Their hands may have trembled, but the many Winonans who shared their poetry for the first time felt uplifted at the monthly readings Winona Poet Laureate Emilio DeGrazia has hosted since his inauguration as a local champion of verse. At its worst impression, poetry can seem like the gloomy realm of dejected introspection or the impenetrable gibberings of stuffy intellectuals. It is a shame since "you can find poetry that's funny, or sexy, or action-packed," said former Winona Poet Laureate James Armstrong. Nevertheless, American poets must always be "fluffing up their audience," he continued.
Photo by Chris Rogers
Winona's third Poet Laureate, Dr. Emilio DeGrazia, and his predecessors have taken poetry to the people in their role as ambassadors of verse. Dozens flock to listen and share at DeGrazia's monthly poetry events (see sidebar page 5a) in downtown Winona.
It is not like that everywhere. Former Winona Poet Laureate Ken McCullough walked down a rain spattered side street into the plaza of a South America city where he had travelled for a poetry convention. A recovering drunk lay crumpled in the plaza, but when he saw the convention's logo on McCullough's bag, he sputtered, "Poeta?"
"Sí," McCullough replied, confirming his identity as a wordsmith.
" the wino sighed pleasantly and held up his hand in a sort of thumbs up.
A far cry from countries like Italy, where illiterate workmen quote stanzas from Dante's epics, or Russia, where famed poets draw stadium crowds, "being a poet in America in general means that you have to explain why poetry is interesting to anyone," Armstrong said.
It was partly the need to cultivate poetry and partly the chance to celebrate it that encouraged the city of Winona Fine Arts Commission to create the Poet Laureate role in 2007. The idea of an accomplished poet being honored as a public figure and given the task of finding the right words to commemorate community events goes back to ancient Greece, and has more recent success in promoting the art form in other American cities. "You don't have to be a big city to have a poet laureate; we've got some really talented poets in our community," said Winona Fine Arts Commission chairwoman Deb Ward. The three Winona poets who have been crowned with laurels Armstrong, McCullough, and DeGrazia were literally adorned wreaths have published scores of works and have been honored with national awards and fellowships.
DeGrazia described the Poet Laureate as "good for people and good for business," citing a Minnesota State Arts Boards report that the economic impact of the arts statewide is in the ten digits. The economic benefit of the arts "is one thing that does not get discussed," he said. "Some people might think that spending money on a position like the Poet Laureate is a waste of money. I see it as a way of defining Winona, of making Winona special as a quality-of-life destination." The city of Winona gives the Poet Laureate a $600 a year stipend. The city sponsorship "means the city has said, 'We actually believe in this,' and it gives it a kind of visibility and prestige," DeGrazia commented.
An arts scene is a part of every successful city, DeGrazia continued. Also, with its plans for adding arts and culture amenities as part of Mayo's multi-billion dollar destination medical center, Rochester who named its first poet laureate last year may soon be vying with Winona as a cultural destination, he commented.
Writing poems for important public events such as Winona's Sesquicentennial, visiting local classrooms, conducting writing workshops, holding readings, and leading the Great River Shakespeare Festival's Maria Faust Sonnet Contest, Winona's poet laureates have served in particularly public and outreach-focused roles.
"It was my responsibility to accept any invitation that came up," McCullough joked of his tenure as laureate. Armstrong, McCullough, and DeGrazia have shown tremendous gusto as laureates, Ward said. "Just their excitement in making themselves available and going to different things in the community" has been amazing, she added.
At one such event, McCullough composed a poem honoring Winona lumber families for the commemoration of the Winona County History Center's new addition. Reading his verses with the families behind him, "took me out of my role of being an outsider and a renegade that people often associate with poets, to do something in a genuinely public way," McCullough said. Writing for public events requires poets to approach their work differently, he said. On the other side of the podium, "it's a healthy thing for Winona to have a poet laureate and to have poetry existing outside the academy." He added, "Whatever we can do to make poetry inclusive is important."
It is a mystery to Armstrong that so many who grew up on nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss are alienated from poetry. "It is pleasure and fun and play, and it's also meaning," he said. For evidence of poetry's universal power look no further than the obituaries, Armstrong continued. People who have hardly written or read poetry in their lives will compose poems to honor their loved ones because "they feel instinctively that somehow that's important to commemorate that important moment in their life with some kind of elevated language," he explained.
Poetry is an incredible facilitator for memory, as well, the laureates pointed out. At one event, McCullough read from the nautical classic, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and to his surprise seven or eight people in the audience began speaking along with him, reciting the poem from memory. "I thought, 'This is something that isn't happening anymore,'" McCullough said. Later, he gathered the reciters and others into a troupe that shared their lyrical memories with the Winona Middle School. At that event, "I made the mistake of saying, 'This is something that is dying out in our schools,'" McCullough recalled. Then an English teacher jumped up and said "Wait a minute now listen to this," and her students began quoting classic verses in unison. That opened the door to a surprising connection between the seniors of the troupe and the young students, McCullough said.
Rote memorization has been frowned upon in education of late, but Armstrong said we "may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater," citing new research that "students need to have memory. They are so far the other way they think they can just Google everything, but when they see something they can't interpret it," because the base of their knowledge is in "the cloud," he said. Easing memorization is one of the original purposes of poetry, Armstrong pointed out.
The Winona Fine Arts Commission finished gathering applicants for the 2014-2015 laureateship last week and a newly honored poet is expected to be selected by the end of the year.