Monday, February 18, 2008

Somerville Poet Richard Wilhelm: An Artist Who Paints Poems.

Somerville Poet Richard Wilhelm: An Artist Who Paints Poems.

Walk into Richard Wilhelm’s studio on Highland Street in Somerville and you will see canvasses covering the waterfront of his artist’s digs. Wilhelm, 60, has been painting and writing for as long as he can remember. His poetry and art cover the landscapes of Somerville, the roads of his childhood, and the dreamscapes of his inquiring mind. Wilhelm’s poetry, like his paintings, exhibit evocative hues and that sensibility of the painter always seems to be present in his work.

Wilhelm holds a B.A. in Journalism, and for over twenty years has been a counselor at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Wilhelm is the arts/editor for the Ibbetson Street Press, and has had his own artwork exhibited at such venues as the Piano Factory in Boston, Cambridge Adult Education Center, etc…His poetry has been published in such print and online journals as “Ibbetson Street,” “Lyrical Somerville,” “Istanbul Literary Review,” “Poet’s Market,” “Spare Change News,” “Wilderness House Literary Review,” and others. Wilhelm is also a regular reviewer for the “Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene,” an online literary blog.

Wilhelm released his first collection of poetry through the Ibbetson Street Press: “Awakenings.” It has been described by award-winning poet Doug Worth as: “powerful free verse, sonorous—image tapestries… the mature poet takes us through a remarkable series of awakenings, most of them to profound interconnections between him and primordial riches of the material world.”

Doug Holder: You have had your first poetry collection published “Awakenings.” You just turned 60. What have you awakened to?

Richard Wilhelm: The title of this book is taken from one of the poems “Awakenings” That poem really talks to my friends and myself as kids. It’s about the awakening of boys becoming young men. A lot of the poems deal with the spiritual aspects of nature. An “Awakening” to the spiritual aspects of nature. I guess you can say a lot of the poems have an Emersonian quality to them.

Doug Holder: How does your other life as a visual artist inform your work?

Richard Wilhelm: There are some elements of crossover to be sure. It goes both ways. It doesn’t happen all the time. One aesthetic idea can cross over to the other.

Doug Holder: You were an active member in the “Students for a Democratic Society” (SDS) in the 60’s. Does your political sensibility crossover to your poetry?

Richard Wilhelm: I have some political poems in the collection. There was a poem that appeared in the anthology “City of Poets: 18 Boston Voices”: “And, So.” That has a real environmental message. I don’t write a whole bunch of political poems. It’s hard for me and for a lot of people to write political poems. I know sometimes when I try they become rants.

Doug Holder: You are a good student and observer of nature.

Richard Wilhelm: Emerson talked about seeing things in nature as signs of inner states. I think this has a big influence on my work. In “Awakenings” there are a lot of poems that deal with the Moon. The Moon has always been a mysterious thing for me. It is the spiritual aspect of the “other” that we look up to the sky for. We try to figure out how that relates to us, and what connection we have to it. I have been reading a lot. I am still trying to make sense out of the world.

Doug Holder: Do you think we look to nature for spirituality because religion has failed us?

Richard Wilhelm: Organized religion has failed us. Certainly since the mid 19th century. Religion has failed as an interpretation of reality.

Doug Holder: Would you describe yourself as a Pagan?

Richard Wilhelm: No. My world view is a science-based, empiricism. But at the time I was writing these poems I was reading about Paganism. I am trying to find the language to express things I want to express. I want to give voice to spiritual expression. What language do we use? We wind up too often falling back on religious expression.

Doug Holder: Can you talk about your role as the arts/editor for the Ibbetson Street Press?

Richard Wilhelm: Initially a lot of the covers for the journal were drawings or photos by me. More and more I am interested in doing other peoples’. We had Jennifer Matthews’ photos on the front and back cover recently. Robin Weiss, our boss at McLean Hospital will be on a cover in an upcoming issue. The magazine has gotten good critical reviews, so it’s a good place to display work.

Doug Holder. You have worked at McLean Hospital, a famed psychiatric hospital that is now a national literary landmark, for over twenty years. Plath, Sexton, Lowell and others were all here. Has this influenced your work?

Richard Wilhelm. I think it has influenced you more than me. Not really.


The motorcade rounded the corner
Jackie so sharp in pink
and pillbox
The President smiled and waved

We headed up the hillside
the day after--the grass
was yellow and dry
leaves off the shrubs

The killer raised his rifle slowly
aimed long I carried
my shotgun in front
of me, safety on

He waited for the perfect shot
I instinctively leaned
forward, bringing shotgun
to shoulder My aunt and uncle fired

but missed the rabbit that sprang
across my range, kept bounding
after the blast
my uncle’s beagle in pursuit

The President lurched, jerked again
secret service men hopped aboard
the motorcade sped off
the dog dropped the rabbit at my feet

identifying me as the killer, blood ran
out of its ear; Jackie smeared
with her husband’s blood
I never went hunting again

--Richard Wilhelm

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