Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday Muse: Rhode Island's New Poet Laureate

. . . Making poetry is not worth doing if you aren't trying
to bring someone else along with you.
~ Rick Benjamin* 

Appointed January 9, 2013, Rick Benjamin has assumed the position of Rhode Island Poet Laureate. Benjamin succeeds Lisa Starr. 

In announcing the appointment of the state fifth Poet Laureate, the governor cited Benjamin's accomplishments and commitments to poetry and education, stating that Benjamin "has taken his love for and belief in the power of poetry far beyond the classroom and out into our Rhode Island communities." Benjamin, who has long worked with nonprofits and community organizations, responded that his aim as Poet Laureate will be to "saturate this small state with poetry — in schools, community and assisted living centers, in places where poetry already has a presence and in some other ones where it is desperately needed."** Benjamin, who teaches a Brown University course titled "Poetry in Service to Schools and the Community", visits all levels of local schools and leads a poetry group for seniors at an assisted living center.***

Information about the honorary state laureate position, which primarily requires the incumbent to be the state's "principal advocate for poetry", and resources complementing those below may be found in my post about Starr. The position provides a small ($1,000) stipend. 

* * * * *

Slow down, be alert, wake up.
~ Rick Benjamin on What Good Poems Teach*

Rick Benjamin, Ph.D., a Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design lecturer and member of the faculty of Goddard College's M.F.A. Program in Interdisciplinary Arts, is the author of the forthcoming Floating World: Poems (Wolf Ridge Press, 2013) and the debut collection Passing Love: Poems (Wolf Ridge Press, 2010). 

A practicing Buddhist who actively seeks out community, Benjamin is drawn to collaborative art-making, such as glassblowing and singing, which, he says, he does not regard as separate from his writing or other life engagements: "I am interested in any medium that carries wisdom."

Heralded for the concrete and accessible details in his poems, which often draw on his own life, Benjamin addresses such themes as love, childhood and family, memory, mortality and loss, environment and place, fear and vulnerability, connection, and longing and letting go. As he notes in one of the interviews referenced in the Resources section below, he draws on the personal or the local but gives it global or universal meaning.

Here's an excerpt that I think shows well the grace with which his lines move into the contemplative and profound:


means regret, one buried
under years of longing
or two or three making
skin tingle as from touches 
you will never forget.

A painter carves into layers
past memories frozen
in tableau: a brother's
suicide, a mother's electric
shock treatment. Abstract,

we say, because the world
as we've seen it can be so
unbearable. . . .
~ from "Pentimento" in Passing Love: Poems

. . . all I aspire to as a writer [is] to hopefully, with fidelity,
make a snapshot of something and know that it will have
changed and be gone tomorrow.*

Be sure to listen to the podcasts noted in Resources below. Benjamin clearly is passionate about poetry and what it can teach us. In his energetic, thoughtful, and musical readings of his own and others' poems, he brings the poetry alive. He reads to create invitation, to, as he says, "be a good vessel or vehicle for poetry" that opens to others whatever wisdom he can share.

Brown has published poems and essays in ars poetica, Berkeley Poetry ReviewBlackletter, Chalkboard, La Petite Zine, Urthona: The Buddhist Journal of the Arts, Watershed, and other literary publications. He has contributed to such anthologies as Poem, Home: An Anthology (Paper Kite Press, 2009; available from Amazon), Haiku Year, and American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan University Press, 2007) for which Benjamin contributed a critical essay about Kevin Young. He was co-judge (with Lisa Starr) of the work appearing in The Loft Anthology of winners and finalists of the 2012 "Write Across Rhode Island" Poetry Challenge, a statewide poetry writing and reading competition for all ages and skill levels.


All Poetry Excerpts © Rick Benjamin

* Quoted from the excellent "Whose Words These Are: Rick Benjamin" Audio (and Partial Text) Interview at Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, December 2009; 38:12 minutes

** Quote from Governor Chafee Press Release on Appointment of Benjamin, January 9, 2013

*** See Johanna Zhang, "Poems of the Elders", Today at Brown, April 7, 2010.

Christopher Lydon, "Rick Benjamin: Read Poetry to Change Your Life", Huffington Post, December 31, 2009 (This is the Radio Open Source interview noted below.)

Rick Benjamin Interview at Radio Open Source, 2009. Among the influences Benjamin cites in the interview are visual artist Andy Goldsworthy and musician John Coltrane. He references what he describes as a "posse of poets" who have influenced him, and reads some of the poems that are meaningful to him. The range of poetry with which he's familiar is remarkable. He also discusses the community of poets he's involved in building, not only in the classroom but outside it, and what distinguishes Rhode Island poets from poets elsewhere.

Rick Benjamin, Reading, Contemporary Writers Reading Series, Spring 2008

Rick Benjamin Word of Mouth Podcast at ALL (Arts + Literature Laboratory), 2007

Rick Benjamin Poems Online: "Personal Reference" and "One Sign That Things Are Changing" (from Passing Love", Both at Wolf Ridge Press Page; "Before Making Love They Compare Scars", "The Juice In It", and "Pentimento", All at Poet's Website; "Begging Bowl" in RISCAnews; "Growing Up" and "Two Arts" at ars poetica

Rick Benjamin and Ashley Bryant on "What Is Poetry?" for the What's What Radio series of curated conversations (Benjamin is host). The audio is 44:14 minutes.

Below is the "Whose Words These Are" program with Rick Benjamin:

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