12 Winters Blog

Campbell, Smith and Stein — not a law firm but a great National Poetry Month

Posted in April 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 22, 2012

April, as everyone knows, is National Poetry Month, and here in Springfield, Illinois, we’ve had a great one.  Among the highlights have been the visits of Bonnie Jo Campbell, Marc Kelly Smith and Kevin Stein. At the risk of doing each an injustice, I’ll mention here their readings in summary. First, though, I’ll point out that while it’s National Poetry Month, I prefer to think of poetry as Aristotle did: as writing that is imaginative and creative in nature — therefore, fiction and creative nonfiction are forms of poetry as well.

It makes perfect sense then that Bonnie Jo Campbell, known mainly as a novelist and short-story writer, kicked off a terrific string of events by delivering the John Holtz Memorial Lecture April 20 at Brookens Auditorium on the campus of University of Illinois, Springfield. (For you purists out there, she did read a couple of her poems as well). In addition to attending her reading and lecture, I had the good fortune of being able to sit in on her craft talk with creative writing students at the university, and also to be among those who accompanied her to dinner before her event. Even though she did deliver the memorial lecture, calling it a lecture is a bit misleading because Campbell was so down-to-earth with her audience, the word lecture isn’t right in terms of mood as it implies a certain amount of stuffiness, and she was anything but stuffy (in fact, she abandoned the podium on the stage to literally come down to the floor of the auditorium so that she could speak more intimately with the audience). Her plain cotton shirt, faded blue jeans and well-worn boots added to her folksy and completely genuine charm. However, if one thinks of lecture as meaning a vehicle by which to deliver insightful wisdom, then lecture is precisely the right word.

In addition to the poetry, Campbell read from her short fiction and from her latest work, the novel Once Upon a River. In between readings, she would discuss various topics, including her writing process (which she describes as hard work), and the joys and perils of publishing. Interestingly, she read the manuscript version of her story “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem” which is notably different from the version included in her collection American Salvage — not because she prefers it, but because she likes the idea that writers, like visual and musical artists, can have multiple perspectives on a single subject.

With Bonnie Jo Campbell after her reading and lecture at Brookens Auditorium, UIS, April 13. Photo by Shannon Pepita O'Brien.

I’ve been to a lot of readings, but Bonnie Jo Campbell’s was truly one of the most engaging that I’ve had the pleasure of attending. My thanks to the university in general (notably the English Department and Brookens Library) but especially to my friend and colleague Meagan Cass, who did the extensive leg work and made sure the copious i’s and t’s were dotted and crossed to bring this extraordinary writer to Springfield.

A week later, on April 20, The Pharmacy hosted an event with the Father of Slam Poetry, Marc Kelly Smith, who had the dual purpose of performing (and I mean performing) his own poetry and also educating the audience as to the origin and tenets of slam poetry (I’ll be the first to admit, I needed an education). Smith was, in a word, fabulous — even though I was the first “victim” he took from his seat for some spontaneous (and totally unanticipated) audience participation, for which I was prevailed upon, among other things, to spit on the floor and imitate a train whistle.

Smith emphasized that slam poetry is rooted in bringing poetry from some sacred altar, where only the well-educated are allowed to espouse it, and return it to the people, whose feelings, ideas and experiences are just as worthy as the tweed-wearing academic Poet’s, and whose appreciation of language is just as great. Smith conducted a competitive slam so that neophytes, like yours truly, could see how one operates — although he underscored that the efforts of the inexperienced newcomer are just as valid as the veteran poet’s, because slam poetry is about inclusion, as opposed to the university brand of poetry that tends to be exclusionary.

Many thanks to the fine folks at The Pharmacy who made Smith’s visit possible, especially Adam Nicholson, who among other things took the lead in advertising the event, and his efforts paid off as The Pharmacy was packed to its plaster-flaking rafters.

Doing some unexpected audience participation with slam poet Marc Kelly Smith at The Pharmacy April 20. Photo by Shannon Pepita O'Brien.

Last but certainly not least was Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein’s reading and presentation at the Vachel Lindsay Home yesterday, April 21. I’ve had the pleasure of attending Stein’s readings on two other occasions so I knew the enjoyment that was in store. As poet laureate, a post he’s held since 2003 (following Gwendolyn Brooks), Stein, like Smith, has been focused on making poetry accessible to everyone, especially children and teenagers. Stein discussed his efforts to encourage students to write poetry, via his Illinois Youth Poetry project, telling stories about some of his experiences working in schools and also reading some of the poems written by young poets. Speaking from the parlor of the historic Vachel Lindsay Home, Stein also read some of his own poetry and from his most recently published essay collection, Poetry’s Afterlife.

Though not a “tech guru” himself, Stein said, he’s been focused on using technology to promote poetry since he first became laureate, encouraged in large part by his own children, who knew that their peers would more readily respond to audio and video of poetry being recited and performed, more so than plain words on a page or computer screen. They apparently were right because data from his website show that visitors are much more likely to watch and listen to poetry than to simply read it as print text; and, moreover, the video and audio with the most hits are also the texts of poems that have the highest number of hits, suggesting that visitors are more likely to read poetry if they’ve first seen or heard the piece recited.

As with the other writer/poet visitations, bringing Kevin Stein to the Vachel Lindsay Home was a group effort, but special thanks go to Home manager Jennie Battles as well as my friend and colleague Lisa Higgs, president of the Vachel Lindsay Association.

Just a personal update (though not that personal): I’m starting to put together some readings and talks for the summer of my own, and so far only have one date on the calendar, June 16 in Ft. Wayne, Indiana (details to follow). My publisher, Punkin House, is planning to have my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God out by the end of summer. I’ve just finished writing a long short story, “Figures in Blue,” and am starting to send it out to meet people; meanwhile, my stories “Crowsong for the Stricken” and “Beside Running Waters” are due out this spring in the Noctua Review (see the cover) and Constellations, respectively. Also, I’ve accepted a contract with Edwin Mellen Press to write a scholarly monograph  (very tentatively working-titled “The Beowulf-poet and His Real Monsters”) on the poem Beowulf, the manuscript of which I hope to have completed by September 1.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly (certainly most fun-ly), my friends Meagan Cass, Lisa Higgs, Tracy Zeman and I are working with Andrew Woolbright and Adam Nicholson to offer a series of fiction and poetry workshops this summer at The Pharmacy, co-sponsored by the Vachel Lindsay Association — much, much more information to follow.

tedmorrissey.com

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