September 28, 2003
Give Us this Day Our Daily Poetry


Picture this: you get a phone call, like the one Louise Gluck received in late August. The Librarian of Congress asks if you would be so kind as to be the United States Poet Laureate, and, like Gluck, you say yes. Now what? I asked two poets, Regie Gibson and Susan Donnelly, to imagine what they might want to do.

Although the position is honorary, it also seems to be about helping a hungry population find nourishment. And, in fact, Donnelly calls poetry "daily bread --daily and extraordinary at the same time, sustaining and universal, not just the property of a small group of poets. I think that poetry is needed in difficult times, and this is a difficult time."

Donnelly is the award-winning author of the chapbooks, "tenderly pressed" and "The Ether Dome"; and the collections, "Eve Names the Animals" and "Transit." Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Ploughshares, and is included in "The Norton Introduction to Poetry" and "The Norton Introduction to Literature."

Donnelly, who has always held part time office jobs to support her work as a poet, calls herself a "working class poet" and wishes more poetry reflected the experience of work. She would also like to see more people learn the discipline of writing in traditional poetic forms ("maybe a National Sonnet Day"). She and Gibson both speak of encouraging more minority voices.

Gibson envisions introducing more people to poetry by recruiting an army, not of soldiers, but of poet-ambassadors to invade the country's schools with a broad-based message as much from the streets and performance stages as from the universities.

"I would take applicants from among people in the final stages of their M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) studies and among those with performance experience. This isn't just a land of academics and these ambassadors would be more indicative of the way the U.S. is."

Gibson, recently named by Boston Magazine as one of the city's "rising stars" in literature, is a former National Poetry Slam champion and the the author of the collection, "Storms Beneath the Skin." He and his work appear in the film, "Love Jones" and he has been featured on National Public Radio. He also hosts the Ritual Word Arts Series the first Monday of the month at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge. He also wants to see people recognize the relationship between poetry and other arts.

"I'm talking about the musical/visual art/language connection," he says. "You look at Jackson Pollock's work. He was painting the way jazz felt to him--and this was 60 years ago. There's a weave that makes up the tapestry of American culture. If we understand that, once we look at the culture and see how it all fits together, we see what it means to be an American beyond the jingoism of forced patriotism.

"Poetry, culture--these are what define a people, not economics," Gibson says. "Culture will let us know whether or not we are truly a people or just individual fiefdoms bound together for individual profit."

Why is there a poet laureate at all but to remind us that this deeper aspect of our lives matters? To remind us, that, as Donnelly says, "poetry is mysterious and sexy and subversive," that it has the power to let us know ourselves and our world more fully.

"This is a time," says Donnelly, "when poetry is a like transformation we may all need. Poetry can open you to your own surprising self. Poetry is cheap, like the leaves on the trees. It should be dispersed widely. The more you have of it, the more you will have, like love."

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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