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Moderating the One Page Poetry Circle

I haven't always liked poetry. When I was younger I was afraid of it and unwilling to put time into reading it and rereading it in order to understand it. But as I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate poetry and to look to poetry during times of emotional crisis in my life. Last summer my friend AnnaLee Wilson mentioned to me that a writer she knows, Madge McKeithen (http://www.madgemckeithen.com/), had started a poetry circle at our local library. The idea was an interesting one -- anyone could attend and bring a page of poetry from a known poet. Each month Madge suggested a theme for the poetry. She would then introduce the topic and read a poem that she had brought. Each person in the room would read his or her poem and talk about why they had chosen the poem and why they liked it. I wrote about the One Page Poetry Circle for my online journal (http://abigailburnhambloom.com/journal3.html).

At the meeting in December, Madge announced that she could no longer moderate the poetry circle and she encouraged someone else to take over. AnnaLee and I talked about taking it over. We had worked together at regional meetings of the Hyde School so we felt comfortable working with each other and we enjoyed spending time together, in person and via email. We took a long time in making the decision as we are both busy and we wondered how this might help our own writing or be of any benefit to us at all. Madge was knowledgeable about modern poetry and neither of us considers ourselves an expert on poetry. However, we both enjoy poetry and we had found our evenings at the OPPC unusual and we wanted them to continue. We decided to go ahead. However, we limited the meetings to three; not so much of a commitment as to overwhelm us, but enough to give it a chance to work.

We began by contacting the librarian at the Bloomingdale Branch Library. She worked with us in finding dates and setting up a flyer announcing the evenings through the New York Public Library system. We chose themes for the three nights because our experience had been that looking for a poem about a theme had exposed us to poetry we had never read before. The themes gave a direction to our reading and encouraged us to read new poems. I bought the book by Molly Peacock, How to Read a Poemand Start a Poetry Circle because I thought it would have all the answers to my questions, but I didn't find it very helpful for this event. It does show Peacock's love for reading poetry, but doesn't offer practical advice. I was more worried about what to do if too many people show up, if not enough people show up, what kind of questions or comments are good for discussion, how to keep time, how to encourage people to speak, and how to shut people up. I wondered in some ways if it wouldn't be more fun to have this in my house, and invite friends, and drink a glass of wine. But holding the OPPC at the library does serve another purpose of encouraging community members and other library goers to enjoy an evening of poetry.

I like the idea of the circle as it means that everyone is equal. I go to lectures and I give lectures all the time, but at the OPPC I am not a teacher, only a moderator, and we all participate. Molly Peacock expresses the pleasure of the poetry circle in her book: “The entire point of a poetry circle is to read and talk about poetry, and to make you actually anticipate the time to do this oddball thing that is a supreme breathing exercise without a weight room, a word trove in the presence of things that leave you speechless. Conquering book lists, jostling for attention because you'd better look smart, slumping your shoulders because you feel so stupid, cooking for a crowd, cramming a schedule all are out. All those things are inimical to poetry circles, which are divinely slow in a hurtling world, heavenly in their absence of social, philosophical, and psychological pressure, and, best of all, thrilling in their presence of revelation. Poetry circles make you know you have a soul, and that other people do, too” (187-88). This feeling of the transporting capacity of poetry is the ideal we would reach for. AnnaLee set about designing a flyer that we could email to our friends to invite them to the Circle. Here is a link to the flyer.

We sent it out and then waited. I didn't hear from most of the people I sent it to. A few people told me that they were busy that night or they weren't interested in poetry. In the meantime, I read some poems about our theme, work, and chose one to read by John Skipsey (1832-1903),"The Pitman Poet."


"GET UP!" the caller calls, "Get up!"
    And in the dead of night,
To win the bairns their bite and sup,
    I rise a weary wight.

My flannel dudden donn'd, thrice o'er  
   My birds are kiss'd,
and then I with a whistle shut the door
    I may not ope again.

I explained to the group that I have been studying Victorian poetry for twenty years and had not come across Skipsey before. He was a miner who was briefly "rescued" by being given a job as a librarian and who then went back to the mines. The poem is beautifully tight, well metered and rhymed. The whole idea of a caller waking people up amazes me. And the words are wonderful, archaic, or just from a different area — "bairns" (like the birds) standing for his children, "wight" indicating a human, and “dudden” being some kind of overalls worn to the mines. I love the idea that he would whistle when he leaves, even though he fears as he walks out the door that he may never return. This is such a different kind of work, and kind of life, than any that I have ever known.

So on Tuesday night, March 18, I went early to the library and arranged a circle of about 15 chairs. AnnaLee came right along as did my husband, Roger, and a couple of our friends, Carol Durst and Barbara Sullivan. I was disappointed that more of my friends didn't come; if not for the poetry, then just to support this new endeavor. We were joined by a couple who came in, sat down, and left again. When I asked them why they were going, they replied that the room was too cold. Two women came who had just read the notice at the library that day. Both were poets, but only one had brought a poem to read. I took away some chairs from the circle and we got down to the poetry. AnnaLee read “Hay for Horses” by Gary Snyder (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15436). That beautiful poem ends with a man saying, “I'm sixty-eight,” “I first bucked hay when I was seventeen./I thought, that day I started,/I sure would hate to do this all my life./And dammit, that's just what/I've gone and done.” His words provoked a lot of discussion concerning how positively or negatively he regarded bucking hay. This poem reminded Carol of her poem, “Decisions,” by Jonathan Goldman (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/decisions-2/). Barbara read Portia Nelson's “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” (http://www.mhsanctuary.com/Healing/auto.htm). Roger read “The Town Marshall” from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology (http://www.bartleby.com/84/41.html). One of the ladies who had seen the notice in the library read her own poems, which we were delighted to hear, and then a poem by Walt Whitman, “Thanks in Old Age” (http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/logr/log_335.html). On that note of appreciation for all we have and have had, we said good night. Did the evening and the poetry turn out to be transporting? Not exactly, but we had enjoyed the hour we spent in the OPPC. The time had passed quickly and we never felt we were casting about for something to say. We had a very pleasant evening, and we hope that our group will grow for the next meeting on April 15.


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