Don’t Think Twice

Not much time for reflection–been zooming around the state, meeting wonderful poets and fans of poetry and readers of poetry and people who are just kind of curious what a Washington State Poet Laureate (and a poem) might look like.  From glorious apples in Chelan and the great fun of being part of a poetry pole celebration in Cle Elum to the honor of reading with Charles Johnson and Bridget Foley at Bedtime Stories, it’s been a busy few weeks.

Coming up next week:  a journey to Mineral, WA (to read with Nicole Hardy), and several events at schools and libraries in surrounding communities!

And how does it feel?  Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate!  His words have been a part of my life since childhood; I can vividly remember my father singing Dylan songs while strumming his guitar:  a bold and wonderful choice by the Nobel Committee.

The Dragons are Singing

Am in the middle of a wild month of travels and events–Bellingham, Edmonds, Royal City, Chelan, Seattle, Newport, and so many places and people and poems.  For example, last week, I had the honor of being part of a tribute to Jack Prelutsky at Poetry Camp! in Bellingham and the great pleasure of working with writers at the Write on the Sound Conference.  So much word energy!  So many generous and brilliant people welcoming me and engaging my outreach efforts.  Here are a few photos–

Honoring Jack Prelutsky’s decades of magical work was a distinguished honor that I will never forget–

And Nikki Grimes was there!  And so many other poets and writers and friends.

Again–Walt :
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

What the River Says

I just spent five days in Twisp, Winthrop, Okanogan, and Brewster.  Of course, while I was there, I had to take a minute to read William Stafford’s wonderful poem (behind the bookstore in Winthrop)–and think about helping and hurting.  Methow Arts sponsored my visit; they are a dynamic organization that offers a wide-range of public events in the area.  From international music to poetry workshops, their yearly schedule is impressive; however great it is, though, the public programming isn’t the most compelling work that they do.  I went to Okanogan and Brewster schools on Thursday and Friday of my visit, and I met with hundreds of students, and teachers at both schools praised Methow Arts for spreading resources into areas that have less funding for the arts and humanities.  They are a fine model for all of us to emulate–to borrow from Stafford, they are an organization that helps, that makes a difference.

Methow Arts is also launching this really great space in Twisp where the public can tour the workshops of practicing artists (printmakers and designers and many other mediums)–and, of course, buy great art.  Twisp Works is a literal campus of artistic bustle and good energy.  Check it out if you get to the region. I’m off to Royal City and West Seattle and Wallingford and Benton City and Tieton this week, and I’m glad that I’ll carry the good energy of the Methow River (and its people) with me.

Silver Apples

One of my favorite poems is Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus;” it’s a magical poem that is mostly about the imagination and “seeking our bliss,” although it can seem like a strange love poem after a first read.  Anyhow, I am back on the road, wandering “through hollow lands / And hilly lands,” visiting Olympia (last week) and Twisp and Brewster and Okanogon and Royal City this week–with many more smaller towns on the schedule.  IMG_1721.JPGThe students have been wonderful–full of bright ideas and great energy–and the teachers have been equally great.  When I witness the teachers’ care with younger people, with these delicate and impressionable vessels, I’m filled with such admiration–and energy to go more places, try to do more. Today was especially motivating; at the Okanogon Middle School, we wrote poems and talked about language, and the students were so generous sharing their creativity, so full of smart comments–and caring comments–that I didn’t even feel tired driving back West over the mountains to Winthrop.  We talked about “what mattered to them,” some of their favorite words.  i read a few poems by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.  One student said that his greatest fear was to lose his family.  Another described how she watched the 69 Camaro that was soon to be her car burn in their yard last summer.  They trusted me with words and thoughts and poems, and I was so grateful for that trust.  Walt Whitman writes about turning your life into a poem, and although I usually talk about that at schools, I felt no need to do so today–they get it, have got it, are doing it.

I’ll be driving and meeting many people this fall–chasing the magic silver and golden apples–and although I’ll sometimes tire of driving, I doubt that I will tire of these young bards and their magical words.

A Stone of the Heart

I’ve just returned home after about a month abroad, mainly in Ireland.  The country was, of course, green and hilly and rich with history, stunning scenery, moving mythical tales–so many stories and songs, a dense and beautiful texture.  The ruins are emblematic and everywhere:  a 6th century cathedral where St. Patrick chipped his tooth, a beehive of stacked stones on the Aran islands where monks slept, maybe hearing their God in the nearby ocean waves, and many, many miles of mended walls, piled rocks, those walls humanity so loves to build.

Ireland is, of course, a small country–about half the square mileage of Washington with about two and half million fewer inhabitants.  It’s also an incredibly literary country:  four Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature have come from Eire, only a few less than the United States.  The art of story and the power of song are deeply enmeshed in the culture of the island and in the visible ways that literature is still alive: through the vibrant contemporary scene, through the ongoing recognition of the importance of the literary past, through the energy of song and music in pubs, and through public displays that celebrate the art.

For example, the poems in these images are from a  poetry walk in Letterfrack–a small village right near the Connemara National Park; on the walk, you’ll find wonderful works by Theo Dorgan, Mary O’Malley, Paula Meehan (Chair in Poetry of Ireland), and, perhaps surprisingly, Michael D. Higgins, The President of Ireland.  The.  President.  Of.  Ireland.  Higgins, by the way, is the author of several books of poetry, and as his writing clearly shows, he believes that his art is a place where he can express his ideology.

Visiting Ireland in 2016 meant that reminders of Easter Rising were ever-present:  Ireland’s history is, of course, filled with bloodshed connected both to British rule and internal conflicts.  I should mention that I also visited Belfast and Berlin (two places of walls and violence) for a few days, paid attention to the ongoing turmoil in Europe and here at home, and thought a lot about the relationship between poetry and communities, art and terror, words used carefully, craftily, and candidly (as well as words screamed with hatred and fury).  Perhaps life should always be filled with this level of passionate intensity, but if that’s the case, then, to borrow language from Yeats, the polite meaningless words of our casual comedy don’t seem up to the task.  We seem in a crucible, of sorts, or, to continue to borrow Yeats’s language, a troubled, living stream, and the words of the moment seem heavy with import:  one misspoken phrase can make a stone of the heart.

Which means, I guess, that we should be careful with our words and attentive in our listening.  I’ve seen and heard far too many election arguments gone ballistic, quarrels about guns and violence and gender and race within families–my own family–and among friends and neighbors that transform utterly the people involved.  Meditating on W.H. Auden’s oft-quoted-out-of-context line–“For poetry makes nothing happen,” lines that were written in an elegy to W.B. Yeats during the madness of Europe just before the Second World War, Paula Meehan offers us something to think about, “But, maybe, we might read that ‘nothing’ as a positive thing.  If poetry makes nothing happen, maybe it stops something happening, stops time, takes our breath away . . . Maybe it’s like the negative space in a painting by which what is there is revealed.”  That is, taking a breath–being made breathless–isn’t necessarily a negative:  grand scenery and rich history and those moments when the world stuns us can all trigger this response, this hesitancy, a pause, the uncertain moment that leads to renewed careful attention, perhaps even revelation of what might not have been heard or seen otherwise.


“Whatever you say, say nothing”

I’m back in Dublin on the 4th of July after a quick train trip to Belfast, and I’ve been thinking about this journey and its images, as well as about the most recent violences abroad (Turkey, Bangladesh, Baghdad) and the constant violences at home that color the pages of CNN with anguish and exclamation marks.  “The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse,” Seamus Heaney wrote, and although I hear an echo in there of “The best lack all conviction,”  I won’t claim any insight about his response to The Troubles in his country.  Belfast struck me as a city trying to transition from a violent recent past–and only making a little bit of progress (and those gains may vanish quickly because of the Brexit vote).  There are great restaurants, hipster hangouts, and glitzy new shopping areas sprinkled with bistros where you’ll hear the proprietors echo the line “Belfast is one of the youngest cities in Europe,” but there are also persistent signs of economic and social struggles.

I was there just before the festivities of July 12th–an occasion with literal fire-works that make our biggest celebrations at home look like children smiling and dancing with sparklers. See that pile of wooden pallets?  As part of “Orangeman’s Day,” it will become a huge pyre commemorating The Battle of the Boyne, a conflict in 1690 when William the Orange (Protestant) defeated James II (Catholic).  The present day observances, according to the cab driver who took us on a tour of the city’s murals, involve the fires, drunken people (men and women) pissing in the streets, thousands of Union Jacks fluttering, and a stretch of time when you wouldn’t want to be out and about wearing green.

All of which is to assert that, even though there is a slick new mall and some of the famous murals are being painted over with optimistic images, transforming war zones into functional neighborhoods is challenging if not impossible, especially when citizens are less concerned with progress and healing than they are with inadequate housing and shoddy infrastructure, social problems that lead to scapegoating that lead to fanatical displays of nationalism that lead to–well, we know the end of that cycle.  And, of course, the divisions are much more layered and complicated than I can hope to understand, the walls tall and thick and maybe never to come down.

And the literal walls dividing the city are striking. In recent years, people have taken to writing and painting on them in an act of reclamation that seems both well-intentioned  and sadly inadequate.

“We hug our little destiny again,” Heaney writes, and I’ve quickly slipped into acting as if a three-day visit gave me some sort of credibility to comment on a conflict that is centuries in the making.  And so, without conviction and uncertain of what else to say, I’ll  say nothing, which is probably what I’ve been doing anyhow.

And What Rough Beast

I found myself deplaning in Dublin right about the time the world got official word about Brexit. Strange to be arriving in Ireland during the centennial recognition of the Easter Rising while the actual vote was being tallied that would declare the United Kingdom’s secession from the EU.

Dublin is a bustling city; at the Poets Corner,  you’ll see a pub that has the faces of many Irish writers for whom social change was integral to art:  Swift, Yeats, and Shaw to name only three.  Contemporaries have picked up the causes:  Eavan Boland and Paula Meehan, for example, are important voices for feminist issues in Ireland–and there are so many other writers who could be listed, who have spoken for those without speech, who have tried to bear witness to the fracturing of their worlds, but I haven’t the energy right now to recount all of the wonderful Irish writer who have troubled “the living stream.”  Jet lag is upon me, and I need to rest, but I feel far from home, and these are tumultuous times, and  I’m having a hard time seeing exactly how any beauty (terrible or not) will come of these ruptures–so many hearts have been made into stone and too many purposes seem at odds; another of Yeats’s grim poems (“The Second Coming“) resonates:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

But I’m tired–literally and figuratively–and that fatigue might be inciting apocalyptic visions when the world is just spasming again in a way that is frightening but not a new “blood-dimmed tide.”