I am a lover of poetry. I read poetry. I write poetry. I share poems. A good poem satisfies me as much as a morsel of fine chocolate. It comforts me like a favorite blanket. It can challenge my point …
I am a lover of poetry. I read poetry. I write poetry. I share poems. A good poem satisfies me as much as a morsel of fine chocolate. It comforts me like a favorite blanket. It can challenge my point of view, opening me to question the way I have always seen things. It can crack the shell that protects my heart, bringing tears in a moment of unexpected empathy.
Recently, on a morning radio program, I listened to an interview with Minnesota’s newly appointed Poet Laureate, Gwen Westerman. She’s the third person to be assigned this honor, and the first Native American. Westerman is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate, her father’s people, and a citizen of her mother’s Cherokee Nation. She is not only a poet. She is a professor of English and the Humanities at Mankato State University, a quilter, and a researcher and author of the history of our region’s indigenous people.
With her beautiful compassionate voice, she delivered the meaning of her work in a deliberate, measured manner. She explained that her relationship with words and storytelling is rooted in the land and cultures of her ancestors. Her early years were spent immersed and versed in the geography of the Great Plains, Kansas, the Dakotas and Oklahoma. These places account for much of the rich spirit of not only her writing but also the quilts she creates. Childhood tutoring from her grandmother planted the seed for sewing, but that gift was set aside until she entered her forties. It was then that her creative passion for “patterns” emerged fluently, not only in her poetry but also in her quilting.
She went on to describe the effects of the pandemic on her creativity. Surprisingly, even this accomplished poet reported periods of feeling uninspired, separated from her “muse”. It sounded very familiar. When my creative juices quit flowing, I sometimes worry if I’ll ever write again. Her story encouraged me. After listening to our newly appointed “poet mentor” and advocate for “the poet in all of us,” I was ready to pick up my pen, convinced that Gwen Westerman was the perfect person for the job!
When the interview ended, I opened my laptop and “googled” her name. I ordered a collection of her poems, “Follow the Blackbirds”. Not wanting the gift of her inspiration to end, I phoned a longtime friend. Sheila Packa served as Duluth’s Poet Laureate from 2010 to 2012. She and I belonged to the same Writers Group of five local women who met monthly for over 30 years. Together we self-published two collections of our work. In 2013, our second book, Uncommon Light, received the Northeast Minnesota Book Award. Sheila has remained one of my sources of inspiration. And my call once again refueled my passion for words.
Many people I meet show little interest in poetry. I used to be like that. I’d been “turned off” by my 10th-grade English teacher who would assign each student a poem and require us to report on “what it meant.” My assignment was William Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. I could barely make myself read to the end of the poem, let alone tell anyone what it meant. At the age of fifteen, public humiliation, especially in front of my peers, was the worst. I remember feeling like I was going to die. I think I squeezed out a passing grade from Mr. Kolar but I sure didn’t come away with a love for poetry.
In my mid-twenties, I lived with my “big sister” for a while. We developed a daily routine taking turns washing the dishes. She was six years older, a high school English teacher and totally in love with language. One evening, when it was my turn to clean up after dinner, she came flying into the kitchen with a book entitled “Women Poets”. She was on fire. She demanded that I listen while she read a poem out loud. I can’t remember if it was Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath. It didn’t matter. At a certain point I finally announced over my shoulder that I didn’t get it. Adding nonchalantly that I really didn’t care or want to. After a few seconds of silence, I turned around to assess her reaction. She was dumbfounded.
Karen was never a person who accepted defeat so she sure wasn’t going to let me off the hook on this one! “Wait, Kath! You’re just not listening with an open mind.” Karen was a teacher by nature. As far back as I could remember, she saw me as her pupiI. She used to practice on me along with our dolls and stuffed animals, seated in neat rows on folding chairs and cardboard boxes, “to listen and learn.” That was even before I’d entered Kindergarten. So, these dish-detail poetry readings were another chance for her to teach me something important.
“Forget about figuring out the meaning,” she went on. “Listen like you’re staring at a painting. Poetry is a painting– only with words. The words paint the picture, tell the story, nudge your imagination. Just let it in. That’s it!” Waving her arms like I’d been tagged out at home plate. “No more meanings to decipher,” she commanded.
“Oh,” I uttered, feigning interest, my focus still on removing dried egg from the tines of a fork. She persisted, “OK. I’m gonna read it again. Now just listen for colors, rhythm, music. You’re gonna love this!”
Like a good girl, I did what I was told, determined to finish my job by the time she was done with hers. “And here’s another one…” she continued in the background.
As I put the last plate in the cupboard, I’d had an epiphany. I turned to her expectant face and just said, “You’re right, sis. That was beautiful!”
I flashed back to our childhood classroom, entranced by Sister Mary Karen (Yep, she’d be dressed up like a nun!) as she read to us from “A Child’s Garden of Verses”. After that evening in the kitchen when I finally got it, I was hooked for life. Those dish-detail readings of Karen’s favorite poems became a ritual, the perfect trade-off for her, and a lifelong pay-off for me, my forever fascination with the music and magic of a good poem!
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