In 2002, friends and family of Esther Buffler, our first Poet Laureate, set up a memorial fund that will enable the Poet Laureate Program to arrange an annual residency for a poet-in-residence in the Portsmouth School Department.
Following her death, a residency was endowed to allow a selected to poet to spend part of a week (compensated) in the Portsmouth Public School system.
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The following report and poems were written as part of Mark DeCarteret’s visit to Portsmouth High School as the Esther Buffler Poet in Residence.
I start them off with another lie. That poetry is little more than a list. And isn’t much different from what I’ve heard said of fiction. That it’s a line-up of lies that gets at some greater version of truth. This naming of sorts, that spreads out both blessing and blame. I persist with this fib, presenting evidence from the past: Whitman’s long-winded index in “Song of Myself,” Stein’s minimalist muster in “What Do I See,” and Stan Rice’s barely managed death-call “Playing in the Yard.” And then I ask them to further it. Have them round up some reasons we’re known to keep lists. Then see if these reasons figure into any poetry. Like how we keep lists to remember things. To buy (into) and do. These needs and “supplies.” And how poetry’s recollection, this ongoing reminiscence. Item after item of survival, provision. And how a list’s where we’re given to “wishes.” And how poetry’s flush with desire. How we devise lists to “visualize.” While poetry sees to these other worlds. And how we list all our “favorites.” A strategy that both highlights and “isolates.” And how poetry celebrates, raises speech from the slumbering tongue. “Ordering,” but also rousing “mayhem.” And how lists mostly go untitled. Are arbitrary. And poetry’s all about equal time. Where the flawed and the oft-ignored are given top bill. Right up there with the lofty and fulfilled. Those endlessly entitled.
I then have them apply these ideas to some writing, asking them to respond (in a literal and metaphorical sense) to a number of prompts directed at an object not only bookish and oft-viewed but overlooked (even though its imbued with untold powers)–their pencil or pen (but first share Emily Dickinson’s swell spell “If it had no pencil,” Bill Knott’s koan of a knock-knock “What About Pens?” Jean Valentine’s intricate simple “The Pen,” and Weldon Knees’ meta-meant lament “Covering Two Years”). Asking where their pen or pencil’s from? And what are its origins? What does it dream about? And what are its desires? What is its relationship to the paper, your hand? I then randomly jot them down on the blackboard. But rather than have them routinely resolve the poem right there, I swap subjects on them. Stage the old switch-a-roo. Settling on the most celebrated and sent-off, Spring (prompting ourselves with Esther Buffler’s pastoral portrayal of the season “The Lilac”). We then add an ode to the title for status-sake. And a colon. Like a couple of dollops of un-conventionality, the curious. And because our unified muse is running low on fumes at this point we simply siphon off the verbs (visually, texturally, phonetically, etc.) from the word Spring. And then we work at it some more.* Playfully.
I’d like to extend my gratitude to all those who were instrumental in establishing the Esther Buffler Poetry Residence, the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program Board of Directors, and Mimi White as well as Sherry Fawcett, Patrick Ganz, their students, and Portsmouth High School.
— Mark DeCarteret
*Both Block Four classes worked individually with these approaches and brought in their poems the following day to workshop.