Last night Rush Hour held the second annual Inventions on Inventions, celebrating the multiple voices in both Bach’s counterpoint and in poetry: three pianists played Bach’s Three-Part Inventions and three poets read their work.
Tara Maguire, Rush Hour intern, spoke with three other members of the Rush Hour community about their involvement with poetry: Susan Lyons, Rush Hour Treasurer, Max Drake, Rush Hour Board President, and Henry Leach, sexton at St. James Cathedral. Here are three more voices speaking about their experiences with poetry and sharing their perspectives on its importance to their lives.
How did you get involved with poetry? Or when did you become interested in poetry?
Susan Lyons: I think whatever interest I had I became reconnected with once I had my children. What I started out doing initially was keeping a journal of things that would happen, or that I would observe, that my children and their innocence and curiosity illuminated for me about life. So my interest in trying to write poetry and observe the simple and beautiful things about life really appeared in the past few years that I’ve been raising my kids.
Max Drake: From an early age I thought poetry had more bang for the buck than prose. In college I was a Classics and English major and focused on the use of classical poetry and mythology by modernist English and American poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Henry Leach: I first started doing it when I first started working here about fifteen years ago. At that time there was a little girl that was shot in the head, and I just wanted to send a message—to her. Most of my poetry is religious, and I usually write it when I’m feeling bad about something, or if I’ve done something wrong—and it’s my way of apologizing to God.
Ideas come to me—thoughts, phrases. I just write them down, look at them later on and put them in some kind of order. But mostly it’s trying to tell people the Word about God—because I have come from a religious background—I’m not saying that I’m the Christian that I should be. But I write if things make me angry, or like I said if I’ve done something and I feel it’s my way of apologizing to God.
What part has poetry played in your life?
Susan Lyons: Poetry is something I try to write when things are really ambiguous—it’s a way for me of trying to sort out my feelings. Or completely conversely, when things become really clear—sometimes I can write a poem when something is so obvious or so funny or interesting… that’s when I write poetry. I subscribe to Poetry Magazine and I get the New Yorker, and the first thing I do when I open the New Yorker is read the poems. I always like to read them to see what point of view the writer might have or what they’re trying to describe.
Max Drake: It is a great strengthener of memory muscles — I used to have a repertoire of poetry in my head. To me it represents connotation over denotation and therefore gives words the power of a visual image. It also stirs emotion.
Henry Leach: It’s a release.
The sad thing about my poetry is that my mother and my grandmother wanted me to try to do something with it, and I didn’t try to do anything with it—and my grandmother passed away. So that’s the bad thing about it.
I write poems sometimes every two weeks. And my mother is of course my best fan. She lives in Mississippi—so when I do one I will read her what I wrote and then mail her a copy. And she does home care for an elderly couple. And this lady gets a copy ‘cause she likes what I write, too. And so just about every poem that I have sent down there now she has in a book that she’s keeping herself—I wish I had done it last year so that when my other ones got taken I could’ve gotten my poems from her.
It’s a release and—I like doing it. And it touches a lot of people—believe it or not. I’m amazed, they’ll be reading it and say, this is something that I really needed to read, or hear, or whatever. So I’m glad about it, I like it.
Now it seems like I do it more—riding on the train, or sometimes during quiet times—when I first started, it was when I was busy—I would be sweeping up or cleaning up and thoughts just started coming. I used to take a piece of paper and just write write write write.
And I have some friends who ask me to do poems—personal poems—for birthdays, Valentine’s Days, stuff like that.
Who are your favorite poets?
Susan Lyons: There are a couple of female poets that I really like—it’s always hard because they both had pretty tragic lives—but I like the work of Sylvia Plath and I like the work of Anne Sexton. And just in terms of a poet who’s prolific and funny I really like Billy Collins.
Max Drake: T.S. Eliot was for a long time a great favorite. I admire the simplicity of William Carlos Williams. But of course Shakespeare. And for the interplay of memory and experience, Wordsworth. Among the classical poets I’ve always loved Catullus and Ovid — they were renegades and outsiders.
What would you want people to know who are discovering poetry for the first time?
Susan Lyons: I think it’s like anything—you just have to experience it and see what you think about it. In uncharted territory chances are you’re going to come out with a different kind of awareness after you’ve heard something or listened to something than you might have had before. And I think that experience too shouldn’t necessarily be so intimidating–it’s pretty universal.
I had someone say to me who was very involved in The Poetry Foundation—he’s an older gentleman—that he was very proud of the fact that the Poetry Foundation was rolling out the equivalent of a spelling bee where high school students had to learn to recite poetry. He was really, really happy about that, and he thought that would be a good way for kids to get in touch with poetry and understand some of the significant poets. I said that I think a lot of kids these days really are poets, you may not appreciate it or they may not be able to recite some famous poem but all of the music they listen too—even if it’s pop music—I believe has an element of poetry. So there’s a connection to music. I think some of us can get a little bit snobby almost about it having to be intellectually rigorous or in this classical genre when in fact it’s out there all the time—it’s just in a more unstructured or looser environment.
So there’s always that emphasis on what’s really good, and I think it’s too soon to judge. Kids are reciting the lyrics of a song that they like and that’s obviously having an impact on them.
Max Drake: Poetry opens the imagination and the heart. The best poems are denser and more rich than most prose. There are so many structural disciplines, as well, but I’ve always been a fan of free verse.
Henry Leach: Just tell what you really feel. Don’t try to cover it up or jazz it up to satisfy somebody else ‘cause it’s your thoughts and your feelings. So be real with it, just write what you want, what you feel. ‘Cause if you’re trying to do it according to what someone else would do then it’s not your work. Just be yourself, be real, do what you want, what you really feel in your heart.