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Fear not the poet

By SARA ARTHURS
Staff Writer
It can be a challenge to appreciate poetry in our fast-paced society, but poetry is flourishing in Ohio.
“It’s wider and bigger, broader, deeper more wonderful than we ever imagined,” said Mark Hersman, president of the Ohio Poetry Association.
Hersman, of Mansfield, travels around the state attending poetry readings and events. He said Ohio’s poets are diverse both in their beliefs and their ages, ranging from high school students to a 90-year-old Columbus woman.
They include Sharon Hammer Baker, of Findlay, who has been writing poetry for years. A former elementary school teacher, she was teaching poetry forms to children and found herself writing along with them. She considers herself an “imagist” poet, meaning she writes about nature and observation, “basically your place in nature,” she said.
Hammer Baker also writes free verse and is also interested in Oriental forms of poetry such as haiku and tanka. She has created a challenge for herself where she tries to write a haiku each day.
Hammer Baker has had her poems published in journals and has won contests. She was an artist in residence as a “word artist” at Indiana Dunes National Park several years ago.
Hammer Baker is a charter member of the Tanka Society of America and is also a member of a haiku society. Through her memberships, she is able to correspond with other poets from all over. Locally, she is part of a poetry group along with Marianna Hofer, a University of Findlay English professor.
Hammer Baker said the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library “has a really, really good collection of poetry books.”
Sarah Clevidence, adult services manager, said poetry is not as popular as other books but it is checked out regularly and “I think it’s important for us to have.” Clevidence orders a few titles each month for the library’s collection, choosing books based on lists of recommendations.
Last year, about 160 different poetry titles were checked out.
In the last 10 years, interest in poetry has been “exploding” around the state, Hersman said. One piece of this is performance poetry which he said, like other types of performance such as music, requires “an immense connection between you and the audience.” Often this happens and the audience can hardly sit still, “they are so dazzled and electrified” by the piece of poetry.
Hersman said there isn’t a soul alive who hasn’t felt the angst of life, a sense of life and death or the immensity of receiving a gift you feel unworthy of “and your spirit wants to say something.” He sees poetry as a way of communicating and sharing these feelings.
He likened it to listening to an iconic song on the radio.
“You’re dazzled, you’re mesmerized. … It’s that very thing,” he said.
The Ohio Poetry Association’s website allows poets to contact each other. Hersman said technology makes it easier to share poetry and get feedback.
Hersman has visited venues from arts festivals, coffee houses and even a truck stop, giving and listening to poetry readings.
The truckers, he said, “were so astute, so in tune. Several of them went out to their trucks and brought little writings. … It’s inside everybody and it’s just trying to set people free from their own inhibitions to get it out.”
Hersman writes mostly free verse and chooses the prehistoric artifacts he uncovers in his day job as an archaeologist as his subject matter.
Hofer, the University of Findlay professor and poet, said poetry classes particularly attract education majors who know they will have to teach poetry to their elementary school students, but she also has students in other majors who are interested in poetry.
Hofer encourages those who want to write poetry to read a lot of poetry. In class they talk about poems and discuss why a poet might have written a particular line.
Hofer used to host an open mic night at Coffee Amici which featured readings of creative writing, short stories and poetry. Most of those who read were University of Findlay students.
Hofer described her poetry as “Midwestern” and “narrative.” For her, poetry is “an easier way to talk about what I want to talk about.”
Hofer has had many of her poems published in magazines and published a book of her poems, “A Memento Sent By the World,”in 2008.
It can be hard to spark interest in poetry, she said.
“People have this weird fear of poetry,” Hofer said.
She thinks it’s the way it’s often taught in schools, where students are asked to analyze poems for symbolism. Often people remember hating poetry in high school. She encourages them to come to a reading and try it out.
Jeff Gundy, an English professor at Bluffton University, agreed that many people are scared of poetry. In schools, students feel that “if you don’t have the teacher’s secret decoder ring” they’ll be left out. So people assume poetry is “hard and difficult and only for experts. … But despite all that there are still lots of people who find themselves drawn toward it.”
Gundy writes about the natural world. He said his poems “look relatively orderly on the page” but tend not to have regular rhyme and meter.
Gundy has found college students are interested in poetry.
“There are a lot of students still who write poems kind of for themselves,” he said.
He said learning how to write poetry in an “artful” way, learning the craft to it, takes time and study.
Gundy enjoys that poetry is “a way of self-expression” and finds satisfaction in making beautiful things out of words.
What keeps poetry alive?
“It’s very personal and it’s very approachable,” Hammer Baker said. “And while there are rules, you are able to interpret those rules in your own way.”
“What I love about poetry is the language … pairing words, the sound,” she said. “When you find just the right combination of sounds in a phrase or a line.”
Asked for poets they recommend, Hofer, Hammer Baker and Gundy all mentioned Mary Oliver, an Ohio native. Hofer also particularly loves Natasha Trethewey, who was appointed U.S. poet laureate in 2012. Others she recommends are B.H. Fairchild, Rita Dove, Walt Whitman, Jared Carter and Hofer’s former professor Elton Glaser. Robert Frost is “my favorite for teaching meter and rhyme and rhythm,” she said.
Hammer Baker also likes Ted Kooser, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Edna St. Vincent Millay. But she is always on the lookout for emerging poets.
While there is “not a lot of money” in poetry and poets don’t become as famous as novelists, there are opportunities to publish poetry, and there are post-graduate programs all over the country that focus on poetry, she said.
“People are enrolling,” she said. “People are pursuing that knowledge.”
She said many nationally known poets have visited northwestern Ohio recently including Trethewey, who came to Bluffton University.
Gundy’s recommendations, besides Oliver, include Billy Collins, Robert Bly, Walt Whitman and Li-Young Lee. He recommended the “Best American Poetry” anthologies that come out every year. He added that there are many literary magazines that publish poetry.
“Look for the people that really speak to you,” he said.
Hofer said poetry is “not a lost art” and is around us everywhere, in the form of lyrics to popular music, rap and even advertising jingles.
“It’s something that surrounds us,” she said.
Online: http://ohiopoetryassn.org/ Arthurs: 419-427-8494 Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs

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