Vol. 4, Issue 2, page 9
Light a Match Anywhere
by Rulaine Stokes
It’s Tuesday, May 15, 2007. I’m in the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Saginaw, Michigan to celebrate a birthday. No cake, no candles, just seven people clutching poetry books, sitting in a circle. In fact, we are 2 weeks too early – and 115 years too late – but nobody cares.
These are the River Junction Poets, and they meet twice a month to celebrate the birthday of a poet. If the poet is alive, they sign their names on a birthday card and send it off. The coordinator – usually Andy Christ, but tonight my friend Maureen Hart – presents a brief biography of the birthday poet, in this case, Walt Whitman. The rest of us take turns reading from Leaves of Grass and talking about Whitman’s ecstatic vision of humanity. The conversation is sublime.
I don’t know anybody here except Maureen, but these folks have welcomed me as a fellow poet, lover of poetry, and ambassador from the poetry tribe in my hometown, Lansing, 70 miles to the south. Both Saginaw and Lansing are far from the centers of power in the world of poetry. In fact, we are not even sure where those centers of power might be. But poetry is alive and well in our hands.
Lansing is a big, sleepy Midwestern town, accidentally chosen to be the State Capital back in 1847. If you called us “Sprawlsville, USA,” no one would take offense. After all, we are the home of the Lansing Lugnuts, the local minor league baseball team, and a giant silver lugnut gleams in the sky – stuck on top of an old brick smokestack – right in the center of town. Lack of pretension is one of our virtues.
Despite our lack of literary renown, the poetry scene in my hometown is vibrant and welcoming. Step back in time (to March ’07), wander over to the Unitarian Church, and sit in on an event called “Voices of Resistance: Poets Against War.” The performance is Open Mike, that most perilous and unpredictable of performance events, but – oh, wonder of wonders! – each poet and singer is focused, graceful, and brief. It’s a potluck for the soul. You hear from an Arab American law student, a Palestinian American professor, a Jewish American nursing aide, and a white hiphop artist. A young Turkish woman sings verses from the 13th century mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi. The evening flows so effortlessly that before you know it, the church choir has come down from the rehearsal room to sing the last song, a heartbreaking lyric about two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War.
There are no poets here droning on interminably in a voice unconnected to the meaning of the words on the page. No terrified poets. No “American Idol” performers ready for their moment of fame. Only poets with something profound to share and the courage to say it. This is the raw, grass roots power of poetry, and it is a power that exists wherever poetry is alive and infused with authentic experience.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must now admit that I was one of the organizers of the aforementioned event. I work with a group called the Old Town Poets, and the poetry constellations I am describing are the ones I see from my own backyard.
However, I have attended poetry events high and low, in many different venues – from prestigious performance halls to bars, from lecture halls to living rooms. I’ve attended the Def Poetry Jam, and I’ve twice trekked out to the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, the largest poetry festival in North America (Each time, I felt like I had arrived at the capital city of the great, long-lost kingdom of poets, had found my own people, my kind.). It is exciting to see the poetry renaissance that is taking place around the country.
Yet some of the best poetry events I have ever seen have taken place in my hometown. Sometimes a luminary (Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich) has come from afar. Sometimes it is one of the many fine poets who live and work here in Michigan. At other times, someone I have never seen before steps up to an open mike and spits out a poem that cracks open the sky and lets the glory of the universe stream down.
Last summer, when word reached us that poet Trinidad Sanchez, Jr. had unexpectedly died of a stroke, the NuPoet Collective (mostly African American) and the Old Town Poets (mostly white) joined the Hispanic arts community in a magnificent performance event to celebrate Trinidad’s life and to raise funds for his widow, Regina Chavez y Sanchez. If you had been there, you would have felt impressed by the power of the spoken word to bring people together. Poetry steps in when ordinary speech fails, when we need to give voice to the great mystery that envelops us.
In her essay, “Poetry and Danger: Works of a Common Woman,” poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe. It is as if forces we can lay claim to in no other way, become present to us in sensuous form. The knowledge and use of this magic goes back very far: the rune; the chant; the incantation; the spell; the kenning; sacred words; forbidden words; the naming of the child, the plant, the insect, the ocean, the configuration of stars, the snow, the sensation in the body. The ritual telling of the dream. The physical reality of the human voice; of words gouged or incised in stone or wood, woven in silk or wool, painted on vellum, or traced in sand.” (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, W.W. Norton & Co., 1979, p. 248).
If you think about it, the sources of power in poetry are not found only in New York, academia, or the high profile poetry slams taking place around the country. There is something essentially democratic (oh yes, Walt Whitman, I hear you!) in the art of poetry, as there is in language itself. Poetry is like fire. You can light a match anywhere.
-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
River Junction Poets Mission Statement