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TRENDER: Rick Benjamin, Rhode Island Poet Laureate

Thursday, April 24, 2014

 

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers a glimpse of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today's Trender is Rick Benjamin, the current Poet Laureate of Rhode Island.

Benjamin is the author of two books of poetry: Floating World (2013) and Passing Love (2010). Works from these collections have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals across the globe, including: Ars Poetica, American Poets in the 21s Century: The New Poetics, and Urthona: An International Buddhist Journal of the Arts, just to name a few. He has also taught at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Goddard College.

The academic interests of this celebrated poet include: literature, environmental studies, and public humanities. Benjamin sees an intimate connection between writing and cultural issues. He even teaches a class called “Poetry and Community,” which combines the study and practice of poetry with outreach to schools, community centers and other sites of learning. Our state’s Poet Laureate, who will serve out his term until 2017, is also a Fellow at New Urban Arts, which is an after-school mentoring program for high school students in Providence. Benjamin devotes a large portion of his time to assisted living centers in Rhode Island.

His work among every imaginable age-group shines through in his all-inclusive poetry. Not only does Benjamin offer up his own poems to the community, but he also gives a voice to social sectors whose stories deserve to be told. Two examples of his literary outreach projects are: Life, Loss, Love, an anthology of poetry written by local elders, and Words from Mothers, a book of poems by young mothers working towards their GED, both of which were compiled and edited by Rick.

Benjamin believes that communities who actively engage with poetry are more closely joined at the seams and increasingly culturally effervescent. Some of the topics which swim and teem throughout this writer’s lines include: social consciousness, the mystery of human existence, and the complexity of family life. In his verses, Benjamin also illustrates: time and timelessness, rites of passage and the passage of years, as well as natural imagery and his unnaturally keen eye for detail. I was especially taken by this poet’s ability to reveal that which is often overlooked in the mindless routines which we all fall victim to, as he speaks about that which is often left unsaid. Benjamin eloquently exhibits the simple fact that there is meaning and beauty in every natural and man-made object in our universe, and he successfully sheds light on that which is hidden in the world’s darkness.

Rhode Island’s Poet Laureate shows his reader that human life is too multifaceted to summarize or paraphrase. Leafing through the pages of his poetic collections allows his audience to embark on a voyage of compassion and community, fragility and vulnerability, as well as love and loss. At the center of Benjamin’s life and work is a necessary celebration of everyday existence. He has come to the profound realization that at the end of the day, all that we have are the individuals around us and the prospects which the coming dawn can offer.

On Thursday, April 24th, Rick Benjamin, along with former GoLocalProv Trender, Lisa Starr, will be at the East Greenwich Library in Rhode Island from 6-8 PM for a poetry reading.

 

Where did your love for poetry first develop? Could you speak a little bit about your predecessors and/or contemporaries who inspire you, and who you keep coming back to?

My love of poetry begins, first & foremost, in my mother’s voice. She was a closet writer and her story selections were both eclectic (scary, or beyond our intellects at that point of life, or books I suspected she, herself, wanted to read) and included poetry. I did not understand a word of the poems by T.S. Eliot she read, but my love for the sound of poetry certainly comes from the music I heard in it and in her voice.

Like many kids, I spent much of my time in large public schools being bored. A couple of exceptions involved two bad-ass English teachers (one in Junior High and one in High School), both of whom loved poetry. Since I had a crush on the first, who was just out of college, I suppose I started writing poetry out of love for someone, which later developed into a more sustained-&-likely-to-be-more-successful love of the medium.

There are literally hundreds of poets whose work I both admire & routinely revisit. I grew up hearing Langston Hughes and his poems still hum in my head. Eliot’s sound seduced me, even as I actively resisted his moralism. Likewise Yeats and Dickinson, and, much later, Lucille Clifton. Poems that, for me, enter through the ear have a way of staying put. It is that way with contemporary poets, too: Alberto Ríos, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kevin Young and Robert Hass immediately come to mind— I can hear their voices in my sleep. Ditto Ruth Stone, Mary Oliver, Richard Ronan, Barry Spacks, Natasha Trethewey, Patricia Smith. There are far too many to count at this point.

 

How did your education shape your interest in literature?

I was fortunate to attend college at UC Berkeley, which, though it did not have a creative writing program, employed a lot of great writers in its Literature Program. By the way, it wasn’t a place for post-beat poets; it was poetry boot camp: we were expected to know a lot about form & technique, we read a wide range of poets through many time periods. It was a very rigorous place for literature, & studying & writing poetry held an esteemed place in the curriculum. Later, at Rutgers, while doing a doctorate in Literature, fortunate again to study with several poets who also just happened to be professors of literature. During the time I was there, Toni Morrison also taught at Rutgers & I heard her read on several occasions. I have always been drawn to fiction writers, like her, like Virginia Woolf, like Garcia-Marquez, who write like poets.

 

What is the best advice that you ever received?

Related to poetry: from William Stafford & words I always am happy to repeat: if you get stuck, lower your standards.

From my friend & former colleague, David Burns: don’t forget that writing should, among other things, be both a source of pleasure, & pleasurable to read.

Life instructions from a poet: don’t go back to sleep (which I say to myself several times a day) &, also, let the beauty we love be what we do. Both said by Rumi in the 13th Century. I keep them close.

 

How have your experiences in the state of Rhode Island, specifically at Brown University and at the Rhode Island School of Design, influenced your work?

I am lucky to be surrounded by kindred spirits in my classes at Brown & RISD, many of whom are dedicated and accomplished artists and community practitioners. All so-called “teachers” are learners first & foremost: I learn a lot from my students.

Just now some of them are also in their mid- to late- nineties; some of them this particular week are thirteen years old & high school students.

All of it gets into my poetry. At the assisted living center I seed or write a lot of my own poems during the workshops I facilitate. I’m generally inclined to seize any opportunity to write, no matter how short or long the stretch of time allotted. I would never waste ten good minutes; I am quite happy to have twenty. An hour is sometimes a luxury! As in my meditation practice, I don’t do a lot of filtering out when it comes to raw material or subject matter: everything seeps into my writing & creeps into my thought. I try to be a good & welcome host.

 

How do you believe that poetry can positively influence the community? Do you find that you write more for yourself or for others?

Oh, you can’t write for others. You can only write what you want & hope to circulate it among others & hope that it resonates in some way that invites them in for some kind of transmission or relationship to take place. I do believe that, sometimes, if we’re lucky, generally valuable instructions & something bordering on enlightened thought flows through us— when that happens, I’m inclined to pass it on. I can’t be the only one who needs to hear it!

Poetry is a wisdom medium. There aren’t many left. All good & strong communities have, at their heart, wisdom.

 

Emily Dickinson’s so-called “flood subjects” are the ideas of death and immortality. If you could pick one theme which dominates your thought process and which you can’t help but write about, what would it be?

I’ve been told that I like bees, humming, anything involving the senses, & that I find the ordinary somewhat transcendent or transformative. I wouldn’t argue with any of that. Also, I’m stuck on imagining what evolving might or does look like; I’m stuck on longing (for what’s ineffable I suppose).

 

Speak a little bit about the story that lies behind the making of your poem entitled: “One Sign That Things are Changing”:

That’s a poem from Passing Love. A friend of mine was going through a divorce. He kept on saying it was a failed marriage; I kept on asking how come it couldn’t simply be considered successful for as long as it lasted. In any case, his daughter really did get a moth stuck in her ear as she moved between separated parents’ houses on her bike to retrieve clothing. That’s a sadly liminal space for the child; then she hears it: it’s knocking against an inner membrane. The whole situation wouldn’t let go of me: hence the poem.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece, “The Juice in It.” I loved the honesty exhibited in the interwoven tales about the frantic woman in the parable and your brother’s frustration with your habits, both of which centered on the tenderness of ripe fruit. What were you hoping to convey in this poem?

It’s a pith instruction, nothing more: stay in the moment. In the parable a woman is running away from tigers, reaches a cliff-edge, leaps onto an enormous & tall strawberry vine. But she hasn’t really escaped death: there is a mouse just below her eating through the vine. There is nothing for it but to reach for a nearby strawberry. I juxtaposed that parable in the poem with my twin brother’s offering to me of an enormous California strawberry from his own vine after we hadn’t seen each other for 21 years. As he said later, he was hoping that I’d take the time to admire everything about it before even tasting it; much to his chagrin & repulsion, I popped the thing, whole, into my mouth. What else was there to do?

 

What is your favorite poem that you have ever read?

I can never answer questions like these. If I’m ever offered a last meal it will no doubt pass me by while I wonder what my favorite last meal might be. It would be better for me to have a month’s notice & a month’s worth of menus before being put to death.

In any case, I do feel an obligation to at least try to answer your question, even if I can’t pick just one poem. Some poems I love & will never tire of include Lucille Clifton’s “Whose Side are You On?,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Langston Hughes’s “Harlem (2),” Robert Hass’s “Santa Lucia,” Shirley Geok-Lin’s “Learning to Love America,” Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody, Who are You?,” Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Hidden,” among many, many others!

 

If there is one thing that you would like to be remembered for, either as a human being or as a poet, what would it be?

I genuinely love what I do; I tend to embrace opportunities to learn & make in community with others; I am dedicated to evolving, to becoming a little more enlightened each day (even if I’m often falling short of this aspiration). Maybe when those who know me are reminded a little of these things in relationship to me.

 

What are your plans for future poetic projects?

I have many. On the community side of things: free, multi-week workshops for teachers who are also poets. It’s important to take seriously the creative lives of educators & to give them the room & opportunity to pursue their own work. I’d like to try out a weekly radio show in which I talk poetry with other poets & offer them another platform to share their work: “radio,” as Elvis Costello says, “it’s the sound salvation.” I’m working with someone at DCYF to offer workshops to young people at the Training School, hopefully beginning next fall. I’m going to continue to facilitate workshops in as many places as possible, to diverse age-groups & audiences, to write articles about poetry, to speak when asked to do so. I am very fortunate to be in a position to circulate poetry more widely in our small state.

In terms of my own work, I’m nearly done drafting a new book of poetry & have also been writing a book about the work that poetry helps us to do in our lives. I’m engaged in collaborations with printmakers, musicians, performers, and other artists.

 

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