Poetry and Politics Collide

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By Susan Morse

The Hampton Union, Sunday Herald, Sunday, April 20, 2003

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
Marie Harris, NH Poet Laureate

HAMPTON - New Hampshire Poet Laureate Marie Harris is talking "Poetry and Politics," in the first-ever gathering of state poets laureate here next weekend and in a new book titled "Poets Against the War."

The book is the result of First Lady Laura Bush’s decision to cancel a Feb. 12 tea party and symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice."

The First Lady canceled the tea after hearing that some of the poets planned to read anti-war poetry. She thought it "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum," according to her spokeswoman.

In response, poet Sam Hamill established a Web site, www.poetsagainstthewar.org, and asked for submissions. Harris says he got 13,000 responses. A number of the poems were culled from the Web for the book including Harris’ "Sometimes the Wider World Can Only Be Apprehended Obliquely," which she wrote years ago.

"Poets Against the War" was released April 15 by The Nation Press.

When Laura Bush canceled the tea party, "poetry and politics collided," Harris says. "The poet has often spoken out; it’s a tradition."

Next weekend’s forum, "Poetry and Politics" is more about where the poet fits into the marketplace of everyday ideas, rather than a call to political action.

The gathering of at least 20 U.S. poet laureates in this state on April 25 and 26 is the brainchild of Harris. It is being hosted by the New Hampshire Writers Project in association with the American Academy of Poets.

"The poet is often the conscience of the state, or the gadfly," said Harris, who is quick to point out she does not consider herself the conscience of the Granite State.

Yet, if poetry is not our unconscious thoughts coming back to us in print, then what is it? Poetry, perhaps the most misunderstand of all the arts, is often viewed as the noble pursuit of intellectuals who, locked in seclusion, muse on the inner workings of the human condition while the rest of us go about our mundane lives.

Harris helps promotes the idea of poetry as philosophical self-help when she says:

"Poetry has always been, throughout recorded history, the way people express strong emotions. It’s also been the way people tell stories, in a crisis, a way to understand human events. It seems to be where people turn in times of great happiness and sorrow."

So it comes as a great surprise when, on page one of her compilation book "Weasel in the Turkey Pen" released in 1993, the first thing one finds is a black and white photograph of a naked inflatable doll, legs spread, clutching a handful of balloons over her head and ascending skyward, as a man at a biker rally looks on.

Harris writes: "She seems to be saying 'O’ in wonder and anticipation as the boys fill the last balloon and pull her into the open where the crowd in the stands, alerted, turns as one man, astounded into clapping and laughter while the inflated woman tugs at her tether, spins, rises above the hot, gleaming bikes, moving into cooler air, ascending more rapidly now into a blue background pillowed with clouds."

In the title poem, "Weasel in the Turkey Pen," Harris describes the every day.

"It’s one of the mysteries of nature: arguments begin late at night. They don’t begin as arguments, but as discussions over a beer or glass of wine between two reasonable people who share similar attitudes."

The last chore of the evening, she says, "is to close the turkey chicks into the coop."

But, "their conversation lengthens ... talking louder ... the woods outside are silent as bats, suggesting presences. This would be the perfect time to sleep in familiar embrace and let dreams untie the knots they’ve made. But they pass across that time.

"In the morning, the evidence is so plain, so mundane. The little turkeys are all in the pen; only the heads have disappeared."

'No job description’

If poetry is no one thing, then neither, it seems, is the job of poet laureate. There is no job description, Harris says. One reason for bringing all of the poets laureate together next weekend is for each to share his or her role.

That role depends upon the personality and the interest of each person, Harris says. Some gravitate to education, others to raising the level of awareness by working with the media.

"For my part, I don’t think I’ve got one answer," she says. She considers herself the spokeswoman for poetry in the state and wants to raise that visibility.

The "Poetry and Politics" conference is helping to do that.

"Because the job of poet laureate does not come with a job description, I wanted to do something public," she says, "as a state laureate, something that brought poetry into the public arena."

Harris was named New Hampshire Poet Laureate in 1999, replacing Donald Hall. Her term expires next year. The state enacted the post in the 1960s.

Harris didn’t know of her nomination until she received a call from the governor asking her to serve.

Nominees are submitted by the Poet Society of New Hampshire. In the future, the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts may also play a role in the selection, according to Harris.

Harris has been in New Hampshire since 1971, living first in Portsmouth, then Center Barnstead and now Barrington.

She has been writing poetry since she was a child.

"I’ve always identified myself as a writer and a reader," she says.

Like another friend of poetry, Garrison Keillor, Harris believes in the power of the English major.

"People who can express the English language are in demand," she says.

She speaks to high school students, telling them that a career in English is not a waste of time.

Harris uses her own talents in a variety of ways.

She and her husband, Charter Weeks run an ad agency for industrial clients called Isinglass Studio.

As a travel writer, Harris’s articles have appeared in The New York Times and the Boston Globe. She has also served as a poet-in-residence in elementary and secondary schools throughout New England.

Evolution of an artist

The first of Harris’ four book of poetry was published in 1975, at a time when female poets often chose to use an initial instead of their full first name to hide their gender. Harris never did that, but knows of friends who did.

In 1999, she tried to write a nonfiction book about her personal experience adopting a 14-year-old Puerto Rican boy. She and her husband saw Manny on Wednesday’s Child on WBZ. Manny attended schools in Rochester, but he had never learned to read and write. There were no books available to teach a 14-year-old how to read.

"We weren’t going to introduce him to reading with 'Goodnight Moon,’" she says.

Harris and her husband taught Manny by teaching him to read and write his own work. The way Manny signed his letters became the book’s title: "Your Sun, Manny."

Harris began the book after Manny, now an adult, moved out on his own. The story was "not catching fire," she says. She put aside the chapters and began talking to Manny and the people who knew him. The work became a combination of prose, poetry and letters.

Another of Harris’ works, "G is for Granite," is a picture and prose book of the alphabet, with each letter representing something unique about New Hampshire. Salisbury, N.H., resident Karen Busch Holman illustrated the piece, which came out at Christmas.

Both have been touring the state, reading the book at schools and libraries. Children have received it enthusiastically, Harris says, especially fourth-graders who are studying state history.

"I’m now a walking trivia of New Hampshire," she says.

Getting poetry published is no harder than publishing short stories or novels, she says. She still buys plenty of envelopes and stamps to prepare for the numerous mailings to publishers.

"Poetry and Politics" begins Friday when the poets laureate will be on the road with other poets; on Saturday they’ll attend a conference at The Highlander Inn and Conference Center in Manchester, followed by a gala dinner with keynote speaker Dana Gioia, who is the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Local events on Friday, April 25

Poet Laureates Robert Roripaugh of Wyoming and Jim Irons of Idaho will be at the Exeter Public Library, with Pat Parnell, at 10 a.m. Call 772-3101 for more information; at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, with Elizabeth Knies and Robert Dunn at noon. Call 433-1100 for more information; and at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye with Maren Tirabassi and the new Portsmouth Poet Laureate John Perreault at 2:30 p.m. Call 436-8043 for more information.

New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka will be at the Somersworth Public Library with Rick Agran and Diana Durham, at 10:30 a.m. Call 692-0951 for more information; in Portsmouth at RMC Research, with Rick Agran and Diana Durham at noon. Call 285-0802 for more information; and at the Barrington Public Library, with Rick Agran and Diana Durham at 2 p.m. Call 664-9715 for more information.

[See also, "'G' Is For Great, Grandiose, Granite-inspired Literature".]

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