Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us


A little over a year ago, Barbara Burns, the editor of Outlook, and I hatched a plan to create a print venue for bringing more attention to poets in the Hickory area. We thought a column, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, whatever we could manage, featuring a poem by a local writer would do the trick. It was not really a novel idea. In fact, the “poetry corner” was once a staple of locally-owned newspapers across the country. In recent years, however, that tradition seems to have fallen out of favor. That, combined with the fact that Hickory has become home to a surprising number of widely-published poets, made it seem the perfect time and location for just such a column to be reinvented.
We quickly decided on the name “Musings,” and a year ago today, the first installment of this column was published in Outlook. We decided the standard format of the column would be to include a poem and a brief biography of the poet, but we also decided to be flexible and occasionally venture into book reviews, interviews, and commentary on anything related to poetry. In fairly quick order we also expanded our scope to include poets coming to Hickory to read their work at Poetry Hickory or other local venues.
Not surprisingly to anyone who knows anything about poetry in the Hickory area, the first poet we featured in “Musings” was Tim Peeler, a native of Hickory and long-time fixture at CVCC and in the Hickory poetry community. From that beginning we’ve gone on this past year to publish 44 poems by 37 different poets ranging from NC Poet Laureate Kay Byer to local high school student, Jeni Conklin. Taken together, these poems form an impressive array of work (hmm, maybe an anthology should be in the future).
We have also featured information on events like Poetry Hickory, Aroma of Art, the Ekphrastic Poetry Event, Poetry Month, and the Women’s Resource Center Book Release Party for Voices and Vision. We have highlighted area poetry journals like Wild Goose Poetry Review and Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, local presses like Main Street Rag, vital organizations for poets like NC Poetry Society, Poetry Council of North Carolina, and NC Writer’s Network. Then, perhaps my personal favorites were the op-ed style columns on “The Top 10 Reasons for Going to a Poetry Reading,” “Why Poetry,” “Why Poetry Doesn’t Sell,” the loss of NC’s Poet Laureate, “How to Read a Poem” and other topics.
I discovered along the way that we were not as alone in this as I first thought. I found other weekly poetry columns in print, including Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry,” which is published in a large number of newspapers across the country, Bill Diskin’s “Poetryork” in York, Pennsylvania’s York Daily Record, Robert Pinsky’s “Poet’s Choice” in The Washington Post, as well as columns in The Lawrence Journal-World, The Oregonian, and England’s The Guardian. I am grateful that we are not the only ones who think such coverage of poetry is still justified.
I am also grateful to Barbara Burns, to the staff of Newton’s Observer News Enterprise, to the poets who continue to share their work with us, and of course most of all, to the readers of “Musings” and their continued understanding of the vitality of poetry today. I hope this will be the first in a long series of anniversaries to come.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Poetry Day to Have Hickory Flavor


Every year since 1950, the Poetry Council of North Carolina has held a one day celebration of poetry, designated as Poetry Day, at Catawba College in Salisbury. This year Poetry Day will take place on October 10, and it will have a definite Hickory flavor.
This year’s Poetry Day will include the usual speeches and exciting performances by the group, Chambergrass, and Poetry Out Loud (a national high school recitation project) participants, but the highlight of Poetry Day this year, as in every year, is the series of readings by winners in the Council’s annual poetry competitions. The Hickory flavor in this year’s celebration comes in the Sam Ragan Contest for High School Students and Undergraduates, where three of the winners are students from Hickory. Recent St. Stephens High School graduate, Liz (Megan) Monish placed second in that competition, and CVCC students Jacob Gryder and Keegan Blankenship were both recognized as honorable mentions by judge Joseph Milford .
Readings will also be given by the winners of the Council’s six other competitions. These winners include, among others, such NC notables as Shelby Stephenson, long-time editor of Pembroke Magazine; Sara Claytor, author of Howling on Red Dirt Roads and a recent reader at Poetry Hickory; Joseph Mills, author of Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers; Dannye Romine Powell, former Book Page Editor at the Charlotte Observer; Tony Abbott, author of Leaving Maggie Hope; and Bill Griffin, author of Snake Den Ridge and another recent visitor to Poetry Hickory.
Another highlight of the day will be the debut of the Council’s annual awards anthology, Bay Leaves, which will include all the winning poems from this year’s competitions. Copies of Bay Leaves will be available for $9.50. Copies of Bay Leaves, first published in 1952, and all books entered into the Council’s Oscar Arnold Young Book Competition are archived in the Catawba College Library.
Poetry Day activities will begin at 9:20 A.M. in the Peeler-Crystal Lounge on the campus of Catawba College. Admission is free and open to the public. Lunch will be available for $15 per person. Questions about Poetry Day or the Poetry Council of North Carolina can be addressed to Ed Cockrell at 919-967-5834 or by email at Additional information, including registration forms, are also available at the Council’s website:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Not Your Typical Poet


"Musings" column from September 3, 2009

Helen Losse is not your typical poet. In fact, she’s not your typical anything. She is a scholar and a NASCAR fan. She is a lover of nature and trains. She is devoutly Christian and fervently liberal. Her poetry is often formal and refined and just as often relaxed and conversational. And perhaps most importantly given her current residence in Winston-Salem, NC, she is fan of both the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the UNC Tarheels.
Losse is the author of three collections of poetry, Gathering the Broken Pieces, Paper Snowflakes, and her newest Better with Friends. Even without her own writing, Losse would be an important figure in the world of Southern poetry. She has been Poetry Editor of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature since 2005 and has striven to promote the work of area poets and the appreciation of poetry in general in every means imaginable. Any regular reader of this column knows how those efforts would make me a big fan.
Losse writes across a wide range of topics but as a scholar of African-American and civil rights history one of her favorite topics is social injustice and the heroes who arise out of the struggle to correct it. Her poems, however, are also full of gorgeous natural imagery that often serves to reveal a deeply meaningful and thoughtful faith. She is, ultimately, a kind woman and poet, the kind anyone fortunate enough to know her or work with her is grateful for.
On Tuesday, October 13, Losse will be in Hickory to share her poetry as part of the Poetry Hickory reading series. The reading will begin at 6:30 PM at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse. The poem reprinted below is from Losse’s latest collection, Better with Friends, which will be available for purchase at Poetry Hickory.

A Satisfied Cathedral

I considered blueberry bushes
yesterday but didn’t buy any. Today it’s
raining hard. And the gloom of winter remains.

My dishwasher will not start, and my computer
monitor makes a high-pitched shriek. I look out
my window toward evergreens, where damp air

is too warm for snow. But even in February,
hope emerges--from the glow of a candle-
flame--and my heart becomes

a Byzantine cathedral of multi-colored tile.
I am bathed in incense and song, satisfied--
for the moment--with indoor light

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How to Read a Poem


"Musings" from August 26, 2009

This one comes in direct response to a reader who wrote to me that he doesn’t read much poetry because it never makes any sense to him. This is not the first time I’ve heard this complaint about poetry.
The problem, I think, with understanding poetry is that we don’t encounter it often enough. Language, by its very nature, is tricky. My wife and I misunderstand each other on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Usually one of us assumes the other has knowledge about something that they don’t, and so we begin talking about it as if the other knows what we’re talking about. I have similar difficulties with my teen-aged sons. The noises they make sound like English, but the words never mean what I think they mean. This is particularly distressing because I was their English teacher from 6th grade on up.
In most areas we overcome the trickiness of language by using it frequently. We encounter spoken language daily, prose also daily, even fiction on a fairly regular basis. With poetry, however, most of us only encounter it in a classroom, where the assumption is that a poem has multiple layers of meaning and our job is to painstakingly pull out all the possibilities. So, we’re immediately set up to feel like any attempt we make at fully understanding the poem is bound to be inadequate. To make matters worse, most of the poetry we’re presented with in classes was created in another century, often in another country such that the language is much less familiar than the language we encounter in other types of communication.
One additional impediment to understanding poetry is the fact that much poetry lacks the grammatical props of prose. To some degree poetry, rather than just telling a story, attempts to recreate the emotional, psychological, perceptual, spiritual, and perhaps even physical experience of an event, thought, or feeling, and since we don’t experience things in complete and grammatically correct sentences, poets sometimes abandon those conventions as well. Finally, it is true that some few poets don’t care if their work is understood; they may think their task is to create a puzzle, to challenge the reader, or simply to express themselves without any consideration of the audience.
All of this adds up to make some people believe they can’t understand a poem. So, here is a very brief guide on how to read a poem:
1. RELAX AND ENJOY. There is no right way, no criteria for successfully reading a poem. There won’t be a test, and your 10th grade English teacher isn’t going to appear and tell you, “That’s not it at all.” If you can’t enjoy the language, imagery, and tensions of the poem, then you’re either trying too hard or you’ve got a poem that on at least one level you’re not meant to enjoy at this time. Move on; there are others.
2. READ AS YOU WOULD READ ANY OTHER TEXT. Follow the cues of punctuation. Most contemporary poetry de-emphasizes traditional poetic features like rhythm and rhyme in favor of realism. Those elements are often still there but more subtly, almost invisibly supporting the meaning, mood, or feeling of the poem. Usually at least one level of meaning arises from a simple, straightforward reading of the poem
3. IF YOU WANT DEEPER MEANING, READ DEEPER. Read it repeatedly, all the way through the first time, then focusing more on individual stanzas, lines, phrases. Analyze individual words and images for connotations and associations. Ask others to read it and discuss your understandings. But none of this is required or expected. Only go this far if you have a desire to do so, you think the poem deserves it, or you owe it to the poet.
That’s it really. Most contemporary poetry is much more accessible than one might
think. Most poets want to be read and want to be understood. At the same time they want their poems to be an enjoyable intellectual experience. Once a reader gets past the blocks against poetry that they’ve brought with them, they discover they can easily enough enjoy the poem and achieve a meaningful level of understanding. So, to paraphrase the once-popular commercial, Just Read It.