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Poetry in Action — A lesson guide from seven Maine poets

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For many of us, the fact of National Poetry Month carries with it an injunction: Go and consume more poetry. 

This almost never works. April is, of course, a time not lacking in tasks and commitments and causes for reflection, which pulls us all in several directions. Even for people who care about poetry, it can be a task to up our consumption of the stuff as some dutiful act. (It’s a bit of a nuisance for poets, too, whose schedules are often saturated with requests for readings and engagements all largely confined to one month of the year.) 

On April 5, we collaborated with the USM Stonecoast MFA Program to host an event called “Poetry in the Community: A Party for Readers and Writers,” at One Longfellow Square. There, seven Phoenix-curated poets shared their work through a lens by which brings them to it. Each generated a lesson plan with specific poems that illustrated their theme. They read, then we circled up with audience members to read and discuss further. it was like a poetry cocktail party. 

At the Phoenix, we rarely dip our toes into pedagogical waters. But this event offered a compelling opportunity to go deeper. Deeper than, say, telling our readers to appreciate poetry more. instead, the poets built an evening of peer-to-peer workshops, discussion circles, and readings, offering context and reference points that collide with politics, history, and people’s daily lives. We think this is a more muscly and substantive way to do poetry than sitting and listening to someone read. 

Here are the lessons each poet brought. Copyright laws forbid us to re-print poems written by others discussed at the event [though titles are included], but each has one of their own.

poetrynight.jpg

Panelists discussing their work at the Phoenix's "Poetry in the Community" night. (Left to right: Phoenix editor Nick Schroeder, poets Megan Grumbling, Lee Sharkey, Kifah Abdulla, Kennedy Johnson, LaLa Drew, Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, and Mihku Paul.)

Kifah Abdulla on "Poetry and Consciousness"

Why do we write poetry and why is writing poetry important? I would like to focus on this question, it's a big theme. I can say here that I write poetry simply because inspiration lives in me as poetry, its message is humanism, and a religion of love. I believe completely that literature and art can be positive influences in all of human life. It can fix many of the social problems, more effectively than politics. As for me, I've established rituals that I have used to heal myself and so poetry for me is like therapy for emotional conditions of sadness, joy, or challenge. When my soul feels empty, and my emotions are dry, I take refuge in poetry. And within poetry I try to communicate a letter of love, or an idea of inspiration which will have a positive role in the lives of others. It's my voice.

"DREAM 1"

I dreamt of a small window

Through it flows clean air

Looking over a blue sky

White clouds travel through it

Flocks of birds pass by like air

I dreamt of a small window

The size of my hand

Overlooking a sea

My eyes travel in it

Into distant waves of blue

The yellow sun comes

Awakening the morning

And the night comes, inlaid with light

A window into which the snow whispers

Suspend in it, the moon and the rain

Into it flow the colors of autumn

And in spring, the fragrant buds

A small window, in which I count

My mornings and my evenings

Nesting in it are my memories

I cultivate in it lush dreams

I dreamt of a small window

The size of my hand

I look from it to see my sweetheart

When she comes from afar

She waves to me

That she is coming soon

Carrying between the folds of her heart

Happy news

A small window overlooking

Onto the rest of a new age

I dreamt in a place where

My one and only dream was 

And all that I wished for

Was to have a small window

The size of my hand

I dreamt

Kifah Abdulla is a poet, artist, performer, teacher and world citizen. Born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. He published his first book of poetry, “Dead Still Dream," in 2016. Abdulla was featured at the 13th Annual Belfast Poetry Festival 2017, Vinland Poetry Series, Gulf of Maine Books Reading, Curtis Memorial Library, and Portland Museum of Art. He is the Arabic calligraphy instructor at MECA, the Arabic language instructor at the Language Exchange, founder of Portland's International Arabic Language Day. He was a POW during the Iraq-Iran War, and spent over eight years in Iranian prisons.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc on "Poetry & Families"

The whole wide world is made, destroyed, and re-made through what we say (and don’t say) inside a family. Our experiences in our families shape how we put language together, how we see the world, our politics. These three poems ["Icarus Does the Dishes" by Tommye Blount and "Dear Melissa:" by TC Tolbert and Gibson's below] revolve around what is said (and not said) between parents and children.

"High Forest State Marginal" 

I fiddle a radio dial in answer

to a question no one asks how

why where what happened to bring

you lower than median grass and soot-

crusted snow the shiver your whole

body trembles with when a truck

muscles past which is also as long

as I see your face sign eyes

looking not looking looking not

High Forest State Marginal

some of us want a law in order

to not see you I would feel better

fail better too my boys backseat

like birds what should we do what should

we do nothing though one day I

talk big church charity program

something nothing the lines the lines

in your face the steel ingots the cracks

I repeat four street names like a chant

High Forest State Marginal

I tell a story in a car

needle spoon ink fist

it’s all I know to do bottle

cot bottle needle the only way

to see not see you there is

nothing to us but wishes wind

cardboard cloth words their lack

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc's first collection of poems, Death of a Ventriloquist (UNT Press, 2012), won the Vassar Miller Prize and was featured by Poets & Writers as one of a dozen debut collections to watch. Gibson’s poems have appeared in magazines including Guernica, The New Republic, and Tin House, on the PBS NewsHour Art Beat, and recently in jubilat, Slice, FIELD, and The Literary Review. “High Forest State Marginal” appeared in FIELD in the Spring 2016 issue.

Kennedy Johnson on "Survival & Confronting the Uncomfortable with Poetry"

I ask that we think about themes of survival, empowerment, momentum, fight energy, social change, and creating a culture of accountability. I would like us to meditate on our individual silences. We will explore what we believe needs to be said/ written / read to create positive social change and better the world. How does poetry confront the uncomfortable? What are our unsaids?

Kennedy brought the poems “Etiquette Leash” by Andrea Gibson and “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde, and read aloud their poem "Magic Trick." "Magic Trick" was originally conceived as a slam poem and is designed to be read aloud; it's included in full here.

I only know

One magic trick

No props necessary

But it does involve

Using your voice

So please prepare

It can take

A long time

To find it

Warning:

This is both

One of the saddest

And the most beautiful

Magic tricks

ever witnessed

And not

Sad and beautiful

In a sublime sense

For

This magic

Is far too real

The magic trick.

This is it:

When I open

My mouth

And I let

My secret

That is no secret

Come tumbling out

My secret is

Told back to me

In an echo

A hundred times over

By a thousand

Different mouths

This secret

Takes prisoners

Holds hostages

Makes us trapped

In our bodies

And demands

Our silence

That is how

This secret

Continues to exist

As if it were

A god

An entity

Almighty

Eternal

The magic

Happens

When one person

Speaks

And a resounding chorus

Of voices

Rises

When I say

I was raped

Suddenly

Almost

Everyone I know

Has been raped, too.

And that is the magic

Sad

Beautiful

And tragic

But there is something

Truly awe-some

When one voice

Can spark

An entire

Chain reaction

And in this way

Our secret dies

And we can survive

Sad and beautiful.

But magic

Nonetheless.

My dream

Is to hear

This secret

Told

Louder and louder

Until

It is completely

Laid to rest

To hear it

Like a call & response

A chant in the streets

To sing our pain

Out of our hearts

Carrying our trauma

In our open palms

Wish I could tell you

How many times

I’ve heard our secret

Told to me

For the first time

From someone’s lips

But I don’t count

Anymore

My heart

Was breaking

From the weight

Of it

I can’t give you a number

I know you want a statistic

I know we don’t believe anything

Until there’s a report

And even then

I can’t give you a number

But I can promise

Statistics

1 in 8 men, 1 in 5 women

Aren’t even close

To our reality

Tell me–

How do you

Calculate a statistic

On a crime

A trauma

From which

Most of the survivors

Are silent?

Must be

some kind

of magic trick.

Kennedy Johnson (she/her & they/them) is an artist and wordsmith based in Portland. They are primarily interested in interactive art, performance, installation, screen print, and poetry. Their work aims to address social justice issues and often centers around themes of vulnerability, sexuality, empowerment, sexual violence, conflict, nature, family, mental health, grief, trauma, and radical self-love. Their art is a reckoning, dismantling, and re-envisioning of the world around us. They hold a Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology with focuses in advocacy, Spanish, and poetry from College of the Atlantic. Explore more of Kennedy's work at https://kennedybjohnson.wordpress.com

Mihku Paul on "Language and Wordplay"

Mihku Paul discussed "poetry and language" — an innocuous-enough sounding lens that turned up rich and expansive results. "There are many ways of 'seeing' beyond the visual," she said. "How do we describe something so that it feels visual?" 

Paul discussed the poem "Hey You" by Adrian Blevins, and included her own piece here.

"They Say I Have Your Eyes"

Endless snow fell, cold crept in the 

cracked glass of a dirty window,

wound along bed sheets

bleached white as the blank wall

beside the bed where you

writhed in your reluctant agony.

What did you see in the pulsing arrival,

tragic homunculus,

pinked veins threading the limbs,

ambivalent screaming aria,

crying, crying for the first meal?

Twenty-one winters like scars on your skin,

lead in your bones, and home a windy nest, where

two more mouths begged to suckle.

Does this body speak to you in the blue dark hours,

when the morbid midnight ghosts of

all those mistakes crawl into your spiked mind?

Did your predilection for pain bring

on spasms of grief contracting like crimson in your

swollen torso, waves rippling

your branded womb,

like fire woven to one woman’s flesh?

Maybe, all around the world, Angels wept,

eyes averted, while lost souls buried 

the last songs they carried across

purgatory in their penitential hearts.

The lie become truth, a bitter fruit.

Did bad become good when

what was taken is now given?

Another girl, born in December,

like her mother, and her mother’s mother.

You say he raped you.

They say I have your eyes.

Mihku Paul is an Indigenous poet and artist born and raised in Maine.  She is a 2010 graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program. Her art has been featured on the cover of MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States). Her first book of poetry, 20th Century PowWow Playland, was published in 2012 by Greenfield Review Press.

Megan Grumbling on "Poetry and History"

Poetry can deal with history in a number of ways — celebrate it, expose it, interrogate it, complicate it. In Olio, the poet Tyehimba Jess does many of these things at once as he explores the historical phenomenon of minstrel shows and the complexities involved in black artists performing them for white audiences. 

Megan, a theater and film writer for the Phoenix, discussed how Jess incorporates documentary material and the imagined voices of historical characters into “syncopated sonnets” — so putting into conversation dual perspectives on what this history was and meant. Here is one of her own poems, which, she says, "subverts the form of a nostalgic pastoral ode to reveal a very unpastoral history of a childhood landscape, whose history I didn’t know as well as I thought."

Progress

Time’s changed this place, this trout pond. Knew it pure

‘til ’65: the purge, the pickerel

and pike so bony. Trout, the old guy sings

from stern, came only after nicotine

sulfate, tar-blackened water choking off

those no-good poor-man’s fishes. Quite a shock

to the old system. Soon some wilderness

went too, a switchback channel where I’d cast

my flashlight beam over the gunnel, lit

that eel thick as a bicep. I knew it

untouched ‘til ’62: shoreline contrived

of landlocked shrub, I hear tell from behind

the thwart, when Herbie Kezar hauled out scrub

oak, sumac, loam, hewed coast of naught. Some job

on the gestalt. Then shifts in earth retooled

a vale I’d often trod southwest. I knew

it ancient, glacial-delved and innocent,

‘til ’25: mill rats bade dig a trench

three feet lower than waterline, I hear

as we trudge low; when water for the wheel

got steep, they schemed to siphon it southwest

for nothing. They soon gave it up, but left

their mark, this furrow. Seems the more he clears

up, as we pace this place, the murkier

the view – rich, bottomless. May not be light,

but something’s thrown, is seen. No end in sight.

Megan Grumbling writes poetry, criticism and essays, and dramatic works, and serves as an editor, teacher, and writing mentor. Her collection Booker's Point, awarded the Vassar Miller Prize for Poetry, was released by the University of North Texas Press in 2016. Megan serves as Reviews Editor for The Café Review, a poetry and arts journal, and has since 2004 written weekly theater criticism for the Portland Phoenix. She teaches at the University of New England and Southern Maine Community College. 

LaLa Drew on "Exploring Identity and Activism Through Poetry"

Words are powerful. Words stick with us. I use poetry as a method to explore both myself and the world around me. Poetry is an excellent tool to travel into places sometimes too difficult to navigate in the day to day grind of life. Poetry is a way for me to check in with myself, who I am, where we are, and where we are going.

o Identity: the distinguishing character or personality of an individual: individuality

o Activism: a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue

LaLa facilitated the reading of the poem "Karma" by Dominique Christina in breakout groups. They also read their poems here.

45

The air is getting louder

Coming in with a harshness 

I don't remember hearing

It jars me

Lately I have been catching myself 

Grinding my teeth

I will myself to relax

It is an effort.

Itch

Small town cop strolls

Down driveway,

Semi-automatic rifle in hand

Taking in scenery

Like a child takes in sunshine

Another walks a dog around

The back of the house

Business as usual

No one gives a first - let alone

Second glance

Dogs walk people,

Children swing on swings,

Laughter and serenity echo

Through streets

As cop strolls with his

Semi-automatic rifle

Finger itching to pull the trigger.

LaLa Drew (they/them) is the producer and organizer of Bloodletting, a poetry night that began a poetry night that amplifies the voices of queer and trans people of color and femme people of color. LaLa Drew is also a contributor to the Phoenix

"Poetry and Truth-telling" — Lee Sharkey

“Worn, threadbare, filed down, words have become the carcass of words, phantom words; everyone drearily chews and regurgitates the sound of them between their jaws." The playwright Arthur Adamov’s response to the abuses of language during the Nazi Era describes what many of us are experiencing in the age of Trump. I’d like as we talk together tonight to explore the truth-telling quality of poetry, its power to carry the weight of history and foreknowledge out of silence and into a memorable language that enters the reader’s body and moves her to act. Sharkey included a 1981 poem by Denise Levertov, a post-WWII poem by Paul Celan, and a recent poem of her own:

"Golem"

My hands worked clay to fashion a golem.

Truth, said my hands, and painted the word on his forehead.

Breathe, said my hands, and he breathed.

Speak, said my hands, and he spoke.

Why, said my hands. Error, error, he stammered.

Where, asked my hands. In the loins, he answered.

Hands, said my hands. He raised his hands.

Hands, said my hands. He showed his long fingers.  

Fortissimo! Piano! my hands said. He shouted. He whispered.

Die, said my hands, erasing one letter. He shriveled and curled.

Nesting, he wept, in your shoulder.

Lee Sharkey (leesharkey.net, sharkey@maine.edu) is the author of Walking Backwards (Tupelo Press, 2016), Calendars of Fire (Tupelo, 2013), A Darker, Sweeter String (Off the Grid, 2008), and eight earlier full-length poetry collections and chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in ConsequenceCrazyhorse, FIELD, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, Seattle Review, and other journals. Her recognitions include the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, the Abraham Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, the Maine Arts Commission’s Fellowship in Literary Arts, and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance’s Distinguished Achievement Award.

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