Poetry series sings same song, new verses


Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

Perry poet and publisher Jason Wesco has organized the second annual Lawrence Poetry Series to take place during the month of April. Wesco displays a hand-made book featuring poets from last year's series.

Kansas City Star books editor John Mark Eberhart observed last January that poetry -- that oft-misunderstood, oft-avoided genre of bards, madmen and word nerds -- was in the midst of a renaissance.

"Poetry's hour seems to have come 'round again," he wrote.

Good news for Eberhart, himself a wordsmith of the poetic persuasion. But the revival, he warns, should be taken in context.

"It's always relative when you're talking about poetry," he says. "You can say 'renaissance,' as we did then, and I think it's valid, but a poetry renaissance is still something that involves a form of writing that, let's face it, a lot of people in this country are not interested in."

Hey, at least he's honest.

But April -- National Poetry Month -- has become a rallying time, a month when poets and poetry lovers attempt to lure the unconverted with readings and community events that celebrate verse.

Those efforts in Lawrence center on the Lawrence Poetry Series, which begins its second run on Friday with readings by Eberhart and Lawrence poet Sarah Ruhlen. Perry poet and publisher Jason Wesco started the series last year and counted it as a success, with 175 to 200 people attending over four evenings.

Past Event

Lawrence Poetry Series

  • Friday, April 2, 2004, 7 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages


"There are so few outlets both for poets to actually share their work publicly and for poetry fans to consume local work in a public way," Wesco says.

"Obviously we'd like to turn people on to the form; that's a big thing. But even bigger to me is to give people who are doing this work on their own an outlet, some reassurance that they're doing the right thing."

Strong line-ups

The 11 poets in this year's series are a fairly diverse bunch. They come from Kansas City, Baldwin and Lawrence. They're students, secretaries, editors and teachers. Men and women.

What links them together, besides their propensity to put pen to paper, are their efforts to promote the literary form through teaching it, organizing readings or editing poetry journals, Wesco says.

To kick of the series, poets who participated in last year's series will make an appearance, and Wesco will introduce the hand-made, limited edition anthology of their poetry that he and his wife, Jennifer, put together. Copies will be sold for $15, with proceeds benefiting this and future years of the series.

"I think it looks really nice," Wesco says of the book. "It made me realize just how strong the series was last year."

Sarah Ruhlen :: Lawrence poet John Mark Eberhart :: Kansas City Star books editor

He's expecting the follow up to be every bit as staunch.

The Ruhlen-Eberhart pairing should provide an interesting study in contradiction, Wesco says, with the whimsical Ruhlen acting as something of a foil to the serious Eberhart.

Bugs and off-beat ideas

Ruhlen, a 1995 Kansas University graduate who works as a secretary for Sunflower Broadband, describes her poetry as "off-beat."

"Mainly what I do is try to look at things and see them in a new way," she says. "Everyday life -- you just get weird ideas from it."

Indeed, bugs, geese and other animals often worm their way into her verse, but not in a "naturey kind of way," she says. In a poem Ruhlen calls "Phlegm," a warthog personifies the narrator's heart, "rooting for grubs in the forest of my ribs./In the morning it grunts at the sun" and it "snarfles beneath my lung/for a bit of leather breakfast."

"People tend to laugh, and they like it a lot," Ruhlen says of her work.

She's familiar with such reactions because she's been a mainstay of the Lawrence poetry scene for several years. She was a founding member of now-defunct Medusah, a women's writing collective that had monthly poetry readings at Amy's Coffee House. She's also been published about half a dozen times.

Verse meant to be sung

Eberhart, too, has published his work in journals and is sitting on a manuscript for a book of poems he calls "The Night Watch."

The book is named for a series of seven poems that deal with insomnia.

"To this day I have trouble sleeping," Eberhart says. "Being up alone at night is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is generally no one bothers you. The curse is you'd rather be asleep."

Some of Eberhart's other recent poems grapple with middle age and mortality. He recently lost a close friend to a heart attack, and his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after.

"She's doing fine, but the death of my friend followed by the very life-threatening illness of my wife really got me thinking about the passage of time and how I felt, in many cases, I waste a lot of it."

Eberhart, a 1983 University of Missouri graduate, came to poetry late after working as a reporter and editor at the Star for nearly a decade. He yearned for a creative outlet he wasn't getting in the newspaper business. He went back to school to study English, and his creative writing blossomed from there.

He's looking forward to the opportunity to read his work in Lawrence.

"I really think poetry has to be read aloud to be fully appreciated because poetry came out of the spoken tradition," he says.

"Think of a piece of sheet music. If you can read music, you can look at it and get an idea of what it's going to sound like. It's a representation. That's not quite as true with poetry -- it IS a literary form -- but it's real place is to be read aloud."


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