It may not be as mainstream a form of expression these days as, say, Instagram, but poetry, that old-fashioned art of arranging language to create an emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm, is alive and well.
At least, it is in the East Valley.
Tempe Poetry in April celebrates National Poetry Month with a series of readings each Wednesday of the month, and it’s been doing so for 13 years now.
“We have something like a minimum of 30 (people), and sometimes we get up to 85 or 90. It depends on whatever kind of fanbase the poets are bringing, because a lot of poets have followers,” says Catherine Hammond, founder and moderator of the program.
A published poet with three Pushcart Prize nominations, Hammond brought the idea of a regular poetry reading to the city because, she says, a university town ought to have one. Over the years, she’s never worried the event might peter out for lack of interest.
“Poetry lovers are a small part of the population — but we do exist,” she says.
Gilbert’s Karen Rigby is one such lover of language. She’ll be reading for Tempe Poetry on April 17, sharing poems from her 2012 book, “Chinoiserie.” Jeredith Merrin of Chandler and Myrlin Hepworth and Michele Poulous, both of Phoenix, will also read during the month. Among them, the quartet has racked up poetry awards and published books of painstakingly crafted verse.
Rigby’s “Chinoiserie” nabbed the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, and her work is anthologized in “Best New Poets 2008.” But her writing has taken a backseat lately, as the first-time mom has focused on her 18-month-old son.
“I don’t write every day. It tends to go in cycles of writing and not writing. I tend to write very slowly, maybe working on one or two poems at a time. I’ll go through several drafts of revising before I move on to the next one. I’m not one of those prolific writers,” she says.
Inspired by other poetry, art, film and nature, Rigby started out writing fiction as a kid on a typewriter, but came to poetry in junior high school. It’s a time when many students bristle at counting accented and unaccented syllables, or agonize over decoding “the meaning” in a poem.
Hammond says that’s not her favorite way to approach the stuff.
“What you have to understand about poetry is that it’s about the human experience as expressed in language. All of us have these thoughts, and sometimes they come at times when we’re really happy or at a point in a relationship when you think, ‘Wow. This is the best thing ever.’ And sometimes things are hard, and people write poetry to work through where they need to go in their lives. That’s a more interesting place in poetry than focusing on rhyme or writing that’s very clever. You want to read it for that sliver of an experience,” she says.
Rigby says poetry is her way of hitting pause and being contemplative.
“Every day life can get so hectic and so busy. It’s a way of having that solitude, that moment to examine the world, work things out in language, observe them in a way that’s more meaningful than just rushing through everyday life. It’s a little bit of an escape,” Ribgy says.
But it’s not something she necessarily broadcasts at social meet-ups, where the standard small-talk opener is often “So, what do you do?”
“I usually answer with saying that I’m a mom. Then a writer. I usually don’t (say I’m a poet.) I guess I’m a little shy because it seems a little unusual,” Rigby says.
Hammond says she’s had conversations curdle and die the moment she’s divulged she’s a poet. Or, she says, “the follow-up response is almost immediately, ‘Well, yes, but what else do you do?’ And that’s fair, because almost no one can earn a living solely as a poet.”
Hammond works as a translator. Rigby is editor of the online literary journal Cerise Press and a freelance book reviewer. Other poets in the series have worked as teachers, filmmakers and artists.
But, says Hammond, “one of the things about choosing a life like this is, you’re truly free. I’ve gotten as much as $1,000 for a poem — but that was one poem, one time. More often, a poem that takes months and months to do will net far less. So you see, we’re not tied, through our poetry, to the money economy, and that’s the good and the bad of it. You almost always have to do something else to live, but you’re free. And I don’t see a lot of poets having regrets about the choices they’ve made.”
Readings are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays in April at The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts. Admission is free.
If You Go
What: The 13th season of Tempe Poetry in April celebrates National Poetry Month with a series of readings on Wednesdays in April and an online poetry chapbook that includes works by each poet.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays in April
Where: The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway
Cost: Free admission; light food and beverages are available for purchase.
About the Poets
Phoenix writer and filmmaker Michele Poulos is creating a documentary titled “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” about the late poet Larry Levis. Her manuscript “A Disturbance in the Air” was chosen as winner of the 2012 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. Learn more at MichelePoulos.com.
Jeredith Merrin, of Chandler, is the author of two collections of poetry from the University of Chicago Press, “Shift” and “Bat Ode.” She recently moved to Arizona from Ohio, where she was an English professor at The Ohio State University, and is at work on a new volume of poems.
Gilbert’s Karen Rigby is the author of “Chinoiserie,” winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize. Her poetry is anthologized in “Best New Poets 2008,” among others, and she is a founding editor of Cerise Press, an international online journal of literature, arts and culture. Learn more at KarenRigby.com.
Myrlin Hepworth, of Phoenix, has written and performed poetry across the United States. In 2010, he became the first undergraduate teaching artist for the Young Writers Program at Arizona State University, where he received his degree in English in 2011. Learn more at Roster.azarts.gov/index.a4d?action=search.profilePage&id=4876