August 10, 2003
Poets, Audience in Search of Each Other


"It's not a true poem unless someone picks it up and reads it," says poet Peter Jay Shippy. But he admits the audience can be
hard to find.

"One part of you has convinced yourself there's a huge audience waiting out there if only someone would publish your work," he says, adding that there is that other part that is convinced no one will ever want to publish or read your work. Shippy writes what he describes as "wacky, weird-looking" poetry designed to draw a reader in with "fireworks and costumes," "a goofy title and a strange first line." He pictures readers approaching his poetry the way they might approach abstract art. He figured he might have a hard time getting published.

And, in fact, for two decades after he graduated from Emerson and got his M.F.A. from the Iowa University Writers Workshop, he taught and wrote and saw little evidence of an audience eagerly awaiting his work. Then, in a single magical year, his book, Thieves Latin, won the 2002 Iowa Poetry Prize and was published by Iowa University Press. Then Shippy was given a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, and, as icing on the cake, he was named the Emerson College 2002 adjunct teacher
of the year.

Betty Buchsbaum is almost surprised to call herself a poet and to find an audience eager for her words. Although Buchsbaum spent her teen years filling speckled notebooks with her poetry, she spent her career teaching literature and creative writing and serving as vice president for academic affairs at Massachusetts College of Art. Now retired, she has returned to poetry. In January 2004, her book, The Love Word, will be published by Chicory Blue Press.

"I write from the perspective of a long life and a long marriage," says Buchsbaum, whose poems are marked as much by personal history as by academic expertise. She says she has no illusions that her work will have a huge audience, but she has seen response enough to feel encouraged. She has enviable publication credits, recently won a New England Poetry Club prize and, after readings, is consistently surrounded by admirers.

"It's nice when someone says that something you've written means something to them, stays with them, helps them."

Although they write in very different voices, Shippy and Buchsbaum might both find their ideal audience in Rosalie Bookston. A librarian at the Brookline Public Library who also leads an informal poetry study group, Bookston is a thoughtful and far-ranging reader. She relishes the challenges and rewards poetry can offer.

"Poetry is demanding.," Bookston says. "You have to work harder, slow down, re-read it. You need to talk about it and read it again and hear it aloud. But it's so refreshing what you can discover."

Maybe that's the point--that more important than number of copies sold or overflow crowds for a reading is the gift of a reader's time and attention.

"You have books you love, you develop love affairs with certain poets, and you wonder what it would be like to have someone look at your work that way," Shippy says.

Bookston acknowledges how hard it is for poets. "The odds are terrible. It's so highly competitive and the audience is so small. But, when you find a poem or a poet you can relate to, it's such a treasure: Here's this little jewel and this is just for me."

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

 
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