With his hair flying and his dressing gown open, Leonard Bernstein bear-hugs poet June Jordan.
"J.J.," he says, "I hope you didn't mind my treatment of your poem."
It is backstage at the Kennedy Center after Tuesday night's premiere performance of Berstein's "Songfest." Bernstein is alternately meeting Jordan for the first time, enthusing about his arrangement of her "Okay, Negroes," against Langston Hughes' "I, Too, America," in somewhat confusing counter point and explaining his concept to the poet.
"I just loved it when those two poems knit," he says.
"For you . . ." Jordan says demurely, the first and only shot she is going to get in at the maestro. "I'd like to hear it again."
Misinterpreting her statement, Bernstein calls to one of his aides, "We can get her tickets, can't we? To tomorrow night's performances? The President's coming to that one. I think he and the rest of the world are watching the baseball game tonight."
There is laughter among the other people crammed into the small dressing room. "You're coming to the party, aren't you?" asks Bernstein, Jordan barely manages an "Ahh," before Bernstein terminates the audience. "We can talk more then."
Jordan and a friend and fellow peot, E. Ethelbert Miller, are eased from the dressing room and left to stand outside.
For though Jordan is the only one of the 13 poets whose works are featured to "Songfest" to attend the performance (10 are dead, and the other two, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corse, couldn't be located by Bernstein's staff), she is on the brink of fame, not famous enough to command a lot of attention. She is a minor note to the evening.
Later at the George Town Club, where the post-performance party is being held, a valet has to be prompted to park the somewhat battered '73 Fiat that Jordan has arrived in. And at the door, there is the slighest hesitation, a momentary hiatus as to what to do with the unknown, not yet famous blacks.
Once inside and settled with two friends, Jordan is approached by one of the party about whether she would like to meet "Mrs. Warner."
"Mrs. Warner?" says Jordan.
"Formerly Elizabeth Taylor," the man informs her.
"Sure, why not," says Jordan, starting to get up from her seat. "Shall I come with you, or should I stay here?"
The man tells her to remain seated, but is back almost instantly to tell her to come to meet Taylor. "She's limping," he explains, as Jordan climbs out of a booth and makes her way around tables and people to Taylor.
It's all part of the education of Jordan as she enters the ranks of the recognizably successful. With eight books of poetry and one novel published Jordan has already received the Prix de Rome and a Rockefeller Creative Writing Award. Her latest book of poems. "Things That: I Do in the Dark," was touted in The New York Times Book Review.
The only daughter of Jamaican parents, the 41-year-old Jordan recalls the next day the various schisms in her life.
"As a kid growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I lead a split life. On the one hand my father would have me reading 'Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm' and the 'Autobiography of Ben-JAMIN Franklin," but on the other hand I was a member of a girl gang. It was the heyday of the big gans, and the only way to survive was to belong to one. The dominant action of school was violence. You knew you had to fight every day. I hated it, but I fought every day. As a member of the Royal Bops, I finctioned very much as a thug."
Because she was a precocious child, her parents sent her out of the neighborhood to a predominantly white junior high school.
The trip to the school involve walking through a poor Irish neighborhood where she was alled names and insulted on the streets. Her mother suggested that they pray for those people. So Jordan prayed, but she also made a zip gun that could send zinging volleys of rubber bands at the culprits.
"Between the zip gun and the prayers, those people really calmed down," Jordan says dryly.
After high school Jordan's parents sent her to Barnard College, but every evening she came back to Bed-Stuy and a life where all the book learning she did during the day had little relevance.
"My parents felt that you not only had to be certified as 'okay' but as really swell, so that's why they sent me to Barnard."
During her sophomore year, Jordan was visiting her fiance at Columbia University when she met Michael Meyer the man she would eventually marry.
"It was very cold and as we walked across campus, we saw this man with an anti-McCarthy petition standing very quiet. He must have been freezing, so we signed the petition and I told him 'Hey, you look like you're freezing to death. We'll bring you a cup of coffee when we come back'"
Later Jordan met him at a campus NAACP meeting and the romance took off. Jordan says that through stand that what she was learning in Meyer, the son of German refugees from World War II, she was learning in college had some correlation to what was happening in her own neighborhood.
The couple married in 1955 and Jordan recalls that, "Our marriage was a felony in 22 states.
"We had an old Dodge and we used to go from New York to Illinois where Michael's father taught at the University of Chicago. Through Indiana and Ohio, things got pretty bizarre. Whenever we drove into a Howard Johnson restaurant, I would slide down under the seat while Michael went in. Then I'd go in to use the restrooms on get something to eat, but in some way that people wouldn't know we were together."
The irony of such situations in America is reflected in Jordan's poem "Okay, 'Negroes.'"
"American (Negroes) . . . You think clean fingernails crossed legs a smile/ shined shoes/ acrucifix around your neck/ good manners/ no more noise/ you think who's gonna give you something? Come a littel closer./ Where you from?"
Jordan's interest in college diminished. Though her parents felt that college was a necessary mark of approval and accreditation. Jordan decided that she wanted to make a go of "myself, by myself, so that when people see me, they're not seeing some insitution's stamp. Sometimes I've regretted it, but not on the whole." She quit Barnard.
By this time Jordan had a son, and spent most of her time as a wife and mother, leaving poetry for the evening. And though she had written poems since she was in grade school, her first break came in 1969 with a long poem titled "Who'll Look at Me," a scenario of black perspectives that was conceptualized by Hughes before he died.
That same year, she won a Rockefeller Grant in Creative Writing and wrote "His Own Where." In 1970, she won a Prix de Rome for a book she co-authored with Buckminster Fuller on the architectural redesign of Harlem.
Divorced and with a son at Harvard, Jordan now teaches at Stoneybrook, L.L. and is finishing a second novel based on land reform in Mississippi. Where once, Jordan recalls, her income was around $5,500 a year, with her poem's inclusion in "Songfest" and poets, shoptalk that Jordan may be in range of a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize, she's apt to be a minor note no longer.