Monday, September 7, 2009

Degrees of Engagement: Our Poetry Workshop

Participants in this week's collective of poets in the Community Room in the Springfield (MA) Central Library on Saturday, September 5th (9:30-11:30): Caren, Jeremiah, Linda, Marion, Melody, Ron, Ana, Magdalena, Katie, Jeremy, Robin, BettyJean, Abigail, Marcus, and I.

Every time we meet, I wish I had a recording device because the responses to the poems often are as inspiring as the poems themselves. Every week, I marvel at how each response weaves itself into the ephemeral, complex fabric of each poem as many poets share which moments in a particular poem resonates or irritates or both.

This week was no different. Caren's narrative poem about her family's intergenerational struggle with American identity prompted responses about character identification, the concept of the Flying Dutchman, and the significance of "40 acres and a mule". It also prompted challenges: to edit further the length in order to make each line matter and to re-examine and to rephrase phrases that sound too familiar or cliched in order to strengthen the poem.

Jeremiah's poem about Provincetown immediately transported many poets, even those like me, who have never been there, to the Cape. This poem communicated a vibrant sense of place -for fishermen and for poets and writers alike - as, we all agreed, it engaged our senses of smell, taste, and movement.

Melody's powerful poem about domestic violence elicited strong visceral responses. Many agreed that the poet's vivid imagery, conveyed in such short and terse lines and phrases, underscored the impact of the piece; it is "a story in bullets", as one poet pointed out. A brief and intense discussion ensued about post-traumatic stress disorder, survival skills, and the link with trauma experiences by Vietnam veterans.

Marian's homage to a woman who embraced unapologetically her whole, complicated self, despite the externally perceived contradictions in her identity and her loco-motion, or the way in which she moves through our world, evoked admiration and a discussion about code-switching, more specifically, whether specific cultural codes of reference should be footnoted or not. This poem, which resonated with Caren's, prompted a further discussion about race, gender, class, and identity in America. Suggestions for improving this poem-in-progress included to pay more attention to line breaks and breathing pauses and to make the title a recurring refrain throughout the poem.

Ana's poem about passion evoked another love song, a bolero. This time, though, as many in the group who have read Ana's poems before pointed out, there was a sudden shift. In this poem, the poetic speaker, the "I", seemed more in control of the love situation than in other poems. A few even commented that there were erotic undertones.

Ron's prose poem conveyed a sense of nostalgia and of loves almost permanently lost in past memories. The litany of questions underscored, for many poets present, the poetic speaker's doubt, cynicism, bitterness, nostalgia, even hope.

Abigail's short poem evoked for many the quintessential mama in the kitchen. The musical references in the poem evoked, for one poet, a metaphor for mama's movement in the kitchen, and for another, the times that we turn on music in order to make chores more bearable. The poetic ambiguity about "the book" mama was memorizing elicited more than one response, much to Abigail's delight.

Finally, Katie's occasional poem, a tribute to Michael Jackson, rounded out a two-hour morning workshop that passed, for me, much too quickly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Write On, Springfield! A Success! & Thanks to Anna B.

Tonight's event, the launch of the Write On, Springfield! anthology published by The Springfield Library and coordinated by Anna Brandenburg, the project coordinator and a librarian, was a success! Despite the simmering heat, the wasps dizzy with the aromas of sweets, and the temperamental microphone in the Quadrangle Tent behind the Central Library (220 State St., Springfield, MA), over 40 people showed up to listen to 22 poets and writers who signed up for the monthly Open Mic hosted by Crystal Senter Brown. What a tapestry of voices, perspectives, and experiences!

This time, I chose not to sign up to read. Instead, I wanted to sit back and to enjoy the readings; some were quiet, others were dramatic, a few were humorous, and only one or two were painfully long. The generational span - from teens to elders - had an unexpectedly powerful impact on me. This is what Springfield is all about: individuals of all ages and backgrounds actively building community through the power of their words and through naming - be it creatively or autobiographically - their complex experiences, in this case, in Springfield. Melody Rivera, Ron Coolbeth, Caren McKenzie, and Carol Marrone are only a few of the poets and writers who shared. Pick up a free anthology while supplies last!

Bittersweet, though, is the reality of Anna Brandenburg's departure as she "pulls up stakes", as one elder poet shared in his tribute, "to move to the Big Easy." Transitioning from one place to another will not be easy for Anna B., who quietly yet so thoroughly tends to a myriad of details at the Library and in her home life for her move, nor for us, the poets and writers, who could count on Anna B. to organize and to coordinate events that benefited - and will continue to benefit- our community.

Even as we lose an invaluable member of our Springfield community, let us celebrate Anna B.'s transition by continuing to participate and to support the Open Mic, the many workshops, as well as the numerous events that the Library and Springfield do have to offer.

If you are interested in writing poetry, I will be facilitating poetry writing workshops in the Community Room at the Central Library on Saturdays, 9:30 - 11:30, on August 22nd, September 5th, and September 19th. For more information, visit the Poetry Page @

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My Review of Richard Blanco's collection, "City of a Hundred Fires"

Thanks to the Springfield (MA) Public Library's Summer Adult Reading Club, I have been inspired to write reviews of collections of poems and will make it a habit to do so on this blog. Here is one for today.

Richard Blanco's award-winning collection, City of a Hundred Fires (Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. First Edition. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh: 1998) of well-crafted, evocative, narrative poems transform personal and family histories of being Cuban and an exile in the United States that will resonate not only with Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Spanish-speaking cultural and ethnic groups but also with anyone who has ever experienced or witnessed displacement and the struggle to preserve one's cultural roots.

Poems range from those that engage many of the senses such as "Mango, Number 61", "Crayons for Elena", "Los Santos of the Living Room", "Mother Picking Produce", to poems that channel the tensions of cultural adaptation such as "Thanksgiving" and painful exilic limbo, "La Revolución at Antonio's Mercado", and "Partial List: Guantánamo Detainees". The first poem in the collection, "América", is poignant in capturing a child's naïve attempt to be both cultural mediator and teacher of cultural assimilation to his older family members. For those who are bilingual in English and in Spanish, the code-switching between the two languages will sound fluid and, for English-only speakers, it will add to the music of each poem.

Only a few of the poems leave this reader wanting more: "Postcard to W.C. Williams from Cienfuegos", "The Reservoir", and "Zafra", or don't read like final drafts: "Abuela Valdés". Visually speaking, the editor's need to italicize every Spanish word irritates this reader; code-switching poets don't speak or write in italics. Overall, though, this is a thoughtfully organized, memorable collection of poems that I will definitely purchase for my own library, reread, and recommend to poets and lovers of poetry.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Every Poetry Anthology is a World

Every poetry anthology is a world, and its editors, its collectors or gatekeepers. I read anthologies in order to immerse myself in the imaginations of a crowd of poets who no longer have to jostle for an editor's attention because, after all, their poems were published. However, the poets in any given anthology have to jostle for the reader's attention in the hopes of gaining a new and appreciative fan of their work. As I read through an anthology, will I discover poems that will engage me, irritate me, unsettle me, make me pause and reflect and, even, write, or will my eyes begin to skim toward the end of each poem because the poetic voices begin to blur in their sameness? And whose voices have been included and excluded in this particular poetic landscape?

This week, I am enjoying my way slowly through the alphabetically-organized anthology, New American Poets of the '90s, edited by Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten (First Edition. David R. Godine, Boston, MA: 1991). Once I have read the whole anthology, I will write a review. For now, though, I will mention the titles of some poems that have resonated with me: Jimmy Santiago Baca's "I Am Here", Linda Bierds's "The Stillness, The Dancing", Lorna Dee Cervantes's "Raisins", "Colorado Blvd.", and "From the Bus to E.L. at Atascadero State Hospital".

August 1, 2009