Nov. 12 2008 12:00 AM

Local poetry club, enthusiasts keep art form alive line by line

Dennis North, president of the Lansing Poetry Club. The club is celebrating its 70th anniversary. (Bill Castanier/City Pulse)

I’ll bet you can’t name Michigan’s poet laureate. Don’t worry, though, it’s not your fault. Although there are plenty of qualified candidates for the job, such as Thomas Lynch, Patricia Clark, Diane Wakoski and Judith Minty, the state doesn’t have one. But it’s not for lack of trying by some local poetry enthusiasts.

Now celebrating its 70th year of existence, the Lansing Poetry Club has been a longtime advocate for verse in Michigan’s capital city, including a stalled effort to create a poet laureate position for the state.

Len Petersen, of Lansing, who has been a club member for 10 years, said bills that would have created the mostly symbolic position passed the House and Senate in 2000 but were never signed into law by Gov. John Engler. Dennis North, president of the Lansing Poetry Club, said more than 40 states have poet laureates. At one time (1952-1959), Edgar Guest was Michigan’s. Guest, Michigan’s only formal poet laureate, was mostly known for his daily, syndicated poems, which appeared in the Detroit Free Press and 300 other newspapers from the 1920s to the 1950s.

North, who writes poetry in rhyme, free verse and haiku, said the idea of having a poet laureate goes back several hundred years to Britain. The United States has had a poet laureate since 1937. “A poet laureate could help to bring together all the poetry groups in Michigan,” North said. “Small groups like ours seem to exist in a mini universe, and a state poet laureate could bring more contact and cooperation.”

Before World War I, North said poetry and poets were revered, but that changed. He said after World War I, poetry became much more specialized and characterized by esoteric references, which made it hard to read. “Poets stopped thinking in terms of writing for a public,” North said. “After World War II, poetry became even more fragmented.”

North, a former librarian at the University of Denver, has been writing poetry for more than five decades. He picked up writing from his great-grandmother. In her time, North said newspapers carried daily poetry, and she had poems published in the Lansing State Journal, Ingham County News and Michigan Farmer. “I was brought up on nursery rhymes,” he said. “A lot of it depends on what kids get when they are little.”

The Lansing Poetry Club meets once a month, except during the summer, at Lansing Community College. This year, each meeting has included a mini-workshop on the technical aspects of poetry, such as rhyme, meter and sound. Next week, North will conduct a workshop on haiku.

Petersen said the discipline and deadlines of monthly meetings helps him write. “I don’t want to say I don’t have anything,” he said. Petersen began writing poetry as a high school student at Bay City Saint James. “My football pals made fun of me,” he said.

After a career as a community college professor, he began writing poetry again about 10 years ago.

Local leaders in publishing and poetry echo North’s sentiment when he says, “Poetry is a different way of seeing things.”

Gabriel Dotto, director of the Michigan State University Press, said publishing poetry should be a mission of any university press, but he recognizes that more and more of them are abandoning verse for something more profitable.

The MSU Press has been publishing poetry for nearly a half a century, and the current catalog offers 165 books of poetry. This year and next, MSU Press will publish at least five books of poetry, including work by MSU graduate Robert VanderMolen; a collection by American Indian poet Heid Erdrich; work by Grand Rapid’s poet laureate Patricia Clark; and a collection by MSU’s Anita Skeen, director of MSU’s Center for Poetry.

“I think poetry matters because a good poem can evoke our deepest emotions and feelings, our greatest passions, our most firmly held beliefs, our whimsical and delightful selves,” Skeen said. “It can do all that, and it does it in a language so precise and in a space so small that especially in this world, where the sound bite seems to be the preferred genre, people can glean so much in such a short time.”

The Lansing Poetry Club meets the third Sunday of each month, September through May, at 2 p.m. in Room 165, Arts and Sciences Building, Lansing Community College. The next meeting is Nov. 16 and is open to the public. For more information, call (517) 484-7106.

The Center for Poetry at Michigan State University will host acclaimed poet Diane Gilliam, at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18, in the basement of Snyder-Phillips Hall. Gilliam’s newest work “Kettle Bottom,” recreates the West Virginia coal mine wars of 1920-21. The event is free and open to the public.

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