Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

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The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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A Poetic Happy New Year to Us All

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The dawn of a new year brings the best and the worst: promise of new beginnings, anguish over old endings.  Great new ideas to nurture, bad old ideas to quash. The new year’s plans, the old year’s mistakes. And, then of course, there are those pesky resolutions.

How about — as opposed to New Year’s resolutions — a little irresolution for 2016? The talented singer/songwriter Michelle Krell apparently turns to poetry from time to time. This rumination on life and time was enclosed with her holiday letter. It is presented below, with her permission, as a New Year’s gift to readers: the procrastinators, the disorganized, the well-intentioned, God bless us every one.

THE BACKLOG

Youth has no unfinished projects

No half-written melodies

No scribbled first lines of a musical comedy starring somebody famous

No first pencil sketch for a rolling 19th century landscape in oils

No first brushstrokes for a portrait, you know, a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa

No evenly-spaced staff lines mapped out with hundreds of tiny sixteenth-notes in pencil, some crossed out

No shoeboxes with unsorted glass beads on broken strings

No velvet bag of unrepaired, unmatched earrings, some plastic, from the 1970s

No shelves of unread books

No socks needing to be matched with mates missing for 9 years or more

No basket of mending from when your aunt was alive, you got it when you cleared out her house

No collection of spools of thread from the ‘30s from the same aunt, the thread permanently, hopelessly tangled

No boxes of unsorted photos from decades of family reunions

No garden that has had no improvements since you bought the house 20 years ago

No roses that are far past their lifetime and needed to be dug up long ago

No battered and faded curtains that would dissolve if washed; and why are they still up?

No seed of a book of poetry in which poems have been re-written until they stopped breathing

No undated lists of good intentions on wide-ruled binder paper

No itemized plans for rearranging small possessions that can now not be found

No single favorite patent leather shoe that knows the mystery of its lost mate, but will not tell

No collection of old toothbrushes that have a use which will reveal itself someday

No half-begun intricate stencil decoration across the upper wall of the baby’s room; he now has a family and lives in Toledo

No splintered and rusted garden shed that would look like Sunset Magazine, or could perhaps…

No pile of gravel overcome with weeds—the beginnings of an elaborate walkway through what are now rusted garden benches next to a ghost of a trellis for grapevines that never climbed anywhere

There are no grapes and no hint of a garden path

But—there could be…

Old Words, New Words

My friend and fellow Compassion and Choices NCA co-chair Stewart Florsheim recently had his fine book of poetry, A Short Fall from Grace, featured in Pedestal Magazine, in a thorough and insightful review by Alice Osborn. Early on, Ms. Osborn declared Stewart a “master of the ekphrastic poem…” which sent at least two of us rushing off to our dictionaries. Alas, nothing there. Not in the Random House, the Oxford American, not even the OED three-volumes-with-magnifying glass. My friend Merla, a dictionary person if there ever was one, e-mailed that she had found ecphrastic, as in “clearing away obstructions,” and since his poetry quite often does just that we declared Stewart a master of the ecphrastic poem and were ready to let it go.

The poet himself, however, having been copied on these e-exchanges, finally weighed in rather gently with the definition: poetry in response to art. He then provided a Web link to the Puddinghouse Magazine site, featuring articles and references and gracious knows what-all on ekphrastic poetry. A chapbook edited by Jennifer Bosveld, Elastic Ekphrastic is an anthology of these gems. I have been feeling, since then, a little like the only person in the literary world previously unfamiliar with ekphrastia. Except for Merla, thank goodness, as she is highly literate.

The word popped up again during a conversation a few days ago, and it took my friend Jim (who is decidedly new school as opposed to old-school Merla and me) exactly eight seconds to whip out his iPhone and find ekphrastic in Wikipedia. Well, of course.

This brings up some interesting questions: Will Wikipedia render the OED obsolete? Is the old-fashioned dictionary, the kind you could put on a shelf, on the way out? Or should I invest in a new OED (ours, I admit, is a 1971 edition, and half the English language has been invented since then) at 275 pounds sterling for the new compact edition with magnifying glass? With at least one word person defending Sarah Palin’s “nucular” (the way no one ever defended Eisenhower) as correct because it is a regional thing, are we on our way to establishing our own definitions and pronunciations without regard to dictionaries anyway? Considering all this instant information and opinion, are we being dumbed down or smartened up by the shifting winds of wordage?

At least I have been smartened into ekphrastic poetry. My spellcheck still doesn’t believe that ekphrastic is a word, but the ghost of my college Greek professor Miss Mabel K. Whiteside is undoubtedly at peace.