The following guest post is by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer in the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. This post accompanies online content just added to the “American Conversations” website for Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s visit to Maine from November 1-2, 2018.
Having had the privilege of traveling with the “American Conversations” project, I feel lucky to have a job that gives me the opportunity to meet people in places I would otherwise never get to. U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s project to bring poetry to rural America has led me to some of the nation’s most beautiful spots—from the barren, wind-whipped beauty of Alaska, to the inspirational mountains of South Dakota, to the lush wilderness of Maine—and has given me a snapshot of the geographical diversity that comprises this vast nation.
For the third “American Conversations” trip of the fall, we worked with the Maine Center for the Book, based in Portland at the Humanities Council, to create four events: two at public libraries and two in a women’s prison. On Nov. 1 the picturesque town of Norway (population 5,000) hosted our first event at the Memorial Library, a quintessentially New England-style building. All the publicity before the event paid off: The small room with big Palladian windows, which offered gorgeous views of the brilliantly hued trees still shedding their leaves, was bursting with locals eager to hear Tracy.
After reading some of her own poetry, Tracy read from American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (Graywolf Press, in association with the Library of Congress), an anthology Tracy edited by 50 living American authors. She started with Susan Wheeler’s “The Split,” a poem that lists 30 numbered reasons to leave your lover. Except those 30 reasons aren’t very good reasons: “She ridiculed me in front of the dogs”; “She hated the Dave Clark Five”; “We couldn’t agree on an invitation font.” Tracy read the poem without reading the numbers, then asked an audience member to reread it with the numbers. Tracy believes that second readings help bring out a poem’s meaning and that alternative readers add a different perspective. Without the numbers, it seemed like a list of complaints—but with the numbers, the triviality of those reasons became all the more apparent.
The reception afterward showed the effect of Tracy’s impact: People are hungry for literary programs no matter where they live, and they are receptive to her ability to get them talking about poems without fear of intimidation.
That evening in Lewiston (population 36,000), we dined at an Indian restaurant with a group of Somali women who were part of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Program. The same group followed us over to the Lewiston Public Library for the program. The women, including high school students and their mentors, were clearly excited to be in the company of Tracy, who graciously read some of the poems they had written.
Sometimes the reaction to a poem is much more than you expect. On each “American Conversations” trip, Tracy has read Tina Chang’s “Story of Girls,” but at the Lewiston Public Library event the poem sparked visceral reactions. It begins, “Years ago, my brothers took turns holding down a girl in the room. . . .” By the end of the poem, it becomes clear that the girl being held down is the author. One woman in the audience was so upset by the subject matter that she cried out, “I don’t know where to go from here.” She revealed that she was triggered by the reading and urged audience members who felt similarly to seek help. In addition, an older man identified with the cousin in the poem, who “told them to stop but no one could/hear him above the high roar. After that the boy was silent, looking down/at his hands, gesturing toward the locked door.” The man admitted he had been in a similar situation and had not acted, and regretted it.
Among the best audiences we have had on these tours were the women at the Maine Correctional Center. We held two programs: one at the Maine Correctional Women’s Center and another at the Southern Maine Women’s Re-entry Center, a lower-security area for women who are transitioning to civilian life.
At the Women’s Center, Tracy met with about 25 women—most of whom had already read from and discussed American Journal. Tracy began with a reading of Victoria Chang’s “Dear P.” As she often does after reading a poem, Tracy asked if someone in the audience would also read the same poem for a different take on the text. The volunteer read:
Someone will love you many will love
you many will brother you some of these
loves will bother you some will leave you
one might haunt you hunt you in your
sleep make you weep the tearless kind of
weep the kind of weep that drowns your
organs slowly . . .
As she read, choking back tears, it was obvious how deeply the poem had affected her. “What did you notice about the poem?” Tracy asked. The usual hesitancy that I have witnessed at most of these events was surprisingly absent here. People are often at first reluctant to express what a poem meant to them, either through intimidation or fear that they will say the “wrong thing.” “Love shouldn’t hurt,” the volunteer reader immediately responded.
Next, one of the women asked Tracy to read “Scorch Marks” by Dara Wier. It ends, “Who are we to believe what we say.” For one woman, the line made her ask, “Who are we? Am I the nurse I was or am I the criminal they say I am?” During the discussion I began to look around—at the women, who seemed no different than those I had encountered at any of our other venues at libraries and community centers. Then I looked out the window, at the razor wire surrounding the building we were in, and it hit me: the women talked about their “punishment,” and their time in prison colored everything they had to say.
More than any other experience I have had on these “American Conversations” trips, my visit at the Maine Correctional Center had the most profound effect. I thought about all the women there, and who they were before they became “the criminal they say.” The next time I am feeling sorry for myself, I hope that I will think about the challenges these women face every day—and on a more personal level about my wife, who has a chronic illness. How comparatively easy my life has been.
Learn more about Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s visit to Maine on the “American Conversations” website, where we’ve just added audio, interviews, reflections, and a photo gallery.