Poet Laureate Reflects on Community Project’s Positivity
Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.
~Dr. Wayne Dyer
Author readings, open mics, and pop-up literary events thrive in Northwestern Pennsylvania, where I lived for 37 years and served two terms as Erie County Poet Laureate (2016–2018). The audience of general literary events comprises mostly writers, but also appreciators of good writing. Poets will say they create literary pictures with words—easy enough, it seems, but for many people, poetry is as esoteric as ballet and opera. They glaze over rather than explore and appreciate the art form. So, at poetry events, poets are typically performing for other poets.
My goal for The Picture This: Residents Respond by Writing project was, I admit, a lofty one: To make poetry workshops and an anthology of the resulting work accessible to the quarter-million residents of Erie County, Pennsylvania. “Accessible” being the keyword: people needed to be reached regardless of the shift they worked, their family responsibilities, or the distance they lived from downtown.
To increase the project’s reach, I hired a video crew to create a three-part series (view Part I and Part II and Part III) from my workshops in the fall of 2016 covering the region’s iconic art, fine art, and photography. The participants and I discussed fixed-verse structures, such as the haiku, villanelle, ode, and elegy; the free-verse poem and its flexibility; and the prose poem and its hybrid fluidity. Like my mentor, longtime Guild teacher Myra Shapiro, I wrote when the participants wrote, generating source material, whole poems sometimes dropping onto the page.
One notable example was the ekphrastic poem “Fruits of Our Labor,” by Thaisa Anne Lunger, which appears in the project’s capstone, The Picture This Anthology: Poems from Pop Art Fine Art, and Photography. I’d projected onto a screen the image of a horse constructed from industrial parts, titled “Fruits of Our Labor.” We discussed residents’ origins, namely what their parents and grandparents did for a living. The words flowed for Thaisa and became a spontaneous free-verse poem.
In the first week of 2017, I was asked to write a poem in response to President Trump’s inauguration, to be read at the Erie Women’s March, a sister march to the Women’s March on Washington, DC. “It won’t be a big deal,” said the organizer. “There will be 250 to 300 people tops.” On January 21, 2017, at a podium in Erie’s Perry Square, I read a three-part villanelle, “Will You Mend or Add to the Fray?,” to more than 3,000 people! Wave after wave of raw energy from the crowd’s intersectionality washed over me. A dozen other speakers led the pink-pussy-hatted crowd in embracing their power as women regardless of race, creed, gender identification, and socioeconomic background.
By mid-summer of 2017, the project’s videos were completed and uploaded to YouTube, and the submission call went out for the anthology. Guild Board member and teacher Cathleen O’Connor designed the book and turned the budgetary challenges of creating an anthology into a joyful game.
This past April, to promote the book in conjunction with National Poetry Month, I gave solo readings at libraries, business lunches, and a private event. At the April 28th book-launch party, all of the contributors read; and though nearly half of them were emerging poets, nervous to deliver their work publicly, they read honorably. I was taken back by their bravery.
The 250-book run sold out in the first quarter. When the Kindle version was released, it became Amazon’s #1 bestselling anthology book overnight. The subject matter of hometown iconic and historic structures, inclusion of neighbors, and the love of natural resources resonates deeply with readers.
Proceeds from the book sales reinstated a poetry workshop at the Neighborhood Art House, an after-school program for at-risk children. Perhaps expressing themselves on paper will help these children change the way they see themselves and the world around them.
Creating future poets where everyone’s voice is heard? Now there’s a thing of beauty.
Photo credit: Marisa Moks-Unger
Marisa Moks-Unger is a poet, editor, flash-fiction writer, workshop leader, and inspirational speaker. Her topics range from green living to social injustice to education. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Mud and Stars (Nightballet Press, 2015), which was born in a four-story walk-up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She has been published in Eternal Snow: A Worldwide Anthology of One Hundred Twenty-Five Poetic Intersections with Himalayan Poet Yuyutsu RD Sharma (Nirala Publications, 2017) and The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory (Anchala Studios, 2018). Marisa is the fifth Erie County Poet Laureate (Erie, PA), where she facilitated the Picture This: Residents Respond by Writing Project and its literary culmination, The Picture This Anthology: Poems from Pop Art, Fine Art, and Photography (We Write It Right, 2018). www.wewriteitright.com