Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Poetry Walks

For several years I taught a course called "Poetry and Walking", both at Bates College and at MidCoast Senior College. We walked with Gilgamesh, walked around Japan with Basho, sauntered with Thoreau, walked the Lake District with Wordsworth, walked the Inferno with Dante and Virgil, followed Aboriginal songlines with Bruce Chatwin,read the poems of Miklos Radnoti as he walked to his death, listened to Ophelia Zepeda as she walked to water. Our text for the course, besides the work of these poets, was Rebecca Solnit's "Wanderlust - A History of Walking". As we traveled with the poets, I asked the students to take walks of their own, and then to write about them in the styles of the poets they were reading.
This summer, 2015, I spent six weeks as "artist-in-residence" at the Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport (Maine) and began to invite people to come and take "poetry walks". First I took a blank notebook to the top of Beech Hill and began a poem in it, then left it with a note encouraging people to add lines, verses, poems, drawings - to collaborate in creating a poem of place. I knew what I was seeing and feeling, but I wanted to know what other people were experiencing in the same place, and how they would choose to express it in language or visual art. In six weeks the journal gathered over 100 pages of writing, most of which can be read here.
I then began to schedule "poetry walks" - walking with other people, trying to think of the place in terms of a poem, or a poem in terms of a place - wondering how the place speaks to you, or through you, wondering which words or images each person would choose to express their relationship with the place. I also was interested in making a word/image map of the preserve - what is happening here, in this particular place - - what did you see/hear/smell/feel - and how you would choose to express that.
As we walk, there are poems all around us - plant poems, bird poems, rock poems, cloud poems light poems - I suggested that the walkers be open to the opportunities around us, to listen with both your head and heart. On one walk we had someone who birded by ear and what to me was a cacophony of sound began to be heard as differing voices - that is the vireo, that is the towhee, so i began to hear more of the conversation and its individual parts. Another walk found a plant person with us - and what was a wall of green became a community of individual lives, all worth exploring. Each person's experience of the place taught me something, gave me new ways of experiencing, enjoying, and learning from this particular place.And the poems began to happen. We could leave them behind in the notebook, or put them on line, and other people could learn from, and share, the experiences of this place.
I am interested in the words, phrases, images each person chooses to talk about a particular place, and of their experiences of it. We don't necessarily choose the same words or images, and we don't necessarily pick up on the same cues, happenings or conversations within the community of that place. Sometimes our language does not have the words to express it directly.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Phd moss biologist, member of the Potawatomi tribe, and author of two wonderful books (Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass) begins her essay "Learning the grammar of animacy" saying "To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language" "Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own." Learning to hear and understand, and to speak, these languages "could well be a restraint on our mindless exploitation of land." as we "walk through a richly inhabited world of Birch people, Bear people, Rock people, beings we think of and therefore speak of as persons worthy of our respect, of inclusion in a peopled world."
There are languages, languages of the aboriginal peoples who have lived in specific places, and have created words rising up out of their direct experiences of particular places. She gives the example of the verb wiikwegamaa, which means "to be a bay", and talks about her first encounter with that word:"In that moment i could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sand. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa - to be a bay - releases the water from its bondage and lets it live. "To be a bay" holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers."
These words, these languages, these ways of being in the world are being lost, as languages and cultures and species and habitats disappear from the planet. Here is the poet W S Merwin:

Losing A Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I

the children will not repeat
the phrases their parents speak

somebody has persuaded them
that it is better to say everything differently

so that they can be admired somewhere
farther and farther away

where nothing that is here is known
we have little to say to each other

we are wrong and dark
in the eyes of the new owners

the radio is incomprehensible
the day is glass

when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie

nobody has seen it happening
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

(W S Merwin)

and here is a poem from the native people of Greenland, collected by Knud Rasmussen and turned into a poem by Edward Field:

Magic Words

In the very earliest time
when both people and animals lived on earth
a person could become an animal if you wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes we were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
We all spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance might have
strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen.
All you had to do was say it.
Nobody could explain this,
that's the way it was.

As poets, as writers, as creative beings engaged with the world, we can walk in the world and speak these magic words, and we can listen as these magic words are spoken around us. All we have to do is to "step out onto the planet" and say it. The magic words poem ends in the past tense. Our work on these "poetry walks" is to try and find language to bring it back into the present, and on into the future.
For the next year, photographer/writer Jim McCarthy and I will be wandering around the trails of the Cathance River Nature Preserve, sponsored by the Cathance River Education Alliance. We will lead monthly "creative walks", we will leave out a journal to create an ongoing poetry and image conversation at the Preserve, and have created a blog site where we will be posting writing and images (see that here )
So we invite you to come take a walk, share your words, speak them aloud, make it happen -