In August, the Board of Selectman confirmed Cathie Desjardins to be the next Poet Laureate of Arlington. In her role as the Poet Laureate Cathie will be the “leading poetic voice and an ambassador for poetry, encouraging the reading and writing of poetry across
Arlington, advancing the literary arts, enriching the community, and recognizing the
literary achievements of Town residents.”
Robbins Library is pleased to support the initiatives of the Poet Laureate, by hosting the Bee Hive Table Poets on the Third Floor. Stop in to meet other area poets and work on your craft.
Now our interview with Cathie!
We hosted a program with you last year, before your appointment, where you walked participants through several poems, and engaged the audience asking for their emotional responses. I found it helpful, as sometimes poems feel like riddles that need solving. What is a good entry point for people who are new to poetry?
It helps to listen to lots of poems. People saying they don’t like poetry is, to me, like saying they don’t like food. Maybe you don’t like lots of kinds of food, but there’s something you like. To find poems you like, you can, for instance, get a poem a day in your inbox, from Poetryfoundation.org, poets.org, poets.com or you can listen to Garrison Keillor’s daily Writer’s Almanac. Those broadcasts and websites have podcasts, links to thousands of poems, poems grouped by topics or author, interviews with poets, many, many resources.
Poems are dense: I recommend listening to a poem at least twice, ideally out loud. Before you start thinking about the poem, consider it the same way you might a dream: what is the affect, the emotional tone of the poem? What in the poem brings you there? I don’t think you need to literally understand everything in a poem to be moved by it. “Bring the North” is a poem by William Stafford that I adore, but I don’t pretend to literally understand it; it’s mysterious and wonderful.
Arlington is a very literary community, and poetry has a special place for readers. The Library has hosted the Bee Hive Poets for the past two years. What kind of programming are you interested in?
I’d like to honor what’s been going on and also innovate. I’ve added a new time on second and fourth Wednesdays (1:00-2:30) when I’ll be at the Beehive table on the third floor of the library and I hope new people will come. I’ll be there first and third Thursday evenings 7:00-8:30, and Beehive regulars may also be meeting on their own second and fourth Thursdays. Regulars have said they’re interested in coming at their previous meeting times on Tuesdays when I’m not there. We’ll see how it evolves, with the goal of including everyone who’s interested, new poets as well as the ones who have been coming over the last two years.
I want to do outreach with younger people as well, starting with what I call Kneebaby poems, a session with people’s earliest favorites done with babies and toddlers at the library. I’m hoping to do a session with LGBTQP—P for Poets, too, at the library. I’ll work with any group that will have me. I’m hoping to get out in the schools. I don’t go anywhere as an expert, a talking head. But I believe in the power of authentic language to move anyone and I want to create an arena for that to happen, reading and, if possible, writing, poems, especially with people who don’t think of themselves as usually enjoying those things.
How was the internet and social media impacted poetry?
The internet makes so many resources available. For instance, masspoetry.org maintains a statewide calendar of almost daily poetry events as well as interviews, poems, links. Thousands of poems are instantly accessible to us now and you can track poems down with just a keyword or two.
Social media is important in publicizing groups and events: I got a dedicated email and Facebook page as poet laureate. But I think it’s tricky: Wordsworth said poetry originates in “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and, to me, social media doesn’t promote tranquility. It often promotes a culture of distraction and distractibility.
Who are your favorite poets?
I started to make a list and got to dozens and dozens pretty quickly. I love many of the traditional poets but I also like newer, innovative poets. I’ve been reading a very quirky poet named Alice Oswald who’s as odd and original as Emily Dickinson and recently I’ve been enjoying a talented but relatively unknown black poet who died a decade ago, Christopher Gilbert.
Where do you draw inspiration for poems?
Well, I’d like to go to the literal meaning of the word inspiration, which is— an inhalation, a drawing in of breath. Because anything can be a topic for a poem—a vegetable, a board game; John Donne wrote a poem about a flea. What turns something into a worthwhile subject for a poem goes back to Wordsworth’s tranquility. There needs to be a drawing in of breath, which really means noticing, observing what’s in front of you. So writing to me depends on that kind of calm attention, receptivity, paying attention to something and asking someone else to look at it with you too.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye says she asks herself “What’s the poem in the room?” wherever she goes. Because if you are paying attention, there is a poem there. I think we need poetry now more than ever, need that kind of observation and reflection, especially kids being brought up in a culture of distraction. Poetry means really looking at a thing instead of just taking a selfie with that thing in the picture with you.
Thank you, Cathie! We enjoyed speaking with you about poetry.