Perhaps unexpectedly, poetry has been a pillar of my life. Perhaps even more unexpectedly I trace it back to my father.
My dad (who would be ninety-five if he were alive) was a good man and a caring father, but there was nothing touchy-feely or poetic about him. He was a wrestler in college, and he emerged with a pug nose and a slightly cauliflower ear, and a short, stout, strong body. He had hard hands, loved chopping wood and working outside. He loved his tools and knew how to fix everything. He made me my first skis. He took us hiking, canoeing, and sailing. He was a cheap, tough, self-sufficient man who never whined or talked much about his feelings even through his long final bout of cancer. He was also quite deaf for most of his life so usually conversations were a bit hit and miss and sometimes he just found it easier to go sand the bottom of his boat or fix a chair than follow all the teenage chatter.
That’s why it was always so strange when standing around a burning brush pile in the snow he would suddenly spout out something from Sir Walter Raleigh, or Longfellow, or Shakespeare. Some teacher must have gotten to him in elementary school and somehow planted poems in the deep recesses of his mind. They would spill out like pennies and quarters and we kids would stand as stunned as if my dad had actually dropped money on the ground. He’d smile, a little proud, a little embarrassed and then go on as if nothing had happened.
The poetry that we all participated in growing up happened at Christmas. Mostly because we were cheap (but also a little twisted), gifts were not the central focus of Christmas for us. Christmas was about “sentiments.” These were long, ridiculous, witty, cutting, pieces of doggerel that were written on yellow legal pads and taped to presents that were meant to somehow convey what you thought of your siblings’ and parents’ evolving personalities over the past year. These were performance pieces, and the more tortured the rhyme the better you stood in this early family rendition of the poetry slam.
When I went off to college I had taken on poetry in the serious way that only a college student can. I sat in coffee shops with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, minored in writing poetry, had classes with famous poets. I sat in their living rooms discussing the finer points, published in literary reviews, and wore shabby clothes.
By graduate school I burned out—too much focus on myself, too much pressure to publish, even for a dreamy youth in the hippie days. For the next fifteen years I focused on working as a teacher, and poetry mostly hibernated…like a sport you once were good at in high school. Warm memories, but I wasn’t going back.
When I came to Island Books, something stirred when I was shelving in the poetry section, handling the old familiar volumes. I began to think I wanted poetry back in my life. So one day I came up with the idea of a Poetry Potluck. This would be a monthly gathering of enthusiasts who would each bring three poems by poets they liked to an evening meeting with plenty of wine and cheese. As with a potluck, all poems would be received with gratitude and appreciation and shared with whomever showed up that night.
I asked a few likely prospects to come, and almost twenty years later we are still meeting. It turned out to be an extraordinary group of poets, characters, readers, and friends. One woman now in her nineties helped found Hugo House, studied with Roethke, and knew or heard just about every important poet in the Northwest in the last fifty years. Another woman reads us poems in Chinese, old Italian, Polish (you should hear her Symborska!) and it seems any other language that comes along. An old gent quotes from ee cummings lectures he went to in the forties, and shows up with a poem from an old New Yorker magazine (ca. 1962) that was “just lying around the house.” There’s a psychiatrist who makes us cry with the sensual, intimate poems he brings, and then there’s the Ogden Nash fans who recite until we roar with laughter. A few of us bring old casseroles (Frost, Dickinson, Blake, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver) and others bring the latest poems from far and wide. There is no judging here. Just wine, talk of family and friends, poems, and sharing. Almost twenty years of sharing.
This group is quite a private group at this point but if I could speak for them, I feel sure they would suggest that the most important thing about poetry is not to get it right. It’s to look for it, give it air, and spread it around. Generously.
Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.