Celebrating the power of poetry

Jean Diemert and David Riley

Thursday, August 16 will mark the 22nd year that a group of poets have offered a public reading of their work to the St. George community. At first a modest event involving three summertime poetry-writing friends from Hart’s Neck and an audience of 25 packed into the old Jackson Memorial Library on Main Street in Tenants Harbor (the building that now houses Stonefish), the annual event now involves a loose-knit and changing cast of six readers, in some years augmented by extra “guests,” and an audience of more than a hundred that fills the Odd Fellows Hall on Watts Avenue in Tenants Harbor. This year’s readers at what is called the Tenants Harbor Poetry Reading will be Nan Carey, Steve Cartwright, Jean Diemert, Elizabeth McKim, David Paffhausen and Tony Speranza.

David Riley and Jean Diemert, two of the organizers of this year’s event, recently took some time to reflect on the power of a public poetry reading—for both the readers and the audience. Riley was one of the original “Tenants Harbor Poets” who read at the old library back in 1997, and Diemert, a lifelong writer of verse, grew up spending summers in Tenants Harbor and has been a supporter of the annual readings from the beginning.

“I started writing poetry about 25 years ago,” Riley notes. “I kind of thought I wanted to, but didn’t really dare. But my wife Mimo encouraged me, so I took some workshops. Reading my poems at the old library was not too intimidating and I found it helpful to me in developing my voice. I learn when I read that I want to make changes.” Riley’s experience highlights the significant impact “performance” reading can have on a poet. As Diemert points out, “When you read, your poem is out there. People often take what you’ve written in a different way than you intended. People come up to me and say they see things I didn’t see.”

That poetry is an ancient form of expression and communication that was spoken before it was written underscores its fundamentally oral nature, Riley believes. “In ancient times the rhyming was a device for remembering the stories being told.” Speaking a poem out loud, he notes, brings the solitary process of writing into the realm of community, which is where the audience comes in at a public reading. “The audience at the Odd Fellows Hall each year is so appreciative, so very attentive,” Riley says. “You can hear a pin drop. And a couple of years ago we began starting the evening with a period of silence, which we think adds to the atmosphere and helps people be more present. It’s a way of creating a space that is set apart.”

Riley believes that part of the reason people attending the annual reading are so attentive is that “people find something in poetry that helps them and leads them to be in the moment.” For many, the impact is life-giving at a very personal level. Diemert , for example, says she turned to poetry more intensely after her husband died 14 years ago. “For the first two years I wrote a lot of poems. It helped me get back into the world even though I was still working. Writing every night brought me back so I could do my work better and so I could share in life better.”

The search for meaning can also be a response to societal factors, Riley says, noting that the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) showed that the number of poetry readers in the U.S. has nearly doubled in the past five years. There is speculation that social media has played a role in garnering poetry this increased public interest, often in response to the social/political climate of recent years.

In addition to the witness of the strong attendance at the August Tenants Harbor Poetry Reading event, a new group called “Encouraging Poetry” that has been meeting monthly at the Jackson Memorial Library (JML) also seems to be in line with the trend the NEA survey has identified. The group, which has been meeting since March 2017, is the brainchild of Susan Bates.

“I put out the invitation to do this as a way to come together with people that was not about politics,” Bates says, “not that discussing politics would necessarily be divisive. I just wanted to encourage people to read, to write, to lift spirits. It’s been fantastic.”

Bates notes that she herself began writing poetry after a career as an engineer. “It just appealed to me to do it because I hadn’t paid much attention to that part of myself.”

The Encouraging Poetry group now routinely has at least six participants and sometimes up to 12. “You’re invited to bring something you’ve written or something to share or to just sit and enjoy it,” Bates explains. “It’s really just reading—we just read, read, read. Some people will reflect on a line that is particularly moving, or share what they found meaningful. But we are not analyzing or doing critiques. What I appreciate about the people who come together is that they make themselves vulnerable, and that they are so affirming and supportive of one another. People are sharing what matters to them. If anyone is curious, they should please come and just try it, because it is one of those experiences that’s hard to pin down and explain.”

Several of the readers at this year’s very public Tenants Harbor Poetry Reading have been attending the more informal and intimate Encouraging Poetry group’s meetings. In both settings meaningful verse abounds—and, most agree, St. George is thereby enriched. —JW

(For more information on the annual Tenants Harbor Poetry Reading event on August 16 at 5:30pm at the Odd Fellows Hall email tenantsharborpoetry@gmail.com. Contact the Jackson Memorial Library for more information on its “Encouraging Poetry” group. And follow this link for the NEA study mentioned in this story:

David Riley reads in a prior year

PHOTO Top: Julie Wortman

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