Every poem is a conversation with other poems, some more explicitly than others. This version of the Japanese conversational tradition, the renga, rings with the give-and-take of three dozen lively voices, laureates, in the best sense of the word, using their verse to commemorate and celebrate in our name. Here, speaking to one another, they speak to us all about ourselves. ~ J. Kates, poet, translator & executive co-director of Zephyr Press.
Featuring: Walter Bargen (MO), Kevin Stein (IL), Bruce Dethlefsen (WI), Karen Kovacki (IN), Kelly Cherry (VA), Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda (VA), Claudia Emerson (VA), Maureen Morehead (KY), Maggi Britton Vaughn (TN), Marjory Wentworth (SC), Sue Brannan Walker (AL), Julie Kane (LA), JoAnn Balingit (DE), Lisa Starr (RI), Marie Harris (NH), Dick Allen (CT), Maxine Kumin (NH and United States), Walter Butts (NH), Betsy Sholl (ME), Joyce Brinkman (IN), Norbert Krapf (IN), Marilyn L. Taylor (WI), David Clewell (MO), David Mason (CO), David Romtvedt (WY), Samuel Green (WA), Peggy Shumaker (AK), Kathleen Flenniken (WA), Tom Sexton (AK), Katharine Coles (UT), Larry Woiwode (ND), karla k. morton (TX), Dave Parsons (TX), Alan Birkelbach (TX), Denise Low (KS), and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (KS). Edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.
Introduction: When the going gets tough, the tough—if they are state poets laureate, at least—get going. In some states, artists of many stripes and spots have recommitted themselves to their life work, making art as an ongoing practice of cultivating resilience, hope, imagination and community during this time of drastic cuts in funding. Neil Gaiman, a writer of films, books and comics, sums up this impetus beautifully in a commencement speech he gave at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in May of 2012:
Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong—and in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways in which life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.
Our engagement with this practice—making good art out of whatever life brings—brought the 36 of us to this renga, which is the most appropriate form we could have engaged with because the very form is communal and conversationally based. Each of us wrote in response to those of us who had written previous verses, drawing on images and messages that rang true and sang through the whole 36 parts of the poem. This kind of linked verse invites both the writer and the reader to consider the role of community as essential for art and vice versa.
With help from Dorothy Dunn, former director of America: Now + Here and inspiration found in Crossing State Lines: An American Renga, curated by Carol Muske-Dukes and Bob Holman, I was moved to curate this renga with 36 state poets laureates, spanning Alabama to Alaska. Our process involved a shared document, a short time line and magic within and between the lines.
Our theme was simply to write about the state of America as experienced in the states we represent, so it is no surprise that our poetry encompasses the specific and universal, shining a light on the communities, rivers, skies and birds that surround us. We began in the heart of winter, mid-December of 2011, and finished in late March of 2012, each one of us taking only a few days to read all of the renga before us, and then add our call and response to the conversation. In each poet laureate’s writing, we see yet another way the world, even at its darkest, turns toward and into some kind of light.
Even the number of us participating, 36, speaks to this turning: in Judaism, 36 is “double chai,” representing double luck for goodness in life (in Hebrew, the number 18 is the letter chai and the symbol for life). We 36 poets laureate bring you double wishes for living with meaning, beauty and poetry.
—Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas Lawrence, Kansas * December, 2012
Excerpt: Maxine Kumin, Walter Butts, and Betsy Sholl
Audubon asked me so I counted:
ninety to a hundred finches on
their way to turning gold crowding
the feeders full of blackoil sun-
flower seeds; both kinds of nuthatches;
a few titmice; clots of chickadees;
woodpeckers: one hairy male;
one female downy; two sparrows
dipped in raspberry juice
all dispersed by a blue jay bombardier.
~ Maxine Kumin, Poet Laureate Emerita of New Hampshire, Poet Laureate Emerita of the United States
What then of snow and ice, the troubled
wind? Wrens perch on bare branches
or swoop for suet. We all have needs.
The politicians gone, again we’re back
in a state of grace. Our nominated differences
and collective selves reside in places lit
by what we’ve come to believe:
Something certain as granite
must hold us. Weather reminds us
we too will settle.
~ Walter Butts, Poet Laureate of New Hampshire
No Primary debates at soup kitchen.
Alan says he sleeps outside with just this—
thumping his chest, brags he’s an alcoholic,
knows how to mix it right.
Snaps his fingers
as if to light the smoke he’s just pulled out
from behind his ear, says he’ll bed down
in snow tonight, lift his bottle to the moon—
so lovely he can’t resist a little howl
that ends in a cough here at the door,
just open to the unelected moon.
~ Betsy Sholl, Poet Laureate Emerita of Maine