'Waterproof' poems seek to inspire, uplift Portland pedestrians

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PORTLAND — Pedestrians walking along Congress Street in the East End can now find the musings of Maine’s poet laureate, Betsy Sholl, encased in Plexiglas outside the main entrance of the St. Lawrence Arts Center.

“Love Song with Departure” is the inaugural poem in the Waterproof Poetry series launched by Deirdre Nice, artistic and executive director at The St. Lawrence, and Portland’s first poet laureate, Martin Steingesser.

Approximately six months ago, Nice said she was brainstorming ways to use art to uplift and inspire people.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful in these hard times when everyone is feeling the recession, to give people something uplifting, for free? And poetry is such a nice, easy way to expose people to art,” Nice said.

She approached Steingesser, who also lives on Munjoy Hill, about the idea of the poetry display, and he agreed to edit the poetry series.

“He chooses the poems,” Nice said. “My only caveat is that the poems be inspiring.”

Steingesser embraced the idea, and added his own caveats, too.

One of his goals with the series is to showcase talented, but relatively unknown Maine poets and grow their audience. Steingesser said he decided to choose poets who already have collections published, with the hopes that the “Waterproof Poems” would inspire someone to go out and buy works that are currently available at bookstores.

With a nod to the “buy local” movement, he inserted a few lines at the bottom of the poem display, suggesting readers purchase the poetry books at local bookstores, Longfellow Books and Campus Bookstore. 

“We have such a vibrant community of poetry supporters in Maine, but it is small,” Steingesser said. “This gives me the opportunity to help people be aware of the different types of literature out there that may nourish them.”

Steingesser’s first choice was Sholl, the current poet laureate.

Citing the growing popularity of the “slow food movement,” which seeks to counteract fast food and reconnect people with the natural food production, Sholl said she hopes to see a similar trend emerge within the literary world.

In an age where communication methods like texting or Twittering emphasize brevity and immediacy of a message, rather than quality, Sholl said, “we need a ‘slow reading’ movement,  and poetry is at the heart of that. As a poet, you want your poem to be rich enough to bear several readings, with the reader taking pleasure in the language and the cadence.”

Heather Gunther can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or hgunther@theforecaster.net.

Love Song with Departure

By Betsy Sholl

The ocean dips and surges in the heat,
heaves its breast, I almost said,
like any earnest suppliant at the altar of longing.

The bemused mystic who is half my mind-
well, maybe an eighth-asks why it isn’t enough
just to breathe, to sit among beach roses

beside the changing tide. If it’s all light
in the end, why not practice now, bleaching
out the shadows of the mind? Even stones

become light, you said last night, your love voice
heating up, free-falling through the atmospheres
of our desire. What I understood

was your breath falling warm on my ear,
melting my clamorous thoughts.
Did I say anything back? This morning,

watching your tail pipe’s cloud dissolve
in the air, I wanted to eat stones, dress myself
in a shark’s slinky scales that will slice

anyone who runs his hands along my thigh
the wrong way, which is any way that isn’t yours.
Tomorrow, I’ll feel the same.

(From “Rough Cradle,” Alice James Books, 2009)

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waterproof poetry 004.JPGMaine’s poet laureate, Betsy Sholl, stands beside her poem “Love Song with Departure,” displayed outside the St. Lawrence Arts Center at 76 Congress St. in Portland.