Since 1996, our nation has celebrated April as National Poetry Month. Established by the Academy of American Poets, the aim of the month-long celebration is to increase poetry’s visibility and accessibility, call attention to its diverse practices and incarnations, and spotlight its rich tradition in our national literature.
During National Poetry Month, I visited (one of them virtually) 15 of North Carolina’s 100 counties – a number of them in decidedly rural, even remote, areas. I’m delighted, exhilarated, to report that poetry is thriving across the state because of concerted, often heroic, collaborative efforts among libraries, school systems, arts councils, colleges, community colleges, universities, hospitals and other agencies – though the advocacy for poetry, of all writing, reading and literacy among these partners, is hardly confined to the month of April.
What I participated in and witnessed first-hand was just the tip of the iceberg: only a portion of what was going on in 15-percent of North Carolina counties. It’s staggering, and beyond gratifying, to contemplate the additional activity generated in the remaining 85-percent of the state where poets, educators, librarians, students and many, many of our state’s citizens gathered in small and large towns, in small and large rooms, to spread the news and celebrate poetry in April, what T.S. Eliot famously called in “The Wasteland” the “cruelest month.” On the other hand, I’m told by Hannah Sykes, an English professor at Rockingham Community College, where I visited in March that her 8 year old son, Hayes – a poetry aficionado and Billy Collins devotee – terms it “the coolest month,” in part, I’m certain, because Hayes’ birthday is in April.
Again, enormous gratitude to all those who pool resources, energy, time and, often, shoestring budgets to celebrate poetry in April, and perpetuate it among our children and students who are, after all, the future of verse, the future of the planet.
What follows is a bit of a log of my sojourn on the road during National Poetry Month.
I woke up on April 1 in Wilson, the first day of National Poetry month and, not incidentally, the opening day of the 2013 baseball season. Here’s a 1908 Rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. Along with Debra Kaufman and Al Maginnes, I participated in the 17th annual Barton College Creative Writing Symposium, spearheaded by Jim Clark, a Barton English professor, poet and musician, with assistance from Rebecca Godwin, also a Barton English professor and writer. The symposium took place in Barton’s beautiful Sam and Marjorie Ragan Writing Center. The first thing you see upon entering the building is an enormous oil of Sam Ragan, North Carolina’s third poet laureate, statesman, man of letters, and long-time editor of The Southern Pines Pilot. It’s a wonderful painting, vibrantly colored, perhaps the least bit impressionistic. Sam, a long lit cigarette in his mouth, sits at an exaggeratedly piled desk, while Marjorie hurries in with yet another load of papers to heap upon the overflow. “Selected Poets” was the symposium’s theme, tied to Jim’s Ecopoetry Class. One of the day’s sessions featured his Barton students presenting “The Ecological Dimension,” a comprehensively canny treatment of the featured poets’ work through the lens of the natural world and sustainability. There was also a conversation with the poets, and a public reading, with a discussion afterward. It was the first warm spring evening of the season and, when we stepped outside afterwards, the sky draping Barton’s campus bell-tower was purple and filled with about thirty squawking blackbirds. The white dogwood was in full bloom. A poem by Al Maginnes. Poems by Jim Clark. Here’s a link to four of Debra’s poems.
On April 2, I took NC 42 west before dawn out of Wilson toward Richmond Community College in Hamlet. Beautiful country: mainly old farmsteads and barns, some abandoned; ancient trees; plowed fields; the occasional hawk sitting on a telephone wire. I think of Richard Hugo’s great little book, The Triggering Town, each time I pass through tiny North Carolina towns, like the ones on 42 – often just a post office, country store, or a crossroads – and contemplate the myriad occasions for poems secreted into each one of them. Here’s a poem for the season by Hugo (a wonderfully generous man I met at least thirty years ago at Kay Byer’s home in Cullowhee) called “Missoula Softball Tournament.”
Hamlet is the birth place of jazz legend John Coltrane and Tom Wicker, prize-winning columnist for the New York Times and author of A Time to Die, about the 1971 Attica Prison riot, by my lights, the best book, period, on prisons. Coltrane and Wicker were born just three months apart in 1926. This poem is “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” by Michael S. Harper.
RCC professors, Althea Hunsucker and Linda Pridgen, saw to it that every opportunity to involve students in my visit was maximized. Not only did they pack RCC’s beautiful state-of-the-art Cole Auditorium with RCC students, staff, faculty, and Early College High School students, but they streamed my reading and the ensuing conversation live via the internet to their satellite campuses. Later in the day, I visited a Composition class where we discussed home and place and their integral roles in our lives and stories. This was a satellite class, so I was able to be not only in that Hamlet classroom, but additionally “present,” via a monitor (like standing on the bridge of the Enterprise in the old Star Trek series), among a roomful of students in RCC’s satellite campus in downtown Laurinburg in Scotland County.
On April 3 I trekked to the beautiful campus of North Carolina A & T University in Greensboro. My hosts were professors and poets, Valerie Nieman and Kevin Rippin (who, worth noting, grew up in Pittsburgh, my home town). I spent a working-lunch talking about poetry and literacy with university librarians and a few administrators. We were joined as well by Anjail Rashida Ahmad, also an A & T professor and poet. Before my evening public reading, I visited in a variety of venues with A & T students: Creative Writing, Honors, and Liberal Studies classes, and even first year students, still contemplating majors. These students were not only conversant with poetry, but their styles and tastes cut across a wide swath, from the traditional to spoken word and performance artists. Their candor, their wildly imaginative and elastic use of language – above all, the aural integrity of their poems, whether written or recited – underscored again and again how important the ear is to poetry. In fact, our refrain for the day, literally, was “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” from Duke Ellington’s famous 1931 composition of the same name. Here’s a suite of poems by Anjail. And here’s a poem, “Adam and Eve as Fire and Water,” by Valerie Nieman.
On April 6, Press 53 hosted its third annual Gathering of Poets at the Community Arts Café in Winston-Salem. Teaching and reading were Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Alan Michael Parker, Kelly Davio, Shirlette Ammons, Fred Chappell and me. A host of North Carolina poets attended the workshops, read their work and simply chatted about poetry. The goodwill and camaraderie at a Gathering of Poets was pervasive, a fine way to celebrate spring and, as much as anything, to just sit around, eat and drink, relax and catch up with old and new friends in an environment that was scheduled and substantive, but not tyrannically so.
Press 53, through the unlimited energy, work ethic, affability and just good old-fashioned savvy business acumen of Kevin Watson, and his vibrant staff, which includes Christine Norris, who was ever-present during the weekend, has launched an enterprise of decided mettle, enlivening the literary scene of North Carolina. Press 53 gives us yet another North Carolina small press of integrity – boutique in its scope and preference – devoted to producing quality books by quality writers. Press 53’s reach is national, and while it publishes short fiction and other genres, its affections have mainly been happily rooted in North Carolina and among the state’s ever-growing trove of poets. In addition, it more than bears mentioning that one of Press 53’s most ambitious ongoing projects, of lasting archival and literary importance, is its commitment to insuring that out of print titles by renowned North Carolina author, John Ehle, be reissued under its imprint.
During the Gathering, Press 53 also unveiled Poetry in Plain Sight, beautiful broadsides of short poems by North Carolina poets. Poetry in Plain Sight is a new program created to bring poetry to downtown Winston-Salem, along streets and in offices. Four poems will be chosen each month and displayed on posters in sixteen shop windows throughout Winston-Salem’s Arts and Entertainment District. The program is a collaboration among Winston-Salem Writers, Press 53, Delta Arts Center, Barnhill’s Books, and Competitive Edge, Inc; and is supported by DADA, the Downtown Arts District Association of Winston-Salem.
I sat in on Fred’s workshop – truly memorable for so many reasons. One of the things he said was: “There are some poets who write a poem and would rather die than have that poem erased from the universe.” Here’s Fred’s “Narcissus and Echo“.
On April 11, Tom Patterson, an independent art critic who lives in Winston-Salem and writes for The Winston-Salem Journal, was at Appalachian State University to deliver a talk about Black Mountain College, in a series that I host called The Black Mountain Lectures. In 1933, a band of disgruntled academic dissidents from Rollins College in Florida, led by John Andrew Rice, founded Black Mountain College in North Carolina’s very rural Swannanoa Valley in Buncombe, just outside of Asheville. Black Mountain College closed its doors in 1956, yet to this day remains the greatest experimental academic adventure ever launched on American soil. During its shimmering stormy history, many of the world’s greatest thinkers and artists were in residence or paid visits at Black Mountain: Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Eric Bentley, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Merce Cunningham, Edward Dahlberg, Sr., John Dewey, Galway Kinnell, Aldous Huxley, Alfred Kazin, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Paul Goodman, Walter Gropius, Langston Hughes, Alma Stone Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Henry Miller, Robert Motherwell, Arthur Penn, Francine du Plessix-Gray, Robert Rauschenburg, Ben Shahn, Aaron Siskind, Cy Twombly, Thornton Wilder, and countless others. As Martin Duberman points out in his dazzling history, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community: “It was the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in art, education and lifestyle.”
Of course, Tom’s visit prompted on campus an increased interest in the Black Mountain College and, more specifically, the Black Mountain Poets. Rigidly defined in Donald Allen’s watershed 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, the canonical Black Mountain Poets are: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Carroll, Paul Blackburn, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, and Larry Eigner. The Black Mountain Poets are a key school in the pantheon of American poetry, leagued often with the Beats, the New York School and the San Francisco Renaissance. It’s important to remember that they took not only their name, but arguably aspects of their aesthetic, as well, from North Carolina. Here’s a baseball poem by Paul Blackburn about the greatest World Series game of all time: “7th Game: 1960 Series,” by Paul Blackburn.
On the way from Boone to Murfreesboro, on April 14, Joan, my wife, and I passed through the little town of Norlina in Warren County. The famous Hotel Norlina still stands. Famous people, like Randolph Scott and Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower quartered there; and, inexplicably, two of The Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The old hotel sign still swings awry from its chain.
I spent April 15 in Murfreesboro in Hertford County on the campus of Chowan University. I lectured, read my work, and talked with students, faculty and citizens of the surrounding community about poetry. Chowan has been cultivating a distinctive literary presence in North Carolina for the past twenty years. The university hosts annually the Mary Frances Hobson Lecture and Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters and invites each spring a writer from the region to accept the prize and deliver a lecture. Initiated in 1995 by the Hobson Family Foundation of San Francisco, the award serves as a memorial to Mary Frances Hobson, a journalist and poet, who was the first woman to receive the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in journalism from the University of North Carolina. Chowan has a lively student literary magazine, Creative Juices, and also sponsors The Creative Writing Club. I was pleased that I was able to eat at Andy’s, a restaurant that’s a Murfreesboro institution. It has the front end – as in the actual front end – of a vintage Chevrolet spliced into the dining room.
April 16, I journeyed into the deep beautiful country of Northampton County on my way to Northeast Academy in Lasker. They set me up in the gym – which I loved – and packed the bleachers first with 7th through 12th graders and then, in session two, with 3rd through 6th graders. Being in a gym was the perfect opportunity to read a few poems about sports, and get the kids on their feet reading their own poems after a prompt. Certainly, what will always be a favorite evaluative email came a few days after my visit from Dr. Danny Moore, Chowan University’s Provost, who took really expert care of me while I was at Chowan. Dr. Moore wrote: “… your visit to Northeast Academy has inspired my daughter to write poetry. Until your visit, she enjoyed writing stories about vampires. Now, she is writing poems about, well, vampires.”
From Northeast, I headed back to Murfreesboro and Hertford County Middle School where I read and fielded questions and talked to the students about the affinity between music and poetry, and even got to showcase my three or so sentences (“too little knowledge”) about Rap and Hip-Hop. As I was leaving Hertford Middle I was met by a handful of students carrying signs, almost like sandwich boards, that read, Poem in your Pocket, a National Poetry Month activity Hertford Middle students were participating in. The wonderfully accommodating principal there, Vatara Slade, as well as equally accommodating Assistant Principal, Bryan Ruffin, explained that the students were warming up for Thursday, April 18, which had been designated Poem in Your Pocket Day when students were to share their favorite poems throughout the day.
While in Murfreesboro, my wife, Joan, and I stayed at The English Inn, on East High Street, a regal old Southern manse recently restored and, according to its charming owners, Keith and Geri Bradshaw, indisputably haunted.
I walked into a huge auditorium on April 17th at College of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. It was packed with faculty, students, staff, and members of the greater Pasquitank County community. What swelled the audience, and was so gratifying, is that my host, Dean Roughton, Division Chair of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of English, had invited high schools in COA’s a seven county service area – including Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Gates, Camden, Currituck, and Dare counties – to bus students in for my 10 a.m. reading and talk and then back to their respective campuses in time for lunch. I was also delighted to learn that COA students formed a writing club this semester. In addition, COA Art professor, Gale Flax invited fourteen of her students to complete paintings on a number of my poems – terrifically flattering and a treat to see the student art – and is assembling a booklet coupling the poems with the images, a wonderfully imaginative, ekphrastic collaboration between painting and poetry. Here’s an ekphrastic poem, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” by Adrienne Rich.
I was still in Elizabeth City, at Elizabeth City State University, on April 18. Before my evening reading, I visited Dr. Joe Lisowski’s creative writing class and conducted a workshop using George Ella Lyons’ extraordinary, globally prominent, prompt, “Where I’m From.” The poems the students produced were so very good, so very evolved; and all of the students, in their poems, dug deeply into memory and language to articulate outrageous, memorable profiles of where they are from, physically, psychically, and spiritually. In that class were two students who had distinguished themselves at Louder than the Bomb: Performed Spoken Word at the Downtown Community Center in Chicago on March 1, 2013. The student literary magazine at ECSU is The Phoenix. Certainly worth noting, apart from the fact that Joe Lisowski, is an accomplished well-published poet, is fact that he grew up in Pittsburgh in a working class Polish-American neighborhood right next to mine. More astonishing than that is that he taught at my high school, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, when I attended – though I was never in one of his classes. Here’s one of Joe’s poems called “Red Peonies”.
April 20: Ashe County. I had lunch with a group of fifth grade teachers interested in launching next year a poetry initiative for their students. We were warming up for the day’s main event: Ashe County’s Alyce P. Nadeau Annual Children’s Poetry Contest, Ms. Nadeau herself in attendance and doling out encouragement to the young poets. All 5th grade students in Ashe County are eligible for this competition and the turnout was fabulous. Not just the poets, but parents and grandparents and quite a few members of the community. All the contestants read their poems and the winners received cash awards. I then taught an adult poetry workshop sponsored by the very active Ashe County Friends of the Library. As usual I was stunned by the variety and skill of the work-shopped poems, and I never fail to marvel that every town seems to harbor a cadre of poets who lovingly harbor each other and provide to one another indispensable life lines.
On the way home from Ashe County, I made a brief pilgrimage to the columbarium at Saint Elizabeth’s of the Hill Country Catholic Church in Boone where Paul Carroll is interred. A dogwood bloomed just above the creek stone wall of the columbarium: Paul Caroll, 1927-1996. I mentioned earlier that Carroll is one of the seminal Black Mountain poets. Interestingly enough, he and his wife Maryrose Carroll, a renowned visual artist, made their home for many years, where Maryrose still resides, in Bethel, North Carolina, a ways out from Boone in a remote reach of Watauga County. Apart from his Black Mountain connection, Carroll is an acknowledged, major figure in the avant-garde movement of poetry in the mid-twentieth century. He founded the Poetry Center of Chicago, and was the poetry editor of Chicago Review and also of Big Table. Here’s a poem called “Baseball and Writing,” by the great high Modernist Marianne Moore.
April 22: At Mars Hill College, in Madison County, I had dinner with creative writing students and Mars Hill professors and writers, Carol Boggess and Hal McDonald. After my reading, the Mars Hill students showcased Cadenza, the college’s student literary magazine, a beautiful publication featuring writing and visual art, including photography. This was Cadenza’s fortieth anniversary issue – an incomparable achievement for a student literary magazine. There was an awards ceremony for Best in the categories mentioned above. Then the students read their work and slides of the visual art were displayed. This is “Baseball,” by Gail Mazur.
April 23: My day began gloriously with three classes of 3rd graders, under the virtuoso tutelage of Libby Campbell, an utterly legendary teacher, at Cool Spring Elementary in Iredell County. Now retired, Ms. Campbell volunteers to teach poetry at Cool Spring. I first met her about twenty years ago when I was teaching at Mitchell Community College in Statesville. I’d often visit her classes at North Middle School in North Iredell County. We talk habitually about gifted teachers, but Ms. Campbell is a magician. At North Middle, she somehow was able to inspire students who typically would not touch poetry with a ten foot pole to not only read poetry, but to memorize and perform it lavishly: beloved children’s authors like Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, and Brod Bagert, but also poets like Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg. Since she’s been at Cool Spring, she’s also initiated monthly visits by her 3rd graders to Statesville Place Assisted Living where she volunteers once a week. The children write poems for the residents and share them in an orchestrated program. As Ms. Campbell says, “This is a fantastic experience for all of us.”
I ran through a list poem exercise with the children and they got up and read and then we brainstormed zanily about an anthology of possum poems – they all had possum stories – that would be fun to put together. With Mrs. Campbell, riding shotgun, I then drove into Statesville and gave a reading at the Iredell Public Library sponsored by the vibrant Friends of the Iredell Library. In the late afternoon I visited the Salisbury VA Hospital, and a group of, essentially, Vietnam veterans, and a handful of elderly Korean War and World War II vets. One of the Vietnam-era vets, just two years older than I am – and astonishingly someone I had corresponded with over twenty-five years ago when I chaired the NC Writers Network Fiction Syndicate – was in the audience. He had continued writing all these years, poems and plays, sheafs of them, some of which he read, a longer one I took with me.
I had ten minutes to browse the Literary Bookpost, a really cool bookstore in downtown Salisbury, that has John Fante and Wanda Coleman on their shelves, and hosts of other often hard to find titles and authors in stock. Nothing seems to get remaindered or returned. A beautiful reliquary of books. I ended the day at the Rowan County Public Library where I was MC for the very first (and hopefully annual) Teen Poetry Slam judged by local teachers and library supporter. The Slam was spearheaded by Rowan Youth Services Coordinator Erika Kosin, in collaboration with the county schools. A dozen or so students, and their parents and friends, crowded a room where, round after round – in the vein of Poetry Out Loud – the students recited poems until the winners were announced. Not only did the students do a terrific job, but they had also written the poems. Here’s a poem by Kenn Nesbitt called “If School Were More Like Baseball” And a poem by Wanda Coleman called “A Stonehold”.
On April 24 I attended an open mike at ASU in celebration of National Poetry month. About 80 students showed up to read (occasionally from cell phones – thoroughly miraculous eyesight), recite, and perform original pieces – including one gorgeous song – that spanned every conceivable trope, style and subject. Without interruption or lull in enthusiasm, the readings went on for nearly three hours, in the same spirit as a ball game and with all the inherent joy. The students also rallied around The Peel, ASU’s student literary magazine. Here’s “The Crowd at the Ball Game,” by William Carlos Williams.
On April 25 I attended the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Library’s On the Same Poem luncheon. Behind the expert and warm orchestration of Candace Brennan, Reference Librarian, each year the library chooses a poem for the community to read, has teachers lead conversations about it, prints book marks with the poem, and brings the poet to town for a reading and discussion. A key feature of On the Same Poem is the Teen Ink Poetry Contest, held in conjunction with it, and sponsored by Winston-Salem Writers. Students in grades 6 through 12 are invited to enter. The winners received Barnes & Noble gift cards, had lunch with the featured poet and received a copy of one of his books. The best part was, of course, when they read their poems. It’s a great celebration of poetry, where an entire city, and its surrounding county, come together to talk about a single poem, champion books, and poetry and the future of the art through its wonderful young poets. It was a packed event: parents and family and a number of county teachers. State Librarian Cal Shepard, and Molly Westmoreland, Director of the North Carolina Center for the book, were also in the audience. This is “First Girls in Little League Baseball,” by J. Patrick Lewis.
From April 26 to 28, I taught at a writing workshop sponsored by The Sun magazine of Chapel Hill called Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal Writing. It was held at the beautiful Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland. Other members of the faculty were North Carolina writers Krista Bremer, Mark Smith-Soto, Pat MacEnulty; as well as Doug Crandall, a writer from Georgia. The Sun workshops are quietly intense and rewarding – for both teachers and students. That weekend, Wildacres became more Gothic, more mysterious and inviting, by the minute as mammoth clouds of fog floated in on rain at dusk; and, by nightfall, things were completely cloaked. Here’s Mark’s “Night Watch”.
I left early Sunday morning, in dense rainy fog and half a road, bound for McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro to read with Jaki Shelton Green. The trip down the mountain was easy enough, but it was freezing and my heater would only send out cold air. I looked at the temperature gauge; it was stationed straight-up on hot. I knew what that meant, but I couldn’t stop where I was on a steep curvy road in the fog and rain. When I got to the bottom of the mountain, I still wasn’t seeing steam from beneath the hood, a good sign, so I turned toward Marion and made it maybe a few miles until I wheeled into the parking lot of Mystic – a convenience store on Route 226 close to where the highway intersects with American Thread Road – and turned off the car. Smoke poured out from the front of the car; the radiator started sputtering, then blew. There’s a story about the people who took care of me at Mystic while I waited for the wrecker, and there’s another one about my ride up over the mountain back to Boone in the cab with the driver-mechanic. I didn’t make it to that reading with Jaki, and I had been looking forward to it, to seeing her, my fine friend, the dazzling poet. Here’s her poem called “Wishing”.
April 29, I read at the Greensboro Public Library, which was also the site of North Carolina’s Poetry Out Loud semi-final and final competitions on March 16. Assistant Director of the Library, Steve Sumerford, and his staff do so much year in and year out to showcase the work of poets of all stripe and to reach deeply into the community with their programming. The Greensboro Library has rapidly become one of the state’s poetry hubs. In the audience that night were members of Triad Poetry Meetup, a local group of poets and writers who had asked ahead of times for copies of a few of the poems I’d be reading so they could come prepared with questions. This is “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” by Buddy Johnson and Count Basie.
National Poetry Month, the first month of baseball season, ended April 30. I was in Fayetteville – where Babe Ruth, in a minor league game, hit his very first professional home run in 1914 – to teach an afternoon workshop and then give an evening reading. The workshop was lively and attended mainly by seniors who responded brilliantly to a prompt asking them to write a poem about their very first driving lesson. Wonderful poems, all rooted in vintage eras and simply fabulous automobiles. Here is Carter Revard’s “Driving in Oklahoma“. The evening reading was attended by a number of high school students, who asked questions and furiously scribbled, while I kidded them about extra credit. And finally, “Casey at the Bat”, by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. — Joseph Bathanti