Can poetry save your life? Literary Witnesses thinks it can

Photo by Matt Valentine
Gregory Orr, above, and Sam King will discuss “Can poetry save your life?” in the Guild Hall on Sunday, April 8.

It’s National Poetry Month. Who cares? What good is poetry, anyway? Poet Gregory Orr believes it can save your life.

When Orr was 12, he shot and killed his own brother in a hunting accident. Two years later, his mother died after a routine surgery. When Orr was 18 and a volunteer for the civil rights movement in the South, he was beaten by police, abducted by vigilantes and held in solitary confinement for eight days in rural Alabama. Very, very rough times.

In his book-length essay “Poetry as Survival,” Orr wrote, “These various experiences gave me a terrifying sense of how fragile human life is, how easily and quickly people can vanish.”

Poetry – specifically lyric poetry, the poetry of the personal – got him through. It has done the same for Susan Deborah “Sam” King, who survived a hellish childhood and founded the Literary Witnesses poetry series at Plymouth Congregational Church in 1998. And for Jim Lenfestey, who has chaired the committee that runs the series since 2003. “Sam coined the name of the series as an echo of what poetry can do to witness our mysterious problems of living,” Lenfestey said in conversation earlier this week. “Poetry is a part of how she’s upright on this planet.”

A few years back, King gave Lenfestey a copy of Orr’s book. This weekend, Orr, King and Lenfestey will meet at Plymouth for Literary Witnesses’ 20th anniversary.

A stellar series

It’s a big deal in our local literary world. For 20 years, Literary Witnesses has brought prominent national and regional poets to the progressive church on Nicollet Ave. Five U.S. poet laureates have appeared in the series: Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Ted Kooser, Charles Simic and Tracy K. Smith. Two Nobel Prize winners were scheduled. When Wislawa Szymborska and Tomas Tranströmer were unable to come in person, others stepped in to represent them.

More poets who answered the call include Ashley Bryan, Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Louise Erdrich, Galway Kinnell, Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Patricia Smith, Sherman Alexie, Marilyn Nelson, Gary Snyder and Linda Pastan. And Robert Bly, of course. At a Literary Witnesses event in 2015, Bly gave what would be his final public reading, surrounded by friends. 

Jim Lenfestey
Photo by Larry Marcus
Jim Lenfestey

Every event has been free except one. “The only time we charged was for Mary Oliver, because her fee was so high,” Lenfestey said with a laugh. “It sold out. We filled every seat and could have filled more.” Poetry readings aren’t known for pulling huge crowds, but Literary Witnesses has done that several times. 

The big readings are held in the sanctuary, which seats 800 people, 1,000 if they squeeze together in the pews. Hello, we’re talking poetry here. “For Ted Kooser, who had just won the Pulitzer, the place was completely packed,” Lenfestey said. (Kooser is the current U.S. poet laureate.) Same for Lucille Clifton, Galway Kinnell and Gary Snyder. We sat in the very back of the choir loft for Snyder.

Poets like reading in the Literary Witnesses series. “When Galway Kinnell was here,” Lenfestey recalled, “he did a remarkable thing. He was about halfway through his reading when he paused and said, ‘I just have to remark on the quality of listening here. I’ve never experienced anything like it.’ There is something about our audiences. It definitely has to do with the high literacy of the people in our part of the world. It has to do with the hush of a sacred space. People put the two together without it ever being spoken.”

Literary Witnesses has always been small but mighty. Just three events per year: major national poets in the fall and spring, and a major regional poet in the winter. The Literary Witnesses committee raises the money to pay the poets, and Plymouth provides the space. 

The church and the arts

Plymouth is known for its commitment to the arts. The Literary Witnesses committee is part of its fine arts board. The church also houses the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center and its theater, home to Youth Performance Company. It has an art gallery. There’s art throughout the buildings. The head of its music program is famed choral leader and organist Philip Brunelle; the internationally known VocalEssence was born there and is based there. 

Hawona Sullivan Janzen
Hawona Sullivan Janzen

Literary Witnesses also has a long relationship with Birchbark Books, which handles the book sales and signings after the readings. Rain Taxi Review of Books is a co-sponsor.

For Lenfestey, 15 years in – actually longer; he worked with King on the original committee before becoming the chair – the series has been a labor of love. This weekend, he’ll pass that on to someone else. Hawona Sullivan Janzen is a poet, Plymouth member, founding curator for the U’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), Rondo native and, in Lenfestey’s words, “a dynamo.” 

How the weekend will go

On Sunday, April 8, at 10:30 a.m. in the sanctuary, Sam King, Jim Lenfestey and Hawona Sullivan Janzen will share the pulpit. At noon after the service, King will read from her own work in the chapel. A writer, teacher, and national leader of groups on creativity and spirituality, she has written four books of poetry. At 4 p.m., King and Gregory Orr will discuss “Can poetry save your life?” in the Guild Hall. A reception will follow.

Sam King
Photo by Chris Bohnhoff
Sam King

On Monday, April 9, at 7 p.m. in the sanctuary, King will introduce Orr, who will read from his works. Orr has written more than 11 books of poetry and criticism. He founded the creative writing program at the University of Virginia and is the former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. A reception will follow.

One of Lenfestey’s last official duties as chair was to compile and edit a book called “Fresh Testaments/2,” a 20th anniversary anthology of Literary Witnesses. A limited number of copies will be available for $15, with proceeds supporting the third decade of the program. A letterpress broadside of a poem by Orr will be available at his reading on Sunday.

All events are free and open to the public.

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