Poetry Notes

I’ve been questioning my place in poetry. What is my voice? Why am I writing? What is my purpose? I want everything to mean everything. And some days, it does. On some days, the answers reveal themselves, probably because I’ve spend so much time questioning myself, there is little I can do to avoid the response.

Juan Carlos Galeano, a Colombian poet and professor at Florida State University, helped me answer some of these questions. Galeano visited Montana to show a recent film he produced on the Amazon River and to solidify and promote a program that will bring Montana State University Billings students to the Amazon to study in the coming year.

During a reading of his poetry, where he shared original poems in Spanish and translated versions were read aloud by Montana poets Tami Haaland and Bernie Quetchenbach, he described the process of writing poetry as psychoanalysis in reverse.

“As poets, we have spent so much time trying to become children again—to become like it is. Our bodies are part of the whole thing, the universe. It’s going back to that certainty.”

I am a poetry teacher working with elementary school students. I bring lessons to their classroom, yet the children are the ones who teach me the pure and direct nature of poetry. In one of my favorite lessons, we read Charles Simic’s “Stone.” The students then work with various stones and crystals I bring into the classroom and imagine the inner life of rocks.

…From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river,
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen…

Galeano has translated Simic’s work into Spanish. He is attracted to Simic for reasons I imagine I am: Simic eloquently contrasts our natural surroundings with our modernity. Galeano himself is an eco-poet, and his work too merges a modernist view of the world with a connection back to the environmental and the mythical.

“The study of nature and poetry are very related,” he said. “Poetry is a medium that allows us to feel the world with others and with our surroundings. We allow our mind to be inhabited and inhabit [these natural worlds]. There’s a reciprocity, an acknowledgement that we are part of the whole thing.”

In his work, Galeano gives the weather report, as told by the weather. I heard the winds of my childhood along that forgotten path that connects me to the places from where I came. I was reminded that I, as we all are, am a transformational being in a world of dualities.

The ideal world of a poet is making those many connections that are not possible in other narratives, creating those moments of awakening—a brief turn that poetry can take, suddenly revealing a commonality that changes everything, even just for a moment. Poets have a spiritual view of the world, Galeano describes, but it’s not directed by religious ideology. He speaks of an equality among species and a coexistence that requires the construction of a new set of ethics.

Of the Amazon, he said it’s like Billings, just “a different inflection of the earth.”

As Charles Simic titled one of his collections of poetry: Somewhere among us, a stone is taking notes.

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