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mana’s musing: what do poets do all day?

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Yes, I know. Poets write. But surely they don’t write all day, every day. They do other stuff.

As a HoCoPoLitSo board member and Howard Community College’s faculty, sometimes I get to see (somewhat) up close what writers do when they’re working away from their desks. On April 28th, HCC and HoCoPoLitSo celebrated Blackbird Poetry Festival with poets Marie Howe and Sandra Beasley, and I got to see Ms. Howe and Sandra at work.

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Sandra Beasley visited my composition class on April 28th

The poets came to HCC campus for morning workshops with students. While Ms. Howe visited a literature class, Sandra came to my 11 am composition class to talk about voice and revision. The talk was spot on. She was enthusiastic and attentive to the students. She worked hard during those 80 minutes.

After the morning workshops, the poets attended an informal lunch with some friends of poetry. In the mid-afternoon, from 2:30 to 4:30, they were the feature poets at the Blackbird Poetry Festival’s day reading where they shared the stage with Maryland Poetry Out Loud winners and other student- and faculty-poets. Both Ms. Howe and Sandra went on stage two different times and read several works each. They engaged with the student poets, coached them, and talked to them about the work of poetry and the performance of poetry. When the afternoon reading ended, the poets went to tape The Writing Life interview, where Sandra interviewed Ms. Howe.

At 7:30 pm, our evening event, Nightbird, began. Ms. Howe gave another beautiful reading and Sandra was in the front row listening with the rest of us. And after the reading, Ms. Howe signed books. At this point, it was almost 9 pm. Nonetheless, when I went up to Ms. Howe with a book, she engaged me in a conversation about my own work at HCC. She did the same with the others who approached with books clutched to their chests. She was kind, thoughtful, and engaged with her fans. So gracious. Sandra, too, stayed to chat with the audience in the lobby, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw her get in line to get Ms. Howe’s book signed.

Poets work hard. I know that much.

I suppose some work harder than others. And I imagine there are writing divas (and divos?) out there who demand only green M&Ms in their “dressing rooms,” but most of the writers that I have met through events like the Blackbird Poetry Festival work hard from morning til late into the evening to read, talk, meet, greet, and shake hands. They take photos, they answer questions, they sign books with personal messages, they ask questions of their fans, they tell stories, and they joke.  Most importantly, they connect. They connect themselves to the readers, the poetry to the poet, and poetry to life. Real life.

They say writing is a lonely task, much of it done in solitude.  The labor of writing takes discipline, craft, and hard work.  But then there is the work that many poets do away from their desks and sometimes very far from home. Sandra Beasley, for example, was off to Massachusetts the day after her performance at Blackbird. Sometimes HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening writers fly in from Ireland just for a few days for a reading or two. So, it seems to me, that so much of the writer’s work is also the people-work.

At readings, I see them scribbling, flipping through their works, and making changes to their reading list.  I see them taking notes, listening to the others, and observing what is going on in the room and who showed up. The best poet-performers listen and watch.  They don’t stand up and read the words on the page in a vacuum. Never.  These poets – the good ones, anyway – make the reading unique to that moment for that group of people. And what they create during that reading cannot be recreated.

They interview each other like they do for HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life series: E. Ethelbert Miller interviewing Amiri Baraka, Roland Flint interviewing Lucille Clifton, or Naomi Ayala interviewing Martin Espada. And they also collaborate with other artists like when Steven Levya performed his poetry with Josh Soto on drums, when Rita Dove shared the stage with violinist Joshua Coyne, and when Patricia Smith performed her poetry with a string quartet.

So, I think that the work of the poet is not so isolated or so esoteric. As Susan Hobby wrote about Ms. Smith’s performance, “An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.”

And if you care to read/see more: Just for fun – here’s a catalog of some of what I have witnessed writers doing (with photos):

  • In college, I went to a Maya Angelou reading and she came onto the stage singing. So, sometimes they sing.
  • When I met Grace Paley she sat in a circle with 15 college students to read and talk about her stories. And changed lives.
  • Derek Walcott had dinner with English graduate students and entertained their very silly questions.
  • Lucille Clifton attended HoCoPoLitSPo board meetings on Saturdays.
  • Julie Otsuka had lunch with students and told stories about her craft. And later, after her reading, she spoke with community members about her book, When the Emperor was Divine.

    P1020347

    Julie Otsuka’s HCC visit 2009

  • I’ve seen David Mura stand on stage and inspire HCC faculty and staff with his talk on the Hero’s Journey.
  • I saw E. Ethelbert Miller stand at a podium in the lobby of Columbia Art Center and command a crowd on a cold, snowy February night.
  • Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay for novel-turned-movie Room and got nominated for an Oscar. But, more importantly, she came to Columbia for an Irish Evening reading in 2015.
  • I’ve seen Martin Espada, a former tenant lawyer, make small talk about the weather in the car ride between the hotel and HCC, then getting on stage to deliver “Imagine the Angels of Bread” and send goosebumps on the arms of the many in the audience, including me.
  • Joseph Ross is a high school teacher, and I’ve read his wonderful blogs capturing his experience of teaching as a Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo. Here’s one about River Hill High School.
  • Ann Bracken facilitated poetry workshops for prisoners at a correctional facility in Jessup, Maryland.

    2016-05-12 10.35.54

    Special Delivery! Home No Home by Naoko Fujimoto (and tea!)

  • Laura Shovan, Sandra Beasley, and Derrick Weston Brown also worked as Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo and worked with Howard County high school students.
  • Taylor Mali speaks about and for the teachers and advocates for the profession of teaching – and he poses for silly photos with students (see below). I’ve seen him speak to community college English professors. I’ve also seen him coach a Poetry Out Loud competitor on how to improve his performance.

    Who says poets can't be silly?

    Who says poets can’t be silly? In 2015, Taylor Mali poses with Nsikan Akpan

  • When Eamon Grennan came to read for Irish Evening this year, he fought a terrible cold and probably exhaustion from traveling to not disappoint his fans. And indeed we were not disappointed.
  • Steven Leyva is the editor of The Little Patuxent Review and teaches at the University of Baltimore. He also did professional development workshops for Howard County Schools teachers and gave us a little taste of New Orleans in the coolest poetry reading with a drummer.
  • Naoko Fujimoto, a poet I mentioned in my last blog, included a personal note with my book order (and special tea).
  • Student Katy Day taking a selfie with Billy Collins at Blackbird Poetry Festival 2014.

    Student Katy Day taking a selfie with Billy Collins at Blackbird Poetry Festival 2014.

    Billy Collins does really cool stuff like creating animation for his poetry and reading at Blackbird Poetry Festival – and he poses for silly photos with students.

    Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

    Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

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