The RESONANCE of Re-membering
According to Paul Reber, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, the brain can store 2.5 petabytes of data which I am told is the same as 2,500,000 gigabytes—or in couch-potato terms, 300 years’ worth of television watching! For all practical purposes then, we have limitless brain capacity. Each of us chooses how to use this magnificent human memory—to store and recall bad television, to linger on each small slight we experience, or to encode and store for re-membering the brilliant, inspiring, vocally lush, entrancing, funny, mysterious, or transformative language of poetry. Lest my stance seem unclear: I unequivocally suggest the latter.
Throughout 2016, as a part of my Wisconsin Poet Laureateship, I have begun promoting the re-membering and recitation of poetry. I knew writers and aficionados of poetry, would have lines they linger over, recall for their insight, or share with friends. So in the publicity before readings, I began inviting people to come with favorite lines or poems to share at the event. Almost without fail, the response exceeded my expectations. I wish I had recordings other than those stored in part of my allotted 2.5 petabytes, but I do have delightful memories from these spontaneous poetry exchanges.
I remember, for example, how a reading event at Middleton Library last April blossomed into a poetry flash mob! As several audience members rather tentatively began to respond to my invitation, others took courage and soon poetry spilled out from all over the room. Someone might start with a few remembered lines and I or others would chime in with more of that poem. The sweetest moment: A student at the back of the room tentatively followed up my mention of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 saying he thought he knew that poem, too. I invited him to perform it together. Side by side, we recited, alternating lines—much harder than simply reciting on your own and not a feat for the faint hearted. He was brilliant. When we arrived at the last couplet, I whispered “together” and we closed the recitation in unison. That phantom evening—unrecorded and unphotographed, the student, anonymous—still comes alive in my memory, a testimony to the power of poetry to entertain and to link us in our humanity.
Other lovely exchanges happened all over the state—The Reader’s Loft in Green Bay, The Warehouse in Eagle River, the library in Clintonville; but beyond these casual poetry exchanges were the events dedicated to my Wisconsin Poetry Recitation Project. For that project, participants select a published poem by a poet they love (other than themselves), learn it "by heart," and are recorded reciting the poem. These videos then become part of an interactive map of recitations: http://www.wisconsinpoetlaureate.org/poetry-in-wisconsin
Although people can participate (and several have) by recording on their own and submitting a video via email, lively public recitation events have also been held at several venues including UW-Marathon County, Racine Public Library, Sheboygan Public Library, and UW-Milwaukee. I launched the project last year during Woodland Pattern Book Center’s Poetry Marathon with all the poets in the seven to eight p.m. hour and many others agreeing to make one of the poems from their set a recitation of another poet’s work. You can find several performances from this inaugural event on the map, including lovely recitations by then Madison Poets Laureate Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Busse. One of the most unique recitation events was one I hosted at the Indian Summer Festival at Milwaukee’s lakefront for which participants performed only poems by Native poets (some of these inadvertently accompanied by the backbeat of the pow-wow). Among the most surreal moments of that Indian Summer event was hearing my poem “Living History” performed by my daughter, Amber Wardzala; among the most touching, hearing “Another Intimation,” a poem I had written in memory of my long-time poet friend Amy DeJarlais performed by a new poet friend Dorothy Kent.
In moments like those, something new breaks open inside me—or something old breaks open in a new way. Likewise, when a six-year-old climbed on a chair to recite a poem at Racine’s recitation event, or ninety-plus-year-old Sylvester Regan captured the audience in Sheboygan. Likewise, when young Audrey Mazzariello sat down and memorized a haiku in ten minutes, recited it, then spent the next thirty minutes writing and illustrating her own first poem. Even more so when Nannette Bulebosh performed Alicia Ostriker’s "Ghazal: America the Beautiful" just after the contentious 2016 election. Re-membering these moments is easy; trying to explain their impact, more difficult. Over these past two years, people have found many ways to ask me what boils down to the same question: Why poetry?
Why does poetry matter enough that we store it and carry it around with us? How does it matter? In a world of instant googling of everything, with language spilling out everywhere—why poetry? I have been outside in arctic Norway in January at the Borderlands Museum near Russia as part of an arts festival celebrating the seasonal return of the sun. I stood reciting poetry in the dark winter night at minus thirty degrees. I have been on stage in front of an eighth century Buddhist Temple in Borobudur, Indonesia, with an international group of writers, performing poetry as the soft rain steamed into the ninety-plus degree night. What hunger calls us to poetry in these extreme conditions, in these far flung places, and everyone in between?
Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is not a luxury.” What is it that poetry can do for us, in our lives or our world that makes it important enough that we still remember what a Persian poet and Sufi mystic from the 13th century, Jalaluddin Rumi, wrote: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” If there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground, and I believe there are—hundreds of thousands of ways to say blessed, thank you, grace, creator, spirit, beauty, love, laughter, survive, justice, and all the other necessary words and ideas, then we need all the writers to help say them and keep saying them until the world pays attention. Why Poetry? Because life. Our existence, our experience is wonderous but complicated. If poetry is not a compass, it is at least a reminder there are multiple directions. If poetry does not provide answers, it at least spurs us to ask questions. It invites us to see and re-see the world in all its power and fragility.
The “somethings” poetry does in the world number almost beyond count: heighten our awareness of the everyday, gesture towards the unspeakable, offer us solace, provide entertainment, play with language, re-member the past, encapsulate the beautiful, pull back the mask from the dark side of existence, celebrate love, work for change, sing, chant, taunt, and even lead us to the other side of language—to silence or a more soulful, vibrant encounter with the world. In short, poetry in all its forms—sonnet, ballad, haiku, pantoum, free verse, even limerick—fulfills a need: it feeds us. Thus, having poetry at our fingertips—or on our lips—as we go through our daily lives can enrich us in many ways. What better way to use a fraction of our 2,500,000 gigabytes of data? Therefore, I beat the recitation drum—or tap out its meter.
Recitation was once a common art, one I’m working to help revive. When we know poems “by heart,” they inhabit us and we them in a particular way. We internalize the images, the ideas, and the poem’s re-seeing of the world, we experience the felt rhythm of the language. The poem becomes another part of the vocabulary with which we can encounter and process our experiences in the world. It becomes a tool of celebration and of survival. Each poem we memorize adds to our intangible wealth. And the more we spend this wealth of poetry, the greater it grows.
Kimberly Blaeser, writer, photographer, and scholar, is the author of three poetry collections—most recently Apprenticed to Justice; and the editor of Traces in Blood, Bone, and Stone: Contemporary Ojibwe Poetry. A Professor at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee where she teaches Creative Writing and Native American Literature, Blaeser is also a member of the low residency MFA faculty for the Institute of American Indian Arts and was the Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2015-16. An enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe who grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, Blaeser currently serves as a member of the Aldo Leopold Foundation Board of Directors, and an editorial board member for both the “American Indian Lives” series of University of Nebraska Press and the “Native American Series” of Michigan State University Press. Her poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction has been widely anthologized, and selections of her poetry have been translated into several languages including Spanish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Hungarian, and French. Blaeser is currently at work on a collection, Ancient Light, which includes ekphrastic poetry and a form she calls “Picto-Poems.”