BY SETH ECKMAN
An intimate poetry reading that featured the current and past poets laureate of Lancaster County was held at Millersville University’s Ware Center on Prince Street in downtown Lancaster Wednesday evening. The laureates shared their poetry and discussed their influences to a small but engaged room of about 40 people for an hour and a half. Their work was accompanied by music, special lighting, and two monitors that showed images that were related to the poems they recited and the influences behind them. The event was hosted by the Lancaster Literary Guild and was its first event at the Ware Center. Admission was $15 at the door. For Millersville Students, it was free.
After plugging some of the Literary Guild’s upcoming events, Betsy Hurley, who runs the Guild and the poet laureate program, said, “I’m really excited for tonight. It’s more than a presentation of poetry from our three poet lauretes. It’s really an in-depth description of those people and events that have lit a path at their feet. It’s about people that inspired them and made them feel confident and free to approach writing.”
Hurley defined a poet laureate as “an individual who distinguishes themselves in poetry. Their duties include what the laureate feels most ‘called’ to do.” The duties of Lancaster’s poets laureate include writing blogs for the Literary Guild’s website, going to schools and universities to recite and discuss their poetry, and teaching poetry workshops around the county.
Lancaster’s first poet laureate was appointed in 2008. “We attained permission from the Lancaster County Commissioners to establish a poet laureate program,” explained Hurley. “Every two years in February we [the Literary Guild] accept applications for the next laureate. Each candidate submits a video reading or presentation from memory of their poetry. We also ask for published collections or typed poems.”
The laureate is then chosen by a laureate selection committee made up of about four or five people. Each laureate serves the county for two years and are paid $2,000 for their term. So far, Lancaster County has had three poet laureates: Barbara Buckman Strakso, Daina Savage, and current poet laureate Christine Longenecker. All three have had collections of their poetry published, and all three participated in the event Wednesday evening.
The first poet to speak was Strakso, who in 2008 was appointed the first poet laureate of Lancaster County. Strakso is the author of two poetry collections, 2008’s “On the Edge of a Delicate Day,” and 2010’s “Graffiti in Braille.” Among other accomplishments, her poem “Bricks and Mortar” was chosen to be engraved in Lancaster’s main square located on Queen Street in downtown Lancaster.
Speaking the longest, Strasko touched on her many influences and inspirations, those ranging from her family and Italian heritage to singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen to the city of Lancaster and to the Asian, Spanish, and American poets who had a profound effect on her when she was younger. Paintings of Lancaster, photos of her family, and a collage of Emily Dickinson were shown on the monitors, visualizing what her poetry is influenced by. “I don’t think I’m only influenced by the things I love, but also by the things that I struggle with and fight against,” said Strakso. “I began writing to protect myself, to claim myself, to preserve myself, and to celebrate the beauty of the world.”
Not only were Strakso’s influences diverse, but so was the poetry she read, which ranged from nature poems to political ones, like “Ode to the Berrigans,” a tribute to the priests who destroyed draft records during Vietnam. “You’re not the same person after you write a poem, and you’re not the same person after you read one,” said Strakso. “That’s important to me. I always want to be changing and learning and affecting change in others.”
Perhaps the highlight of the night came when Strakso read two poems that were influenced by the two sides of Lancaster County – the countryside and the city. The poems were performed with Beatrix Greiner, a local piano player. Greiner’s jazzy, lucid playing was the perfect accompaniment for Strasko’s poems, heightening the poet’s images of Lancaster.
Daina Savage, an award-winning free-lance writer for numerous regioanl publications, was the second poet laureate of Lancaster, holding the position from 2010 to 2012. Savage will have her first poetry collection, “Traces,” released this fall. A release party will take place on Nov. 13 at DogStar Books, located on Lemon Street in Lancaster city.
While Strakso shared many of her inspirations, Savage focused mostly on how nature has inspired her. “Natural landscape deeply influences my work,” said Savage, “both as a mirror and as a foil to the way we humans move in the world.”
Savage, who grew up in western Maryland around forests, great bodies of water, and mountains said, “I was influenced at an early age by the wondrous beauty that was all around me. The landscape soaked deep in my bones. It permeates everything I write and informs how I see the world.” The poems she recited, like “Traces,” “Nature Calls,” “Bare” and “Girl in the Mud Colored Raincoat,” employed vivid descriptions of animals, the changing seasons, weather, and forests. Explaining her poetry, Savage said, “I’m using language, but still getting at things that can’t be said. I’m trying to find a language that doesn’t exist, but still attempting to get there.”
The majority of Savage’s poems were accompanied by paintings of apples, trilliums, and landscapes done by local artist Rob Evans and his children, Lucas and Quinn. Savage drew parallels between what she was doing with words and what the Evans family was doing with art. “I am drawn to artists who are working with the same ideas,” said Savage, “artists who look at the world unfolding and what it leaves behind.”
Christine Longenecker, the current poet laureate of Lancaster, works at the YWCA on Lime Street in Lancaster. She published her first collection of poetry “How Trees Feel” in 2011. Fulfilling her duties as poet laureate, Longenecker will teach a women’s writing class at the local prison this year.
Unlike the other laureates, Longencker didn’t read from her notes; she had all her poems memorized. Her poems were also different from those of the others. They told stories, had a more conversational tone, employed tricky rhyme schemes, and were laced with humor. An example of this was her poem “A Family Tree,” a story told from the perspective of a tree witnessing the tension between the members of a family who live on a farm. The poem received thunderous applause from the crowd.
Longenecker noted that it was her parents who influenced her at an early age to write. “They gave me the foundation to appreciate words,” said Longenecker. “They impressed upon me all along that it wasn’t so much the words as it was the spirit behind the words.”
In addition to her parents, Longenecker stressed the importance of the mentors she’s had in her life. One of them was Jon Landis Ruth, a teacher of Mennonite history who not only helped Longenecker find direction in her life but also found her a publisher for her poetry collection. “He told me that sometimes we don’t seek a position in life, but the position seeks us,” recalled Longenecker. “I didn’t set out to be a poet or anything else I ended up doing. It was more the directions that felt right and found me.”
Regarding her development as a poet, Longenecker discussed the importance of another mentor, Robert Frost. “He has been a mentor of mine since high school,” said Longenecker. “Somehow a dead person can be a mentor, and I have learned so much about poetry from him, and about life.”
Longenecker will be returning to the Ware Center with her husband Rick for “Two Roads Converge,” an event where she’ll read the works of Robert Frost along with her own poetry, demonstrating the parallels between them.
The Literary Guild will accept applications for the post of poet laureate for next year beginning in February. The fourth laureate will be appointed in September of 2014.
To read some of Brakso’s, Savage’s, and Longenecker’s poetry, visit http://lancasterpoetry.com. For more information on Lancaster’s Literary Guild, its future events, and Lancaster’s poet laureate program, visit http://www.litguild.org/.
For information about upcoming events at the Ware Center, visit http://www.millersville.edu/muarts/venues/ware-center/.