Amie Whittemore: the necessity of poetry

Part of the indomitability of human nature is our use of lightheartedness and humor as a foil to oppression. Given that, I expect we’ll get some stellar work this year for the Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award.

Amie Whittemore will be our judge. This is her take on the role of the poet today:

I feel as though the myriad challenges of 2020 have made it at once more difficult to write poetry and, potentially, more necessary. A difficult combination.

I think the onslaught of tragedies—from the pandemic to the ongoing police brutality against Black people to the presidential election to wildfires ravaging the American West to whatever personal sorrow each of us is carrying—has made it hard to maintain the traits I find most beneficial to my writing: silence, calm, clear-sightedness, stillness. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt some of that stillness and calm as professional and personal obligations melted away, as time slowed down and grew murky and thick. But now, though I am still maintaining relative isolation, I feel like my personal and professional obligations have ramped back up, making it even more difficult to process and partake in the systemic changes—social, economic, and environmental—that so desperately require our attention and energy. The cynic in me would say this is in the best interest of capitalism and hegemony; the more overwhelmed we are, the more unlikely it is the collective action required to render widespread change will take place.

Which brings me to the necessity of poetry. I think poetry wears a lot of hats and somehow looks dapper in all of them, balancing precariously on its exquisite skull. For some poets, at this point, poetry is a place to release anger, grief, rage, to do the work of toppling oppressors and oppressions. For others, it is a way to cultivate beauty and peace, to reflect on love and connection—these nourishments that feel in short supply. Sometimes a poem can do both, rage and frolic, and that is a dazzling thing.

I think sometimes writers can feel guilty for writing about joy in times of collective grief (which is of course, a perpetual paradox, just one that feels particularly fraught at the moment). I know I have felt that way. I know sometimes joy also feels flimsy living in this age of extinction and decline; this era of earth-grief.

So, while no one’s asked me for advice, I feel compelled to offer some. I think 2020 is a year of reckoning in many ways, and all reckoning begins with an interrogation of the self: how can I be an antiracist? What does it mean to be a good citizen in a problematic nation? How can I demonstrate kindness to others and myself? How might being gracious with myself allow me to have grace with others? What does a sharing economy look like? What is the name of that bird I hear every morning?

Follow the questions. They will lead you somewhere new, likely a meadow full of new questions. Bring some good snacks for the road ahead. Drink water. Breathe deep. Wear your mask.

Here is Amie’s bio:

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and the 2020 Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the Reviews Editor for Southern Indiana Review and teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

You can read one of her poems here: https://poets.org/poem/spell-end-grief

light verse judge

Jeff Worley is the judge for our Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award. He sent this poem to share:

Playing Possum

Something was gnawing at my dream
and, awake now, I hear one of our cats
loudly crunching at his bowl in the kitchen.
But here in bed I make out the shapes
of all three cats, a triumvirate
around my wife and me. I leap up
through the question of Something wrong,
Honey? And stumble toward the mad
chewing. I flick on the light. There,
in the corner, pink as a piglet, a baby
possum startles from the bowl of Kitten
Kaboodle, crumbs flaking around its tiny
gash of mouth. And here’s Linda,
fully awake now, too, with not only a broom
for her, but one for me. She flings me mine
like Ricky Nelson tossing John Wayne
his loop-handled carbine in Rio Bravo.
And we’re shutting doors behind us
and opening doors to the outside world,
which clearly terrifies this arboreal
rodent who’s little more than whiplash
tail and provisional hiss. He scampers
under the German Schrank. I take a couple
swipes underneath and tease out a dust-
covered catnip toy, a disposable Bic,
and half of what looks to be a slice
of Donato’s (pepperoni). The possum
folds into itself like a fist. But Linda
is choking up and waving her broom, ready,
so I thwack the thing broadside. It skids out
like a top-ended puck to my wife, who swings—
her breasts lovely in the sudden light
(did I mention we’re both bone naked?)—
and I’m skating toward the wide-open front door,
this 2 a.m. game of Possum Broomball
almost fun now, and whoosh the critter so hard
it cartwheels like a cartoon possum through
a racket of katydids and other night fiddlers
and lands like a wad of flubber on the lawn.
As it scampers off, Linda and I stand
on the front porch, victorious, holding
our brooms in the manner of American
Gothic. Our next-door neighbor, Jaime,
home from the late shift, turns her blue
Toyota into the drive, fixing us
with headlights. It’s scary how seriously
these Worleys take their housecleaning,
she may be saying to herself, at which point
there’s nothing left for us to do, but wave.

from Happy Hour at the Two Keys Tavern, 2006

Jeff is a Wichita, Kansas native and Kentucky’s current Poet Laureate. He has written six book-length poetry collections, including Happy Hour at Two Keys Tavern, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

He has generously chosen to answer all of the questions I posed.

Here’s what he remembers about the first poem he fell in love with:

In the first poetry writing class I ever took (1969), the anthology we used was Naked Poetry, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey. James Wright was one of the poets in this collection, and I absolutely loved (at first sight) his “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” I realized a poem could be made using conversational, plain speech imagery; the importance of clear observation; and the crucial importance of a surprising and apt ending line (“I have wasted my life”).

This is his ideal writing day:

Sitting on the back porch of our Cave Run Lake cabin 11 miles into the Daniel Boone National Forest. Reading & writing on and off all day. Perfect.

Of his most fulfilling achievement, he says:

Getting out of bed in the morning and realizing I’m not dead yet.

And his favorite poet:

Stephen Dunn, Pulitzer-Prize winner, for his 45 years of writing accessible and surprising poems, many of which seemed to speak directly to my interests and concerns.

Finally, how he refills his creativity well:

I follow William Stafford’s advice to “just start anywhere.” Get a line—anything—on the blank page (“As I type a response to Craig Kittner, I see a squirrel doing a high-wire act on the electric cable”), and see where it seems to want to take me. Follow that path until it no longer interests me, then move somewhere else (if a poem doesn’t move, how can we call it ‘moving’?)