Beginning May 31, 2018 Columbine Poets of Colorado will host the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. This is a big deal. Go to the Columbine Poets website and click on the 2018 NFSPS Convention. From Thursday through Sunday we will fill the Renaissance Hotel on Quebec. Denver will be deluged with people speaking iambic, wearing sensible shoes and carrying book bags and bags full of goodies. It will be a reign of rhymers, mess of metaphorists, symposium of sonneteers. Language nuts who care as much about line breaks as they do about bathroom breaks.
There will be workshops, poetry readings (lots of poetry readings), music and poetry pairings, and awards from around the whole USA. These scribblers are my people and they could be yours too. If four days of verse are too much for you, consider a one day adventure with these apostles of alliteration. It’s gonna be great.
You may know that a recurrent question about poetry floats in the air like cottonwood fluff: Can Poetry Matter? This year Denver says, yes. We will make it matter.
Torn, I stood in the bookstore with Thomas C. Foster’s new book, How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse. It wasn’t the price that slowed me down. It was that word professor, someone I don’t want to be if by this he means one who intellectualizes poetry. Fortunately, the subtitle is fairly accurate. Foster’s tone–flip and funny–saves the day. And my only complaint is that he starts at the pointy end of the process: things like scansion and rhyme, exactly where we often lose new readers. But he has fun with what he calls”Redeeming the Time” and “The Rhythm(s) of the Saints.” He acknowledges that few of us read for the chance to identify an iamb or a trochee.
In fact, his books is so much fun that I have taken on the self-assigned task of writing about his advice and his definitions. So far I have fourteen pages of response. In one of my favorite quotes as he attempts writes “… we’re not going to get anywhere if you insist on being rational” (29). (Harper Collins has blessedly given permission to use “brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.”) Rational? I don’t know how to help readers who cling to explicating the text as if a bit of imaginative language might cause psychosis. Literal reading at the expense of pleasure is a waste. I want to associate with people who read with all their senses, hearing the music in the language, seeing, touching, even tasting the imagery.
Of course, in addition to the hard-nosed literalists there are those who call what they write poetry when in fact the work in question is sermon or greeting card, the first to be obeyed and the second to be forgotten. Bludgeoning a reader to adopt ones own beliefs sends them complaining to the poetry police. And we know that is not the true intent of poetry. As a reader and a maker of poems, I want to share experience and enlarge my own through the words of others. If these words are sonorous, so much the better.
You’ll likely read more here about the book that I almost did not dare to buy, but cowardice was not on a prerequisite of my long poetry education and Foster is offering me a refresher course. Thanks, Prof.
Almost at the end of National Poetry Month, browsing a library display, I found Abide/Poems by Jake Adam York. York, now deceased, has been widely admired, especially by Colorado writers and readers. An associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, he edited the journal Copper Nickel (http://copper-nickel.org/).
Abide, says David Wojahn in his cover blurb, is “an intricately layered threnody for the martyrs of the civil rights movement …” In the author’s afterword, York says that this book is both elegiac and ethical. He grew up in the US South, a white man writing about the ugly divide he had witnessed between his kind and the people of color who suffered, and who still suffer. Often the poems are couched in the language of the blues, honoring the birth of the genre in black culture.
York’s poems comfort and distress me, turn by turn. The beauty of his language draws me into the horrors of our history. His loss is great, but I am beyond pleased to have his work to sustain the movement toward equality.
READ FOR EQUALITY
This past Saturday was the 30th annual Poetry Rodeo (or Podeo, as some call it) in Denver. This event traditionally goes for 12 hours and includes a wide variety of readings and workshops. It’s a candy store for poets. The Mercury Cafe, its home, is a tasty venue and I felt comfortable there, and well entertained, nay, more than entertained. I was inspired. Especially by the introduction of one poet’s first book, Dream On, by Darcy Reed. The first book is a milestone for any poet, but hers is significant for us all.
The author’s note from this book reads, in part, Darcy “is a non-speaking person with autism who uses augmentative communication to write and present her poems.” Think, Stephen Hawking. Darcy’s parents and her brother support her on stage, clearly, but the poetry is her own, and it’s fine work indeed. Appropriately, the first poem is “For Stephen Hawking,” in part: “There will be other dramas / in this void. / I will meet you there,/ my friend./I will meet you there.”
I hope that they do meet in the cosmos, and I’m ridiculously happy that technology, scary at it is at times, has made it possible for us to hear Darcy’s deeply felt and well crafted poems. And now we can read them as well. Dream On is published by Blue Heron Publishing. I suggest you read it.
In my previous blog I mentioned reading Simon Barnes’ How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. I’ve achieved that status as a very bad birdwatcher in fact. At least though, this week I was able to tell a family member that the small birds at our feeder are goldfinches, house sparrows, and house wrens. I’ve made several visits to open space along the Colorado Front Range to watch Canada geese and glimpse a kingfisher. Lots of robins (turns out they are fierce defenders of territory) and what Barnes calls LBJs–little brown jobs. Of course, from a distance the birds I see are little black blobs that line up on traffic light poles. I do note that they almost always all face the same way. That must mean something.
Why, though, would a poet think about birds? Well, when I’m noticing birds, I’m paying attention, and that’s an important skill for any writer to foster. I keep a tiny diary, nothing technical, nothing that will ever record sighting some rare bird, but daily notes keep me on the lookout. In fact, I need right now to go write down the four crows I saw yesterday. (Oops, I already had. Good girl.) I like the commoners like crows, the gulls, doves, pigeons, hawks. I can tell the difference between ring-neck doves and mourning doves, the former apparently an interloper in our region. Well, immigrant birds, as long as you’re here, you may as well stay.
The other benefit to bad birdwatching is metaphor. Birds surround us and we attach meaning to them. Hearing an owl is a death warning, or the first robin is a sure sign of spring. Actually, the owl doesn’t care whether we human beings live or die, and the first robin one sees is probably not the first. As I became more aware of birds, I realized that I’ve been writing them into my poems for a long time. They offer me mystery, awareness of non-human nature, of beauty and otherness. If creativity is largely about making connections, bird watching promotes creativity, and I’m all for that.
Fiction and poetry are my major interests as a writer. I read tons of each. Recently, I read a book I found propped up on a display for Women’s History Month, Beautiful Dead Things: Poems, by Ada Limón, and fell in love with her work. But I also found recently a library book by Collin Tudge, The Bird. Yes, it’s a weighty, detailed book about birds. And I am reading again Simon Barnes, How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. This one I own and have already read front to back but it’s too good to shelve yet. Oh, and there’s Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World. So, I admit it, I’m promiscuous when it comes to reading genres.
But here’s the thing: disparate things connect. The most recent poem I took to my weekly critique group came from a line in Barnes’s book about the ways “birds make their living.” Bingo! I thought about the fact that the Denver Mint makes money and money is not the same as a living, at least not for me, as money and I are mere acquaintances rather that close friends.
Each of these writers has style, a distinctive voice, and a conversational tone that feels like they could be in the room with me. I copy into my notebook phrases from their books and use these quotes as prompts for those mornings when my head is full of torn paper. Thanks be to the librarians who feed my weird taste in books and to the authors who write what I don’t even know I need until I find it. I have a few pages left in My Beloved World and it’s almost lunch time. So excuse me while I devour the rest of the book and nibble on plums. And every book is a plum.
No way to explain how I find the books I want. I’ve praised my favorite library and fussed about my least favorite. Maybe library sprites listen to what goes on in my private conversations and in my busy brain. Recently, I looked at my own poems and noticed how very many times I refer to birds. Well, if that’s a subtle theme, I thought, I should pay attention to it. So I told a friend that I wanted to study ornithology. Pretentious, that.
But the next time I walked into my local library, there was a fine new book by British writer Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Birds. I’ll be darned. Now my current notebook is full of quotes and details about birds, far more interesting than what I’ve gleaned over years of owning a traditional bird identification book. Looking a bird in the eye is not all there is to birding.
I scouted around, found my binoculars–Barnes calls them bins–and tucked them into a small pouch along with a pen and a few index cards (one of my indispensable tools as a writer) and put on my walking shoes. And sure enough, I saw a bird in a tree–no surprise that–and with the help of the bins I watched that patient creature long enough to describe it on a card. When I got home I determined that what I had met was a female flicker. Nice!
Maybe getting what I want in the world is mostly a matter of being ready to be surprised. I don’t really need a formal course in ornithology. I need to get out of the house and open my eyes. And, as Barnes advises, don’t leave the bins at home.