Friday, May 3, 2013


Last week I shared the questions that would be addressed at the Experience Poetry! Panel in Vicksburg, Mississippi. What a wonderful event! Thanks to all involved.

This week I'd like to do a little roundup of some answers, including my own, as well as what some of you left in comments and what my fellow panelists Julie Kane and Jack Bedell had to say.

And then, as requested, I want to address a couple of questions from the student letter I posted on Wednesday.

1. Why is poetry important? 
Our moderator, author Howard Bahr answered it this way: It just is. Similarly, Myra said the question was like asking, Why is breathing important? Mary Lee said, poetry makes the imagination visible.Violet mentioned how poetry addresses the need to capture something in words, maybe squeeze a little meaning out of an experience or sight or idea, make a craft object out of words.

My answer: Poetry turns us into song. It sings us awake. It’s important because it’s a way of living this one life we’ve been given. Poetry allows us to swim in mystery. It’s a celebration, a way to praise. It begs us to question everything and invites us to pay attention to every leaf and acorn and ridge on the cap of an acorn. It helps us understand ourselves better, our world better. It encourages compassion and empathy. It challenges us with its heartbeat, What else? What else? What else? And it's a very personal thing. I wish for everyone the joy I find in poetry, though I understand that many will find that joy elsewhere. And that's okay.

2. Where do poems come from? Do you have a plan or a theory about what a poem should do; where it should go?
I think the question means to be, What inspires poems? In which case, I say everything and anything.

As for the second part of the question, I sort of brace against that “should.” I don't know that every poem has a purpose or that it should have a purpose. For me, I enjoy poems best that surprise me. I want to be surprised. I want to read a poem and experience the unexpected inevitable -- That surprising image or analogy that when you see it on the page or hear it said, feels exactly true and right. AND I want to know What stays with you latest and deepest.

I also love what Tara said about poems bearing witness to history. And what Bridget said about how poetry comes from close observation filtered through the poet's soul.  And what Margaret said about how in a poem the deeply personal becomes universal. And Linda's thoughts on so many small & important moments, sometimes discoveries of facts, & sometimes of feelings, but always connected to self. At the event, Jack Bedell talked about how poetry should share our human-ness and perhaps even help us to become better humans.

3. What are some of the developments in contemporary American poetry?
I was interested to hear Julie and Jack's take on this, especially as they both teach at universities and experience a different corner of the Poetry Universe than I do. Turns out, they were nearly as befuddled as me. (Well, not quite. These are some savvy poets!)

My thoughts are this: There’s never been a better time to be a poet. There are more publishing options than ever before, and the internet has created a wonderfully supportive community. Poets have found each other. The downside of this is that it’s far more competitive.

4. Should poetry respond to the political/environmental challenges of our time, and if so, how?
Laura said, it can, IF the poet feels those issues at a visceral issue but can also engage his or her inner editor and transform them into true poetry.  I agree wholeheartedly, in that I am not much interested in reading a rant. Mary Lee said, Poetry should respond with compassion, originality, and imagination. (Again, that tip of the hat to imagination! Love it!)

My feeling is that poetry should respond to everything and anything, whatever the poet feels inclined to address. As to the second part of the question, my answer is simple: “in beauty.”

And now, my answers for Kristina (and for Michelle, who challenged me to be as honest), who wrote me an adorable letter (that includes kittens!):

Do you have one (a kitten)?

I have two cats. Maggie, who loves high places, and Bobby, who is too fat to get himself to the high places, so he just stares and whines instead.

Do you like the zoo like I do?

I sure do love the zoo. I love seeing animals I'd never see otherwise. I love all the work zoos do to preserve species. My favorite time to go is first thing in the morning when all the critters are being fed.

What is I like to be an author and why is it important?

Being an author is awesome because I get to do the things I love best: play with words, tell stories, and connect with the world, including readers like you! It's important to me because it's the life I've chosen – and it's the life I keep choosing every single day. I don't know that it's all that important in the grand scheme of things, but it is one way to communicate. And communication could be the most important thing we do on this earth.

Do you like writing stories because I don't.

Most of the time I like it. Some days I'm positively giddy about it. Others days when I'm struggling, I wonder why I torture myself. Which is probably how mixed-up most of us feel about many of the things we choose to fill our lives with. :)  

Thanks, all, for the great discussion! Be sure and visit Liz Steinglass for Roundup!


  1. Irene,
    I am happy to read this post because I wanted so much to be there. One thing that poetry does is connect people. And what is more important than that? Thanks for sharing everyone's thoughts.

  2. Thanks for all the ideas about poetry, Irene. You are gracious to include the commentary along with your co-panelists. As I read, one new word that came to me was mystery. No one mentioned that poetry can be, or is always, mysterious, the words known only to the writer. Even in the worst of poems, I can read it and completely visualize the time, place, feeling that I experienced while writing, so to those readers-mysterious, only outer layers revealed. Thanks for tweaking my brain a little!

  3. It sounds like an incredibly fascinating panel and discussion. I wish there were more opportunities for discussions such as these.

  4. The Experience Poetry! questions and all the answers are insightful and thought provoking. I think I need even more time to ponder. And I love Kristina and Michelle's questions - especially about kittens! Bobby sounds too funny. Thanks for sharing. =)

  5. Thanks for sharing your answers, and those of your fellow panelists. Fascinating!

  6. It's a real treat to read these answers, as though we were there at the panel. Thank you!

  7. Irene, your answer to why poetry is important is so inspiring! I'm going to print it out and read it each morning like a mantra. Kudos for your honesty and kitty-lovin' tendencies too.


Your thoughts?