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Stuart Kestenbaum

Tuning In

In 2016 I became Maine’s poet laureate.  It’s a non-paying five-year position with no specific responsibilities.  Having a title, though, gives me an opportunity to initiate projects that support poetry. Four years ago, I developed a radio program in partnership with Maine Public Radio and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance called “Poems from Here.”  Each week I read a poem by writers from Maine (or writers associated with Maine). To date we’ve broadcast over 200 poems. It’s a short program—only a few minutes long—and gives me an opportunity to present poems to listeners who haven’t exactly tuned in for poetry but may hear it in an unexpected place or time.

 

I want whoever is listening at the moment to experience a poem, to have it enter into the world and do what poems can do.  Shift the tone, open a window, make an image that slows down time.  Once I read a poem by Kate Barnes called “Why Do You Ask?” in which she’s in a dialog with her dog.  

                  Why Do You Ask?

I can’t make
    any story
           about my life

 

tonight.  The house
    is like an overturned
          wastebasket;

 

the radio
  is predicting
         more rain.

 

I ask my dog
     to tell me
       a story, and she

 

never hesitates
    “Once upon 
           a time,” she says,

 

“a woman lived
     with a simply
        wonderful dog…” and

 

she stops talking.
  “Is that all?”
        I ask her.

 

“Yes,” she says.
    “Why do you ask?
        Isn’t that enough?”

 

(“Why Do You Ask?” Copyright © 2003 by Kate Barnes, from Kneeling Orion. Reprinted with the permission of David R. Godine, Publisher. )

A few weeks after the broadcast, I received a note from a listener who was driving in her car when she heard the poem.  She had been distraught, on her way to the veterinarian’s office to have her dog euthanized and she was so moved by the poem that she had to pull off the road while she was listening—just what every poet would want as long as no one got hurt.  The poem, she said, helped her gain some sense of peace, and even though she didn’t consider herself a spiritual person, the experience of listening to those words brought her to a deeper understanding.  The poem continued to make its way in the world, since she then shared it with her husband and the vet, and now I am sharing it with you.  

Over the last eight months, the slot assigned for my weekly broadcast sometimes preceded the briefings from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on the Corona Virus.  Since I record the poems a few months in advance, I was asked to check if the poems would be appropriate in what felt like a period of grief for our whole human world.  I looked through the list of poems and realized that the only answer is that all of the poems are appropriate if the poets made a journey from what they thought they knew to what they discover.  In each poem we have the possibility of seeing in a new way, or of having to pull off the literal or figurative road to listen.  The poem, of course, needs not only the speaker, but the listener as well.  It’s a partnership.  And while we the listeners might be living in a dark time right now, it’s also a time when we’re ready to hear the latest news, not of the day, but of the poem.

 

Stuart Kestenbaum

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