“Patty-cake, patty-cake, baker’s man. Bake me a cake as fast as you can. Roll it and pat it and mark it with a B. And put it in the oven for Baby and me.” Remember how much you loved nursery rhymes as a child? Then you met the Cat in the Hat and other zany characters and relished Dr. Seuss’ clever phrases. Soon you graduated to Shel Silverstein, whose poems about monsters and airplanes and acrobats made you wonder. You may have even written poetry when you were young, experimenting with how words sounded and exploring the hard parts of growing up.
Then something happened. Somewhere in high school or college many of us fell out of love with poetry. An over-zealous English teacher may have made us feel ignorant when we couldn’t figure out the meaning of a poem. Perhaps antiquated language turned us off. Maybe poetry just seemed too hard to figure out. So we left poetry behind. It didn’t seem that relevant to modern life, right? I mean, when was the last time you read a poem?
Fortunately, there are poets among us, who embrace mellifluent words, who know that poetry can open our hearts and teach us about ourselves and the world we live in. They beg to differ. Poetry matters, they say, and can lead us to new understanding. Let’s meet three local poets and learn why it’s not too late to rediscover poetry.
FAMILY, FAITH & SPIRIT
Remica Bingham-Risher, 35, fell in love with poetry in fifth grade when her teacher read “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. “I was blown away by a line that keeps repeating ‘…life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,’” Remica recalled. “Life was hard, but this woman, this speaker, kept climbing, kept moving on, and so should her son, so should I. It amazed me then—and amazes me now—that all that history, love, and wisdom can be wrapped up in such a tiny box. That’s the beauty of poems.”
She started writing poetry in fifth grade and won a contest. In high school her English teachers encouraged her to keep writing, and when she attended ODU, Tim Siebles, an ODU professor and Virginia’s poet laureate, advised and mentored Remica, who eventually pursued her MFA in writing and literature at Bennington College. Now she’s the director of writing and faculty development at ODU, and she writes poetry as often as she can.
“Writing helps me sort out my emotions, so I love the act of revising and trying to get closer and closer to my true feelings,” Remica said. “Crafting poems, wrestling with them and making them as clear as they can be to others, helps me figure out what I believe, what I value and why I value it.” She says music and the Bible were two very important parts of her childhood, and they both link directly to her poetry.
Remica remembers writing out lyrics to her favorite Stevie Wonder songs and highlighting scriptures that sounded like verse in the Bible she kept in her room. “Music, the oral tradition, and the beauty and wild narratives of the scriptures, seemed akin to poetry,” said Remica, who writes poems about the things she loves deeply—her family, faith, spirit. “I also try to make them clear enough that even if you haven’t grown up reading poems, or have grown out of reading them, that the language and images connect to your senses and maybe give you a glimpse of someone or something who seems familiar—a great aunt, an elusive grandfather, a chatterbox kid.”
Finding time to write can be a challenge, so Remica rises before dawn some mornings, while her husband and son are still sleeping, to write at her kitchen table. She believes studying poetry has myriad benefits for kids today. “Poetry helps teach you pacing and patience,” she said. “Reading poetry—stopping at the ends of lines, examining each word for all its meanings, literal and figurative, then looking at the whole of the poem to piece together all of its ideas is invaluable training for life. Who doesn’t need to know how to think carefully and critically about work or love or death? And shouldn’t children be offered beauty each day? Might that help save us or make us not lose all hope in the ugliness that we see on the news?”
Remica is excited about her forthcoming book, Starlight & Error, which will be published in February, but admits to being a bit worried about what family members will think when they read it. “There’s lots of our stories—good, bad, bright, and difficult, so we’ll see if they invite me to the family reunion again after laying eyes on it!” she said with a grin.
To Her Whose Heart Is My Heart’s Quiet Home
by Remica Bingham-Risher
RHYME & RHYTHM
Renée Olander, 54, grew up in a home where reading was a part of daily life and remembers her father reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” every Christmas Eve to her and her siblings. “My father revered Robert Frost, and I grew up hearing and respecting him,” said Renée, who started “plunking out little poems” in second grade on her mom’s electric typewriter.
“I suppose I’ve been drawn to language, word play, imagery, song, and communication my whole life,” said Renée. By sixth grade she was composing poems regularly. “I would draft a poem in my bedroom and, when it was finished, bring it to my father, who would clear his throat and read it aloud,” Renée recalled. “He always praised the poems.” Renée wrote about subjects as wide-ranging as melting snow and disappointment to abortion and says “so many wonderful teachers” encouraged her to keep writing.
Today Renée has a string of degrees, works as an assistant professor at ODU, and is also associate vice president for ODU’s Regional Higher Education Centers. She’s had two chapbooks and numerous poems published, many of which focus on “heavy-duty stuff,” including gender-based violence, rape, domestic violence, militarism, war and its impacts on families, environmental concerns, racism, homelessness, and social inequity. “At the same time, there are also love poems and celebratory poems,” said Renée.
A Few Spells, published in 2010, includes a poem about Grace Sherwood, the Witch of Pungo, which will also appear in an anthology called Forgotten Women, due out this year. Renée calls her work the “poetry of witness, a poetic voice that breaks silences and taboos and speaks painful truths.” Her work has been described as “fertile, passionate, powerful, sexy, stunning, and strong” by author Leslea Newman. “I’m happy to take that!” said Renée.
Like Remica, Renée thinks teaching poetry in school is important. “We know that kids who can’t rhyme and play word games are going to have difficulty learning to read,” she said. “Rhyme and rhythm, meter, sound-play, word-play, and image-making are building blocks for literacy and the imagination. We want kids to have healthy imaginations so that can solve problems, invent, and empathize with others in general, and also others who are unlike them.”
Poetry is relevant to everyone, Renée believes. It helps us “to make sense and joy of our lives and the human experience,” she said. “It’s good for us humans to create art, to express ourselves, to connect with and gain empathy for others, to experience beauty, to access the sublime.”
Renée encourages women to try writing poetry. “Go for it. Be bold,” she said. “Writing is a profession that women have long honored, from Sappho in the Archaic Greek period to women writers around the world today. It’s empowering to join the sisterhood of women writers.”
by Renée Olander
Luisa A. Igloria, poet and professor of English and creative writing at ODU, has written a poem a day for more than six years—enough to compile three new books of poetry—and she shows no sign of slowing down. A new chapbook, Haori, is due to be released in April.
Luisa, 55, grew up in the Philippines as an only child and learned to read when she was 3. “I’ve always loved language—loved stories, poems, songs—and the way language harnesses the imagination and allows it to fly,” she explained. “I love words for their sound, for the sense that each word we use has a rich history.”
Luisa wrote her first story on sheets of lined paper in first grade and published her first piece, an essay about nature, in a national newspaper when she was 10. She has fond memories of accompanying her father to his favorite haunt, Star Café in Baguio City, where she did homework or read while her dad met with friends. Her parents also took her to the movies and cultural performances. These experiences helped prepare her “to cultivate the focused attention and attitude of immersion that are so important when one writes poetry,” she said.
After graduating from the University of the Philippines and becoming a young faculty member, she was encouraged by colleagues to enter her poems in the prestigious Palanca Literary Awards competition. “Imagine my shock when I won first prize in poetry,” Luisa recalled. “I was only 21.” Since then she has won 10 more Palanca Awards as well as multiple honors in the U.S., including the 2014 May Swenson Award. In 2015 Luisa won the first Resurgence Prize for Ecopoetry in the U.K. Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals in the U.S. and abroad.
Poetry is for everybody, Luisa believes. “It shouldn’t be thought of as some kind of rarefied language understood by only a few.” One of Luisa’s favorite poets is Ross Gay. “He reminds me that we should not have to apologize for poetry,” she said, “for making poetry, for wanting to write poetry, share poetry, read poetry, make poetry out of everyday experience, eat poetry.” According to Luisa, poems are meant to be shared “like fruit from a fig tree growing in the middle of the city that we can hand around to everyone who is hungry—the homeless guy, the old woman with her shopping bag, the curious passersby.”
Her poems are about place, history, diaspora, and migration. Poetry “grounds us and acknowledges the common truths that come from our day-to-day experiences,” said Luisa, who is also a staunch proponent of teaching poetry to today’s youth. Poetry makes us “…better listeners, and when we are able to really listen to each other, maybe we have a chance at making the world a better place.”
Using words, these poets build bridges that connect us to one another, uniting us in our humanity. “Through poetry, through the way language constructs a whole world, one can come as close as perhaps humanly possible and connect to another’s experience,” said Luisa. “That’s really something.”
by Luisa A. Igloria
“Syllogism” was first published in New England Review, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2015)
All poems reprinted with the authors’ permission.
Peggy Sijswerda was the editor of her high school literary art magazine.