By Teri Blair
Five months ago I started a poetry and meditation group in my home. And I’ll tell you straight up: if I can start a poetry group, anyone can start a poetry group.
I am not well read when it comes to poets. Before doing this, if called upon to name poets I would have only been able to tick off the most obvious choices: Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson. For most of my life I’ve felt intimidated by poetry. When I’d hear a poem read, I’d usually feel like I didn’t get it. I considered the door to poetry locked and bolted, entered by only a heady few.
But at the beginning of 2008, I began to get an itch to do something to make the world a better place. I know, I know, such a cliché. But I was tired of feeling depressed by the sort of people and events that grab headlines. I was frustrated, feeling like my country was being taken over by things I didn’t like or believe in. I was worried that people weren’t reading like they used to. I wanted to do something to steer the world in the direction I wanted it to go.
The idea for the group dawned on me one day, and I recognized it immediately as something I could pull off. I could invite people over to my house; we’d sit together for an hour, hear good poetry, and be still. And that’s pretty much what we do. It’s not a complicated event.
Each month I pick out a poet. To do this, I browse in a bookstore or library, or go to an online poetry site. I like choosing poets from around the country and from varied backgrounds, but for the first meeting of the group, I picked a Nebraskan poet, just so we could get used to hearing poetry from a Midwestern voice. Since then, we’ve been to Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, and Virginia.
I select poets whose words and voices are accessible. I live in a city with a sensational library system, so I get all the poet’s books with my public library card. I sit on my living room floor with books scattered around me, and slowly page through them. Certain poems jump out at me, and these are the ones I put a bookmark next to.
The people in my poetry group have the option of helping me read, so I email them poems I’ve selected. This gives them the chance to practice reading the poems out loud before we meet. I do a little research on the poets so I can share a bit about their lives and what brought them to writing. I keep this short. I don’t think anyone wants an endless historic lecture.
When we gather, I have candles lit. We get quiet, and I tell everyone what I’ve learned about the poet whose work we’ll hear. I don’t memorize this; I have it written on a piece of paper. I play a song to begin to slow us down, and then we listen to poetry. About one poem every five minutes with silence in-between. Sometimes I can find sound recordings at the library of the authors reading their own works. So at the end, we’ll listen to the writer reading a few of his or her own poems.
So far, our poets have all been living. So we sign a card thanking them and telling them the titles of the poems we heard. I find mailing addresses online and mail the card the next day. Then we drink tea, eat snacks (I ask for a volunteer to bring treats), and hang around. That’s it.
This is what I know so far:
- I feel a lot better adding something of decency and substance to the world.
- I am getting to know poets, and I am thrilled. If you say the name Maya Angelou to me, I’m tracking with you. If Rita Dove comes to town to read, I’ll be all over her work.
- Everyone who comes knows that for at least one hour every month they will get to be still in a busy world.
- After the Mary Oliver night, a 26-year-old from our group went and bought all her books. Three people purchased tickets to hear her speak when she came to Minneapolis last March. I’m pretty sure these things wouldn’t have happened if not for the exposure to her work.
- We got to participate in National Poem in Your Pocket Day in April. We wouldn’t have known about it had I not been searching poetry websites.
- Ted Kooser wrote to our group. I’m here to say I have a postcard from a two-time Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner hanging on my bulletin board. Not bad.
- The people who come range in age from 26-55. It feels healthy to be in a cross-age group.
- Hosting these evenings is part of my writing practice. It is a tangible way to move my life in the direction I want it to go.
- The people who come seem genuinely happy to participate. Someone told me this morning that it feeds her soul.
- On Gary Soto night, a young group member (a Spanish major) read her poem twice, first in Spanish and then in English. It was deeply touching to hear another language spoken; it brought tears to our eyes. I don’t know why it did, but it was good. Gary sent us a postcard, too. Part of it is written in Spanish. That Gary.
- After deciding that July would feature the poetry of Louise Erdrich, my friend and I saw her a few rows back on the same airplane when we were returning from a writing retreat. It was almost too much synchronicity to grasp. The sort of serendipity that makes your head feel dizzy and your stomach full of butterflies.
- When Robert Bly was named Minnesota’s first Poet Laureate, we swelled with pride. Poetry mattered to us.
All that. And all I had was desire and a library card.
All The Best From Nebraska, postcard (back), March 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
Golden Rule, postcard (front), painting by Ted Kooser, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 24″, March 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis. She is currently writing a profile series on teachers who taught in one-room rural schools before, during, and after WW II. They appear monthly in Senior Perspective.