Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday Muse: New Hampshire's Poet Laureate

[Note: Walter Butts died on March 31, 2013. A fund in Butts's memory has been established. A successor is expected to be announced in November 2013. Obituary.]

I really believe that poetry in many, many ways is the literary
form that we have that is closest to expressing 
the human condition, the human spirit.
~ Walter E. Butts

Walter E. Butts has served since March 3, 2009, as New Hampshire's official Poet Laureate. His term will expire in 2014.

Codified in state law (New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated, Sec. 3-A: 1-3), the five-year, unpaid position is renewable. The incumbent is selected by the governor from a list of candidates prepared by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire.

Butts is, technically, the eleventh Poet Laureate. He succeeded Patricia Fargnoli, who served from January 2006 until March 2009, and Cynthia Huntington, who was appointed in March 2004 and resigned in December 2005 after moving to Vermont. Butts shares his honor with such esteemed poets as Marie Harris (October 1999 - March 2004), Donald Hall (December 1995 - March 1999 and June 1984 - January 1989), Jane Kenyon (January 1995 - March 1999), Maxine Kumin (March 1989 - March 1994), Richard Eberhart (January 1979 - January 1984), Eleanor Vinton (August 1972 - December 1978), and Paul Scott Mowrer (September 1968 - July 1972).

The position has no specified responsibilities. In addition to giving readings and participating in literary festivals, Butts has indicated that he "most wants to bring to the forefront the diverse range of poets living in New Hampshire."* He promotes poets and poetry to the public through work with independent bookstores and arts organizations. In addition, continuing a project of his predecessor Patricia Fargnoli, he features a poet every two weeks on the New Hampshire Poets Showcase, an online "gallery" maintained by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts (available via the council's Poet Laureate page).

* * * * *

State poet and critical essayist Walter E. Butts has published more than a half-dozen poetry collections, including the forthcoming Radio Time (Cherry Grove Collections), What to Say If the Birds Ask (Pudding House, 2007), a chapbook named a "Small Press Review Pick of the Month" in January 2008; Sunday Factory (Finishing Line Press, 2006), also a chapbook; and Sunday Evening at the Stardust Cafe (1st World Publishing), which won the 2006 Iowa Source Poetry Book Prize and was a finalist for the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry awarded by California State University/Fresno. His other works are White Bees (Oyster River Press, 2001), A Season of Crows (Igneus Press, 2000), Movies in a Small Town: Poems (Mellen Poetry Press, 1997),  The Required Dance (Igneus Press, 1990), and The Inheritance (Four Zoas Press, 1983).

Butts describes himself** as a lyric narrative poet, that is, one who often tells stories through his poems, which he writes primarily in free verse and in a voice that reads as wholly authentic. Memories are central to how Butts crafts his poems, and what predominates throughout his work is a fully assimilated sense of small-town life and the context it provides for appreciating the past. Although Butts told interviewer Jane Crown* that he comes from a working-class background, grew up in poverty, and was just 19 when his father died, he does not, he pointed out to her, look back on his past as negative, troubling, or difficult. The memories are "organic", "natural to write about", and "have become very tangible symbols that I continue to work with." In "The Lake", for example, he lets on that:

I don't know how Father managed
that summer I was five,
on his factory pay,
to bring us to the glistening lake
and white clapboard cottage
for a week, [. . . ]

He surmises that "[p]erhaps he borrowed the money / from my uncle, who would be dead a few / years later, at fifty-four, the only time / I ever saw my father weep."  Then, in the very next line, he veers away from the remembrance of that pain, adding, "But we were happy those days, / my parents and I, / by that lake called 'Silver,'[. . .]"

Awareness of mortality and loss is nonetheless keen and often beautifully expressed, as in these lines from "What to Say If the Birds Ask":

[. . .] But what unsettles
me this gray morning beneath trill and chatter of birds,
signals of a coming storm in a neighborhood of strangers,
is that first death, polished wood and Uncle's cold hand
when I was nine, the relatives and friends gone since then,
my futile guilt and anger, the failed language of regret [. . . .]

Details are concrete and readily accessible in a Butts' poem, as these lines from "Ash" show:

Friends gather in their groups of memory
and celebrate the bodiless click and song
of a darkened wood, the restored house
with its three windows edged by blue,
red and crystalline squares of stained glass,
the raised arms of a luminescent green Buddha, [. . . ]

Other subjects — what Butts calls the "obsessions" out of which he and every poet write — range across family and childhood, friendship, work, and a deep interest in film noir. Place (he deems New Hampshire a "terrific environment in which to write") also is important, both to provide context for recollecting what was and to anchor the poet as narrator in the present. Butts' poem "At the Merrimack" (referenced in Resources, below) is a particularly good example of being in place and also looking back.

Poems by Butts have appeared in numerous literary publications, including The Cafe Review, Cider Press ReviewPoetry East, Mid-American Review, Birmingham Poetry ReviewAtlanta Review, Cimarron Review, The Contemporary ReviewPoet LoreThe Fourth River, and The Saranac Review. His work also is found in the 2010 Poets' Guide to New Hampshire (Poetry Society of New Hampshire), and Leaves By Night, Flowers By Day (Iowa Source, 2006; 1st World Publishing, 2007), and a number of other anthologies (go here for a more complete list).

Butts, an associate professor at Hesser College/Manchester who also conducts poetry workshops at the University of New Hampshire and teaches, in Vermont, in Goddard College's Creative Writing Program, has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize in poetry. He also has received a Massachusetts Artists Foundation Fellowship Award.


All Poetry Excerpts © Walter E. Butts

* Jane Crown, Interview with Walter E. Butts, The Jane Crown Show (BlogTalkRadio), November 10, 2010 (Butts also reads his poetry during this interview, which ranges over his influences, subjects of poems, what Butts intends to accomplish as Poet Laureate, and his teaching career. It's an informative interview and worth your time.)

** Andrew J. Manuse, "Express Q&A: The Poet Laureate: Conversations with People Who Help Define Manchester", Manchester Express, March 2, 2009 (In this feature, Butts speaks directly to his intentions as Poet Laureate, his writing style, living in New England, and how he "defines" himself through his poetry.)

Mary A. Russell, "New Hampshire's Poets Laureate", Book Notes, Vol. 2, Supplement, April 2006

"Poet Laureate Seeks to Provide Opportunities for Others" (Video and Text), NECN, March 10, 2009

Walter E. Butts' Poems Online: "Boys at the Saturday Matinee", "Porcelain", and "Ash" at Tower JournalFall 2010; "At the Merrimack" in Manchester Express interview with Andrew Manuse; "Against Happiness" at The Iowa Source; "The Lake", "The Garden", and "What To Say If the Birds Ask", all from What to Say If the Birds Ask at Butts' Website; "Sunday Evening at the Stardust Cafe", "Magic Acts", and "Selling the Church", all from Sunday Evening at the Stardust Cafe at Butts' Website; "Sunday Factory" from Sunday Factory; and "Two Parades: 1954" from White Bees ("Two Parades" also appears at Oyster Press.)

The Frost Place (Franconia, New Hampshire)

Goddard College News Release on Butts' Appointment as Poet Laureate

Goddard College Profile and Publications List for Butts

The Iowa Source 

Poetry Out Loud Competition

New Hampshire Center for the Book

New Hampshire State Council on the Arts

NHSCA Poet Laureate Page

New Hampshire Writers' Project (This group sponsors the annual Concord Literary Festival in which Butts participates.) Page for New Hampshire

Poetry Society of New Hampshire

Walter E. Butts on FaceBook


Anonymous said...

this morning i went off to read "at the merrimack"
and forgot to come back.

enjoyable post.

Hannah Stephenson said...

This is such a great series, Maureen. I am so thankful that you do it--I learn such interesting things here at your blog.

Poets and Writers mag really needs to hire you to do this as a column for them! :)

A. Jay Adler said...

That's an impressive list of New Hampshire laureates.