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How a Thought Became a Poem and Book

September 29, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer and

When poet-playwright Richard D. Gordon was asked by students at Valley High School in Santa Ana to do a poem on Martin Luther King Jr. as part of a black history program three years ago, he sat down and wrote a poem he had been thinking about for some time.

The result is "Martin on the Mountaintop," a stirring poetic tribute to the slain civil-rights leader. The poem was inspired by King's famous speech, made the day before he was assassinated in 1968, that he had abandoned fear because he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the promised land.

"It went over very well," recalled Gordon, 51. "Afterward, a student came up to me and said, in passing, 'As you read that, I could visualize what you were saying, and it should be a book.' "

That comment was the seed for the illustrated book version of "Martin on the Mountaintop" (Cmark Press; $14.95), which Gordon, the 1984 recipient of the Lorraine Hansberry Award for best original play on the black experience in America, self-published a year ago.

Since writing the poem, Gordon, a Lake Elsinore resident with strong ties to Orange County, has read it at schools and churches throughout Orange and Riverside counties. (Gordon, a Cal State Fullerton theater arts graduate, has sold about half of the 3,000 printed copies of the slim volume, mostly at his readings.)

Orange County residents will have a chance to hear Gordon read "Martin on the Mountaintop" at 7 tonight during his one-man show, "I Reckon It'll Be Me!" at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, 931 N. Harbor Blvd.

The "evening of drama and poetry" will have a six-performance run (tonight, Saturday and Sunday, and Oct. 6, 7 and 8). Admission is $10, or $7 for senior citizens and students. For reservations, call (714) 674-4785.

In addition to reading his own works, Gordon will include readings from his favorite writers, including Shakespeare, Langstan Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson. In fact, Gordon says, the rhythms and imagery of Johnson's poetry inspired his writing style for "Martin on the Mountaintop."

As Gordon says in the preface, the poem was written in response to feelings about the human qualities of Martin Luther King Jr.: "I had wondered what emotions 'the man' Martin must have gone through when people he loved died in the cause. We know he valiantly struggled forward after every act of hate and violence; but I wondered if, in his quiet (or not so quiet) moments with God, he sometimes asked if the struggle was worth the lives of loved ones . . . especially those of innocent children."

The father of eight children asked his schoolteacher wife, Carol, who has a degree in art, to do the illustrations for the book. "My attitude was, 'There's no way I can draw,' " he said. But when he showed her his rough sketches of the kinds of drawings he wanted to accompany his words, she suggested that he do the illustrations himself.

"She knew she wouldn't be able to satisfy my enthusiasm," Gordon recalled with a laugh. "I have really learned something about myself in doing the illustrations for this book. As much as I love the poem, I'm more amazed at the illustrations. It was something I didn't know I had in me."

King is a personal hero to Gordon, a former Orange County probation officer, who is working on a new play.

"His philosophies are basically my philosophies," he said. "First off, I feel he knew how to love in spite of all the hatred around him, and that impresses me very much still. I think that's the only chance the world has. Personally, I'm really concerned about racism right now, some of the things that are happening, and I don't just mean black and white. . . . Gangs fighting each other--it's the same thing. . . . I get frustrated sometimes."

Gordon, a member of Johnson Chapel in Santa Ana, said a portion of the proceeds from his one-man show--and sales of his book during the show's run--will benefit the Johnson Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Scholarship Fund.

Book sale: Thousands of used books and library discards will be offered for sale at discount prices by the Friends of the Orange Public Library from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday in the book sale center just east of the Main Library, 101 N. Center St., Orange. Proceeds will fund library activities. For more information call the library at (714) 532-0391.

Banned books: Fahrenheit 451 Books will conclude its Banned Books Week with readings and commentaries on censorship and the presentation of the Golden Ostrich award, from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the bookstore, 509 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. The trophy will be presented "to a national organization which--by its head-in-the-sand attitude--has most flagrantly violated the right of freedom of expression by banning a particular book or books."

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