Rhode Island Poet Laureate, 2016-2023
Rhode Island Valentine
In his essay, “Can Poetry Save America?”* fellow poet and friend, Chard deNiord, writes that “The first thing democracy requires is also the first thing poetry requires, namely, imagination.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I witness aspects of our democracy strain under the weight of strange times. As Americans, we take a lot for granted. If we look back through world history, however, it’s clear that democracy really is an ambitious product of the imagination, and one that goes against the grain of our most human behaviors and desires —like wanting everything our own way and fast. Unlike dictatorships—which move quickly—democracy can feel frustratingly slow and so very…democratic. So, when I had the honor of writing a poem for Governor Raimondo’s recent inauguration, history, democracy, and imagination were on my mind. I was also thinking about humility, because it’s a quality I believe strong leaders need and because I, myself, felt humbled by the task before me. To be honest, it was a tough gig. As a poet, who so often works in solitude, it was unnerving to compose an occasional poem and to deliver it on the State House steps at such a large event. My primary concern was getting the poem written. The pomp and circumstance only came into focus once I had finished it. When I received the script and procession instructions the day before, I confess: I broke into a sweat. I’ve spent most of my career reading poems to a handful of people in folding chairs at a bookstore somewhere, with cookies and a box of wine. I fretted to a friend via text. “Try to enjoy it,” he said, “Not a lot of poets get to do this.” True enough.
Still, I don’t usually write poetry with a broad audience in mind. And I am rarely
assured that a large number of people will hear or read my work. In this way,
"...composing the poem required me to work against my own grain, while seeking to balance my concerns as a writer."
I wanted to commemorate Governor Raimondo’s inauguration and yet, I wanted the
poem to exist outside of time—to contain no temporal markers. I thought about form—
how a short poem of brief lines would reflect the compact nature of our state, how that
minimalism might also suggest humility, how we humans are often humbled when faced
with natural splendor—like the vast waters that surround Rhode Island. I wanted people
from all walks of life to understand and connect with the poem. Or to—at least—not
hate it. I agonized.
Then I made a list. A list of words I knew I wanted to include, even if I wasn’t sure
how or why. Words like: shoreline, salt wind, indigenous, ingenious, history, liberty,
love. I cut words I love like The Apex, stuffies, and New York System. I was going for
enduring ideas and timelessness—a loftiness to honor the event and elevate the poem’s
humble form. Initially, I was intent on squeezing Bennie’s in there, but I just couldn’t
make it work.
In the end, I was left with a wisp of an ode to Rhode Island whose final lines are:
manifest not in destiny
but in a forward
flow towards love
To invoke love in the same breath as destiny risks sounding sentimental and feels,
especially in this day and age, like shouting into the wind—which is how I felt reading
on the State House steps, with those strong gusts of air whipping my hair, ready to sweep
the pages from my hand. But I had chosen to be there, and to write the poem myself.
I was nervous yet happy to be a part of history, and for my children to see me share the
stage with our Governor and our state’s public servants. It was heartening to observe the
rituals of democracy at work, to see a woman at the helm. I was also relieved to have
slipped an extra copy of the poem in my boot—just in case.
Rhode Island Valentine
for Gina Raimondo and the People of Rhode Island on the occasion
of Governor Raimondo’s inauguration, January 19, 2019
stirs the appetite
expands the mind
as each inlet
as each shore’s
tracing its way
the way waves
are in our future