Bringing poetry to the people
Published: March 26, 2001
|Six state poets proclaim virtues of verse|
Logging hundreds of miles on the road, addressing thousands of schoolchildren, speaking in libraries, civic halls and auditoriums—our nation's state poets are beating a pathway for poetry from sea to shining sea.
According to the Library of Congress, nearly 40 states have poet laureates, sometimes simply called state poets; a few other states are in the process of creating the position. Since most positions are honorific, with no set responsibilities, one could imagine each appointee simply ambling out like the groundhog once a year to make an annual reading, and then hibernating into the safety of his or her everyday life. But instead, these state poets work hard to proclaim poetry, often at personal expense.
It's not for fame—many say they see their position as more of a calling to promote poetry than a personal honor. It's not for money—funding, as it exists, is scarcely enough to cover gas for local travel. It's not for leisure or luxury—no one rides a limo, and hours spent promoting poetry cut into their own writing and time.
However, poetry's siren song strongly beckons. And in response, our laureates strive from coast to coast as both poets and promoters, conjuring up poetry potions in their rolling medicine shows, spreading the word about verse to the people.
Iowa's first poet laureate, Marvin Bell, sees the state position as a celebration of verse in general, not of just his own poetry. "It reminds us that there are poets among us, and that poetry counts," says Bell, who was appointed last March. "In that respect, it is an acknowledgment of the art, a bow toward poetry as a whole, more than to an individual."
The author of more than 17 books of poetry and essays, Bell has received numerous awards, including the Academy of American Poets Lamont Award for his book A Probable Volume of Dreams and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 1994. His book Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See was a National Book Award finalist. He has held Guggenheim and NEA fellowships as well as Senior Fulbright Scholar appointments to Australia and the former Yugoslavia.
Bell has lived in Iowa for 35 years but describes himself as "tricoastal"—he grew up on eastern Long Island and has spent considerable time in the Midwest and Northwest, where he lives for part of the year in Port Townsend, Wash. "Regionalizing writers tends to confirm inaccurate stereotypes. All art is local in origin, but good art transcends boundaries," says Bell, who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He affirmed this in his statement upon being appointed: "Art comes out of a life and where that life is lived. I am fortunate to have written poems that sound to others as if they were written by an Iowan. But I have also written many poems that sound to others as if they were written by a Martian. In this respect, I can stand for many."
Even prior to his state appointment, Bell actively promoted poetry's accessibility of poetry. "I hope to show by example that poetry is a natural human activity," he says. "Wherever I appear as a poet, I try to 'talk turkey.' But it's not about me—when Iowans let me know of an occasion to which poets might be invited, I encourage them to invite poets living nearby."
Now, more than 30 years after his first book, Bell uses a computer to compose, often staying up late into the night. "I don't maintain a schedule, but write mainly when the pot boils over. However, I have learned how to turn up the heat, beginning by staying up late," he says. "What I write begins in sensations, nuances, wisps of sight and thought attached to buried memory and recent observation. He gets some of his ideas from reading: "Words trigger other words." He adds, "there are the words of Seneca: 'no genius without madness.' "
Bell says he rarely encounters writer's block. "Although occasionally I have stopped writing for a while involuntarily, experience shows that I was always cooperating with the stoppage and could have broken through at any time. The best advice I've ever heard for overcoming writer's block is Bill Stafford's: Lower your standards and keep writing." (Bell co-wrote Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry with the late Stafford.)
Naming some of his favorite poets—Randall Jarrell, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Pablo Neruda—Bell says, "Poetry at its very best uses words to say more than words can say. I like poems that take the impurity of the world and the word and get on with it; I like ideas to have a little dirt on their shoes," he says. "Great poetry usually advances the art while having something else on its mind."
Bell recommends that poets develop a eye for good writing by reading, and that they write without dwelling on the notion of getting published. After extensive writing and revising, poets should make up a long list of magazines to which they would consider sending their work, especially regional publications, he advises. "Circulate several batches of poems at a time. Keep extending the list, and keep the poems in circulation," he says. "Remember that editors are in the business of rejecting work, and only once in a while do they get to accept something. Rejection isn't personal. In any case, you can never know why an editor accepts a poem."
I like poetry that uses surprising language and takes me places I'm not used to going—poetry that is in some way experimental or new," says Mary Crow, who is serving her second four-year term as Colorado's state poet.
Fluent in Spanish, Crow is the author of several books of poetry and translator of several others by South American poets. Her most recent work is Homesickness: Selected Poems by Enrique Lihn (Sun & Moon Press, 2001). Crow's work has included a residency in Jerusalem, Fulbright Research Awards to Argentina, Venezuela, Chile and Peru, a Milkwood International Residency to the Czech Republic and a Fulbright Creative Writing Award to give readings in the former Yugoslavia. These travels have informed Crow's work, which features sensual images. Rather than her poetry mirroring one region only, Crow sees her poems "as reflecting travel and the world—there's so much to see and learn."
In addition to teaching full time at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Crow works to promote poetry throughout the state through several projects, and encourages others to initiate their own. The university supports her efforts as poet laureate by providing her with an assistant to help with some of the detail work and by assisting her in finding project funding. "I'm hoping that the energy I'm putting into projects, will, with the help of others, lead to more visibility for poetry in the state and more opportunities for poets and students to write, hear and read poetry," she says.
Her work runs the gamut from giving readings to raising money to support poetry collections in small schools. "I went to a school that only had one book of poems, so I gave them the four books I had with me," she says.
She's particularly proud of Kids at Work, which promotes the reading and writing of poetry in school. At-risk students chosen to participate have been tested in standardized reading tests and then are re-tested. "We've had students go from failing to honor students," Crow says.
To meet her goal of bringing poetry to all elementary schools in Fort Collins, Crow has created an expanded program called Literacy Through Poetry that will reach five schools each semester. The program will continue for the next two years if funded.
"Teachers will be involved as observers in the training program, with seminars by visiting poets—this year, Kenneth Koch," Crow says. "Those teachers will then serve as in-house 'experts' on the best techniques for teaching poetry in the schools. You shouldn't go into a classroom and have the children groan, 'oh … poetry.' Poetry is the natural language of children. In a way, we're robbing them if we don't teach it."
For her own reading pleasure, she enjoys poems with "complexity, texture and depth, even if they're short." In addition to collecting images in a journal as she travels, Crow derives inspiration from the work of many other writers, including Paul Celan, Mary Jo Bang, Mark Levine and Ira Sadoff. "When I have writer's block, I read. Sometimes I imitate poets whose work I admire. I also do exercises. Or I may simply sit and write down what I see. The idea is to get started and then let poetry arrive."
Beginning poets should first share their poems with friends they trust, she says, and then get them published in school literary magazines or create their own chapbooks. Keep a log of submissions, Crow says, and don't be afraid of simultaneous submissions. "After waiting nine months or more to find out the status of poems, I now send to more than one magazine at once."
Bill's a perfect subject for an interview," says Elaine LaMattina of White Pine Press. "What a storyteller!" Nebraska's state poet, William Kloefkorn, admires the work of such notables as Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Like other great American yarn-spinners, Kloefkorn tells poem "stories" of the small and universal, familial and familiar, childhood memories and mishaps, coming of age and coming to grips with aging.
Despite his promising win of the 1978 Nebraska Hog Calling Championship, Kloefkorn has spent his most recent years writing and teaching English at Nebraska Wesleyan University, from which he is now retired. The prolific Kloefkorn has authored more than 20 books, including new poetry collections Welcome to Carlos and Fielding Imaginary Grounders (both Spoon River Press, 2000), as well as a book of fiction, Time to Sink Her Pretty Little Ship (Logan House Press, 1999).
Although he was named state poet for life in 1982, Kloefkorn had been promoting poetry since the 1970s through the national Poets in the Schools Program in Nebraska. "I'm not really doing anything different today—I talk to the students, do readings, write with the students in workshops, and conduct class collaborations and guided writing exercises," he says, adding that he enjoys getting children physically involved in writing and draws on their enthusiasm. "You can't go into a school and lecture on the fine points of poetry—they want to be actively doing something."
Raised in a Kansas town of about 600, Kloefkorn says his work is universal in its themes, but uniquely reflects mid-America. "I like poems that are closely related to place, using imagery and language that I identify as regional." With four children and 11 grandchildren, Kloefkorn draws inspiration from his family, his students and other people. The key word is people: "I don't have much luck with poems unless they have people in them. A place without a person is pretty sterile," he says.
He subscribes to an age-old writing style: "A word or phrase or situation will click with me, and I'll scribble a draft of a poem with a No. 2 pencil—my favorite writing instrument, since I can take it with me everywhere. Then I use my old black Remington typewriter to type it up. It goes through four, five, six drafts on the typewriter, and then I finish it."
He describes how ideas for poems strike. "Yesterday I took my old Jeep Cherokee to the Jiffy Lube. So there I am, sitting in this little room, with the glass window separating me from the pits and my car. I can hear the hissing noise behind me of the pumps—and I'm looking up at CNN on TV, and they're saying things like 'presidential,' 'gridlock,' 'constitutional crisis.' There's nation-shaking things going on in front of me, and behind me, I'm getting an oil change. I wrote a rough draft of a poem on a piece of paper right there, and soon will take it to my typewriter," says Kloefkorn. "Another example is I called my brother on his birthday, and he said, 'The worse thing about getting old is that it comes at a bad time.' That's good. You fiddle with that in your mind and it takes off. Poetry is all about juxtapositions."
He says his writing is continuously receiving stimulus, and the flow of words is rarely blocked. "I'll go sometimes awhile without writing—but it's never serious. I write something every day, if not a lot. I don't worry about it—the world could keep right on turning without my poems," he laughs, "but it wouldn't turn as fast."
In poetry, Kloefkorn says he looks for a voice that is "distinctive and plausible. I shy away from what I perceive as elitist language, fluff, polysyllabic poems that use words as a kind of decoration. Poetry that has to be footnoted doesn't do much for me," he says.
Kloefkorn recommends that poets not be in a hurry to get into print. "Keep writing; be patient and pay attention; get the stuff down, let it accumulate, let it cool off." He also counsels writers to not spend too much time learning theory: "Instead, spend it writing. Trust your own experience and your own ear," he says. "And sharpen the No. 2 pencil."
Explaining his nickname, "Pig Poet of Utah," David Lee says, "I used to raise pigs, love pigs. But I seldom and never write about them anymore." Lee's first book, The Porcine Legacy, sold quickly and resulted in a PBS special, The Pig Poet, which took first place for full-length films in the 1994 Rocky Mountain Film Festival—and the name stuck.
Raised in Lubbock, Texas, Lee moved to Utah in the 1970s and was named state poet in 1997 for a five-year term. He heads Southern Utah University's Department of Language and Literature and has received several distinguished teaching awards. "David Lee's a hell of a good teacher, but he lies a lot," says his friend Kloefkorn. "He invented the exaggeration."
The author of more than 10 books of poetry, Lee calls himself a "storyteller," or narrative poet. He was awarded the 1995 Western States Book Award for Poetry for his collection My Town. His books—the most recent, News from Down to the Café (Copper Canyon Press, 1999)—are filled with quirky characters, conversations, voices and viewpoints.
"I got picked for this position because of my work ethic: I have tons of energy and am a workaholic. I'm willing to meet and work with all sorts of people. This position isn't honorary—it's very active! I average over 50 gigs a year," Lee says. Even without state money to support him, Lee has made it his goal to visit every school statewide and proclaim poetry to younger generations. "Of course I haven't met that, but I've tried," he says. He focuses on visiting groups underexposed to poetry, "groups that simply could not have had a poet come in any other way," he says.
In classrooms, Lee sets up panel discussions or asks students to read their poems to him. Not all of his efforts have been successful, however. He relates going into a classroom one time, only to find the teacher hadn't shown up—so he worked with the class all day. Such experiences are "like going to the dentist; I had to 'sell' something they weren't ready to buy," he says. "But if I get a letter from one kid—even one—that's enough. More often than not, I've had more fun than any kid in the room."
When writing, Lee says, "Poems communicate with me. I don't start with an idea; I start with images that slap me in the face." Claiming he still doesn't know how to turn on a computer, Lee plays out most of his poems in his head during long walks or in the car during his two-hour daily commute, and rarely writes them down before he's seen them through to the end—an amazing admission from a writer who creates lengthy works. (His book Driving and Drinking contains a 54-page poem, he says.)
Writing a book-length poem or collection in his head takes from 18 months to four years, and he generally thinks in terms of a book rather than a single poem. "Once I see the structure of the book, then poems start flowing to me, unbidden," Lee explains.
Among the poems Lee includes in his public reading repertoire are Leslie Norris' "Hudson's Geese" and Kloefkorn's "Counting the Cows." He says, "I want a poem to hit me on the solar plexus. I want good imagery. I only ask one thing from a poem: that it irretrievably changes my life."
New poets must believe in themselves, Lee says, recalling, "The first five or six years, I was probably getting one out of every 30 poems published, if that. It's the old road of hard knocks. Then I 'hit' and got all of them published later, including those that shouldn't have been!" He advises, "Be your own toughest critic, and don't give up. As Faulkner said: 'Endure, and by enduring, you will prevail.' "
When I was appointed state poet laureate, I started getting letters from various people who I think weren't even familiar with my work—teachers, nuns, students. They just kept saying they were glad our state has a poet laureate," says Irene McKinney, who was appointed in 1994 to the lifetime position in West Virginia. "Even for people who don't read much poetry, poetry is the place for truth-telling."
In her four books of poetry, McKinney combines the mystical with the earthy. In addition to her state poet position, she also has served as poet-in-residence for the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council and the South Carolina Arts Commission. Her awards include the Kentucky Foundation for Women Award, Appalachian Mellon Fellowship from the University of Virginia and MacDowell Fellowship.
In West Virginia, both the population and the economy have always been rather thin, McKinney says, and news about the arts is slow to get out. Her poet laureate position offers her the opportunity to read poetry and fiction works at schools and other public gatherings. "I read my own work and then talk about other writers from the state. I think it's important that kids know that writers are living in their state and don't all just come from large cities," she says.
Besides giving readings for civic and school groups, McKinney collaborates with others on projects promoting West Virginia writing. She recently contributed work to Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry, 1950-1999 (Publisher's Place, Inc., 2000), the state's first poetry anthology. To promote the book, she has given readings and assisted with a series of 12 CDs highlighting 12 West Virginian writers, with each featuring a reading and discussion. The pilot program was broadcast on state public radio in December 2000, and the plan is to make the CDs available in all schools across the state. "This will make lots of West Virginia writers immediately accessible to kids," McKinney says.
On leave from teaching creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College, McKinney is currently a visiting writer at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. While she isn't regional in viewpoint, she says, many of her poems emerge from her perceptions of the land in West Virginia, especially its degradation and ruination by mining and timber operations.
"They've sucked the resources out of the land and therefore have left scars on the land itself. And when that happens, it leaves scars on the spirits of the people who live in that region," she says. But her poems also express delight in the area. "I live in the woods and spend lots of time walking in the countryside—plant and animal life are a source of great joy and energy to me."
McKinney's poetry is also inspired by daily reading of other writers' work, including that of Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, James Wright and Emily Dickinson. "Other poets seem to generate energy in me," she says. "I keep lots of notes, and write something every day—images from dreams, little anecdotes, things I observe—it's a warehouse of ideas and images." McKinney then flips through her past few notebooks and underlines, in bright red, phrases that she might be able to use in a poem.
If her flow of words ever feels blocked, McKinney creates exercises, which she says occupy her conscious mind and let powerful and unconscious material rise up. "It's a way to get around the censor in my mind." When writing poetry, McKinney says, "The main object is to keep everything very concrete. It's important to me to keep writing even if it's not very good. Poets have chosen this way of seeing the world, and when I stop writing, I feel like I don't understand anything. It's better to write something than to be silent."
Poetry that stays close to primary emotions, "of what you might call 'the first intensity' " is the type McKinney favors. "Poetry is the one place you can get down into the more primitive feelings that are not socially acceptable: basic human emotions of rage, jealousy, hatred, shame," she says. "Poems that are witty and discursive and civilized stay on the surface of emotion and seem to me more like filling a social function."
Poets must be stubborn and persistent, she says, and read a lot of poetry to become perceptive about what they like. "Trust that part of yourself that you think is most strange, that seems to be most useless but is a strong part of you. Let it tell you what it wants."
|Ellen Bryant Voigt|
Following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell and Louise Glück might be challenging, but Vermont's fourth state poet, Ellen Bryant Voigt, is up to the task. The author of five books of poetry, Voigt was appointed to the position in 1999 for a four-year term.
Voigt's verse thoughtfully acknowledges human passion and frailties, and her most recent poetry collection, Kyrie (W.W. Norton, 1995), inspired by the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Voigt says her "formula" for poetry is "precision about this world, mystery about the other world—and music."
Although not assigned specific responsibilities as state poet, Voigt travels across the state to speak at schools and other public forums. "I've had a lot of requests—far more than I can do," she says. "But it's a good sign—it means people are interested in poetry." Coinciding with her state appointment, Voigt received a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Foundation to promote—particularly to children—the work of Vermont poets. To do this, she has set up a three-year reading series that allows three state poets to speak through interactive television to schoolchildren.
This method allows the students to hear poetry and also direct questions to the poets. As part of the program she calls "The Poet Next Door," Voigt gives away free copies of a book by each of the writers. "In three years, we will have reached 540 kids, and 1,600 books will have been given away," she says.
"Although children might say they don't like poetry, if you show them something that's been written by someone down the road, containing natural imagery that they're familiar with, they like it. A poet who lives in their backyard has a natural tie-in. That makes poetry more accessible."
When asked to give public readings, Voigt brings along another local poet as well. "My sense is that in a small state like Vermont, there's an eagerness, an appetite, for poetry," she says.
When writing, one cannot be aware of the actual process of creating poetry, Voigt says. "Bright ideas themselves don't produce poems; they produce essays. Making a poem is an act of discovery. If you don't learn something by writing the poem that you didn't know when you started, then it's not going to be a very good poem."
"I hear a piece of music in the poem: a line, sentence, something working, which in turn establishes the tone. But I have to hear this music before I can work on it," Voigt says. She writes slowly and revises extensively, at times creating up to 50 drafts of a poem. "Sometimes all this revision isn't productive," she admits. "Dylan Thomas said he'd spend the whole morning taking out one comma, and the whole afternoon putting it back in."
However, Voigt feels it is rare for a poem to present itself as complete. "If and when that does happen, it's because you've actually been working on it in your head."
Quoting Robert Frost, Voigt says, " 'A poem be-gins in delight and ends in wisdom.' Poetry is made of delight: delight at the sounds of words, delight in a formal arrangement, de-light in a precise image or in something inexplicable you see in the world," she says. "But in the end, it needs to uncover something."
What some writers call "block," Voigt sees as needed time for reflection that allows for a writer's work to change. The term refers to the times when writing gets difficult, she says, "but it's always hard. Life doesn't want us to make art; we have other concerns. But you wouldn't want to go off and live in a tower, with nothing to fuel the poems, or they'd be dry and academic. You work out your own formula: the balance between life and art."
To new poets, Voigt says, "Read—the reading-to-writing ratio should be about 10:1. It's impossible to know what's possible without seeing examples." Publishing is simply the final step that takes a writer to the readers, she says. "It is important to take that step, because it means that in the future, you'll have some concern for the reader. You'll ask: Is this clear enough? Did I include everything?"
She advises poets to make sure their work is finished before submitting it. "Let it sit there, go back to it, and go back to it, until you can't make it any better. Don't send it off and two weeks later, decide you should have taken off a stanza. You should have done that before imposing on an editor's time."
Poets should only submit their work to those publications they read, Voigt admonishes. "Before we decry the state of poetry, we need to support it," she says, and advises writers to start close to home when attempting to get their work published.
"If you submit to local and regional magazines, they most likely will pay close attention," she says. "It takes awhile to find editors who will be interested in your work. Be patient."#