Carnegie Mellon grads hit the road to promote poetry
Zachary Harris believes to be a poet means to serve as a promoter of poetry — especially at a time when many have written it off as a lost art.
“If you dedicate your life to it, it's necessary to create enthusiasm for it,” says Harris, of Highland Park.
Harris and five of his friends will spend this summer doing just that. The six alumni of Carnegie Mellon University's Creative Writing Program will pile into a van and travel to libraries and community centers across the country in efforts to help create and sustain poetry programming.
“The six of us are all over the country now, but we're still really committed to poetry, and as we talk to each other, have found we're all really committed to community,” says poet Ben Pelhan, who lives in New Orleans. “That's something that's really valuable and important to us.”
Joining Pelhan and Harris for the project are fellow poets Adam Atkinson, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Anne Marie Rooney and S.E. Smith.
The tour, called Line Assembly, will start and end in Pittsburgh with a kickoff event June 29, at Assemble on Penn Avenue in Garfield. Then, they're off to towns in the Midwest and Northeast, hitting cities like Chicago; Madison, Wisc.; Buffalo and New York. They're also stopping at more rural spots to reach as many people as possible.
Their act includes poetry readings, workshops and a performance. They'll also leave behind materials to help each location build a lasting poetry community. The group will document their experience to share with future audiences.
The goal of Line Assembly is to dispel any ideas that poetry is a dying — or already dead — art form.
“Poetry is alive and well and very much important to lots of people in a bunch of different ways,” Pelhan says.
Observations of its demise, which have printed in several major publications in recent years, are often written “from a distance,” Pelhan says.
“They're looking at a very small portion of what poetry is,” he says. “They'll look at the last six poets laureate and say they're not very good. That's just one person out of tens of thousands of poets in this country.”
Pelhan's definition of “poet” includes everyone from published writers to people scribbling their thoughts in diaries to kids practicing rhyming.
“When you say it's dead, you're ignoring the popularity of rap, which is poetry put to a beat,” he says.
To bring awareness to how critical public funding is for arts education, the Line Assembly crew will act out roles of anti-poetry advocates for a performance called “People Against Poetry.” A few members tested out the method a few years ago in Pittsburgh. At spots all over the city, they posed as people seeking signatures for a petition in support of expunging poetry from public-school curricula.
“We said it was subversive and doesn't prepare people for the new global economy,” says Atkinson, an Arnold native who now lives in Baton Rogue. “A few people did sign, but many more were very put out by us.
“It was about getting people who had not been putting into words why they thought poetry was valuable to a young person's education to do that for the first time, and maybe keep thinking about it.”
Harris, who teaches poetry at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, says poetry's appeal stems from its directness.
“There's something about poetry and compression,” he says. “It allows you to say a lot in a smaller amount of space. I don't always like to think of poetry as being therapeutic or as a means of discovering one's self, but that is part of it, as well.
“There's an emotional aspect that appeals to the human sensibility of wanting to be heard.”
Line Assembly members, many who also teach, say they love seeing students get excited when they come across a phrase they like — or even better, one they wrote themselves. The members say they know there are still young people excited about poetry, filling out notebooks and reading every book possible, because they were those kids themselves.
Smith, who hails from Freeport, Greene County, remembers in her rural town where resources were scarce, it made her “a weird kid” to pursue a love of poetry. She's excited to meet the people in other places who feel the same way.
“There is no way to predict what will be the most exciting town to visit,” she says.
For Smith, poetry remains powerful today because it provides an “open a channel of communication between the reader and writer that's so direct, it's unusual and hard to describe.”
She stresses it's “not just for eggheads,” no matter what some people think. She's taught some young students who dismissed the art form as being too cerebral before even reading one stanza.
“I would just ask them what they noticed when they were reading, then gratify that response,” she says. “Their observations are valid. There is no wrong way to read a poem.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Line Assembly poetry
“A Cast of a Smokestack”
It's the future, and there are future men
in jumpsuits walking through a forest
behind a little future girl's house.
They've just excavated an enormous
smokestack from underground, and they're carrying it
away with laserbeams. The little girl's parents
get big bags of money from the government,
and the mother is jumping up and down.
When everything calms down, the little girl slips
away to the forest clearing. It is the largest hole
she has ever seen. Looking at the hole is like looking down
the barrel of a gun, but there aren't any guns in the future
so the girl climbs in like an innocent little bullet.
The shape of the smokestack's ladder, scaling
the height of the hole, is perfectly preserved in a cast
of soil, leaving little notches for little fingers.
Each day the girl climbs down a little further before
she second guesses herself and climbs up again.
Finally she reaches the bottom, and it smells like chemicals,
but things don't smell like chemicals in the future
so she lights a match to get a better look and bursts into flame.
The girl is now a hot cloud of smoke, shooting into the sky
at rapid speed. She expands and expands until she looms.
The little future girl has never loomed before. Everyone
looks up at the only dark cloud in the clean future sky;
her mother, her father, her dog, the future men in pantsuits
who are now in a neighbor's forest and have put down
their laserbeams to look up, everyone. It's the best feeling.
The girl knows she will die soon, but for now she expands
and expands. She looks down on the earth and watches
as her shadow grows larger than any of the holes in the ground.
— Adam Atkinson
There is a house to me. When Saturday leaves a gradient
of onion on the floor I open a mouth which is also a corner.
Who can say this also isn't mine? The sparrow of belong-to
has smaller than nowhere to fit. If I could feed the trellis in daisies
I would not. I would not feed the trellis or that which has never sweat
against a screen door or door. (Which can't be mine
either.) (Each plank fretted up as if mistakenly gardened.)
I would never water the ankles of anything. I think we should begin
at the head, the think-prickle: If I could be paid in water earned back
I would crater the kitchen and stop the smokestack.
— Anne Marie Rooney
Another vine crawls over from your neighbor's yard, too bad.
You carry your ancestor's jawbone in your purse, too bad.
Another bead of ice has fallen in your coffee, too bad.
You would rather be loved than believed, too bad.
Everything is too dewy in the Alps, too bad.
Your dog is so strange, too bad.
It is lonely in castles, too bad.
The Grotto of wonder is closed for the summer, too bad.
I am a tiny jelly cake
and today is to be my greatest adventure.
— S.E. Smith
Sometimes the living make us very sad. This is not an unusual condition.
There is a fine bronze threaded through the pears and butter. I am sad
for this bronze. I am sad when I watch Bea Arthur on television. Once
I saw a dead fish, unblemished, half-buried in the mud on the lip of a
pond. I mistook it for a knife, and I was sad first for the fish, and sad
second for myself, who so easily lapsed into the sinister. I am sad when
Bea slips on a beaded caftan the color of a nightcat because now that
caftan is empty and guileless. There is a certain way in which the sunset
directs the light in my third-floor walk-up. I am sad to have to pick up
these pieces. Bea eats cheesecake, and I am sad first for her because
no one should eat that much cheesecake, and sad second for myself,
for having none. It makes me sad to read Oliver Twist because I have
often felt orphaned. There is a way in which everyone is an orphan.
Bea is going out on a date. She kisses her smallish mother goodnight,
opens the door, and sees that there are no stars.
— Zachary Harris
“when you land in San Diego”
the movie. business is booming. you
are booming. your Holly.
is a tree. and your Wood.
is your bond. the weather.
couldn't be better. so get yourself off.
the plane already. get off. so much.
sunshine. shadows hide.
in never land drawers. you squint.
nobody can't be bothered. forgetting.
what a dark thing looks like.
talk about black face. you talk.
about coffee. a little bit. you beach.
like whales. whales are so big.
when you land in San Diego.
like also the Zoo. is big. so big.
you don't even talk about it.
you. and your together person.
will have to break up.
soon. because whales
are so big. belong
in a sea. maybe large
rivers. not in a zoo.
not in an airplane.
say hello. to your first
class whale. forget.
you ever came.
— Ben Pelhan
“The Body Deformed by Tidal Forces”
Darkness still here, hunkered against the trees.
Spring so uneasy this year.
No matter morning's boundary culling our bodies,
another romantic passage assaults us!
O limp future centered on this body!
In the model solar system, planets suspend & twirl
as if from a spider's whirl.
The quantum in backpedal, in decline, spring to ungripping
this year. Bored mouth. Bored fingers.
The umpteenth day/night running like such –
truly, truly – this troubling with physics!
Not still winter, not yet anything.
O thuggish awakening.
All planets but this one were named after gods.
— Lillian-Yvonne Bertram