Wednesday, February 16, 2011
New Hampshire's Poet Laureate Visits Somerville, Mass.
By Doug Holder
Since there is not a Poet Laureate in Somerville I must admit I stray and look for greener pastures. And in one of these green pastures I found New Hampshire Poet Laureate Walter E. Butts. I met Butts at a poetry reading at the Piano Factory Art Gallery in Boston. A friend of mine, the poet and artist James de Crescentis runs the gallery and he organized a reading for Butts. Butts is an unpretentious man but his talent is not modest. After work long years in the Human Services he made the switch to teaching writing, and perfecting his craft. I made a point of contacting him so I could interview him on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."
Doug Holder: You have been quoted as saying that in times of great turmoil poetry is more crucial than ever.
Walter E. Butts: I believe the essence of poetry--which to me--is an engagement with discovery of the self and the world around you. It extends beyond the singular effort. It speaks to much larger issues. What does it mean to be human? Even a Confessional poet like Robert Lowell--who wrote personal poems--went beyond the self because he is in the larger human family.
DH: So even when we navel gaze we are speaking beyond the personal?
WEB: It depends on how self-indulgent and how inward it is. That can be limiting--surely. Getting back to your question--I think when you look at the political questions on a national/world level--when you look at other threats on our individuality--it seems to me in order to transcend these terrible things---well, the personal poem is a way to engage that.
DH: You told me you were part of the Stone Soup Poetry scene on Beacon Hill in the 70's founded by the late Jack Powers. What was it like in the day?
WEB: I had been active in other communities prior to Stone Soup and Boston. What Jack did--this was in the old days when he was on Cambridge Street on Beacon Hill ( 1978)--well, he opened things up a lot. He created a grassroots organization not just about poetry and literature, but around the idea of a community of artists and others. He provided them a space. A bunch of us would go to his space on Monday nights. Every Monday we would go in this room and sit around and read and talk. It had a Renaissance feel.
DH: What has the Poet Laureate position done for you? What is your role as Laureate?
WEB: My own poetry takes care of itself. I continue to write and I continue to engage. The Poet Laureate position--in terms of what it has done for me me as a poet is great recognition. I see my role as an ambassador for poetry in the state. One of the things I do every two weeks through the New Hampshire Council of the Arts' website is a feature titled "Poet's Showcase ." And every two weeks I post a poet from New Hampshire with a poem and a bio. That's one way of getting a lot of the poets in the state out there. We have had Donald Hall, Alice Fogel, Marie Harris, and Ed Carney...to name a few. This gives you a sense of the vitality of the state.
DH: I am a small press publisher, and I have been published in the small press for years. Is the small press valuable for the poet?
WEB: It is critical. I believe it has been proven that small press remains on the cutting edge of literary movements. Significant issues both political and cultural have been profoundly addressed there.
DH: Were you part of the "Mimeograph Revolution" in the 60's?
WEB: For a year I lived in NYC. I hung out at St. Mark's--the home of The Poetry Project--and took wonderful free writing workshops with a poet named Maureen Owen. At the end of this workshop, in the basement of St. Mark's, we put this mimeo anthology together. I can remember the paper strewn all over the chairs in the room. A mimeo, by the way, is sort of a poor man's xerox.
DH: You have taught poetry writing at Hesser College in New Hampshire and Goddard College in Vermont. i will go back to the old question can poetry writing be taught? Can you be anyone be taught to write " competent" verse?
WEB: No. I don't think so. It is not just a matter of talent; it's a matter of passion. Collectively, as poets, we seem to have this antenna out all the time--we seem to have a facility to pay attention to small details. We pay attention to what goes on internally and externally at the same time. I think creative writing as an educational exercise is wonderful.
DH: What grabs you about a poem when you first read it?
WEB: For two years my wife and I ran a small press magazine " Crying Sky.' It was a print journal, so I have read a lot of poems. I have no interest in poetry wars or styles. When a poem seduces me--that's what counts. I have to be seduced by something: wordplay, metaphor or by a shift in the sense of things. The poem is showing me something that I haven't seen before. For some reason when I read a W.S. Merwin poem I feel inspired. There is a vast difference between his poetry and mine. But for whatever reason he takes me to places I look for.
BOYS AT THE SATURDAY MATINEE
We were happy those afternoons,
with our boxes of Dots,
watered-down sodas, and bags
spilling over with popcorn,
even as the sudden dark
and slow slide of curtains
silenced our laughter and screams, while we waited
for a Saturday matinee serial to begin:
Black Arrow and Captain Marvel,
Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon,
The Green Hornet and Dick Tracy,
Red Ryder and The Lone Ranger,
or any one of a dozen others
our saved quarters let us follow for twenty minutes each week
into new episodes of heroes, villains,
kidnappings and impossible escapes, and always a beautiful woman
who had to be rescued.
But sometimes it was hard to figure
who the criminal mastermind really was.
And despite how many times we saw
a chapter end with the hero
trapped and certainly doomed,
we argued his fate until we returned
to be captured again
by those metaphors of good and evil
that rose up like truth, like faith,
before our cheers and applause,
our eternal and communal praise.
The Tower Journal, Nov. 2010