West End Poetry Festival: 2 days, 8 events, 20+ poets

Carrboro's West End Poetry FestivalThe 2014 West End Poetry Festival is coming up on October 17 and 18, and, as both a participant and an organizer, I’m excited about this festival, funded by the arts-hip Town of Carrboro.

Participating poets represent a wide range of poets—different styles, different points in their careers, different places in their lives. The West End Poetry Festival can boast both James Applewhite with a dozen poetry titles to his credit (the first published in 1975, the most recent this year—a 40-year spread) and spoken-word poet Kamaya Truitt-Martin, a sophomore at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

While Triangle area poets are well represented in the festival line-up, Sharon Nyree Williams is making her way to the festival from Seattle, and Sarah Rose Nordgren, whose Best Bones (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014) won the Starrett Prize for Poetry, is coming from Cincinnati.

I could say wonderful things about the work of all the participating poets—but poetry is better experienced than summarized, so I hope to see you at at least part of this free festival, which kicks off Friday, October 17, with a reception and readings by James Applewhite, Ross White, Sarah Rose Nordgren, David Roderick, and Charmaine Cadeau, 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

The festival continues Saturday, October 18, noon to 8:30 pm at the Century Center in Carrboro, with an open workshop on form and its uses (even for free-verse poets), an experiential workshop for middle-school-age and high-school-age poets, panel sessions on poetry and place, an open mic, a reception, and a final reading featuring Cathy Smith Bowers, poet laureate of North Carolina from 2010 to 2012. Saturday poets include Cathy Smith Bowers, Laurence Avery, Pam Baggett, Steve Cushman, Tyree Daye, Ann Deagon, Terri Kirby Erickson, Dave Manning, Joseph Mills, Gary Phillips, Sacrificial Poets, Alana Sherrill, Susan Spalt, Celisa Steele, Chris Tonelli, Kamaya Truitt-Martin, and Sharon Nyree Williams.

For more, check out the full 2014 West End Poetry schedule and poet bios (PDFs).

And, last but not least, here’s a poem from Cathy Smith Bowers, who will read at the final event of the 2014 West End Poetry Festival.

A Southern Rhetoric

by Cathy Smith Bowers

“It’s a sight in this world
the things in this world
there are to see!” my mother says
as she hurries between the stove
and Sunday table. She is just back
from vacation. Happy.
Talking mountains. Talking rivers.
Big cedars and tidal bores.
When I tease her for redundancy,
her face glows like a sturgeon moon
risen above fat buttery atolls
of biscuits, steaming promontory
of roast. She shakes her finger
in my face and scolds me good:
“Girl, don’t you forget who it was
learned you to talk.”

Amazing she would want
to lay claim to these syllables
piling up like railroad salvage
when I speak, to these words slow as hooves
dredging from the wet of just-plowed fields.
I watch her turn, embarrassed, to the sink,
to the pots and pans she will scrub
to a gleam so bright we can see ourselves
as if the two of us stared back
from the lost rhetoric of memory.
From the little house, the crib where
she bent each day, naming
for me the world where words always fail,
warranting, now and then,
those few extra syllables,
some things spoken twice.

Why I Find Occasional Poems Tricky

Carrboro Town SealAs Carrboro poet laureate, I was invited to read a poem last night at the swearing-in ceremony of Carrboro’s new mayor, Lydia Lavelle, and re-elected alderpersons Jacquelyn Gist, Randee Haven-O’Donnell, and Sammy Slade at Carrboro Town Hall.

It was also suggested that I might write a poem for the occasion. And, while writing something for the event intimidated me, I did write my first occasional poem for the swearing-in.

Before I share the poem, let me comment on why I felt intimidated. As Wordsworth is oft (over?) quoted as saying, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Therein, for me, is the difficulty of the occasional poem—the poet has to anticipate the powerful feelings. The poet doesn’t get to recollect them in tranquility. She’s ideally part of creating the powerful feelings. And, by and large, I do draw on past events that are emotionally interesting and significant to me when I write. So undertaking an occasional poem flipped my usual writing process on its head. That and the strict deadline daunted me.

While I may envy them as poets, I certainly don’t envy Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco the task they each undertook to write a poem for a presidential inauguration. But working on my own occasional poem did give me new appreciation of what each managed to accomplish.

In any case, I feel lucky to live in a town like Carrboro has created and supported the position of a poet laureate and whose mayor values words enough to request an occasional poem.

So here it is, my first occasional poem.

Swearing-In Ceremony

by Celisa Steele

Swear comes from Middle English sweren
and may be akin to the Old Church
Slavic svarŭ, meaning to quarrel.

It doesn’t matter—although it may
help, when quarrels arise, to recall
the Slavic: what you do is ancient,

rooted in words you speak now. Neither
is history worth much tonight, whose
footsteps you follow irrelevant,

dry as etymology. Even
what you say tonight doesn’t matter.
Saying a thing never made it so

as every poet knows. Words are weak
and never change a world. But say them
still—because they should be, must be said

as all poets also know. Then go
do the work, stack action on action,
stone on stone, build the thing sturdy and strong.

Celisa Steele Named New Carrboro Poet Laureate

Arts CarrboroI’m pleased to announce I’m the new Carrboro Poet Laureate. My term starts immediately and lasts through June 2015.

Sweet Old Voicemail

I got a voicemail with the news that the Carrboro Arts Committee had selected me as the town’s next poet laureate when I was at a Lucinda Williams show at the Haw River Ballroom. That felt right—a good place to be to get good news.

Part of why it felt right is that I grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the house right next door to Miller Williams’s. His daughter Lucinda wasn’t there (and hadn’t made a name yet), but I remember being awed at the idea that her father was a poet, that I lived next door to poet.

And Miller Williams was generous. In 7th grade, I wrote and illustrated a book for poems for an English class, and Williams blurbed it. In 10th grade, I interviewed him for another English class.

In high school and college, I read all his stuff I could find—unreasonably pleased when I thought I knew exactly which pool hall or street or house he was writing about in a poem.

So it seems apt to me to share one of Miller Williams’s poems as part of this announcement.

On Not Writing a Love Poem

by Miller Williams

How do I say
what everybody says
as if it hasn’t been said
by everyone?

What can I do
(considering all the dead)
that isn’t banal, pretending
it hasn’t been done?

There is no death,
love, birth, that isn’t trite.
If all our passions are long-
discovered islands

patterned with footprints,
a Sunday tourism sight,
let people (cupping their ears)
say, “Listen: what silence.”

A Little about the Carrboro Poet Laureateship

I’m thankful to all the poets who served in this role before me: Kate Lovelady, Patrick Herron, Todd Sandvik, Neal McTighe, and most especially Jay Bryan, who is the immediate past Carrboro poet laureate and was instrumental in the creation of the laureateship.

According to the Carrboro Arts Committee, “The main duty of the Poet Laureate is to engage in activities that enhance the presence of poetry in the social and civic life of Carrboro.” As poets know, sometimes ambiguity is good. In this description of the duty, there’s room for each poet to shape the role to her abilities and interests.

One specific form that “enhancement” of poetry will take is coming up: Carrboro’s West End Poetry Festival, a two-day event featuring more than 20 poets. I’ll read at 7 pm on Saturday, October 19, at the Century Center as part of the festival’s final event. The talented Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the new Walker Percy Fellow in Poetry at UNC-Chapel Hill, will read as the grand finale.

I’m looking forward to the festival—and to serving as Carrboro poet laureate.

Oh! Ken Goldsmith, or What a Poet Wears

I caught Kenneth Goldsmith, poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art (yes, the MOMA has its own poet laureate, though surely not resident?) on The Colbert Report last night. While a big part of me was happy to see a poet on The Report (what might the Colbert bump do for contemporary poetry?), I was disappointed when Goldsmith’s suggestion to Stephen Colbert that they might spend time reciting poetry played out as the two quoting the lyrics to Oh! Susanna. A fine song and all, wouldn’t a poem have been more appropriate?

Of course, Goldsmith’s attire (boater hat, bright pink suit, and one bright pink and one lime green sock) did sort of beg for a musical number.

They did eventually get around to talking about Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters. Check the clip out below.

Good Things Come in Threes (or More)

cover of 2012 Emrys JournalThe end of the year is an apt time to look back and be thankful for what’s happened. At the end of this December I’m thankful for some acceptances I received in the second half of this year:

  • The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review published “Keeping Time with the Dead” (which uses the rhyme words from John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet VIII” as its end words, though without concern for the other constraints of a traditional sonnet), and I received my contributor copies at Thanksgiving.
  • Emrys Journal accepted “Emily in Italy in April,” a traditional sonnet in what I hope will some day be a full-fledged sequence of Emily poems. The poem will come out in the 2013 journey-themed issue, and I’m happy to again be associated with Emrys, the wonderful arts foundation that published my first (and only) chapbook, How Language Is Lost.
  • Tar River Poetry accepted “Fear Not the Design of the Angels” and will publish it in 2013. This poem (in no way or shape a sonnet) will be my second appearance in the journal.

Earlier this month, Main Street Rag released The Best of the Fuquay-Varina Reading Series 2012, in which three of my poems appear:

  • “Belated Birthday on Santa Catalina Island”
  • “Enlightenment at the Stoplight”
  • “Purgatory”

Here’s hoping I’ll have more publications to celebrate in 2013.

100 Thousand Poets for Change, Reprised

100 Thousand Poets for Change logoWell, it’s that time of year again. This Saturday, September 29, 2012, will mark the second annual 100 Thousand Poets for Change grassroots extravagance, which currently comprises some 800 events in 115 countries.

Last year, I participated in an effort to inundate with poetry the inboxes of state and local government offices in North Carolina. This year I’m planning to join an event organized by poet and my writing group cohort Stephanie Levin.

Details are below–come join us.

This is Just to Say…

Where: The back patio at Open Eye Cafe in Carrboro, NC

When: 10 am to noon, Saturday, September 29

What: Part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, this is your chance to stop for a moment and jot a quick note of love, gratitude, or longing you’ve meant to write but haven’t. Notecards, pens, poetry, and hopefully a gentle September breeze will be provided. One-on-one critiques will be offered, too. Bring up to two poems for on-the-spot feedback.


Learning What Is Untaught

This post was originally published on the Tagoras blog. I co-founded Tagoras, and, through a combination of independent research and strategic consulting, we help organizations maximize the reach, revenue, and impact of their educational offerings. Although this piece was written for an audience interested in adult learning, I thought Tony Hoagland’s take on implication would interest poets too.



"Volcano" is copyright (c) 2006 Tony Hisgett and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A poet and a lifelong learner, I attended a two-day workshop in May where poet-teachers Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar introduced me to Tony Hoagland’s five powers of poetry. Hoagland classifies implication as poetry’s fifth power:

A good writer does not say everything. When Jane Hirschfield says, “It is foolish / to let a young redwood / grow next to a house,” we become true participants in the poem, by hearing what is unsaid. Understatement, inference, innuendo, and suggestion are crucial skills of implication. When Amichai says, “A photo of a volcano on the wall makes people feel safe,” we understand that to study what is said and what is unsaid, and how, is not unimportant.

Implication is how good poets invite the reader into the poem, let her add and infer from her own experiences.

Some Assembly Required

Dan Ariely coined the term “IKEA effect” for the phenomenon—observed in his research in the field of behavioral economics—that “labor enhances affection for its results.” The Swedish company IKEA sells a lot of some-assembly-required products—and has been very successful at it.

I have a bookshelf from IKEA that’s more than a decade old. I still get a kick of residual satisfaction when I walk past it—the memory of an afternoon spent surrounded by socket-head screws, using the packaged Allen wrench to torque them tight.

We value what we add to—the bookshelf we assemble, the poem that lets us decide how a volcano evokes safety.

From Poetry and Behavioral Economics to Andragogy

Malcolm Knowles addressed the role of experience in the andragogical model outlined in The Adult Learner:

[F]or many kinds of learning, the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves. Hence, the emphasis in adult education is on experiential techniques—techniques that tap into the experience of the learners, such as group discussions, simulation exercises, problem solving activities, case methods, and laboratory methods instead of transmittal techniques.

Hoagland’s implication and Ariely’s IKEA effect are about engagement—engagement that yields richer results. They require the reader or the consumer to do something, to bring her knowledge to bear, just as Knowles argues we must leave space for adult learners to apply their experiences to what they learn.

The Implication for Your Education

Do your education offerings leave room for implication? Do they require some assembly?

If they don’t, see how you can restructure them to require learners to draw on their own rich experiences. Without room for implication, without some assembly required, your education is an unread poem, prefab furniture without personality. If your offerings don’t require anything of the learners, then it’s all too easy for the learners to “put on their dunce hats of dependency” (as Knowles puts it) and tune out.

You can’t teach them everything—you have to leave room for them to learn what is untaught.

Reading Friday in Winston-Salem and Review of How Language Is Lost

I’m reading this Friday at Barnhill’s Books Wine Art Gifts in Winston-Salem, and I’m perhaps most excited about the event because the fabulous Becky Gould Gibson will also read. She’s a gifted poet and teacher–it’s never a given that one will be the other, and I marvel when I find people who both write and teach well. I was fortunate to work with Becky Gould Gibson under the aegis of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poets Series, and I consider it an honor to have this chance to read again with my mentor. If you’re in the Winston-Salem area, I’d love to see you this Friday at 6 pm.

Also, a review of How Language Is Lost and three other chapbooks appears in The Pedestal Magazine. The reviewer calls “Beauties and Beasts” “a hauntingly exquisite poem.” The full review by Emilia Fuentes Grant is available online.


Celisa Steele Wins Rash Award in Poetry

Broad River ReviewMy poem “To a Son on the Verge of Divorce” won the Broad River Review‘s 2011 Rash Award in Poetry. I received the news at the end of December, but the journal just published the finalists and winner on its Web site yesterday, so now I’m making my official announcement.

The poem will be published in a 2012 issue of the Broad River Review, and I receive a $500 award.

Winning any contest is an honor, but this award is particularly special for me because it’s named for Ron Rash and because it was blind-judged by Cathy Smith Bowers. I was lucky enough to study with Ron Rash at a summer workshop at Wildacres, and his grasp of the English language–its lilt and subtleties–amazes me. And I greatly admire the poetry of Cathy Smith Bowers–The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas is intelligent, funny, and finely wrought, as are all her books.

Review of How Language Is Lost and Fuquay-Varina Reading

Ruth Moose, a wonderful writer of fiction and poetry and longtime teacher in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written a review of How Language Is Lost for The Pilot. Moose concludes her generous article: “Steele…is a wonder with words. No language is lost with her, this first collection that is a joyful forerunner of grace to come.”

I read the review yesterday–a nice way to start the week that will also see me reading with Helen Losse at the Third Thursday event in Fuquay-Varina. More details are about that reading are available on my Readings & Events page.