It’s April. National Poetry Month. First a confession: until recently, my limited exposure to poetry dated back to high school, where we focused on the classics —Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Shakespeare. Back then I even tried my own hand at writing poetry. What came forth was the typical angst-ridden teenage rants and love schemes with forced rhyming patterns. They’ll be perfect someday for inclusion in a Drivel-like expose. My acknowledged later love for Robert Burns (Ode to a Haggis) evolved from a developed interest in genealogy and Scottish heritage. A month ago, I didn’t know a pantoum from a poetaster (though I admitted relief at not seeing my photo next to the latter for the aforementioned crimes against humanity).
Since assuming the role of online editor of Little Patuxent Review, I’ve come to realize just how lush the Mid-Atlantic region is with poetry readings and literary talent. If one wanted, one might attend every week, in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, a poetry reading, hosted at places like LitMore, Spiral Staircase, Busboys and Poets, to name only a few.
About a month ago, I attended a Spiral Staircase event in Annapolis where LPR contributing editor Ann Bracken read from her book The Altar of Innocence. She was one of two featured readers that evening. Leading up to the headliners were dozens of local poets, each of whom stepped up to the open microphone and read or recited his work before the audience, which threatened to overflow into the parking lot. Poets ranged from high schoolers to pensioners, and hit every demographic. Some wore pocket protectors, while others oozed beatnik cool. Topics made listeners swoon, gasp, cringe, and laugh. I sat in awe of the collective courage to openly share intimate words combined with the community’s warmth as each piece was embraced.
Seated just behind me were two rock stars in the poetry world: Grace Cavalieri and Le Hinton. Seated just next to me, the reason I’m writing this post: Laura Shovan (she recommended me for the online position). Submerging myself into their world felt like sinking into a lavender scented bubble bath after a long day. Never before have I felt so welcomed into a community.
I lamented to Laura later that evening on the ride home, “I’m surrounded by poets, and yet feel I utterly lacking in my knowledge of the subject. How did this happen?” She assured me I wasn’t alone and my ignorance curable.
Not one to shy away from learning, I threw myself into the task of filling in my educational gaps. I subscribed to Poetry, the oldest literary journal dedicated to verse, begun in 1912 by Harriet Monroe (might she be a distant relative of my Munro clan? I wonder in brief). I began to read poetry blogs, like AuthorAmok and Anthony Wilson, and paid attention to Aaron Henkin on WYPR’s “The Signal” as he interviews LPR contributor Michael Salcman. Naturally, I had to listen to Grace Cavalieri on her Library of Congress radio show, The Poet and The Poem. I studied Howard County’s own lost treasure Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”
I noticed that poets hid in plain sight. By day, they were geographers, neurosurgeons, army captains, teachers, professors, journalists, pilots. Yet they had in common a deep need to share their experiences with language so haunting, so beautiful that it stops us in our tracks. If we stop for just a moment and listen, what we hear might will forever change us.
When did poetry become so cool? Because that’s what it is. One of the poets who read at the Spiral Staircase event said — and I’m paraphrasing here — poetry carries with it peace and love. As I reflect on that evening, here’s what the room was filled with: a community who came together from all walks of life to share words, thoughts and ideas over a common platform. The collective embrace felt palatable, uplifting, especially to this observer, a writer of prose. That’s just about as cool as it gets, pocket protectors not-withstanding.
Words — carefully selected, linked together, rhyming or not, with emphasis placed on syllables, drawn out for effect — matter. You, too, can delve into Little Patuxent Review’s rich archives to listen to Clarinda Harris read, “Locust Songs” at a LPR launch and Little Patuxent Review panelists reading their poetry at the 2011 Baltimore Book Festival. Comb through the pages of the journal and find Anne Harding Woodworth and Kelli Stevens Kane poems. You’ll be glad you did.
Who knows, someday, somewhere you might even read a poem written by me.