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.

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.


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.


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.




100 Thousand Poets for Change—and You

100 Thousand Poets for Change

A 100 Thousand Poets for Change poster by volunteer designer Odysseas Milios (info@ijustdesign.gr)

What will you be doing this Saturday, September 24, 2011? How about taking part in what’s billed as the biggest poetry event in history?

100 Thousand Poets for Change is the unifying force behind the widely diverse and decentralized endeavors to take place on September 24. Some 600 events in 450 cities and 95 countries are planned, and the numbers are growing daily. The movement is radically inclusive—the only requirement for an associated event is that it promote some kind of environmental, social, or political change “within the framework of peace and sustainability.” In the big bucket of change, the poets and others participating decide what to do. As a sampling:

  • People will chalk the sidewalks with poems in Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • A dance party is planned in Greece, and drum circles will beat out hope for peace in California, New Mexico, Nigeria, Jamaica, and Gambia.
  • A poet will sit at a typewriter in an independent bookstore and produce poems on demand—while dressed as the Poetry Fox. (Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what a Poetry Fox looks like. My understanding is they’re exceptionally rare.)
  • At least two poets are planning to read poems while flying commercially (on different flights).
  • Another poet plans to read a poem to an Eastern seaboard marsh she’ll drive past on that Saturday.
  • And there are literally hundreds of readings, slams, open mics, and workshops around the world.

While I’m hoping to do more on September 24, I plan at a minimum to participate in an effort to inundate with poetry the inboxes of state and local government offices in North Carolina (where I live). Poets and poetry lovers are encouraged to e-mail poems to their elected representatives. Poets Joseph Bathanti and Kathryn Kirkpatrick, North Carolina organizers of the mass e-mailing effort, explain the details:

Please use the poem’s title for the subject line, and place the poem itself in the body of the e-mail, with your name and the town you live in at the bottom of it. No additional message should be inserted. Our aim is for the poems themselves to be the message. The poem you elect to send does not have to be political, per se, though it can be argued that all poems are political. Of course the subject matter remains solely your choice. We request, however, that this action be one that underscores our dignity as poets and the integrity of our art. Our intention is not to shout at our politicians, or in any way insult them, but to present a powerful united advocacy for change—and to alert them to our constituency.

I already have my poem picked—it’s one I’ve had memorized for years, and it seems to fit the bill. (Be sure to read “7 Reasons to Memorize Some Poetry” on Jeff Cobb’s Mission to Learn blog, if you haven’t already.)

In Place of a Curse
by John Ciardi

At the next vacancy for God, if I am elected,
I shall forgive last the delicately wounded
who, having been slugged no harder than anyone else,
never got up again, neither to fight back,
nor to finger their jaws in painful admiration.

They who are wholly broken, and they in whom
mercy is understanding, I shall embrace at once
and lead to pillows in heaven. But they who are
the meek by trade, baiting the best of their betters
with extortions of a mock-helplessness,

I shall take last to love, and never wholly.
Let them all in Heaven—I abolish Hell—
but let it be read over them as they enter:
“Beware the calculations of the meek, who gambled nothing,
gave nothing, and could never receive enough.”

So what will you be doing September 24? Whether you live in North Carolina or no, whether you’re a poet or not, you can e-mail your legislators a poem. Or you can find some local happening at http://www.100TPC.org. Or you can organize your own. We’d love to hear what you plan to do—so let us know by leaving a comment.


This post was originally published on Mission to Learn. I recommend the Mission to Learn blog, which is dedicated to lifelong learning.

Carrboro Poetica on the Radio

On July 25, I read on Carolina Book Beat, along with the other members of Carrboro Poetica, a bi-monthly poetry critique group. Co-hosted by Audrey J. Layden and Paul Nagy co-host, Carolina Book Beat airs on WCOM, a community radio station tucked in a tiny building in downtown Carrboro.

An MP3 recording of the hour-long show is available on the Carolina Book Beat site. So please check out Sara Claytor, Phyllis Jean Green, Barbara Kenyon, Priscilla Webster-Williams, and me reading our own poems and talking about the dynamics or our critique group.

Raleigh Review Workshop with Laux and Millar

Raleigh ReviewMemorial Day weekend I attended the Raleigh Review‘s first workshop in its Writers’ House series. The Raleigh Review is new—volume 1 (2010-2011) just came out at the beginning of this year, and volume 2 is due out early in 2012—but the board and staff, which include poets Rob Greene, Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, come with street cred.

Laux and Millar, talented teachers and poets, led the workshop—and they donated their time so all the proceeds from the workshop fees could go to supporting the Raleigh Review. The workshop was generative, and we met for two-hour sessions over three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). The format for each session was simple:

  1. Get a writing prompt. (And if you don’t know The Poet’s Companion, which Laux wrote with Kim Addonizio, check it out—they know how to give some good prompts.)
  2. Write for 30 minutes or so.
  3. Read what you’ve written, listen to others read their work, and hear feedback from Laux and Millar. I was impressed at what astute comments they were able to provide based on hearing people’s raw material aloud one time—I’m a hemmer and hawer and a visual learner to boot, so I was truly awed.

Beyond the prompts, Laux and Millar also gave us workshop participants a resource that we can keep going back to. The idea is to document your personal universe, using all five senses. (I appreciate the senses as key to poetry—and learning in general—as “A Sense-full Approach to Learning” demonstrates.)

The personal universe is discussed in a piece by Laux posted on Read Write Poem. But the Read Write Poem article uses the personal universe as a prompt for writing one poem—and it’s great as a prompt—but the way Laux and Millar characterized the personal universe during the workshop was as more as an ongoing tool or resource.

They invited us to make a chart with the five senses as columns and, for rows, the major periods in our life (e.g., childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or whatever makes sense to you). Then you complete the chart by filling in words (five or more) for each sense at each time period. So under smell for childhood, you might have something like “Pop’s clove cigarettes.” Under adulthood and taste (or smell, depending on how you remember it), you might write, “pear wine.” You’re also supposed to pick words to go with an array of topics: “seasons, times of day or night, astrological signs, totems, heroes and heroines, nicknames, places in the universe, invented words or sounds, snippets of dialog.” You’re also to pick an abstraction: “Then find an abstraction, a word you might use to define what most motivates or controls your life.”

Again, the Read Write Poem article focuses on the personal universe as a prompt for one poem. And you can certainly use it that way. But I really like the way Laux and Millar presented it at the workshop—as an ongoing resource. I like the idea that I now have something I can turn to to help me when I get stuck in poem. If I’m at a dead end, I can randomly pick a word from the chart to use and get me going again. If I’m looking for concrete details and descriptions in a poem, I can look at my chart to jog my memory and senses.

There are prompts a-plenty out there—and I’m not knocking them because, Lord knows, I use them—but I find the personal universe an appealing more-than-prompt. I hope you will too.

How Language Is Lost Unveiled

How Language Is LostLast Tuesday I attended the Emrys Annual Meeting at the beautiful Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC (Who knew that Greenville has a museum row? Presumably lots of folks, just not I.) As part of the program, I read from the just unveiled How Language Is Lost, published by Emrys Press.

Jeff Cobb posted video of me reading the title poem from the chapbook on his Mission to Learn blog, and I’m including the text of the poem below.


How Language Is Lost

The Abipón had a word for
everything, even the invisible
amphitrichous spirits that
swam the Argentine Gran Chaco.

Wrestling, riding, raiding the Spanish for horses—
tributes to unseen gods (rabbit-like, prone to disappearing)—
gave way to farming, kneeling in naves.
Their own shamans couldn’t shape-shift anymore,
forgot the prophesied destruction—a vast yellow snake
swallowing rivers, trees whole—and crouched silently in the dust
as a clerk counted them like animals, like cattle,
sent his report back to court: 5,000 in 1750.

When King Carlos expelled the Jesuits in 1768,
half the Abipón had died of small pox.
The cleavage between this life and the old was complete.

Fifty years later, when a shriveled woman
with spiraled palm leaves in her pierced ears
and blue tattoos around her elbows lies on a straw mat
in a hut corner in Resistancia,
————————————————the younger woman—no relation—
cooking over a smoky fire and soothing a baby to sleep
does not understand her dying words,
her articulation of the world to come,
the world lost.

–Celisa Steele