Yesterday, Merrill Oliver Douglas and I did our first ever appearance as featured readers at the Tioga Arts Council In Owego, NY.
We were excited to have a full house! I also like that in this photo you can see how beautiful the gallery space at the Tioga Arts Council is. At the moment, they are exhibiting artwork from high school students in Tioga county.
The person at the podium is poet Dante Di Stefano, who was serving as our host. His spouse Christina Di Stefano is the executive director of TAC.
I read first. This was the first time I’ve ever done a twenty minute set. I chose to structure my reading in three segments. The first group was four poems that centered around my mother, two from my chapbooks Hearts, forthcoming from Kelsay Books, one from my unpublished collection Small Constellation, and one that was written for the 2022 Women of Words reading at the Broome County Arts Council. Next came four poems that were reactions to happenings in the world or my world, including “The Banned Bookmobile” which was published by Rat’s Ass Review here. I concluded with four poems that center on the North Adams, Massachusetts area, all of which are included in Small Constellation and one of which, “Sprague Suite” (published by Wilderness House Literary Review here) is also in my new chapbook manuscript of ekphrastic poems based on artwork from MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art).
I was very happy that the audience connected with my poems. Besides applause, there were nods, smiles, and even a few chuckles at appropriate points. I tried very hard to choose a few poems that had lighter elements, like “Liz Truss or Lettuce.” I think that helped to balance out some of the heavier topics, like the pandemic poem I had included.
What I hadn’t quite expected was that Dante would offer some brief comments on my reading before introducing Merrill. Dante holds a PhD and is widely published, so it was special to hear him praise elements of my work. I have a bit of a complex about my lack of academic credentials in writing, so it meant a lot to me that he recognized the heart of my work.
I was happy to be able to sit back and enjoy Merrill’s reading. She read a few poems from her chapbook Parking Meters Into Mermaids and some of her more recent work, including selections from her collection that is currently looking for a publishing home. Because Merrill and I are both part of the Grapevine Poets, I knew many of the poems from our workshopping sessions, but I love hearing how Merrill chose to edit her poems after we discussed them. As always, I was impressed with Merrill’s ability to choose just the right details to enable us to find our way into the depths of the poem. I am particularly moved by the way she writes about her mother, who is now facing a number of health issues in her elder years.
After Merrill’s reading and Dante’s glowing comments, we had a question and answer period. I had been nervous about this part, fearing that someone would ask something that I was ill-equipped to answer, but, of course, everything was fine. With the reading officially completed, there was time for informal conversation and viewing of the art exhibit. The TAC gift shop had copies of Merrill’s book for sale and she was busy signing copies, in addition to having conversations. We were both happy but tired when we left. Spouse B and Daughter T had both been at the reading and treated me to a celebratory (early) dinner out.
Many thanks to the Tioga Arts Council and Dante and Christina Di Stefano for making my first big reading so memorable. Its success is helping me to feel like more of a poet in my own right, although I will forever think of myself as a poet grounded in community, whether the Binghamton Poetry Project, the Grapevine Poets, the Boiler House Poets Collective, or other groups who have claimed me as a member.
Thanks to Gerri Wiley and Burt Myers who sent me photos of the reading. Only the photo of the sign outdoors was mine.
Very special thanks to Merrill Douglas for her support, friendship, advice, and example. I’m sure I would have been much more nervous were it not for her steadiness and companionship. I admire her work and like to think that we have some elements in common, so that my reading set the stage for hers.
Maybe, we will have the opportunity to do it again sometime…