By Joseph Bathanti
Since 1996, our nation has celebrated April as National Poetry Month. Established by the Academy of American Poets, the aim of the month-long celebration is to increase poetry’s visibility and accessibility, call attention to its diverse practices and incarnations, and spotlight its rich tradition in our national literature.
A happy coincidence is that April is also Jazz Appreciation Month. Here’s a site, A Brief Introduction to Jazz Poetry, from the Academy of American Poets that puts some spin on the marriage of poetry and jazz: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5660. It excerpts a couple of poems, respectively, by Langston Hughes and Jane Cortez, lists other poets in the “Jazz tradition” and mentions a handful of inspired Jazz Poetry anthologies. There’s no better Jazz Poetry anthology, however, than “The Jazz Issue” of Asheville Poetry Review (Issue 16, Volume 13, No. 1, 2006), edited by North Carolina poets Keith Flynn and Sebastian Matthews. It’s a fabulous 291 page compendium of poems, essays, memoirs, riffs, scholarship, interviews, and you-name-it that simply sets the bar.
Today, I visited sophomores at Watauga High School in Boone, N.C. I read a few of my poems and handed out a few from other poets to spark discussion. The students were savvy and bright and willing to take chances in the discussion about what poetry means to them. Commentary ranged from eloquent waxing to the utter befuddlement we’ve all experienced when faced with a tricky poem that takes big chances with language and honesty. This class is taught by Mary Kent Whitaker, Watauga County Schools Teacher of the Year for 2010-11 and Watauga High School Teacher of the Year for 2014-15. My younger son, Beckett, had the good fortune to land in one of Mrs. Whitaker’s classes and it was a life-changing experience for him. Ms. Whitaker opens students’ lives to the miracle of poetry and all it teaches us about ourselves, those around us and what it means to be jointly human as we share the only planet we have together, but she also exposes them to the beauty of language, the power of the word when wielded judiciously, and the limitless possibilities for a fully realized and happy life. Her classrooms are model communities that produce rounded, spectacularly educated students who learn at her feet what it means to be fully engaged in their lives in respect to the lives of those around them. My son’s life is one of the thousands of students whose life Ms. Whitaker has changed in her over-thirty years of distinguished, award-winning teaching. She is that teacher that students remember, whose impact upon their lives is pervasive and lasting, that they will stay in touch with, and emulate. Where would we be without teachers like Ms. Whitaker – and her counterparts all over North Carolina – and the students who emerge from her classroom?
My enormous gratitude goes out to all those teachers, like Ms. Whitaker, along with their students, a number of whom I’ll be visiting this month, who pool resources, energy, time and, often, shoestring budgets to celebrate poetry in April, and perpetuate it among our children and students who are, after all, the future of verse, the future of the planet.
Please be sure to check out the April issue of Our State magazine, headquartered in Greensboro. In it is a terrific feature called “10 Poems Every North Carolinian Should Read,” along with an introduction by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Among the ten are wonderful poems by well-known contemporary North Carolina poets: Betty Adcock, James Applewhite, Kay Byer, Dorianne Laux, Barbara Presnell, Robert Morgan, and Ron Rash.
In that same issue is an excerpt of “Where Waters Meet: On Moving Into a Home Overlooking Croatan, Albemarle and Currituck Sound.” “Where Waters Meet” is a long and intricately lyric poem, stunning in its evocation of the natural world, and the language mimetic of it, by North Carolina poet Steve Lautermilch. It is the winner of the prestigious Linda Flowers Literary Award, given annually by the North Carolina Humanities Council.
What’s more, I have an essay in the April Our State issue titled “The Mythic School of the Mountain,” a piece about legendary Black Mountain College, which existed in the Swannanoa Valley from 1933-1957 and boasted some of the 20th Century’s most famous thinkers and artists. I devote a bit of space in the essay to the Black Mountain School of Poets (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5648), an established and widely influential literary movement launched on North Carolina soil. Rigidly defined in Donald Allen’s watershed 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, the canonical Black Mountain Poets are: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Carroll, Paul Blackburn,
Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, and Larry Eigner. The Black Mountain Poets are a key school in the pantheon of American poetry, leagued often with the Beats, the New York School and the San Francisco Renaissance. It’s important to remember that they took not only their name, but arguably aspects of their aesthetic, as well, from North Carolina.
Almost lastly, it is, after all, baseball season and I like to think of April 1st as the perfect day: when poetry, jazz and the great game itself unite to dazzle all us for the next thirty days. And it is in the spirit of that bounty that I invite you to sing along to this 1908 rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4-gsdLSSQ0.
I close today’s installment with fond birthday wishes to North Carolina poet, David Rigsbee, born on April 1; and the following poem from his book, School of the Americas (Black Lawrence Press, 2013).
Roy Orbison, New Orleans, 1984
They were micro-operas, and he
was as lifeless a tenor, as could be
propped on a stage, so hidden in black
he seemed the emissary of oblivion,
except that there was nothing
he was capable of forgetting, no hurt.
He sang of disappointment straight up;
three blondes swayed to his catatonia.
I had separated from my wife
and appeared with my new interest,
a bi-polar space invader, as the years
would prove. On this lawn of denim
and tank-tops, we too moved
with the music. For Roy,
all of life’s fullness survived only
in dreams, and because they did so
they were invariably sad, insubstantial—
yet within those boundaries, vivid.
Some years later I heard a fellow
read a paper at a conference.
His thesis was that Roy projected
a posthumous persona: the immobile,
obsidian figure drawing audiences
to that quavering falsetto, a voice
from beyond the grave, as warbly
as the gibbering, bloodthirsty ghosts
in Virgil. I mean, it was clever,
and I’ve thought of his point often.
Who doesn’t wish, in some sense,
to talk back at experience
from the perspective of the concluded self?
It is a voice devoutly to be wished
that to the hearer would be a haunting;
to the singer, proof positive.
My ex-wife remarried, and to her
I am just a short that spun its way out
before the ponderous feature starring
a regular guy. My girlfriend got help,
but not before the worst
had befallen us, not before we said
what no earthly beings could take back.
At the next stage, the lead singer
had just taken his foot off
the wah-wah pedal like a driver
leaving the accelerator before applying
the brakes. Where did they think
they were going, the show-stoppers,
when the show was not in this life,
as we had just heard, and believed?
David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas, The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems and 18 other books and chapbooks. He is a native of Durham.