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Four locals make poetry their business

click to enlarge Jim Ciletti - SEAN CAYTON

As T. S. Eliot noted in The Wasteland, "April is the cruelest month." It only makes sense, then, that April would be National Poetry Month, a celebration devised by The Academy of American Poets in 1996 to bring attention to the ancient literary art form that has enjoyed a renaissance in popularity over the past 10 years.

"The resurgence of interest in poetry is due to a combination of factors -- the amount of poetry that was appearing on TV and radio, the growth of poet laureates, the popularity of spoken word poetry," noted Charles Flowers, director of The Academy of American Poets.

"Sadly, after 9/11, you also saw a lot of people really turn to poetry for solace as a way of understanding what had happened. Even a major tragedy such as that reinforces why we turn to poetry and why we need poetry -- because it can say things that are difficult and can say it in a way that's artful."

In honor of the monthlong celebration, the Independent profiled four local poets from the surprisingly vital and diverse Colorado Springs poetry scene.

The Prison Poet

For local poet and book maven Jim Ciletti -- author of At the Crack of Dawn, a collection of poems, and two unpublished novels -- the clich that language can set you free is more than a slogan.

Since December of 2001, Ciletti has been driving to the Huerfano County Correctional Facility in Walsenburg almost every week to conduct writing workshops for inmates at the private, medium-security detention center.

"Until you leave prison, you can never get out of prison. And language is a way to get out of prison," said the pragmatically philosophical, gray-haired Ciletti as he cruised down Interstate 25 for his weekly salon in the newly created library at Huerfano, 90 miles south of Colorado Springs.

Born and raised in Washington, Penn., Ciletti trained to be a Jesuit -- a Catholic order of monks known for churning out teachers and intellectuals -- from age 17 to 23. His first mission was at the Berks County Prison in Pennsylvania "to spread the word of God." After years of teaching English, writing for film, running a film production company, raising kids, and operating a bookstore (La Dolce Vita, formerly at the corner of Tejon and Boulder streets), Ciletti has returned to his original mission -- albeit in a slightly more secular fashion.

"Now here I am at age 60, just spreading the words," said Ciletti, sleeves of his red flannel shirt rolled up past his elbows. "I don't even question it."

Man to man, writer to writer

Just east of I-25 outside of Walsenburg, the Huerfano State Correctional facility sits like a sprawling blue and gray Wal-Mart surrounded by chain-link fencing and barbed wire.

We are greeted at the entrance by Ben Mestas, a stout, Latino librarian who, as Ciletti puts it, "made the workshops happen on the administrative level" after Ciletti gave a reading at the prison and had been donating books for over a year. Mestas leads us through the cinderblock hallways and out across the muddy yard to the library -- an equally stark room made warmer by the presence of walls full of law books and some 7,000 fiction and nonfiction resource titles, all of which were donated.

As a long line of prisoners makes their way into the library after "mass movement" -- the time when prisoners are allowed to move between buildings -- a group of 14 attentive-looking inmates in dark green suits and brown work jackets take their seats around a grouping of gray plastic luncheon tables in the back corner.

There are always several newcomers to the workshop, and Ciletti reminds them of the first rule: In workshop, no one is allowed to use prison slang.

"We meet man to man, face to face and writer to writer," Ciletti said. For example, they can't use the word "cellie" for cellmate or "chow" for food. (As Ciletti explains it, "I don't treat them as prisoners. I believe it's a sickness of the system -- the slang culture.")

Second rule: No one shares their personal stories about their crimes or their religious beliefs. Ciletti emphasizes this rule so he doesn't become overly involved in their personal lives, so that the prisoners don't use the workshop to preach to each other, and so that he can't be perceived by the prison as a collaborator in the formulation of any secret plots or messages that might escape the prison with the help of a coded poem.

From the perspective of a writer, these rules would seem to violate two of the most fundamental principles of the craft: Write how you speak and write what you know. But the writers in Ciletti's workshop like the rules.

Curtis Bremer, a member of the workshop for six months, summed it up: "I don't want to get out and go to my grandma's house and say, 'Oh, is it chow time?'"

"Part of taking this class is wanting to better myself. I don't want to put myself above people," said inmate Travis Shepard, "but I want to get out of the old ruts."

Dean Gomez, an inmate at Huerfano for the past six and a half years who is about to be paroled, was more philosophical. "The class is refreshing to me. I can exercise my mind in ways I hadn't thought of. I never had the inner peace I've found in this workshop."

And it's this overriding principle of self-improvement that Ciletti hopes these writers internalize. As his frequently repeated mantra goes: "I don't believe in rehabilitation; I believe in rejuvenation."

"P.S.," adds Eric Rogers, a workshop devotee with a shaved head, long goatee and a combatively philosophical intellect, "problems can't be solved with the same consciousness that created them."

Waiting for me to come home

Ultimately, what matters most to Ciletti and the writers in his workshop is the writing:

To live in a place, a society, where there are no weekends, no "special days," no real joy and no human touch. That is the true punishment of prison.

From "Christmas in Prison"

by John Post

See my face

Shining in the moonlit night

All day long

-- Alphonzo Greer

I remember when I was six years old my mom was washing my hair with baby shampoo and I said, "I'm not a baby." And she said, "You're my baby!"

-- Benjamin Tucker

A hero don't have to be a character in my favorite book or poem

click to enlarge Malcolm McCollum - SEAN CAYTON

A hero can be someone just like you, waiting for me to come home.

From "Hero" by Curtis Bremer

Daily I fantasize

Life is the ultimate dream

My grand illusion

-- Eric Rogers

Our voices

Whether or not this workshop will effect any long-term quantitative change in the behavior or minds of the inmates who come for a few furtive moments of writerly camaraderie each week is impossible to know. But for Ciletti, the proof is in the writing. The group has just published their first literary journal, Our Voices. And in the two years since he's been making the trip to Walsenburg, he's seen great changes both in the writers he works with and in himself.

"I've gotten a lot out of giving the workshop. It's made me look at the whole person. I've grown in my own life by getting out of my own petty concerns."

Ciletti says he sees "a tremendous need in all our prisons for people to find their light side, bright side, beautiful side.

"I really believe language is a way, a portal to freedom," he said. "Words have been manipulating and shaping us from day one. Until we take power of our words, we're constantly being controlled by other voices."

The Russian

Persona Poet

Malcolm McCollum doesn't know all that much about poet and Russian immigrant Dmitri Ashkonovski other than that the man lives in Chicago and works at bookstore near the El. In fact, Ashkonovski likely doesn't exist (though McCollum can't say for sure). The only thing McCollum -- 62-year-old poet, "Chicagoan exile" and part-time teacher at DeVry Institute of Technology -- does know is that the voice of Ashkonovski has been dictating a remarkable series of poems to him for the past three years.

"His voice showed up one day when I was sitting there, writing, and I liked the voice so I kind of encouraged it to come back. I don't want to sound metaphysical about it particularly, but I really like that voice."

Persona poems -- poems written in the fictional voices of others -- have a rich tradition in world literature: T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa's dozens of personas under which he wrote reams of poems and prose are just a few examples.

At the time McCollum began "transcribing" the Dmitri poems, he tried a few of them out at the Bare-Knuckles Poetry Reading, a loose gathering of local poets organized by Aaron Anstett that reads on the third Tuesday of each month at the Underground downtown. The crowd loved it.

"I've never written anything that had such a universally positive response from people," said McCollum.

"Malcolm is a very wise and humorous poet," said Anstett, author of Sustenance, who founded of the Bare-Knuckles Poetry Reading in April of 1997. "He has a big heart, and his Dmitri poems really capture the voice of the outsider -- the fresh eyes that an outsider brings."

In a jerky diction without articles, Dmitri waxes critical about American culture from a cutting outsider's perspective:

Just Say No

When Mrs. President offer brilliant

idea,

"Just say no to drug," seem perfect.

American people love simple above all else,

except to say No. No, no, child; no, no.

If Mr. President not on drug, how could say

"No poor people in America?" Yet he say this.

Yeltsin frequent drunk, yet even he see poor.

President drug must stronger be in America.

Biggest drug, Dmitri think, to be Right.

If right, then one can sit on can,

despise all, love nobody, feel good.

Dmitri just say no to Right.

Also to Be Good All Time.

To seek this, man must become other

than man, and then monster.

Dmitri may testify to this; was monster once.

click to enlarge Zedeka Poindexter - SEAN CAYTON

Dmitri drink far too much and often.

Hurt him, hurt others, sometimes.

drink to keep from good all time,

Like pretty woman who only say No.

McCollum cites his love of Russian history and culture as well as his admiration for the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, at least in part, for the existence of Dmitri's voice. But he insists that he only "transcribes" the poems and the voice of their optimistically cynical poet whose wisdom comes from his experience of life inside the cultures of the two major 20th-century superpowers.

"Dmitri came out of one political system that pretended to all sorts of high ideals and violated them consistently, and has come to America, which also professes all kinds of high ideals and does that same thing.

"I was born about five months after Pearl Harbor and I still have quite a few memories of being alive during the Second World War. I was raised on American propaganda movies about the war and the American response to it. And I still believe wholeheartedly in the vision of this country we were selling ourselves then. So I'm just as outraged as Dmitri is about what's been done in terms of raping and spitting on that vision."

Having Dmitri around to articulate this outlook is just fine with McCollum. Though he hasn't yet found a publisher for the collection, he's been sending it out to contests and hopes that some poetry press out there will soon find Dmitri's voice as compelling as he does.

The Slam Poet

If you, like most people, find poetry to be completely pretentious, impenetrable, academic and boring, then you obviously haven't been to a poetry slam.

As 28-year-old local poet Zedeka Poindexter -- a regular at the Progression Session Poetry Slam -- describes it: "It's the pinnacle of performance and poetry."

Though it has its roots in everything from punk rock to hip-hop and the spoken-word poetry scene (noncompetitive performance poetry) that grew out of the Nuyorican Poets Caf in New York City in the mid-'70s, slam culture was more officially founded in the mid-'80s by a Chicago construction worker named Marc Smith who'd grown tired of the stultified reading he saw at open mikes and university auditoriums.

On Monday nights at a Chicago jazz club called The Get Me High Lounge, Smith and a few cohorts began to articulate a new kind of colloquial, entertainment-based poetry scene in which poets competed with each other for audience approval. And Smith dubbed these raucous poetic bar brawls slams.

As the scene evolved, explained Poindexter, it spread across the country to New York and San Francisco, where the rules of the slams became codified and cities began to compete against each other. Soon, "slam teams" were formed, and by 1990, there was a national slam competition.

Now slam can be found in bars and clubs around the world -- even on Broadway where a show called the Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam has been running for over a year to rave reviews. Now, just about anyone with the moxie to get up on stage and perform his or her writing can compete in what has been hailed as the "redemocratization" of poetry.

Here in Colorado Springs, slam poetry arrived just two years ago after Carol Horen and Kollin Luman saw slam poet Big Poppa E (Eirik Ott) perform at Colorado College in 2001.

"Carol started looking around online for poetry slam info and the Progression Session was born," said Poindexter, and it still takes place every Tuesday night at the Underground downtown.

The way a basic slam is judged, says Poindexter, is "we pick five random people and they rate how well they connected with the poem on a scale from zero to 10." Once the best poets have proven themselves, they are chosen for the local team and move on to the regional competition on their way to the nationals.

While slam poems can range from the political to the comic or confessional, Poindexter says that her poems are fictions that she channels.

"A lot of my slam pieces [are fictions]. People don't think it's something you can't do with a poem. I don't know why, but people seem to see it as a short story or a novel story characteristic. But I really love finding a subject and being able to personify that."

One of Poindexter's favorite fictional poems to perform is "APO Love Letter" -- a plaintive missive from a soldier's wife.

"It started with a co-worker of mine. Her husband is in the Army and got called up. And at the time, they had an infant -- I'm talking 6-month-old baby. And they called him up. She saw him for a couple of minutes and off he went. And she was, needless to say, not pleased for a really long time."

From APO Love Letter

No matter what my local newspaper says, you tell me all is not well

Your presence is not appreciated

And until you are here you are not safe

To my satisfaction

It isn't that I miss you

I am like those sad eyed patriots who pledge allegiances to what they

held dear and now sit around missing parts of themselves they can

almost conceive are still there when they are dreaming or drunk

My hand is over my heart too -- most assuredly for different reasons

All of us missing what was given up because someone said it was worth it

With no real proof before or after

No baby

No love

I don't miss you

Just that part that is not here when you aren't that I can still feel a

click to enlarge David Mason - SEAN CAYTON

residual ache in

I miss me

Poindexter -- who has qualified for the Colorado Springs team, the Denver team, and the Omaha, Neb., team -- plans to go back to school in Omaha for writing but says she has no plans to give up slam.

"I've become a microphone junkie -- I can't deny it. It's really, really nice to be on stage and know that you're connecting with someone because you know you've written something that, even though it's a piece of fiction, someone connected to, and they have to come up and share their story with you. It's an amazing feeling. "

The Professor Poet

Any aspiring 21st-century bard who dares confess her passion for verse to a stranger must endure the pregnant pause that precedes the inevitable question: So what are you going to do, teach?

William Carlos Williams, a doctor, plied his poems between house calls. Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman by day. Walt Whitman worked as a journalist for many years. Allen Ginsberg worked for a time at a public relations agency.

But since the rise of the college writing workshop in the last 50 years, a new breed of "professor poets" have indeed sought to carve out stable careers for themselves in academia. As such, the "profession" of poetry has become synonymous with teaching English and leading writing workshops.

Colorado College professor David Mason is such a poet. Not only has he taught college-level English for the past 15 years, he also co-edited several anthologies including the highly controversial anthology Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism and the recently released Twentieth-Century American Poetry. He is also the author of three volumes of poetry including The Buried Houses, The Country I Remember and, earlier this year, Arrivals.

Beginning in Greece -- where Mason spent 1997 on a Fulbright scholarship -- Arrivals invokes the spirit of Homer, the Greek father of Western literature, casting the narrator as a kind of rootless, latter-day American Odysseus trying to find his way home in the ruins of a world ruled by amnesiacs.

THE CITY

After the Greek of C. P. Cavafy

You said: "I'll go away to another shore,

find another city better than this.

In all I attempt, something remains amiss and my heart -- like a dead thing -- lies buried.

How long will my mind stew in all its worry?

Wherever I cast my eye, wherever I look,

I see the ruins of my life turn black

here where I wasted and wrecked many a year."

You won't find a new land or another shore.

This city will follow you, you'll molder

in these streets, in these neighbor hoods grow older,

and turn gray among familiar houses.

You'll always end here -- don't hope for other places --

there is no ship, there is no road for you.

Now that you have decided you are through

with this place, you've wrecked your life everywhere.

"I think damn near everything I've written is about rootlessness," said Mason, who sees the condition as both acutely personal and more broadly American.

This theme of cultural dislocation takes on an ominously social tone in the second part of the book in a long narrative poem called "The Collector's Tale."

Written in a manner reminiscent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "The Collector's Tale" is a cautionary story within a story about a collector of Native American artifacts who becomes the confessor to another boozing collector (himself a Native American). In the ghastly climax to the tale, the inebriated man tells his colleague about yet another collector who has shown him the most horrifying artifact he could ever have imagined:

I look inside his cupboard and it's there

all right -- a black man's head with eyes sewn shut --

I mean this fucker's real, all dried and stuffed,

a metal ashtray planted in the skull.

I look and it's like the old man's nodding,

Yeah, yeah, you prick, now tell me this is nothing.

This poem -- a ghoulish tale of social horror in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe -- exemplifies what sets Mason apart from so many of his professor-poet peers: the ability to transcend the narcissistic, elegiac tone that has become de rigueur among university bards (think New Yorker poems) and write accessibly without condescending to explanation.

"I actually believe in poetry as social engagement," said Mason, quick to add that he doesn't care to indulge in the kind of preachy, maudlin sentimentalizing that frequently characterizes poetry posing as social activism.

Rather than ranting about racial inequality, for example, Mason deftly allows the black man's head in "The Collector's Tale" to stand in forcefully for society's fetishization of the minority cultures it oppresses without trying to stand outside it.

Though Mason once lumped himself in with the so-called "New Formalists" -- a grouping of writers (including his close friend Dana Gioia, who is currently serving as chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts) bent on reviving more traditional poetic forms -- he is now reluctant to put a label on his writing. Rootless and dark though they may be, the voices in Mason's poems are, as his poem "A Float" says:

"Netless, maybe. Uncaught,

unreachable in this room."

  • Four locals make poetry their business

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