Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Poetry Awards and Meeting the Texas Poet Laureate

The library at MPOW held its Annual Student Poetry Awards on April 29, 2008. This was part of the programs for National Poetry Month that we implemented. April was a very busy month for me, and this event is one of the biggest things we put together. I could not have done it without the help of our outreach coordinator, Joanne Buendtner and the generosity of folks like Anne McCrady (link to her blog here). My thanks also go to the 2008 Texas Poet Laureate, Mr. Larry D. Thomas, who delivered the keynote as well as presented the awards. What follows then are my notes and impressions from the event. This is a bit of a long post. If you just want the short version of what happened, you can read the "official" version over at my library's blog here. Otherwise, read on. Any comments I make are in parenthesis.

The event began with a reception and book signing. The library provided a catered table of hors d'oeuvres (provided by Joseph's and underwritten by the local Friends of the Arts). The reception was an opportunity for the audience to meet with Larry Thomas before the event as well as purchase as signed copy of his new book, New and Selected Poems, published by TCU Press as part of their Texas Poet Laureate series. Yes, I got my own copy of the book signed by the author (no, you can't borrow it). During the reception, Thomas describes his work while he talks with guests. He tells us that his poetry is different from cowboy poetry; his is more like folk art. Because he is a native West Texan, some people may think he is a cowboy poet.

I am told that this is the third year where the library brings the current Texas Poet Laureate as part of the Student Poetry Awards (the awards have been going on for longer than three years). Local poet and friend of the library Anne McCrady provided a nice introduction for Mr. Thomas. She described him as an inspiration to her and other poets, a man who wrote poetry during his free time while holding a full time job. Soon after he retired in 1998, Thomas began to publish. McCrady also tells us that his poetry comes from the heart of a visual artist. This is seen in the covers of his books as well as in his poems. Thomas is a poet who is reverent of Texas people, places, and events. He is also a very generous and loving member of the Texas literary community who sees the job of poet laureate as a gift to the people of Texas.

After such a generous introduction, Thomas went right on with the poetry. First, he tells a bit about himself, saying he started with an English bachelor's degree with the intention of eventually becoming a college professor, but life meant a different path for him. (Hmm, English major who eventually ended up doing something else. I love the guy already. Yes, I am an English major and ended up doing something else down the road too). Thomas fell in love with poetry early on. He loved the music of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." He wanted to keep the beauty of rhythm in poetry.

As a poet, Thomas tells us he is ritualistic; different poets have different rituals. To him, writing poetry is like a worship process. Some of his rituals include:
  • Writing in his own studio.
  • Sitting on a rocker without a cushion to keep a bit of an edge. The slight discomfort keeps him in focus.
  • Always using a fountain pen. The flow of ink is organic and tactile. Lately though, he has composed a couple of poems on the computer.
Thomas goes on to speak about "getting in the zone" for writing (this is applicable to other disciplines). Once you are in the zone, don't waste time. So he goes to his place where poems are born; he does add that some poems should not have been born. Each poem has its own beauty. Thomas likes to say he loves all his books as his children.

He says that inspiration is hogwash. As part of our gift, the creative energy flows continually. Thus poets are light sleepers; they can't quite turn off the images (hmm, this could explain why at times the moments I feel I can't turn writing ideas or images off, especially at night. Either that, or I have a serious anxiety problem. I like his idea better). Thomas adds that writing a poem is like going to the river with an empty cup, and you distill what you get. Yes, it's that easy.

After reflecting on his craft, Thomas goes on to read from his work. He is using the edition of his works published by TCU Press (see link above), which we had available during the book signing.
  • He starts by looking at West Texas with poems like "Wind," "Red Raging Waters," and "The Skull Seller." (A quick peek at the audience reveals they are caught in the performance. I learned a while back that, when looking at a performance, you need to be aware of your space as well, so I took a look around. I was thinking I could have added a note here on the hall itself, which provided a small and intimate space for the event. Maybe later). Thomas's voice cadence goes up and down when evoking the river in "Red Raging Waters." (As I sit there at the moment, caught in the words and music, and even now as I write, I can't quite put it in words. He is just so evocative. His voice seems so reflective of the expansive landscape, or in summoning the image of the woman selling skulls.)
  • Next, he moves on to the Southeast and East Texas with poems like "Neches River" and "Twin Spinsters in Blue." On that second poem, Thomas comments that he likes to write about centenarians; they make him feel in awe, and they inspire him.
  • Moving along to Midland, Texas, and then other poems (these are now quick impressions).
    • "Out of the blue." Look at the image of the cicadas, or are they called katydids here, he asks.
    • "Gabriel."
    • "Of Fathers and Sons." This poem captures a moment in time. Note the voice of the son who overhears the father's praise as father is talking to the mother. Also notice the ending.
    • "Harvest Moon." This an example of a magical moment.
    • "Primary Colors." As he is about to read this one, he checks to see if the audience is thumbing through the book or not to follow along. (Personally, I prefer to listen and look at the poet than read along).
    • "The Night We Were Gods."
    • "Cotton." The poem evokes the picking of cotton. He talked about share farmers and about how they would use cotton in so many different ways.
    • "Apricots." This is a poem that he enjoyed writing. Initially, Thomas did not want to let this poem go, but the poem led to a chapbook. He has eaten many apricots since then. He recalled apricot fried pies made with hog lard and how you had to let them cool (and as I sit there, I have this sudden craving for one of those pies).
After reading and performing his poems, Thomas took questions and comments from the audience. This are some of the remarks I managed to capture:
  • A lot of librarians, according to Thomas, are "closet poets." They love words, and if they love words in higher levels, how can they not be poets?
  • Poetry should be spoken and performed. It is not completed until it is read.
  • Asked about poetry readings, Thomas indicates that there are more opportunities in Houston, which has a vibrant literary scene (note: he currently resides in Houston). Thomas hopes for a renaissance of the spoken word. He asks Anne [McCrady] to comment on this as well. She remarks that it is important for poets to partner with universities and bookstores. (I notice she is taking notes on her notebook as well.)
  • Try breathing sometime. It makes you feel better. Our breaths stay behind, so we breath from others (as they breathe from us--think about it and how it can relate to creating poetry, or creative writing in general).
  • At his best, Thomas attempts to write one poem per page, one complete working draft. A poem is never finished, so you do the best you can. When a draft is finished, leave it aside for a bit. "Sleep on it," he says, only to see it is ugly, and then you get back to work. McCrady confirms that the first draft is like spilling your soul on the page (maybe that is why I find writing so difficult at times. You are spilling your soul, which to me seems like such a vulnerable act). You build the poem after the first draft.
We get to the awards ceremony, where the winners read their pieces as well. For the record, these were our winners this year:

  • First Place: Jesse Florendo for “Japan Sketch #1.”
  • Second Place: Conor Herterich for “”Epitaph.”
  • Third Place: Paige Hayter for “Ode to the Gardenia.”
  • Fourth Place: Carly Thompson for “The Need for a Story.”
  • And honorable mention to Jesse Florendo for “Frankenstein’s Creature Finds Solace.”
The winners received a small trophy or plaque and a signed copy of Thomas's book as well as a photo with the poet laureate. Mr. Thomas was very enthusiastic as he encouraged the young poets to continue writing, hoping to be reading their books in the future. After the event, he stayed for a short while to chat with students and guests a bit more. Afterwards, Anne McCrady, Larry Thomas, and I went for a late dinner (but that may be another story).

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