Most Americans are as enthusiastic about poetry as they are about china painting or the sport of curling. Actually, curling probably has more fans than poetry does. All this is just a surmise, but I think an accurate one.
I made my way to the Hylton Center for the Performing Arts, on the Prince William Campus of George Mason University on a spectacular fall afternoon this past Sunday, along with 100 poets, writers, musicians and readers. I like to think we made some progress toward making poetry more acceptable and even desirable. And we read, heard, discussed and shared not only poems but also short stories and songs at the first “In the Company of Laureates” program. This lively mix of people, literature and organizations charged the atmosphere of the arts center with a special kind of electricity.
I first greeted some friends, local writers who produce a variety of genres in a range of styles, including Katherine Gotthardt with her poetry, Belinda Miller with her fantasy series and Linda Johnston and her account of good times in the lives of pioneers in Kansas.
The lobby featured displays about writers and organizations, while students from the Woodbridge Senior High School Center for the Fine and Performing Arts represented some of the event’s laureates. During the first time slot, former poets laureate read their work in Merchant Hall, while the WSHSCFPA provided an open mic for writers and musicians in the Gregory Family Theater. I was in the presence of a whole range of ages and styles during these two sessions.
During the next hour, musicians Isabella Perelman and my former teaching colleague Ron Goad and storyteller Laura Bobrow took over Merchant Hall, while veterans Bill Glose, James Matthews and Dr. Frederick Foote as part of the “Words on War” panel read poems and a short story about their experiences during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the Gregory.
Glose shared several poems about his experiences in Viet Nam, contrasting the brutality and violence of war with ordinary experiences of daily life, such as a daughter’s picture in the helmet of a soldier who was later killed. James Matthews shared a short story about his Guard unit assembling in Washington, D.C. as the first step to Afghanistan, and Dr. Foote recited from memory several poems about his time on a hospital ship during the Iraq War. He also shared a story that I found incredibly moving. The hospital unit handled not only Allied casualties, but also Iraqis, including soldiers, women and children injured in attacks.
Foote remembered that when the women came on board, they were terrified since they thought they were being taken to prison. And he said “They stopped being Muslim.” Their clothes had been blown off in many cases, exposing skin that otherwise would never be seen by anyone outside their family. They stopped their daily prayers and ate pork. While treating their physical wounds, the medical team looked for a way to treat them spiritually and psychologically as well. They settled on using some material left over from a quilting project the nurses had undertaken. They gave their leftover cloth, needles and thread to the women, who sewed for themselves. As a result, their mood and outlook improved and they found their religion again.
Next I went to the Inspiration and Experimentation Panel, whose members held forth in the Rehearsal Room to explain where they found inspiration and how they experimented with elements of their poetry. I was pleased to see my friend from the Northern Virginia Writing Project and the Poet Laureate Emerita of Virginia, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda as well as Zan Hailey, one of our Prince William County Poets Laureate, at the presentation.
I spoke with Zan after the session as to her thoughts about the event and people there. She termed the event “awesome” and hoped that future conferences would “include more laureates from other states.” She added that “being in the presence of other poets inspires me to keep working and do more.” She foresaw that the gathering of laureates would “become larger and get better, especially with the support of the Arts Council.”
The afternoon concluded with present poets laureate reading their poems while the Gregory hosted another open mic. Many of us felt, as we had with the past poets laureate, that we were in the presence of almost mythical beings, ones whose work we had read, discussed and admired for years. June Forte, the Prince William Poet Laureate Administrator, who was instrumental in planning and staging the event and also in establishing the Prince William Poet Laureate position, closed the afternoon with a few remarks.
Rick Davis, Executive Director of the Hylton Performing Arts Center, and Dean of the College of Performing and Visual Arts at Mason, noted that the event “helped fulfill the mission of the Hylton, which is to create a ‘creative commons’ for the community.” He observed that the Hylton does that “not only with poetry, but also with a variety of artistic expression, including literature, drama, art, dance, music of all sorts, photography, quilting and, of course, poetry.”
Davis saw a spectrum of ages and people becoming “excited by the spoken and written word presented by writers ranging from beginners to seasoned professionals.” The result, he felt, would be “more poetry,” and that would benefit everyone in ways perhaps some of them are not even aware of.
Participants, poets, musicians and writers alike left looking forward to the next laureate program and another chance to attract attention to the sorely neglected literary arts. And I’m betting that they can do it. On this bright Sunday, they made a good start.