Monday, January 17, 2011

Monday Muse: Maine's State Poet Laureate

Maine named Betsy Sholl its State Poet Laureate on March 1, 2006; her five-year term expires this March. Just the third poet to hold the unpaid, wholly honorary position, she succeeded Baron Wormser (March 2000 - October 2005) and Kate Barnes (1996 - 1999).

The position was established in 1995 (Maine Public Law 1995, Chapter 264) and codified (Maine Revised Statutes, Title 27, Chapter 15, Subchapter 2). The law requires only that the incumbent be a poet who resides in the state and who has published "distinguished poetry". The nominee is selected by the governor from a list of candidates recommended by the Maine Arts Committee.

An appointee may not serve for more than two consecutive terms, and is eligible for reappointment after a break in service. 

* * * * *
What moves me into words usually is something actual—
an encounter of some kind with the natural world, a person,
a book or music (mostly jazz). To be more precise, what starts
a poem is usually the experience of paradox or contradiction,
two equally true perceptions or emotions co-existing:
beauty and pain, love and fear, life and decay. . . .
~ Betsy Sholl*

Betsy Sholl is the author of more than a half-dozen poetry collections, including, most recently, Rough Cradle (Alice James Books, 2009) and Late Psalm (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Her other volumes are Don't Explain (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) and The Red Line (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), as well as Changing Faces (1974; available via resellers), Appalachian Winter (1978; available via resellers), and Rooms Overhead (1986), all from the nonprofit cooperative poetry press Alice James Books, of which Sholl is a founding member.

Among Sholl's chapbooks are Pick A Card (Coyote/Bark Publication, 1991; out of print), which won a Maine chapbook competition; Coastal Bop (Oyster River Press, 2001), and Betsy Sholl: Greatest Hits, 1974-2004 (Pudding House Publications). Work by Sholl also is included in the "Police Poetry & Photography Calendar Book 2009, Portland Maine Police Department", a project of Art & Equity, Inc. (Art at Work/Terra Moto, 2008), and in Vermont College of Fine Arts Faculty (Books LLC, 2010).

Among the characteristics of Sholl's poetry, which her reviewers cite time and again, are her lyricism,  her constant reference to sound or use of metaphors for sound both spoken and heard, both of the natural world and without (so strong a hallmark is this that one could do a study of "music" in her poetry), intensity of feeling, the combination of the personal and the universal that gives her poems depth, and often striking imagery. A few examples:

I loaded stones from the Irish coast into my suitcase,
till I felt like that overwrought saint who,
instead of picking one ribbon as offered,
grabbed the entire box and ran. [. . .]
~ From "The Edge of Town" in Rough Cradle

Your life is over before mine begins
like some electrical implantation
that leaves just the idea of you [. . . .]
~ From "The Same Elegy Never Completed Each Day It's a 
    a Different Death" in Changing Faces

Whoever lived here is gone, but a slick
staircase remains in the broken shell,
damaged just enough to suggest secret
recesses spiraled inside [. . . .]
~ From "Shore Walk With Monk"

Bedraggled feathers like bonnets
that would fly off if they weren't strapped, [. . .]
~ From "Gulls in the Wind"

Fog dense as a bed sheet hung at the window,
and through that white blindness come
the eerie cries of cows moaning in the field
like a whole mothering universe calling

for its lost sons—trucked off to auction in the night.
On grief's scale, these wails fall lower than
the shriek that stunned as as we passed by
the funeral home [. . . .]
~ From "Lament"

Sholl writes with a sense of awe and wonder, even when she's recounting absence and loss. For example, in "Bird Watching" from Rough Cradle, a poem that hooks us with its first line ("Maybe it's not a lie to say my mother / was once a bird, or two really, one who'd soar, blue into blue, the other a groundling / endless pecking. . . ."), Sholl considers that she might have learned from her mother "to tremble on hearing the word future, // to worry that the universe can't just expand / forever, and to cringe when the Chinese fortune / said my luck would change. I had to ask / what it was now." The conclusion she comes to is anything but pessimistic:

[. . .] watching neon rain
splash the restaurant window, those hot pink

mysterious characters flashing off and on,
I wondered if it's all one great unfolding,
impossible to name, so a bird
flying off doesn't have to mean gone,
it could mean: look at that bright going

Sholl's Don't Explain, which comprises 33 narrative poems, won the 1997 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, and her collection The Red Line was the recipient of  the 1991 Associated Writing Programs' Award Series in poetry. Her other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and two Maine Writers fellowships.

In November 2010, Words and Images, a student-run journal published by the University of Southern Maine, announced an annual Betsy Scholl Award in Poetry.

Poems by Sholl have appeared in many literary periodicals, including AgniBeloit Poetry Journal, Down East MagazineField (Oberlin College Press), Ploughshares, Indiana ReviewThe Kenyon Review, Orion Magazine, Triquarterly, and The Massachusetts Review, and in such anthologies as Contemporary American Poetry on Race, Walking to Windward: Poets of New England, Volume 4 (Oyster River Press, 2001), Best American Poetry Anthology (2009), and the forthcoming An Endless Skyway: Anthology (Ice Cube Books, March 2011), a collection of work by state poets laureate.

Sholl, who travels within and without Maine giving readings and participating in poetry workshops, teaches at the University of Southern Maine, where she is Assistant Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, and in the M.F.A. program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been poet-in-residence at Bucknell University and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts/Deer Isle. This year, Sholl is participating in Image Journal's Glen Workshop in Santa Fe. 


* Quoted in Artist of the Month Profile of Betsy Sholl at Image Journal, October 2009

All Poetry Excerpts © Betsy Sholl

Betsy Sholl, "Poetry Flourishes in a Maine Library", Maine Humanities Newsletter, Spring 2007

Audio of Betsy Sholl Discussing Differences in Experiences Between Reading and Hearing Poetry

Betsy Sholl Interview in Brilliant Corners, A Journal of Literature and Jazz, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer 2010 (A subscription is required to access the interview.)

Betsy Sholl Schedule of Public Readings

Poetry by Betsy Sholl Online: "Election Day" at Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Website (The poem is described as what Sholl might have read had she been invited to the inauguration of Governor Paul LePage on January 5, 2011; see "Poets Use Prose to 'Protest' Exclusion from Inauguration"); "Among the Many" at Cerise Press, Vol. 2, Issue 4, Summer 2010; "Last Boat" at Maine Magazine, January/February 2010; "Gravity and Grace" in Image Journal, Issue 53, Spring 2007; "Doing Time" at Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program (also found at Down East Magazine); "Lament", "Bass Line", "A Little Traveling Music", "Angel of Dissent", "The Tortoise", "Two Poems: "Here" and "Gulls in the Wind", All at Verse daily; "Endless Argument" at Orion Magazine; "Two Poems: Aprocyphal Song" and "The Sea Itself" at Wrecked for the Ordinary; "Love Song with Departure" at The Forecaster, July 2009; "Blues Is My Companion" (excerpt) in The Maine Poets: An Anthology of Verse (go to page 179); "Forget Your Life", Design in America", "Bass Line", "Childhood", "Coastal Bop", "Begonia", "Doing Time", and "Little Elegy", All at From the Fishouse (audio Q&As with Sholl in which she discusses several of the poems can be found in the Archives); "To Walt Whitman in Heaven" at The Writer's Almanac (audio is available); "Lullaby in Blue" at; "Elegy and Argument" at West Branch, Issue 59, Fall/Winter 2006. Poems from Sholl's various books also can be found at her publishers' sites.

Feature Article, "The People's Poet" at Down East Magazine, June 2006

Profile for Sholl at Vermont College

Review of Late Psalm at Verse

Review of Rough Cradle at Arbutus

Review of Walking to Windward at The Comstock Review (Sholl's Coastal Bop chapbook is singled out.)

Bangor Daily News Feature on Sholl's Nomination as State Poet Laureate, March 1, 2006

Late Psalm on GoogleBooks

Maine Arts Commission (Blog)

Maine Dead Poets Remembrance Day

Maine Festival of the Book

Maine Humanities

Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (FaceBook)

Peaks Island Press Page for Maine

Publications/Author List for Sholl at USM Libraries

Stonecoast Summer Writers' Conference

University of Pittsburgh Press

University of Wisconsin Press

Words from the Frontier ~ Poetry in Maine (Audio is here. Sholl is co-producer of the Poetry in Maine project. She also is working with independent radio producer Rob Rosenthal on a documentary on Maine poetry (see Rosenthal's bio at Salt Institute for Documentary Studies).)

In this YouTube video (it runs a bit over five minutes), Sholl reads at the 2010 His Gifts and Presence New England Arts Festival:


Dawn Potter said...

Love to see Betsy featured here. She is not only a fine poet but a generous citizen of poetry. We Mainers are lucky to have her as our poet laureate, and it's a shame that our new Tea Party governor saw fit to insult her at his inauguration by replacing the traditional poetry reading with "something a little more interesting"--i.e., an army band.

Maureen said...

Thank you, Dawn. I was hoping you'd stop by. I watched the video of Sholl gathered with other poets in protest. I'd have joined them had I been there. It's bad enough that the position is unpaid (and Sholl certainly gives her time to promoting poetry all over), but to be so publicly dis-respected is outrageous. I said at the time I thought everyone should have sent copies of all of Sholl's books to the statehouse. I included a link to Sholl's "Election Day", the poem she said she would have read had she been invited to the inauguration.

Anonymous said...

maybe someday you will be on your monday muse.

Dawn Potter said...

Thanks for Betsy supporting. She is a modest and good-hearted human being, and has held her unpaid position with grace. I hope lots of people read "Election Day."

S. Etole said...

her words evoke such strong images ...