Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 7, 2013

On Poetry: Poetry geezers write about lives

Local columnist

— April is National Poetry Month. And Sydney Lea and I, two poetry-geezers if there ever were, are launching our e-book of essays, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. E-Book? Autumn House Books (Pittsburgh, PA) has decided to offer it EXCLUSIVELY in this format — an experiment for them — which is kind of interesting, since we’re the geezers. We write about that a bit in the book.

So I want to think in today’s poetry column about poetry in general, but in the only way I can, from the perspective of someone who’s been writing poems, as has my good friend Syd, for over 50 years. We each have a string of books, both prose and poetry, I’ve been poet laureate of Delaware, Syd is now poet laureate of Vermont. We have good things and snarky things to say about modern poetry. Nonetheless, we love poetry.

Syd and I met in New Hampshire in 2003, at the first-ever State Poet Laureate Conference. We fanned out around the state to give readings, and Syd was my host for my part of that. We saw that we have a similar aesthetic: we want poems to appeal to real people; we want music in them. We want them to have been labored over, but, as the poet W. B. Yeats says in a poem, “Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

We’ve been sharing poems since then, back and forth, with deep admiration.

So what is this strange prosey-poem I offer this month? One thing that’s happened over the past few years — in all areas of art and dress and architecture and food — you name it — is what could be called hybridization. A lot of different elements mixed so that what once looked like pure “poetry” or pure “Mexican” food, or pure anything now looks like an exciting and surprising mixture.

Not necessarily a fusion — it’s that different elements of different forms pop up. Sometimes we feel as if we’re flipping channels on TV; Or, better, we might feel an excitement to see how many different elements can work together, like walking along in a big city, meeting all sorts.

“What is a poem?” people have asked me for years. The answer I often give is, “If you call it a poem, it is a poem.” On the other hand, if you call what comes out of your violin the first time you scrape the bow across the strings, music ... It takes practice and it takes studying the history of your art so you know when you’re within its already established conversation and when you’re deliberately setting yourself outside of it. And why.

What’s the difference between “poetry” and “non-poetry,” then? Poetry is a way of seeing. It does involve craft, of course, and learning, but an excellent poem opens our eyes to a different way of seeing what’s right in front of our face. It stretches us.

Syd and I decided to write this book helter-skelter. We picked one topic, took it where we would, responded to each other when we felt like it, and then picked a new topic. We ended up ranging the world of art, of nature as it is and was, of our lives, our children — how all these things made us poets, or poet-people. Our collection of essays is the best way I know to say, “Here is what it is to grow into being a poet, and to spend your life in dedication to its art.”

We would love to have you join us at The Traverse Area District Library on Woodmere Avenue this coming Friday, April 12, from 4-6 p.m., for a strange kind of party. Let’s call it “Books in Space,” a book launch party without an actual, physical book. We’ll have hors d’oeuvres and beverages. We’ll have Michael Simms, the Editor of Autumn House Books, on Skype to talk about his press and his decision to publish this book this way. We’ll have Sydney Lea on YouTube, telling a little about his essays. We’ll have me in person, reading from my essays, and we’ll have library staff ready to help you access and download the book. And soon, the library will be able to make the book available for loan as an e-book.

Many of Sydney’s and my actual paper books will be on display and available to be purchased and/or checked out. Please join us.