Thursday, April 30, 2009

Iowa Writing Coach: Poem in Your Pocket Day

Everyone should live in a neighborhood with a resident poet. My husband, sons, and I were lucky to have that privilege from 1990-1996, when we lived across the street from Robert Dana and his equally wonderful wife, Peg.

Originally from Massachusetts, Robert attended Drake University and the Iowa Writers Workshop after serving in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. He taught 40 years as Poet-in-Residence at Cornell College. I didn’t realize until recently that he was the founding editor of the revived North American Review, one of my favorite literary journals. He’s published many books of poetry and has also has served two terms as Poet Laureate of Iowa.

Here’s what I learned from Robert during the six years we lived in his vicinity: Gardening is serious business, as is good food. Neighbors are to be greeted enthusiastically – and maybe worked into a poem now and then. Cats make good fodder for poetry, too, and can shade a poem with humor, or lightness, or darkness, or all three. It is an honor to be invited to help proof a poet’s galleys while he reads them out loud, but you’ll be nervous as hell and will wonder if you’re doing it right. And…you don’t have to be religious to see the miracle in the everyday. In fact, too much looking for God can mean missing “air raw with rain” or “the dead blue crab in all its electric raiment.”

Cheers to Robert Dana on Poem in Your Pocket Day. When he read at Cornell College two nights ago, he told the audience that of all his lines of poetry, the last line in the following poem is his wife Peg’s favorite. I think it’s mine now, too.


Mid-August. Evening. Rain falling.

Cold, bright silk where the street fronts the house.

Out back, it laves and slicks the parched leaves of the trees.
Ragged hang of summer’s end.

I lean against the doorway of the poem,
listening to old patter.

My cat, Zeke, lays himself out imperially.
Eleven pounds of grey smoke
with tufted ears and a curved plume of tail.

Now, a slight wind,
and The Emperor of Heaven’s chimes intone like distant bells,
his court musician’s 4000-year-old pentatonic scales
pealing in slow, clear ripples.

Occasionally, a chord.

Every day I live I live forever.

(From The Morning of the Red Admirals, Anhinga Press, 2004, by Robert Dana)

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