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Photo: KUOW
Civic poet Claudia Castro Luna created Seattle’s Poetic Grid and, leading workshops in libraries, helped residents express how they feel about the places they know.

My friend Ronnie Hess, a Wisconsin poet, linked to this story on Facebook, adding, “An excellent story but one that reminds me of Madison’s Echolocations, an anthology edited by past poets laureate of Madison Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman.”

On PBS News Hour, Jeffrey Brown interviewed Claudia Castro Luna and others about Seattle’s Poetic Grid.

“Brown: The idea of the Poetic Grid is to capture a sense of place in a city going through rapid change, and to use the words of the people who live here. … Claudia Castro Luna dreamed up the online digital map in 2015, when she became Seattle’s first civic poet. …

“Luna: We all have stories to tell about the place we live in. And we all have memories attached to the place we live in. And so, [our workshop effort] was like opening up a faucet.

“And people have stories to tell. And that’s one of the marvelous things. At the end, I told them, you will write. You will see you will have a poem. And, indeed, they had one. …

“Brown: The poems for the grid span the city. Some are about home, memories of growing up in the affluent Blue Ridge neighborhood. Others are about homelessness, the cold concrete of a Seattle underpass.

“There are poems left in their native tongues, Spanish, Arabic. The writers run from well-established poets to first-timers. And they reflect the diversity of the changing city, where cranes dot the skyline.

“Luna: Some of the poems express very well what it feels like to not recognize the place you grew up in, because the buildings that you had so much attachment and were meaningful to you are no longer there …

“Koon Woon: I first moved in here when I couldn’t afford rent anywhere else in the city. And my uncle said well, there’s a room here for $60 a month. And I came here to look at it. And there’s this tiny little table. I said, I can put my typewriter on top of that. So, I took the room. …

“Brown: Koon Woon was born in China, but moved to Seattle in 1960. In the 1980s, he lived just a block from here, sometimes homeless, struggling with mental illness. His poem, ‘The High Walls I Cannot Scale,’ is now part of the grid. …

“For 17-year-old Lily Baumgart [Seattle Youth Poet Laureate], animals figured into her writing as well.

“Baumgart: The squirrels here are very aggressive. They expect to be fed by people. And so we’d write stories about why they’d come up to people, how humans’ interactions with animals change their behaviors. … Volunteer Park, they say there’s a giant squid in the reservoir, that if you could climb the fence, you could stick your hand into the bright water and feel his slimy body swimming by yours. When it rained we would hide in trees and feel their cold bark underneath our toes. We’d laugh so loud that the sky would be scared of us and our umbrella laughter. …

“Brown: Poetry brought something else to Claudia Castro Luna, a way to work through traumatic childhood memories of war in El Salvador that forced her family to leave their home when she was 14.

“Luna: It was a tremendous loss of place, of culture, of family, of language. [All] of my writing has to do with understanding that — what it meant to lose that place. And this is why I’m interested in other people’s lives and what they have to say about the place they occupy.”

More at PBS NewsHour, here. See the Poetic Grid here.

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Photo: Wycliffe College/PA
English school girl
Gracie Starkey wrote a winning haiku. Here she is at the prize-giving ceremony in Tokyo.

I’ve always liked the standard 17-syllable haiku poem and taught the form to fifth graders years ago. Asakiyume remembers one I wrote for her at a business magazine where we worked. It was about a dream she’d recounted, and it referred to the moon as “trending downward” (business jargon we heard a lot).

Of course, most experts are Japanese. Until now. Here is a story my husband emailed me about a young girl in England who won a haiku contest.

Steven Morris writes at the Guardian, “A British schoolgirl inspired by an autumnal stroll across a newly mown lawn has become the first non-Japanese person to win a prestigious haiku competition.

“Gracie Starkey, 14, from Gloucestershire, beat more than 18,000 entries to take the prize in the English-language section of the contest organised annually by a Japanese tea company. …

“As she and a friend took a walk after [her school’s haiku] workshop, grass cuttings stuck to her footwear and the haiku came to her:

“Freshly mown grass
“clinging to my shoes
“my muddled thoughts

“Her poem – a non-traditional form that does not follow the classic five-seven-five syllable pattern – was entered into the competition organised by the multinational Ito En, first held in 1989. For the first 27 years the English-language section was won by Japanese people. …

“Gracie said she was amazed when she heard she had won and had been invited to Tokyo.

“ ‘I could only tell my mum and dad and sister and my Japanese teacher at Wycliffe College,’ said Gracie. ‘I told my friends that I was going to Wales for a week and that I wouldn’t have any phone reception.’ …

“As well as winning the trip, Gracie’s poem was rendered by a famous calligrapher, and she received a cash prize. Most thrillingly, her poem is being reproduced on thousands of bottles of green tea. …

“Previously she had little interest in poetry. ‘This has certainly made me more interested in poetry and in Japanese culture.’ ”

More at the Guardianhere.

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Photo: Ted Roeder

I wonder if poetry is going to see an upsurge in our time. Better than any other form of communication, poetry can get to the heart of the matter, expressing important truths and feelings obliquely.

Recently I read about poets who gather annually on New Year’s Day in New York City to share their unique statements. The event is part of what is known as “The Poetry Project.”

“There are three things to consider when the New Year’s Day Poetry Marathon sweeps you into its gracefully uncouth embrace,” says the website, “what it is, what it was, and who you will be when it’s over. An untamed gathering of the heart’s secret, wild nobility — over 140 poets together revealing not just that a better life could exist, but that it already does, sexy and wise, rancorous and sweet, big hearted and mad as hell. …

“Since Anne Waldman gathered 31 poets at the very first marathon on January 2, 1974, countless forward-facing luminaries have thrown their voices into the cauldron — among them Eric Bogosian, William S. Burroughs, Spalding Gray, Jackson Mac Low, Ed Sanders, Pedro Pietri, Helen Adam, John Cage, Joe Ceravolo, John Giorno, Ted Berrigan, Yoko Ono, Amiri Baraka, Gordon Matta Clark, Jim Carroll, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Steve Cannon, Hannah Weiner, Kathy Acker, Arthur Russell, Gerard Malanga, Suzanne Vega, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and Philip Glass. The list grows every year …

“Whether you stay for a little while or for the long haul, whether you’re part of the standing room only experience at sunset or with the handful of diehards as the final poet reads her last word in the predawn sanctuary, you will be transformed for the year to come. Your presence helps launch a great flare into the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the 21st century night. …

“The Project receives many requests to perform in the Marathon, and we feel fortunate that so many people want to help us meet our fundraising goals. We only have about 150 spots and a seemingly unlimited artistic community to draw from. [Click here for] some basic information about our selection process. …

“Reading is just one way of participating in the event. There are volunteer opportunities (about 100 are needed) to help sell books, food and drink, assist in checking in readers, etc. It’s also an opportunity to meet or catch up with other writers/artists and support the Project’s mission. …

“For photo galleries of past New Year’s Day Marathons, please visit photographer Ted Roeder’s website.”

More about the annual event and how poems get selected, here.

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Photo: Star Tribune
Ojibwe poet Jim Northrup

I have been trying to learn something about tribal cultures in the United States. I liked Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribal member Sherman Alexie’s Thunder Boy (a charming picture book for young children) and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (an early, painful collection of short stories). Now I am reading some Native American poetry.

One poet, Jim Northrup, recently died. Here is a beautiful obit by Jana Hollingsworth in the Duluth News Tribune.

“Jim Northrup was a ‘tough man’ who taught his eldest sons to survive in the elements by living in a tepee on the Fond du Lac Reservation for several years, when money and jobs were scarce.

“But it was more than physical survival, said his son, Matthew, on Tuesday, the day after his father died from cancer-related complications. He taught them how to be strong in a world that didn’t treat everyone the same, he said, using humor — and education — as tools.

” ‘ “When you have really nothing else,” he said to me a lot, “you have your humor,” Matthew said. ” ‘When you grow up poor on the rez and when you grow up a lower class in society, you realize that.’

“Northrup, an award-winning writer of books, columns, plays and poetry — and a prominent member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — died [in July]. He was 73.

“Northrup was a storyteller, known for his stark and honest writing about his experience as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam and his early years at a federal boarding school. He was funny and pointed in his writings about everyday life on the reservation, politics and change in Indian Country. He wrote as a way to heal himself from some of the trauma he experienced during the war, he said earlier this year.

” ‘I knew my poetry was being used in vets’ groups to help people open up (and) maybe even write their own poetry as part of their healing,’ he told the News Tribune in March. ‘It worked for me, so I hoped it helped (others).’ ”

More here, where you can hear Northrup read a poem in Ojibwe about passing along the culture. Read the whole obit. It’s really lovely. I hated to cut it.

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I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

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Photo: Robert W Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Langston Hughes on the front steps of his house in Harlem, June 1958.

Before Suzanne and Erik moved to Providence, they were living in a lovely renovated brownstone in Harlem.

There’s a fine line between newcomers investing where there’s been too much disinvestment — and gentrification. The early changes seem to benefit a neighborhood and its people, but inevitably rising property values push out many longtime residents and institutions.

Today, a group of Harlem artists from various disciplines are banding together to keep a significant piece of the Harlem Renaissance around to nourish African American arts.

Tom Kutsch writes at the Guardian, “All that signifies the legacy of a house once occupied by the poet laureate of Harlem is a small bronze plaque, partially covered by a cedar tree’s branches and the green ivy that envelops much of the building.

“The onetime home of Langston Hughes has sat largely unoccupied for years, but a new movement is trying to reclaim, for a next generation of artists, the space of a man who is forever intertwined with the Harlem Renaissance.

“Spearheaded by writer, performer and educator Renée Watson, the collective effort is busily trying to raise the necessary funds to purchase a lease and make needed renovations to the house. …

“Watson plans to make the Hughes house the home of the I Too, Arts Collective that she launched alongside the effort, which aims to, in her words, have ‘programming that nurtures, amplifies, and honors work by and about people of color and people from other marginalized communities.’ …

“The collective gets its name from one of Hughes’s most famous poems – I, Too – in which his narrator concludes by intoning:

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

“Watson is using the crowdfunding website Indiegogo to solicit donations for the project, for which they’re hoping to raise at least $150,000 to cover a lease and begin the renovation process. By the time of publication, they had raised more than $54,000, already exceeding the $40,000 Watson says would cover at least a six-month lease. …

“For more than a century, Harlem has been inextricably linked to black life and culture in America; the birthplace of the aforementioned Harlem Renaissance, which fostered a wide array pre-eminent black artists and writers, from Zora Neale Hurston to Claude McKay and Duke Ellington. …

” ‘The erasure of black Harlem may come despite our best efforts …’ said Tracey Baptiste, a local children’s author who is involved with Watson’s collective. ‘But this project is about making sure that gentrification doesn’t also happen in the hearts and minds of our artists.’ ”

More here.

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Last Sunday, Pam and I walked over to the library to hear an acclaimed poet read at the poetry series. Ross Gay, who lives in Indiana, had just published his poetry collection Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and was doing readings around New England.

Glenn Mitchell, who organizes the library’s poetry series, was able to publish an advance interview with Gay in the local paper.

She wrote, “Gay says his inspiration for writing poems is a determination to practice joy as a discipline. He is a finalist for the 2015 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and the NAACP Image Award in Poetry.

“Gay also works in the field of literary sports writing. He is a founding editor of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin’, a publication of reflective essays written by well-known poets, essayists and fiction writers along with podcasts of contributors.

“He serves on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, food justice project.

“An associate professor of poetry at Indiana University, Gay is residing in Cambridge while a 2015-16 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.”

Here is what Gay told Mitchell about the poet that inspired him to write poetry: “[Amiri] Baraka’s poems were such a clear articulation of the kind of alienation I was experiencing when I went off to college — a kind of racial alienation and class alienation — that I had no idea how to begin to talk about other than wanting to break things. I knew I was full of rage (which I later knew was a version of sorrow, too), but I didn’t know how to put it into words, which Baraka’s work made it possible for me to understand was possible.”

To her question about gardening coming into his life and the difference it made, he says, “I think close looking, paying attention, going slow, a kind of training in receptivity — I think those are things I learn from the garden … I approach poems like that, usually. I like to listen to them as much as I try to impose my own will on them. … A garden or a poem is potentially a device for pulling people together, they are both food, I’m saying, which we might feed to each other.”

In his Sunday reading, Gay included a poem about strangers sharing figs from a tree unexpectedly flourishing near his Philadelphia home — a poem that expresses some of his thoughts about our history of racism and the possibility of goodness.

He says, “The poem ‘To the Fig Tree at 9th and Christian’ gets at it—gets at what it means for us to come together despite the brutal history we’ve inherited, or even enacted. I think that fig tree is a kind of mercy.”

More here.

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