Laureates Gather: A Guest Post by State Writer Nancy Lord

Three poet laureates on Block Island (left to right, from Indiana, New Hampshire, and South Carolina), plus Alaska’s Nancy Lord, second from right.

The Writer Laureate Meets the Poets Laureate

Here are a few things I learned last month when I spent a week at a gathering of state poet laureates, where I was the only writer laureate:

• The plural of poet laureate is poets laureate. (I like simply being called state writer.)

• Rhode Island calls itself The Ocean State. Someone we met pointed out that Rhode Island is the only place you’ll ever be that’s exactly the same size as Rhode Island, and someone else pointed out that Alaska is the size of 548 Rhode Islands.

• There’s a lot of history in Rhode Island. We had lunch one day at a home that was built in 1684, and we also visited a library (the Redwood Library in Newport) that has been in continuous use since 1747. Stone walls run everywhere, and the granite headstones in cemeteries are covered with lichens.

• Some state poet laureates are appointed for life, like judges.

• State poet laureates are often asked to write poems for special occasions, like inaugurations of their governors. Some get stipends but most (as in Alaska) hold honorary positions. Most of them seem to make a lot of school visits.

• I can fake it as a poet if I pretend that some of my very short essays are prose poems and maybe even have line breaks if I read them that way.

The gathering, called Poetry for Hope (“Celebrate April. Celebrate poetry. Celebrate you.”), was the fourth time (in eight years) that the state poet laureates have gotten together. Although forty states have poet/writer laureates, only nine were able to participate this time (the economy, you know, plus timing—it was Poetry Month and many of them were in demand in their home states.) Each gathering has been hosted by one of the poets and his or her state; each has been different, but in every case poets have both spent time together and have shared poetry with communities in those states—at schools, libraries, and elsewhere. This one was organized by Rhode Island Poet Laureate Lisa Starr, who lives on Block Island, an hour’s ferry ride from the mainland.

We started there, on Block Island, presenting weekend writing workshops in a program Lisa runs, called the Block Island Poetry Project. From there we “toured” the rest of the state, speaking in schools and other venues, with multiple events every day and evening. Lisa is an inspiring advocate for poetry (and the arts generally) and did an outstanding job of programming us with music, young people, and political officials. We read in a church with a choral group, drummers, and a folk guitarist. We read at Providence City Hall with a group of hip-hop artists from a youth organization devoted to non-violence, with writing students and more musicians at a college, and at a cocktail party with chamber music and the governor. We celebrated “poetry and the sea” in a Seaman’s Church next to a lobster pound. In groups of two or three, we visited classrooms and talked to school assemblies; my visits included a Catholic elementary school, a very impressive inner-city charter high school, and an inner-city elementary school that was in such run-down and ill-equipped condition I wanted to run away with all those beautiful and neglected children.

The Rhode Island tourism people were our primary sponsors, so let me say that, for anyone venturing to the east coast, Rhode Island is definitely worth a visit. The coastal communities were really lovely in April, off-season. (Block Island, for example, has 700 winter residents, and 20,000 people on a typical summer day.) The mayor of Block Island took us birding, and we spotted great egrets and black-crowned night-herons as well as shorebirds familiar from Alaska. If you like old mansions, Newport has an unbelievable collection all along its waterfront. Brown University in Providence has a gorgeous campus. There’s cool theater doing original plays and adaptations in Pawtucket–Mixed Magic Theater. And very nice people everywhere.

And poetry. Yes, we celebrated poetry, and people came to hear it and to write it. I took along favorite Alaska poems, and so the words of John Straley, Derick Burleson, Mary TallMountain, and others are resounding on Rhode Island shores.

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