Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday Muse: South Carolina's Poet Laureate

The secret to writing is writing.
. . . [T]he best teachers are great poems by great poets....
~ Marjory Heath Wentworth

Marjory Heath Wentworth is the sixth Poet Laureate of South Carolina. She began her term in 2003, succeeding Bennie Lee Sinclair, who served from 1986 to 2000. Her and Sinclair's predecessors are Grace Beacham Freeman (1985-1986), Ennis Rees (1984-1985), Helen von Konitz Hyer (1974-1983), and Archibald Rutledge (1934-1973).

The state legislature established the unpaid position in 1934 (General Assembly Joint Resolution 736; Code of Laws, Sec. 1-3-230), investing with the governor the privilege to appoint. The only requirement is that the person selected be "some outstanding and distinguished man [sic] of letters". Typically, the incumbent writes "occasion poems" for official functions, such as a governor's inauguration, and travels the state promoting and celebrating poetry. Wentworth has written a number of occasion poems, not only to celebrate a gubernatorial swearing-in but also to dedicate in 2005 Cooper River Bridge in Charleston; her latter poem honors a worker from Mexico who died during the bridge-building and is the title poem in Wentworth's Despite Gravity.

The term of office is not fixed, and thus may be held for the life of the poet.

Wentworth, who wrote a poetry column for The Charleston Post and Courier, gives poetry readings throughout South Carolina and around the United States (she has performed with the Paul Winter Consort at Yale University, given lectures and readings at many higher educational institutions, and participated in Block Island Poetry Project workshops), participates in book festivals, and serves on the boards of the nonprofit Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts (LILA), which she co-founded with poet Carol Ann DavisThe Poetry Society of South Carolina, and University of South Carolina Poetry Initiative. The latter, which partners with the Office of the Poet Laureate, is a center for the promotion, celebration, and production of poetry at the university. 

* * * * * 

A resident of Charleston, Marjory Heath Wentworth has published a number of poetry collections: The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle (Press 53, 2010),  Despite Gravity (Ninety-Six Press, 2007), and Noticing Eden (Hub City Writing Project, 2003). Her earlier work includes Cavedweller (1998), now for Sure (1995),  Nightjars (Laurel Publishing, 1995), and Trash (1988). In addition, she collaborated with batik artist Mary Edna Fraser on What the Water Gives Me (BookSurge Publishing, 2002). She also has written an award-winning book for children, Shackles (Legacy Publications, 2009), based on a true story about the slaves of Sullivan's Island, a short distance from downtown Charleston.

A new collection, The Sound of Your Own Voice Singing, is forthcoming. With Juan Mendez, she is writing Taking a Stand: A Human Rights Journey, which will be published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Living in South Carolina's Lowcountry, Wentworth takes her inspiration from her natural surroundings; she's acutely attuned to sights and sounds that she describes in specific detail and with vivid imagery. She also draws deeply on her experiences with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The Whole World Institute, Church World Service, and Amnesty International, making geography and the human experience two particularly salient  features of her poetry. As she said in an interview here: "I worked with refugees from Eastern Europe, Haiti, Africa, and Latin America, as well as those from Indochina. Their stories continue to both haunt and inspire me. Sometimes a poet's job is to bear witness and give a voice to the voiceless. There's something inherently redemptive about that process that is very rewarding."

Among Wentworth's other themes: childhood, illness, home and family, love, death and grief, life on the barrier islands, politics, history, the beautiful in the ordinary, or what Wentworth calls "the small miracles that happen all around us each day".

Below are brief excerpts from several poems that show well Wentworth's lyricism, range and depth, and striking use of detail.

. . . She didn't
notice a thing, when she went
into a world where trees
caught fire and flew across
the cloudless sky of her room
filled with odorless horses
refusing to eat when trains
and steamships passed in the halls. . . .
~ From "Senility"

It happens in stillness. Because it is night
you hear snakes drop from the oak
and other things you can not name
passing beneath or above you. Trees
so thick the stars are mute. . . .
~ From "Seeking"

. . . Tell me about
the courage to bloom, the way
wood shines in your house,
where your rise each day and plan
ways to fill the hours. It is like building
a boat of bruised days made from twisted hands.
Still, the scent of the garden buried in snow
reminds me of the suffering
you will not speak of, anywhere.
~ From "Begin Again"

(Links to the text of these poems in full are below, in Resources.)

Wentworth, who studied with Joseph Brodsky, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Forche, and Philip Levine, among other highly renowned poets, has published her work in such publications as The Cortland Review,  Lady Jane's MiscellanyPoint, Skirt, and Brightleaf magazines, and Kakalak: An Anthology of Carolina Poets. She has been nominated a number of times for a Pushcart Prize.

Born and educated in Massachusetts, Wentworth conducts poetry and creative writing workshops on such topics as nature writing, ekphrastic poetry, and poetry and medicine. She also teaches poetry in poets-in-the-schools programs, at the Art Institute of Charleston, and as part of an arts-and-healing program, "Expressions of Healing", that she created for cancer patients and their families at Roper Medical Center. (An article about the program is here. Another is here.) As noted above, her background includes work with Amnesty International's refugee resettlement program and as AI's publicity director for "Readers International", a United Nations resettlement program, and Church World Service. In 2006, Wentworth gave the keynote address at the United Nations Association's Perdita Huston Human Rights Award ceremony. (Huston, a writer and former director of the Peace Corps, was a close friend of Wentworth's mother.)

A book publicist also, Wentworth runs with her husband Peter Wentworth PR, which arranges local, regional, and national author and media tours and special events such as film premieres.


All Poetry Excerpts © Marjory Heath Wentworth

Marjory Heath Wentworth Profile at Charleston Magazine, January 2009

Marjory Heath Wentworth Profile at Educate Update Online, April 2006

Marjory Heath Wentworth Profile at South Carolina Center for the Book

Marjory Heath Wentworth Profile at Southern Artistry

Articles and Interviews: "The Power of Poetry" in Sandlapper, Autumn 2006 (pdf); "Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: An Interview with Majorty Heath Wentworth", The Writer's Center, April 2009, and available at First Person Plural; "Get Me the Girl Who Writes About Trees" in C2, December 2007; "Marjory Wentworth: Hard Times Have Inspired New Poet Laureate of South Carolina to Become Advocate for Writing" in The Post and Courier, August 30, 2003

Selection of Poetry Online: "Hurricane Season" in Blackbird on Your Shoulder: Stories and Other Truths from the South, 2006; "A Normal Life"; "In Gaza's Berry Fields"; "Annunciation", "Senility", "Geography of Home", "History", "Begin Again", "Illumine", "Surrounded by Flowers, Floating in Light", "Nothing Can Contain You", and "Seeking", All from More Light Than We Can Hold, 2008 Online Chapbook Poets, South Carolina Poetry Initiative; "Spaghetti" in The Cortland Review, August 2009 (with audio); "The Way It Should Be" in Poemeleon

Review of The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle

Marjory Heath Wentworth on FaceBook

South Carolina Arts Commission

South Carolina Center for the Book

South Carolina Literary Map

South Carolina Poetry Archives at Furman University

South Carolina Poets Laureate

The Poetry Society of South Carolina

Hub City Writers Project

Joggling Board Press (Wentworth is acquisitions editor.)

Legacy Publications (Author Profile)

Ninety-Six Press

Press 53


Kathleen said...

I so love learning about the poet laureates from you!

Louise Gallagher said...

"the Sound of your own voice singing"

What a beautiful title!

And her poetry is lovely -- like you!

Thanks once again for opening my Monday up with wonder.

Hannah Stephenson said...

I love the simplicity of this concept--that the secret to writing is writing. :)

Marjory Wentworth said...

Maureen - Thank you so much for this amazing blog entry about me and my work. I am dazzled. It is particularly inspirational, because I am working on the inaugural poem for the Governor elect. I look foward to reading more on your blog.
Happy Holidays!

Maureen said...

I am so delighted you visited and commented, Marjory.

Writing about the state Poets Laureate has been one of my best projects, I think. Not only have I "discovered" poets I might not otherwise have known about; I've enjoyed introducing the poets' work to readers everywhere.

Wishing you the peace and beauty of the season.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this post. Her poetry is beautiful.

S. Etole said...

I especially enjoyed, "Begin again."

Joyce Wycoff said...

"Tell me about ..." What haunting words that seem to be carrying me away. Thanks for all the poets you introduce us to. How lovely that Marjory visited.

Anonymous said...

Maureen, how fun to see your blog pop up in my Google Alerts for "refugee resettlement." I've seen you so much through HCB and it was awesome to read about this most recent Poet Laureate on your blog!

I'm working as a Community Liaison for Catholic Family Service in Amarillo, Texas, specifically the refugee resettlement division. I heartily "amen" Marjory's quote: "Their stories continue to both haunt and inspire me. Sometimes a poet's job is to bear witness and give a voice to the voiceless. There's something inherently redemptive about that process that is very rewarding."

That's why I'm starting a refugee writers' group, where I hope to encourage the former refugees here in Amarillo to tell their stories. I hope to match them with literary mentors, and maybe publish a journal of their stories, too.

I can't wait to explore Marjory's work. Thanks for introducing her to me.

hedgewitch said...

Thanks for continuing to educate us about the wealth of poets out there. excellent excerpts, especially the last.

Anonymous said...

i am already liking the very first line...

the secret to writing is writing.

Lofty Ambitions said...

What a great project. I found your blog on SheWrites, then discovered that you're covering poet laureate after poet laureate, so I'm working my way back to find Illinois' Kevin Stein and others!

A. Jay Adler said...

What a rich, varied life Wentworth lives. Her marvelous collection title "The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle" and another "More Light Than We Can Hold" seem to emanate from these lines you quote:

"It is like building/
a boat of bruised days made from twisted hands."