May 1, 2005
A Legacy of Poetry

If there’s one thing as important to Boston as its sports teams, it is its history. One piece of its literary history, a poetry workshop almost half a century old, resides in an ornate building at 5 Commonwealth Avenue, home of the Boston Center for Adult Education.

The workshop, under the guidance of John Holmes, was there in the late 1950s, in a room on the second floor, when, as literary legend recounts, Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton met and began their friendship and their poetry careers.

In a telephone interview Kumin said, “We were just two shy housewives, a pair of closet poets.” They were also eager students, quick learners whose prodigious gifts ultimately reshaped the poetry landscape.

The workshop was there in 1962, taught then by Sam Albert, when Ottone (Ricky) Riccio, joined it. Five years later Riccio became the workshop’s teacher, a post he held for the next 35 years, including the years when I was one of his students. Now two poets, Tom Daley and Jennifer Badot, share the position, teaching alternating terms.

“It’s an honor to fill Ricky’s shoes,” says Daley, who had been one of Riccio’s students, “but it’s a tall order.” Daley’s work has appeared in literary journals and won the Charles and Fanny Fay Wood Academy of American Poets Prize.

Badot, who has been widely published in small magazines and has taught several poetry workshops, concurs. “I knew that Ricky was a revered master teacher with a devoted following. I was also aware that this was a workshop with a rich history where many, many (poets) had honed and polished their craft, discovered their voices, so I was honored and humbled and wanted to serve the poets at the table and do justice to the tradition of the workshop itself. It’s the longest-running workshop in the area (like the Fantasticks off-Broadway)!”

Daley sees his role as one of guidance and encouragement. “It’s interesting to watch people evolve over time. Unlike in a class, the leader facilitates, rather than teaches. I don’t feel that ‘I, the teacher, am imparting wisdom from on high’. What I feel I can offer is to understand why the poet did what he or she did. Regardless of where the poet is coming from, we need to honor the creative effort.”

He likens the process to learning calligraphy, where learning to shape the letters is only the beginning.

“You also need to learn to breathe so that the letters can be fluid. It’s a balance of discipline and imagination, just as learning to write poetry is. And the goal of a good workshop is to show participants how to tap into that imagination, so they can find new ways to articulate the emotions and ideas that inspire them to write and so they can leave each session feeling challenged but also encouraged.

“Writing is such a solitary experience. The workshop gives you a place where, once a week, you can share your triumphs, your frustrations, have an audience, have a voice, sit and listen to other people’s poems, get a multiplicity of perspectives.”

Badot hopes the workshop participants will “stretch themselves and grow as poets. My goal for the workshop is to create a supportive and artistically rigorous environment where we are very kind to the poet, yet demanding and exacting of the poem. “

Both Badot and Daley say part of the workshop’s strength lies in its democracy, the fact that it is affordable and open to all. Badot calls it “a true poetic melting pot. Beginners and masters alike can sign up and sit at the table, roll up their sleeves, and dive into the soup.”

What we’re reading now: Tom Daley is reading Daniel Bosch's first collection of poetry, Crucible, which he describes as, “heartfelt elegies, witty, erudite bricolage,” poems of “passionate, well-crafted music.” Jennifer Badot is reading Howard’s End, by E. M. Forster, and says,” it is so virtuosically written that I want to memorize every other sentence." I am reading This Side of Married by Rachel Pastan. Her mother, Linda Pastan, is one of my favorite poets, so the name drew me in, but the book’s charm held me on its own.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com.

 
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Defiance
by Tom Daley

She is stepping backwards now
and laughing, the twin straps
of her bathing suit
looped over her upper arms.
The afternoon coppers
her hair, her rebuke
has softened like chalk.
The tide is yanking the wind
out to sea beyond her ears.
At her feet, the magma
has forsaken its fire.
All her life,
she has warded off caution
with her mouth.
It is not for nothing
that the world has left her so:
bare-legged, wanton,
bristling like a vapor trail
in the track of the sun.

COOK
by Jennifer Badot

I’m happiest cooking in the morning
before the day reduces to thicknesses.
I quarter the apples first, arrange them
in a yellow enamel pot. I praise
the solid form of butter just as it melts
around onions (I slice them quick,
ease them off the board into an iron
pan so hot—what else matters?)
I waste nothing: skins of fish I tack
to trees in the yard; rinds I let dry
in heaps on the hall table. The day
I came to cooking, I’d led
an inconsequential life. Then the ceremony
of crackling salt pork deranged me.


 
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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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