work because of the music in his poems, along with the cleverness and humor that come together in a unique and interesting way," said Martin, who selected the poetry and wrote the introduction to Selected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, published by Penguin Classics in 2004.

In 2002, Martin and Ronald Primeau, an English professor at Central Michigan University, co-edited In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a 305-page volume of Dunbar's previously unpublished and uncollected short stories, essays, poems and dramas.

Martin's own published works include poetry, drama, opera libretti and literary criticism. His writings have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. His published collections of poetry include Galileo's Suns, The Forms of Silence and The Log of the Vigilante, a journal of slave captivity. Last year, Ronald Primeau chronicled Martin's writing and performing career in the book, Herbert Woodward Martin and the African American Tradition in Poetry. In 2006, Kent State University Press will publish a collection of Martin's poems called Inscribing My Name: The Selected Poems of Herbert Woodward Martin.

With renewed attention drawn to Dunbar during 2006, Martin expects a full slate of performance engagements around Ohio and the country sandwiched around a senior seminar, "The Legacy of Paul Laurence Dunbar," he will teach during winter semester at UD.

Martin, who just turned 72, hints at retiring the traveling one-man Dunbar show and replacing it with a performance of another celebrated black poet and writer, Langston Hughes.

"2006 seems the right year for a kind of farewell. It would be a nice marking point," said Martin, noting that he's been performing Dunbar's poems for 33 years - the age of Dunbar when he died. "I started the show in 1972, the centennial of Dunbar's birth."

Besides the UD show, Martin is slated for at least one other local performance. He will present "Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Eyes of the Poet" at 1 p.m. on March 25 at the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center in a free performance sponsored by the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. Martin will also emcee poet Nikki Giovanni's appearance at the Victoria Theatre at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17.

For more on Celebrate Dunbar! events, click here. The site also links to a number of Dunbar poems recorded by Martin. To hear them, click here.

Contact Herbert Martin at (937) 229-3439. For assistance in scheduling an interview, contact Teri Rizvi or Kristen Wicker at (937) 229-3241.