Monday, May 1, 2017

PoetryLife SRQ

I'll admit it -- I find poetry intimidating. And while I'm in confession mode, I'll also acknowledge I'm too Type A to spend much time contemplating the choice of a particular word or why a line was broken in a certain place. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued by the ability of poets to evoke time, place and emotion so powerfully with a single well-chosen phrase.

Hirsch, Georgia Court/Bookstore1 and Nezhukumatathil
This push and pull has left me with an interest in checking out Sarasota's PoetryLife Weekend but insufficient motivation to do it on my own. Happily, a ticket fell in my lap to attend this year's readings by poets Edward Hirsch and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. It was a wonderful event.

Hirsch is a household name in homes with poetry on their bookshelves. He is a recipient of a MacArthur ("Genius") Award and a National Book Award winner. A quick Google search also revealed that Hirsch wrote a book entitled, How to Read a Poem. The book itself is a tome--I checked--so I stuck with the summary of the 16 sections. "Heartland" likens poems to "messages in a bottle sent out with little hope of finding a recipient." In "To the Reader Setting Out," Hirsch analogizes a reader of poetry to "a pilgrim setting out. To read a poem is to depart from the familiar, to leave all expectations behind." With this primer under my belt, I was ready to listen to some poetry.

Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning"
Hirsch didn't provide much explanation about his poems, but my ears perked up when he said his "Early Sunday Morning" was inspired by Edward Hopper's painting of the same name. The poem tells of lost love and regrets that haunt you in the middle of the night. It's also a reflection on how, as we age, we understand our parents in a different way. It begins:

"I used to mock my father and his chums
for getting up early on Sunday morning
and drinking coffee at a local spot
but now I’m one of those chumps..."

"Self-portrait," a poem in which Hirsch chronicles the dichotomy that lies within, also struck a chord.  It reads, in part:

"I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can't get along.

I lived between my left arm, which is swift
and sinister, and my right, which is righteous.

I lived between a laugh and a scowl,
and voted against myself, a two-party system. .."

To read "Early Sunday Morning" in its entirety, click here. For "Self-portrait," click here

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil brought the energy and enthusiasm of youth to the stage. Her resume includes a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and three poetry collections. She is currently the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi's MFA Creative Writing Program. She prefaced each poem with a story. 

As a teacher, Aimee's practice is to participate in her class' creative writing assignments. One assignment called upon each student to write a poem about a phobia. (A handy list is available at  Given Nezhukumatathil's name, hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, or fear of long words, seems an inspired choice. Her poem goes, in part:

"On the first day of classes, I secretly beg
my students Don’t be afraid of me. I know
my last name on your semester schedule

is chopped off or probably misspelled—
or both. I can’t help it. I know the panic
of too many consonants rubbed up

against each other, no room for vowels
to fan some air into the room of a box
marked Instructor..... "

The humor and openness in Nehzhukumatathil's poem made me want to be one of her students trying my hand at her craft. To read the poem in its entirety, click here.

Aimee's work also introduced me to the concept of found poems. Just as a visual artist might recycle metal into a sculpture or incorporate scraps of scribbled-on paper into a collage, she takes joy in turning random comments into poetry.

"The comment section of any website is 'the worst of humanity,'" she said, as she launched into a hilarious poem culled from one star reviews of the Great Wall of China on TripAdvisor. Alas, I couldn't find the poem online to share here.  Instead, here is an excerpt from "Dear Amy Nehzookammyatootill." a found poem composed entirely of emails from high school students asked to compare one of Aimee's poetry collections to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

"If I were to ask you a question about your book
and sum it up into one word it would be, Why?...

You are very young to be a poet. I also like how your poems take
up an entire page (it makes our reading assignment go faster).
In class we spend so much time dissecting your poems
and then deeply analyzing them. I think I like Walt Whitman

better than you, but don't take offense -- you are very good too!"

For the complete poem, click here.

As her parting words, Aimee shared a Mary Oliver quote posted above her desk for inspiration. "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."  Words to truly live by.

Thanks to Bookstore1 and Florida Studio Theatre for sponsoring PoetryLife Week-end.

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