Lansing poet laureate Laura Apol takes National Poetry Month online

Verses, wise and ‘otherwise’


SATURDAY, April 4 — Will life ever be the same again? To soften the cruelest of National Poetry Months, Lansing Poet Laureate Laura Apol posted a video of herself on her Facebook page April 1, reading Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise.”

“All of us are living an ‘otherwise’ experience right now,” Apol explained in an interview Friday. “Our lives have turned over in ways that would have been incomprehensible just a month ago.”

Instead of a National Poetry Mongh packed with poetry readings, workshops and other local events, Apol hopes to apply a bellows to the quarantined fire of Lansing’s poetry community by collecting the work of local poets and posting them on line, in video format, read by the authors.

It’s no accident that Apol chose “Otherwise” as the first entry in her month-long “Poetry in Place” project.

The verses lovingly describe the ordinary things the poet does during a normal day — working, eating, going to bed. Each line is followed by the refrain “it might have been otherwise.”

The closer is breathtakingly prophetic: “One day, it will be otherwise.”

And here we are.

The idea of “place,” a key element of Apol’s job, has blurred in an unsettling way this spring. “The position of poet laureate was created to have a poetry presence in the Greater Lansing area and to bring attention to this as a place,” she said.

Apol’s predecessor, Dennis Hinrichsen, literally stamped poetry into the bones of the city with the Sidewalk Poetry project, inscribing verses into the sidewalks around town.

Apol wants to keep that notion of place alive, even if it has to float on line for now.

“If we’re sheltering in place, it seemed like a small step to bring poetry to the places where we all are, even if we’re not together,” she said. “A lot of people are putting readings up online, through YouTube, Zoom and Facebook. I felt like as the poet laureate, I had a unique platform.”

Poets can contact Apol by sending a poem — their own or someone else’s — to Apol and a few colleagues will look it over, contact the author and arrange a video post.

“They don’t have to be about the coronavirus,” Apol said. “They could be poems of hope, poems of anger, grief or celebration — just poems that speak honestly about the human experience.”

She admits she’s looking forward, not just to the poetry, but also to peeking at the décor, the books, the objects in people’s homes in the background of the videos.

“When I’m watching my students, I feel like I’m in their homes,” she said. “I learn a lot about them by seeing what’s behind them on the walls in their dorm rooms, in their apartments, in the room where they grew up that they’ve now returned to.”

Several Facebook pages have started similar projects, including the Poetry Society of America’s “Reading in the Dark.”

“I’m finding comfort that so many people are writing and reading and sharing poems,” she said. “After a couple of weeks of catching our breath, on line communities have really stepped it up. It’s as if the poets and lovers of poetry recognize that this is a moment where the writing, sharing and reading of poetry has a different role to play than it did before.”

Poetry has helped to pull Apol and her colleagues and students through troubled times before. She lived in Oklahoma City at the time of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing. She worked in Rwanda with survivors of the genocide there.

Yet in even the harshest conditions of life, she has found that poetry can “hold that which is too heavy for humans to hold,” in the words of U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.

“I’ve watched it over and over,” she said. “The healing part of writing and reading poetry is that suddenly, we have a way to make sense of something, or live in the not-sense-ness of it.”

This week, Apol posted “Light, Water, Bones,” a multi-layered meditation that sinks through layers of metaphor to the gravelly riverbed of life. She speculates in the poem that perhaps, in a future life, she will “burrow, fearless as the sleek black mole, far from this world’s polished surface, intimate with the wet roots of things.”

The poem is not about 2020s cruelest month, but in horrible times, any search for the essence of things seems more urgent than usual.

“The hunger we’re all experiencing when we’re sheltered in place by ourselves, or with a limited number of people — suddenly art forms are ways we can speak to each other in a deep and meaningful language we might not otherwise use,” she said.

Apol will archive this month’s Poetry in Place entries on the Lansing Poet Laureate Web site, and they’ll stay on her Lansing Poet Laureate Facebook page indefinitely.

She will continue the project not only through April, but as long as the lockdown lasts.

“For as long as we’re using technology to find our way to each other, I hope this can continue,” she said. “I hope I get so many poems that it can go on and on and on.”

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