Earlier in September, I cryptically alluded to having a secret poetry mission. I know (a few of) you have been waiting with bated breath for the revelation of this secret, so here you go!
Of course, this will be the long, chronological version of the story…
Over the third weekend in August, I got a message from the current director of the Binghamton Poetry Project, asking if I would like to write and present a poem at the annual Hearts of the Arts awards dinner. The dinner is a fundraiser for the United Cultural Fund of the Broome County Arts Council, which provides one of the grants that keeps the Binghamton Poetry Project functioning. The poem needed to be a 2-3 minute response to the arts in our community, as the two Heart of the Arts honorees, Emily Jablon and Peg Johnston, are both very active in public art.
The Binghamton Poetry Project has been very important to my growth as a poet. I have learned different craft aspects and how to write from prompts. My participation with them led to my joining both the Bunn Hill Poets and Sappho’s Circle; I also continue to attend the Binghamton Poetry Project workshops, which are organized in five-week units three times a year. I wanted to take on this special mission to help the Binghamton Poetry Project say thanks to one of our funders and to raise its profile in the local arts community; I also admit that it appealed to me to have the opportunity to present myself as a poet to the arts community which would not recognize me at all, except, perhaps as a long-serving member of University Chorus. (It’s the hair and the fact that I am short, so usually in the front row.)
As much as I wanted to do this, it was also a daunting prospect. First, there was the actual writing of the poem. Although I have been writing a lot of ekphrastic poetry, which means poetry about another (usually visual) art form, I had never written a poem for a public occasion. Second, I would need to read in front of a full ballroom with a stage, podium, and microphone, wearing relatively formal dress. Most of the readings I have done are informal and for a dozen people or fewer, so the prospect of reading for 150 or more made me pretty anxious.
Third, there was the timeline to consider. I decided that I would need to write the poem within the next few days so I could workshop it, revise, and have a final copy before my mom’s diagnostic heart catheterization on August 31st. Then, I would have time for practice readings before the September 19th event.
So, I accepted the challenge and got to work. I did a bit of online research on the artist-honorees, Emily Jablon and Peg Johnston. I was familiar with their public art projects in downtown Binghamton, but made plans to go down to visit early the following week to take some photos to help inspire my writing.
My usual writing process is to swish things around in my head for a while before writing. Given my timeline, I was very lucky that a basic idea and structure for the poem came to me over the weekend, so that I had the bones of the poem together even before I got downtown to view the art.
Peg Johnston was the director of a large stencil and mural project in the parking garage now located on the site that once housed Bundy Time Recording Machines and Link Pipe Organs, which later became Link Flight Simulation.
Emily Jablon was one of the lead mosaicists for this project where Court Street meets the Chenango River.
With new details in hand, I finished my draft in time for a planned Wednesday meeting with the Bunn Hill Poets, my main workshopping group. I explained the situation, read the draft, and then got really apprehensive in the silence that followed. When one of the poets, who has many published poems, readings, and commissions to his credit, started out with, “I have to be perfectly honest,” I got even more worried, but it turned out that he was just surprised that I could write this style of poem. Whew! Everyone was very positive about the poem, so I sent it off to the current and the former directors of the Binghamton Poetry Project for additional feedback, did a round of revisions, and had the poem finished by my August 31st deadline.
I was very grateful that I did, as family issues did take a lot of time and energy over the following weeks. Despite my intentions, I didn’t do much practice reading until the last couple of days before the awards ceremony. I admit that I got super nervous. I was fortunate to have daughter T here to listen to me practice and help me figure out which dress to wear, which sandals, which necklace. I was also lucky that the dinner organizers made provisions for family members to attend the performance, so both my spouse B and daughter T were there for moral support.
The performers were all tied to the Arts Council in some way, most representing organizations that receive funding through the United Cultural Fund. It was an honor to be on the same program with actors and musicians from the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton, Tri-Cities Opera, the Binghamton Youth Symphony, the Binghamton Community Orchestra ,and the Cider Mill Playhouse, as well as this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dr. Timothy Perry from Binghamton University.
I am pleased to report that my reading went well and the poem was well received. The stage lights were pretty blinding, so I couldn’t see myself, but T told me that Peg Johnston gave my poem a standing ovation, which was a huge honor for me, given that the poem was inspired in part by her work. In her acceptance speech that followed, she gave a shout-out to the Binghamton Poetry Project, and, after the event, sent a friend to ask me for a copy of the poem to take back to the Cooperative Gallery, of which she is a founder.
It also meant a lot to me to have Clara Barnhart, current director of the Binghamton Poetry Project, and her predecessor Heather Dorn there lending support, as well as Vernon Boyd who is a fellow BPP poet who also contributed an art poem for the event.
It was especially close to my heart that B and T were there with me. I don’t read often and an opportunity to read at such an auspicious event is unlikely to present itself again, so I’m glad they could share the evening with me.
So, now you are probably thinking, why am I not publishing the poem in this post? Because I wrote it under the auspices of the Binghamton Poetry Project, I want them to have first publication rights. When our fall anthology comes out in November, I will share the poem here at Top of JC’s Mind as well, so stay tuned!