When times are tough, the world turns to artists for their observations, interpretations, and often, for solace. Even better is the rare opportunity to hear poets speak their own words. This coming Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m., Grass Roots Books and Music will be hosting two excellent writers who are currently touring with new collections of poetry.
Although Catherine McGuire has been writing for four decades and has over 450 poems published in the US, she just recently published her first full-length book of poetry. Through Elegy for the 21st Century, McGuire contemplates our relationship with the environment and how we “follow [the rhythms of nature], though we think we are so separate.” While the poems in Elegy were each published separately, McGuire decided to collect the poems as a social commentary in response to the recent political climate. She wanted “to give an image of the challenges [she] think[s] we’re facing, and also register [her] protest at some things we are ignoring.” Because nature has always brought McGuire great comfort, she created a collection that aims to protect what “connects us with ourselves—we can’t be separate, but this society tries to convince us we are something different, and that is creating a very unhealthy society.”
McGuire is definitely influenced by the beauty of Oregon— “the gorgeous countryside and the calm politeness of the people.” She’s written from the perspective of farmers and those in rural areas trying to hang on to their way of life. She champions these individuals by showing the importance of preserving where they live. In her poem “False Equivalence,” McGuire writes, “The deepening shadows stroke the hills / running indigo fingers through the blonde grass. / The stillness is manna—you can eat / but not hoard. / It feeds a deep need.” It is this “deep need” that connects readers to McGuire’s work; most people can appreciate the beauty in nature and feel an ache as they watch certain aspects of it slip away. In “Pacific Northwest 2012” McGuire writes, “Birds still chatter / though some are missing; our gardens ripen / more or less. Can drought or famine matter / until they’re at our doorstep, frightening / and much too late to stop?” This is especially relevant as we hold our breath, watching the fate of environmental policies under a new presidential administration.
John Sibley Williams
Joining Catherine McGuire is John Sibley Williams, a literary agent and the author of nine collections of poetry, including Disinheritance, which he’ll be reading from on the 25th. Originally from Boston, Williams has been enjoying the “natural and creative environment” of Oregon for nine years and “truly believe[s] that our shared little corner of the world has one of the most inspirational and supportive writing communities one could imagine.” In addition to being a working writer, Williams co-founded the Inflectionist poetry movement and edits its corresponding journal, The Inflectionist Review. The movement was developed from a series of conversations Williams had with fellow writers and what they felt was the need to create poetry that “respects both poet and reader, both words and interpretation.” Writers who subscribe to the Inflectionist movement strive to write poetry that is both personal and universal, to offer words that foster inclusivity by keeping the reader in mind. In turn, the reader is asked to “have faith that the poem is attempting to reach off the page in order to speak directly to them.” This creates a relationship between the author and reader that might not have existed before.
The tenets of Inflectionism are very present in the heartbreaking beauty of Disinheritance. Inspired by the death of Williams’ mother and his wife’s miscarriage, Disinheritance is his meditation on how to “move forward and redefine the landscape of ‘family.’” Williams explores grief by taking on different voices, including the perspectives of his miscarried child, his mother, and his wife. In “A Dead Boy Speaks to His Parents” Williams writes, “Mom and Dad: / you don’t have to be contained anymore / between the lines I never had time to write / on the stars that don’t listen anyway.” His account is deeply personal, yet readers can relate to the idea of life taking unexpected turns and the sorrow of trying to reconcile what you wanted and what you were given.
Whether or not you seize the opportunity to hear these talented poets read their work, Williams has a wish for you, dear readers: “I hope that they all write, read, paint, sculpt, knit, hike, volunteer, protest, make music, break bread, and love each other all the more in this new year.” McGuire hopes that writers, “Keep writing! I really think the country and the world needs creative writing, to show us a better way to live with each other.”
By Anika Lautenbach
Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly state McGuire as a Portland resident.