Monday, May 24, 2010

Monday Muse: Delaware's Poet Laureate

JoAnn Balingit is Delaware's 16th Poet Laureate. She assumed the position on May 14, 2008.

The state's first official poet, Edna Deemer Leach, was appointed in 1947, following the state legislature's passage of a resolution authorizing an annual appointment to the position by the governor. In 1964, the legislature enacted a state law creating the honorary office and authorizing the governor to appoint an individual to a two-year term and to perform duties at the governor's request and pleasure. In 1970, the legislature amended the law, giving both the governor and the secretary of state the right to "request" duties of the Poet Laureate and vesting the Delaware Department of State with responsibility for providing the incumbent with administrative and clerical services, as well as office space. The law, which is codified (Delaware Code, Title 29, Sec. 4401), also makes the Poet Laureate a member ex-officio on the Council on Archives and Cultural Affairs. 

In addition to Leach, fourteen other poets have preceded Balingit in the position, the most recent being Fleda Brown, who served from 2001 to 2007.

The state Division of the Arts arranges the Poet Laureate's calendar for appearances at state functions and events requested by nonprofit organizations. According to the arts division's page about the position, the Poet Laureate is an advocate, educator, and presenter of poetry throughout Delaware. Among other "proposed" duties are "promoting the importance of poetry and the literary arts as part of Delaware's cultural heritage" and "developing poetry programming and presentation opportunities" that support the arts division's program goals, such as Poetry in the Schools and Poetry Out Loud.

* * * * *
I want to convince as many people as possible
to give poetry a chance. 
To see if they're willing to be wooed or not. 
~ JoAnn Balingit*

When her appointment as Delaware's Poet Laureate was announced, JoAnn Balingit, Ph.D., said she wanted to be "a teacher of teachers about poetry"* and to help people to understand that poetry is not "scary" but something that can move you. Her own poetry speaks to that aspiration. As does any poet or other writer, Balingit draws on her ethnic background (her father was Filipino, her mother German), her travels abroad, and her life experience, which includes the fatal shooting of her mother by her father, who then took his own life. Balingit, one of 12 children, was just 16 at the time. Of that tragedy she told an interviewer, ". . . those [kinds of] things inform your poetry because you understand suffering. It's a wellspring when you're not writing about it."*

Balingit characterizes her style as "freewheeling". Her poetry is lyrical, evocative of mood and feeling, especially when it addresses specific memories, and beautifully captures sense of place (location figures among her subjects). It's replete with exquisite imagery (see "Winged Vessel", for example) borne out of finely honed observation of what surrounds her. Sometimes the poems are without punctuation or capitalization, and while they can be quite short, they also can pack enormous punch, demonstrating  Balingit's understanding of how poetry "can connect you to other people very closely."**

Balingit writes both in free-form and rhyme and also in such traditional forms as the sonnet (see, for example, her poem "History Textbook, America", about her father). Her collection Your Heart and How It Works (Spire Press), a chapbook published in 2009, touches on the universal theme of love — of mother, wife, and poet — and of relationships and what they mean.

A few excerpts (the first is an excellent example of ekphrastic poetry, Balingit using the form and function of a wooden bowl to comment on parenthood):

Shaped like a kidney, marbled and starry, this wooden bowl reminds
of the dish a nurse once packed into my things. Unable to divine its
   truth or

how to use it with my baby, I stuffed its sweet lobes full of cotton
Its confidence made me doubt myself, aware I was a guesser. . . .
~ From "Winged Vessel" in The Pedestal Magazine

Good morning, hands
you awake? My sandal strap's
undone. My heart
hardly buckled on.
~ From "Morning, Walking Home" in Your Heart and How It Works

The Blue Spotted Salamander

Does not flinch as my boot rolls the pine limb over
The night is wet with icy stars sprinked down its ribs
Not one muscle would I move if God rolled my roof open
I'd lie curled, an unborn word awake inside his skull

Balingit's poems have appeared in such literary journals as Rolling Stone, Pearl MagazineSmartish Pace, Can We Have Our Ball Back, Kweli Journal, Harpur PalateThe PedestalMagazine.comLa FoveaSalt Hill Journal, Delmarva Quarterly, and Philadelphia Stories, and in the 2006 Del Sol Press anthology DIAGRAM.2 and the Meridian/Samovar's anthology Best New Poets 2007. Her work also appears in the anthologies On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers (University of Delaware Press, 2008) and Returning a Borrowed Tongue (Coffee House Press, 1995).

In addition to receiving an Individual Artist Fellowship in fiction in 1995 from the state arts division, Balingit was nominated in 2004 for a Pushcart Prize (for her poem "Your Heart and How It Works") and was awarded in 2008 the Dr. Norman H. Runge Award (for her essay "Some Boy Somewhere"). She has been a finalist in many chapbook competitions; her Forage, for example, was a finalist in the 2006 Bright Hill Press Chapbook Contest.

In her official role as Delaware's Poet Laureate, Balingit teaches poetry in schools and community organizations all around the state; gives poetry readings at libraries, senior centers, arts festivals, book festivals, religious facilities, and other venues; and participates in writers' conferences and in-school residencies and workshops (from 2004 to 2007, she was the poetry teacher for a workshop she created for cancer patients and their families at the Wellness Community of Delaware). Later this year she'll be attending a Writers Retreat at Cape Henlopen in Lewes, Delaware.


* Quoted in "Give Poetry a Chance, Laureate Says" (Victor Greto, The News Journal at  Delawareonline, May 15, 2008)

All poetry excerpts © JoAnn Balingit. All Rights Reserved. [Note: Due to constraints of column widths here, three lines in poems above have been broken that are not broken in originals.]

Audio of Balingit reading her poem "Winged Vessel"

Balingit on Twitter

"A Poet and How She Works" in Delaware Today, May 12, 2009 

Delawareonline articles relating to Balingit (Balingit contributes occasional articles on poetry and writing to The News Journal.)

University of Delaware Article, "Grad Selected as Delaware Poet Laureate"

University of Delaware Article, "Delaware Authors Celebrated in New Anthology"

**"Local Poet Proves Her Craft Is Ageless" in The Review (University of Delaware), May 5, 2008

Delaware Public Archives page on the Office of the Poet Laureate

List of  Delaware Poets Laureate

Delaware State of the Arts Podcasts

Article on Balingit's residency at elementary school

State Arts Division page about Balingit

Poets&Writers page on Balingit

Delaware Artist Roster


Kathleen Overby said...

Honed. Attuned to life and the power of words. This woman is more than a survivor. She's thriving. Thanks Maureen.

M.L. Gallagher said...

I am fascinated by these finds of yours -- and by the whole concept of the Poet Laureate -- I'm going to have to dig into the poetic Canadian soils and find me some here too!

Maureen said...


Go here for info on Canada's Poets Laureate:

Cassandra Frear said...

"Good morning, hands
you awake? My sandal strap's
undone. My heart
hardly buckled on."

Awesome writing here. Elegant, simple, yet zings with the image.

S. Etole said...

You bless us every day ...

Laura said...

What a fascinating woman. I love stories of triumph. And this one breathes. I am very taken. Thank you again, Maureen.

I'm off to explore your links!