a blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby
Have lunch with the poets,
the library, and HoCoPoLitSo
during National Poetry Month
“I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me: they are about questions.” — Lucille Clifton
Lots of people think they need to know what a poem means. Sometimes professors and experts dissect a poem so much that a poem dies before we allow it to live. But what if a poem was written not to answer questions, but to ask them?
Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award-winning poet, wrote from her home office in a townhouse in Columbia for decades until her death in 2010. And she never stopped asking questions with her poetry.
Soon after the Howard County Central Library opened in 1981, Clifton read her poetry with three other amazing poets, William Stafford, Roland Flint, and current Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri. HoCoPoLitSo brought those poets and library patrons together forty years ago, and we’re still collaborating today.
Join HoCoPoLitSo and the library for their newest program, a lunch break of poetry every Tuesday in April.
The “Po” in HoCoPoLitSo stands for Poetry (the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society). But sometimes, when we talk about poetry, people’s eyes glaze over. Occasionally (or more often …) poetry just seems impenetrable.
But it doesn’t have to be. Clifton’s poetry is accessible, understood at a first reading, with meaning that grows deeper at second or third reading, prompting those questions that bring readers to her poetry over and over again.
Once we’ve hooked you with Clifton’s work, we have plenty of other ideas of where to start with poetry. Perhaps with Amanda Gorman’s performance at President Joe Biden’s inauguration and at the Super Bowl, more people are intrigued about poetry, but don’t really know where to go for good poetry beyond inspirational quotes on Instagram. We’ve got your poetry questions covered.
The library and HoCoPoLitSo have partnered for forty years to bring poetry and literature to Howard County audiences. Over those decades, we have together sponsored movies about Gwendolyn Brooks and Seamus Heaney, organized readings by poets such as Josephine Jacobsen and Stanley Kunitz, judged student poetry contests, and even staged a play about poet Emily Dickinson, “The Belle of Amherst.”
And since National Library Week (April 4-10) coincides with National Poetry Month in April, HoCoPoLitSo and the library system thought it would be the perfect time to launch a new program. Every Tuesday in April, HoCoPoLitSo and the library will collaborate to bring you a little lunchtime buffet of poetry, virtually. I’m Susan Thornton Hobby, a proud library volunteer and HoCoPoLitSo board member and consultant, and with the library’s support, I’ve coordinated this April poetry feast.
When the pandemic closed everyone’s doors, HoCoPoLitSo created a new video series, both to reach out to people at home who were hungry for the arts, and to amplify the voices of Black poets who have visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences since 1974. With the help of Howard Community College’s Arts Collective, and director Sue Kramer, we produced the Poetry Moment series. Local actors Chania Hudson, Shawn Sebastian Naar, and Sarah Luckadoo offer introductions, then famous poets like Clifton and Kunitz and Heaney and Brooks read their work, with selections extracted from archival video. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, the late founding director and heart and soul of HoCoPoLitSo, started this archive in 1986 when she began documenting the poetry and literature programs she was producing. The Writing Life resulted, with more than 100 full interviews with authors carried on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube page.
In April, every Tuesday at noon, we’ll gather virtually to talk poetry. We’ve grouped the poems by theme for each week, and will talk a little about poetry, then watch the videos together and discuss.
Here’s our poetry hit parade:
- Tuesday, April 6: We’ll talk about grief, something many people are dealing with this year. Poems we’ll be discussing include “Elegy” by Linda Pastan, “My Deepest Condiments” by Taylor Mali, and “The Long Boat” by Stanley Kunitz.
- Tuesday, April 13: History is this week’s theme, and we’ll talk about Sterling Allen Brown’s “Southern Road,” read by poet Toi Derricotte, “In the Tradition” by Amiri Baraka, and “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova, read by poet Carolyn Forché.
- Tuesday, April 20: Many contemporary poets turn to their families as sources for poetry. The poems we’ll read this week are “good times” by Lucille Clifton, “The Pomegranate” by Eavan Boland, and “A Final Thing” by Li-Young Lee.
- Tuesday, April 27: Our last week is centered on pep talks in poetry, verse to lift us up and give us strength. We’ll discuss “The Solstice” by W. S. Merwin, “For Every One” by Jason Reynolds, and “I Give You Back” by Joy Harjo.
HoCoPoLitSo and the Howard County Library System are happy to collaborate in bringing poetry to all who ask questions, to any who believe, like we do, that words can change the world.
If we hook you on poetry, consider tuning in to the April 29 Blackbird Poetry Festival, featuring Ilya Kaminsky and sponsored by Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo.
Register for the library lunch poetry programs here.
I’m really enjoying the Tuesday lunch series from HCLS. I don’t think fast enough to comment on the virtual events, but the limited discussion is welcome. I did my MA in American Lit in the 1970s, and now that I am retired, I have been revisiting some favorite poets and reading several literary biographies. In the 70s, we read the literature but rarely read much about the authors to enlighten their words. Today’s History in Poetry presentation really drove that concept home – knowing the history of the author strongly illuminates the poem. And a poetic expression of an historical event is so much more emotional than any other artistic statement. For example, comparing Akhmatova’s experience in her poetry to the novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, the immediacy and hardship of Akhmatova’s exile/censorship breaks my heart. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Towles’ book, but poetry evokes more emotions for me. I was also struck by Southern Road, evoking the musical rhythms amidst the hardship of chain gang work. Compare to the Sam Cooke song Chain Gang (much discussed these days thanks to the movie One Night in Miami). Both art forms serve educational purposes, but the poetry is chilling. Thanks for sharing these engaging poems today. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
Dear Eileen, How wonderful that you found this way to let me know about your thoughts. I so appreciate your comments, and especially the ideas about Towles’ novel. I liked his book, but understand exactly what you’re saying about the way he handled her poetry. I know authors like to have their work stand alone, but I find it helpful to hear a little bit about them, so we can understand their work a little better. I’m so pleased you’re there at the programs, and I’ll know that you’re listening and caring, and that helps me! I never know whether I’m reaching people. Looking forward to next week, and thank you again.