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Slow Down with a Good Poem

a Bay Weekly Conversation with Poets Laureate Grace Cavalieri and Temple Cone
     Does poetry still have something to say to our 21st-century selves?
       April is poetry month, so the timing is right to ask that question. Expertise is plentiful and close at hand. Not one but two poets laureate are our neighbors. Newly designated Maryland poet laureate Grace Cavalieri is an Annapolitan. And, for the first time, Annapolis has its own poet laureate, Temple Cone, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. 
      Join us yourself to see if this conversation says anything to you.
 
Bay Weekly Months are designated for things we fear are overlooked, like black history and women’s history — and ­poetry. Is poetry overlooked?
Grace Cavalieri  I think that poetry is having a resurgence. Social media has helped it become more accessible — not always up on Mount Olympus.
Temple Cone I agree with Grace. But poetry also gives us a counterpoint to social media by providing something genuinely missing in our culture and lives: an encounter with something that need not be easily digested and quickly processed through, a place where folks can linger and be in touch with our realest selves.
 
Bay Weekly I wonder whether it’s true that everybody writes poetry but nobody reads it. What do you think? 
Grace Cavalieri I have not met a person — or a poet — who hasn’t written a poem as a child. It must be something innate with that rhythm: the rocking in the womb or cadence of a lullaby or children’s book. Harmony and rhythm are with us from birth; they’re in our blood.
I think children are great noticers. That’s the first acuity a poet has. They observe the tiniest thing an adult might miss. It starts with being aware, seeing what strikes the senses. Children are very good at that.
Temple Cone Kids love poetry, but they learn to hate it when we teach them that poems have some hidden meaning behind them and you’ve got to crack it, and then the poem is done and you get a grade. I’m for getting kids and adults to a point where they don’t worry about the meaning of the poems, but maybe like how it sounds and meaning will come a little later.
 
Bay Weekly When did you write your first poem?
Grace Cavalieri I just found it in my underwear drawer. I was about nine, and the subject was drowning. We must’ve been presented with the mythology at that age, and I was dreaming about Davy Jones’s Locker. 
Temple Cone I was about the same age. My mother recently turned over to me the first literary journal I was published in as an eight-year-old, and I showed it to my daughter. All the others were bouncy and cheerful and mine was brooding and melancholy; about death. She made fun of me.
 
Bay Weekly Where are we most liable to encounter poetry nowadays?
Grace Cavalieri We can’t underestimate the fact that electronics are a way of getting from here to there. There are some fine online magazines with the highest quality and top poets publishing. Every notable poet I know has been online.
Temple Cone  I do think people distribute poems over various social media platforms. Whether they’re taking time to linger is another thing.
 
Bay Weekly Are you tweeting a haiku a day?
Temple Cone I don’t have a Twitter account. But during Advent in December I posted a haiku a day with reflections, on the Annapolis Poet Laureate page — www.facebook.com/annapolispoetlaureate. So I was using social media as a laureate activity.
 
Bay Weekly Poetry has had lots of uses in human history, from recording our historic deeds in epics to expressing our relationship with God in psalm. Praising our patrons; satirizing our institutions; interpreting the news a la Charles Osgood and tickling our funny bones … What do you think are ­poetry’s practical uses in our 21st-century lives? 
Grace Cavalieri I think those things are the sustainable reasons why poetry exists through civilizations. But poetry is not a utilitarian art. The wonderful thing of it, it has no utility: it ­doesn’t make any money. There’s no stall in the marketplace. It’s wonderful that there’s no price tag on poetry; nothing at stake; nothing to buy or sell. It’s a human cry; a human expression. Like love and Zen. You can’t put a price tag on those.
Temple Cone Utility is a way of engaging with the world as a set of instruments to get something done. Poems challenge. They don’t want to be handled the way we turn words or people or natural scenes into instruments for exchange.
 
Bay Weekly But there are occasions for which we know we need poetry. ­Temple, your immediate job as laureate was to write in honor and memory of the assassinated Capital reporters.
Temple Cone On the day the shooting happened, I was on my way to a meeting when police shut down the roads. So I parked in the mall and was texting back and forth as news came on the radio.
      I wanted to get hold of everything that was happening and was sharpening my focus. I needed to write something down. I didn’t have any idea it would become a poem and I would be asked to use it. But I had a minute and words wanted to form.
      Poetry can have this very powerful public elegiac effect. But those murders were part of a much broader conflict in our country, and I didn’t want to write a poem that was gently consoling — though I wanted people to be consoled. It ends on a really painful note because this is a perilous time. The reason they were killed is a recurring problem the country has to address.
 
The Day Would Be Remembered
The phones screamed all afternoon,
family calling family,
each lover their beloved one.
The blue sky was empty,
save a few clouds that held
no promise of cleansing rain.
For an hour, each heart swelled
with grief for a stranger’s pain,
then sank into silence,
lacking words to shield
a fragile innocence.
When crows at last had wheeled
home to the full-leafed trees,
life crept back in. Children
played baseball, the wheels
of a fallen bike spun
in the breeze, and those who lived
greeted others warmly.
The day would be remembered
as one when family
called family, each lover
their beloved one.
But none would forget, ever,
how the phones screamed all afternoon.
–Temple Cone
 
Bay Weekly Grace, have you served such a role?
Grace Cavalieri This is what we call occasional poetry, writing for an occasion. The secret is that language will always lead to the heart.
      I did Gov. Hogan’s inaugural poem. I didn’t know him, but I think he is a man of great respectability. I meditated on the words for a week, they took the form I wanted — to describe a person we hoped for: an honest leader and trustworthy leader. It started with language.
 
Bay Weekly How do you start a poem?
Temple Cone I think my writing emerges out of a playful love of language, all the differing words, cadences, phrases and images. Sometimes I write to get a simple word into poem, figuring out the rest from there. I wanted to put the word yonder in a poem, so part of the job was figuring out how it could make it in. Sometimes poems emerge very simply.
Grace Cavalieri The idea is maybe the last part of it. It starts with a feeling for me, it’s an urgency, it isn’t a choice. It’s a life force. It may start with just an image.
      I’m very disciplined; I write every morning. I may start with 10 beautiful words and put them together. Or write about something that strikes the senses. The thinking part is the last part.
       My dreams: The nighttime mind is underestimated. I love the imagery I get from my dreams. I capitalize on that. My husband said it’s like living in a gas station. The lights go on and off all night. I would be writing things down all night.
       I come to the morning with my senses alive. I start with the dreams from my notebook.
 
How A Poem Begins
It’s a little thing. Could be
the long O’s in Kosovo, or
a woman
alone in the street
after the hurricane
sweeping Honduras.
Perhaps we tell of the child
beneath the flood or
the sound of the wind
in New Orleans,
or the rubble of Afghanistan.
They say poetry is insignificant,
such a tiny voice
no one can hear.
That’s why we write of such
little things, insignificant things.
–Grace Cavalieri
 
Bay Weekly Temple, how do you write?
Temple Cone  I try to write every day, and I like to write in the morning early, when I’m tired but not fatigued, still dreaming and the PhD part of me hasn’t gotten up yet.
      One of my rules is the first line I hear in my thoughts I have to write down no matter how ridiculous. I have to write a lot of garbage to get to that moment where something very surprising turns up that I didn’t know I was in charge of. I am opening conditions, a clearing, for a poem to come in and creep out of the words. Maybe it doesn’t, but you’re there every day to see if maybe it shows up.
 
Bay Weekly How do you know when a poem’s over?
Grace Cavalieri We never say poems are abandoned. The thought streams never end.
      I was recently judging a poetry contest. After the winners were chosen, they were still trying to revise their poetry.
      I think the poems come through us, not of us. Language is so malleable, it’s like playdough. You can’t stop; it’s always there for you to play with. But when playtime is over, it’s over, that is it.
     I do have a sense of unity and symmetry, qualities you want. And if they’re there, I know it. And you do, finally, abandon them.
Temple Cone When I become excited about a new one. I don’t cling to poems any more than I need to. Maybe it’s fear there may not be many more. But I don’t feel that way any more.
 
Bay Weekly Grace, you’re No. 10 in a lineage of Maryland Poet Laureates going back to 1959. What are you going to do with the job?
Grace Cavalieri Continue doing what I do already. On my radio program for Library of Congress, The Poet and the Poem, I’m featuring all Maryland poets. On the Maryland Arts Council website of poets, www.msac.org/artist-registry, 85 have already been recorded. I want to record the ones I don’t have. 
      The only requirement I have as laureate is to go to all 23 counties and Baltimore, which I’m doing. People want lectures, after-dinner speakers, workshops.
      I also hope I’m going to bully a newspaper into printing a poet’s poem every month. I’d like to have poets in print regularly.
 
Bay Weekly Temple, you’re our capital city’s first, so you get even more opportunity to define the job. What have you been asked to do — and what do you hope to do in the remaining 15 months of your two-year term?
Temple Cone When I interviewed, I was asked to suggest things I might do, but there are no constraints or demands so far. I’m sent on occasional readings, and I’ve been asked to write poems on deadlines.
      What I want to achieve is to have discussions and reflections on poetry in places that maybe have not been attended to. A lot is done with children, but I’m also really interested in the role of poetry with veterans without turning it into something merely therapeutic. Groups can engage in important ways, and poems can work on them in important ways. So one of the things I’m interested in is having groups like vets and their families find a refuge in poetry.
 
Bay Weekly One more thing, Temple. We want to know how a poet fares at the U.S. Naval Academy, with its commitment to training military leaders.
Temple Cone It’s not hostile. It’s a fantastic place to teach literature because in a place that favors things that would seem counter to what poetry is about, I have to reach engineers. To them, as to the poet William Carlos Williams, a poem is a machine made of words with no extraneous parts. They like pulling poems apart, then putting them back together and revving the engine.
       There’s such an imperative for action in the military; you’re constantly rewarded for doing. Poems slow us down, you have to still yourself for it. Poems are a way to get a quiet space if you haven’t had that before, if you don’t have a place of silliness where you can reflect before choosing to act.
      Plus, I get to say I’m the only poet in the employ of the Department of Defense.