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Nassau County Poet Laureate Report 2008

Nassau County Poet Laureate’s First Annual Report

Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr.

Poet Laureate, Nassau County, New York
June 24, 2008

June 24, 2007, I was made Nassau County Poet Laureate by acclamation of poets gathered at Cedarmere, home in Roslyn Harbor of the 19th Century poet, William Cullen Bryant. “I am making Nassau County into an open classroom for poetry!” I said in my acceptance speech and cited three approaches to accomplish is goal.

. 1. A Renaissance of Children’s and Young People’s Poetry — Kindergarten through the senior year in high school.

2. Outreach to the public to assure them everybody has the ability to enjoy a good poem. Also, to advise people, do not let concern for the meaning of a poem get in the way of enjoying the language of a poem.

3. Expand our resource of poetry about Long Island’s natural and human history. Walt Whitman was an early poet doing this, but with our large number of excellent Long Island poets we can heap up a wonderful treasury of poems with great language about our salt marshes, beaches, Pine Barrens, etc.

Young People

First regarding our young people, I believe everyone has the potential to be creative because part of our human condition is creativity. We express this profoundly and powerfully through our artistic instrument, the language. We can be especially moving when we use poetry. That is why some writers become poets, to have the opportunity to evoke feelings, intensely and strongly. Poets do not write to deliver messages, poets write to inspire and stir feelings.

In September, with the Nassau County Poet Laureate Committee, I will be launching my Nassau County Poet Laureate School Poetry Writing Contest, a student poetry writing contest like no other. Why? We have been developing this contest based on our conviction that students in the elementary, middle and high schools can create poetry that qualifies as literature.

Susan Astor, Mineola, Poet-in-the-Schools for 26 years, and consultant to the Nassau County Poet Laureate Committee,* tells us “Children’s poems are examples of poetry in its purest form — well-condensed, well-detailed, emotionally intense and frequently lyrical. Like all literature, they provide meaningful insights into the human condition. Some of the finest literature today is being written in the classroom.”

Enjoy the literary language of Jack Trested, a third grader at the time he wrote this mermaid poem in 2007.

The mermaid sings like
a quiet humming in the night
graceful music
splashing the water with her tailfin

her long hair blowing in the wind
humming quietly in the night.

Jack Trested was one of three third grade students at Meadow Drive Elementary School (Mineola Public Schools), whose poems I read at my induction as Poet Laureate, the others being Erica Sais and Michel King, all taught by Ms. Astor when visiting their school as Poet-in-the-Schools. As a result of my reading their poems. the school’s principal, Pat Molloy, appointed the three as Poet Laureates of Meadow Drive Elementary School!

“If funding is obtained,” says Judy Turek, East Meadow, in charge of the contest as the Committee’s School Project Chairperson,” the culmination of the contest will be a literary anthology of poems by Nassau County students. We think this publication will be a first in American culture — a book of literature, poems by students in all grade levels. We hope to have the anthology available for our awards ceremony on April 26, 2009 at 2 P.M. at the Freeport Memorial Library, Freeport.”

I have been carrying Ms. Astor’s message to students about their being potential literary artists in keynote addresses at induction ceremonies of the W. T. Clarke High School (Westbury) and Mepham High School (Bellmore) Chapters of the National English Honor Society. Also, to English teachers at a Superintendent’s Conference in the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District and the Second Annual Social Studies and English Educators Conference organized by the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Hofstra University.

Outreach

For our public outreach, more time is required to get this effort underway, but we hope to do so this fall. Beverly Kotch, Merrick, is taking on the effort as Chairperson for Outreach. Over the past year Ms. Kotch has contacted several organizations whose leaders asked for more time to think about this new idea. She and Ursula Nuzzo continue to contact various Long Island organizations. .We plan to approach these organizations again with regular meetings for which they seek programs: service clubs, house of worship clubs, garden clubs, etc. Why not engage a fine Long Island poet? Our Nassau County poets are a resource for unique, interesting and inspiring programs that can entertain, instruct and delight audiences.

Natural and Human History

We envision natural and human history organizations as good possibilities for inviting our poets to read their work and tell the ways people can enjoy the poetry they are hearing about the nature or history they love. Why? Because a lot of natural history poetry has and is being produced  by the Long Island Community of Poets. More poetry writing about our human history is being encouraged.

Long Island poets writing about nature have an extraordinary resource in the incredible diversity of the Island’s plants and animals. Four hundred and sixteen species of birds, almost half the number, 858, recorded for the lower 48 states by the American Birding Association; 29 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, including at least one West Indian Manatee, more marine mammals than in any comparable extent of waters on the two coasts. Eighty-eight species of trees, almost half of New York State’s 180 species.

We have a working example of how Long Islanders have been making use of our natural history resources. These are the semi-annual prairie poetry writing workshops conducted the first Saturday in May and September on the Hempstead Plains, Garden City, sponsored by Friends of Hempstead Plains at Nassau Community College, Inc. These are the times when two lovely and endangered flowers are peaking, the Birdsfoot Violet in Spring and the Sandplain gerardia in late Summer. Both flowers stand surrounded by small protective fences. Always there is a theme, the one for 10 A.M., Saturday, September 6, being prairie soil with naturalist-poet-educator Thomas Allen Stock, Manorville, giving the presentation.

Who would have thought there could be a chapbook of poems about a Long Island prairie? Who knows Long Island had a prairie? Hardly any one knows there were 70,000 acres of prairie like those in the West. Prairie grasses swayed in winds coming off the Atlantic: Switchgrass, Little Bluestem, Broomsedge. What is left is a l9-acre field being restored to its original vegetation by Friends of Hempstead Plains at Nassau Community College, Inc. From these 19 acres has come the chapbook, “Friends of Hempstead Plains Anthology of Poetry,” edited by Barbara Reiher-Meyers. Wonderful poetry as in the following by Paula Camacho, Coordinator, Nassau County Poet Laureate Committee:

Prairie on Long Island

No buffalo, no sheep, no cattle
Only a herd of warm season grasses
Bluestem, Switchgrass, Broomsedge.

They roam between prairie
Primrose, Wild Mustard, Goldenrod,
Indian Hemp, Birdsfoot Violets.

No longer collected in Indian Harvest
The wild indigo perseveres on Hempstead Plains
Their color silently contained.

Lichen hug the ground, green and red
Pick out spots on the plain, this home
To nature‘s stars, fenced in like celebrities.

That‘s Long Island!

In March, I conducted the first of what will be an annual Harbor Seal Poetry Writing Workshop for 15 poets at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at Jones Beach State Park. This started with a naturalist lecture for the poets to write notes, then a guided walk along the bay shore where we saw some of the 40 to 50 seals that have been bobbing up their big, gray look-around heads there for many winters.

We added another creature to Long Island’s menagerie, albeit a folk animal.  — selchies. According to folklore of the British, Irish and Scot shores, selchies can shed their seal-skins on the land and pass for humans.

“I am a man upo’ the land
I am a selchie on the sea. . .”

The poets wrote selchie poems. Alice Melzer of Port Washington started reading hers, “A Secret Waterproof Sack.”–

Stiff whiskers twitching,

in the Hebrides,

bobbing, breathing, living. . .

“Wait,” I said. “Substitute a Long Island site for the Hebrides.” She did.

Stiff whiskers twitching,

In the Great South Bay,
bobbing, breathing, living,

in Long Island Sound

We hunt the flat shinnies.

Unaware of our trap,

their frenzy fills our bellies.

Discreet on moonless nights,

covertly, carefully I fold,

my translucent membrane,

into its waterproof sack.

Memories of being a Silkie-seal,

drip like sunlit water pearls.

On land, I am human again

A fragile lurking, loving, being,

Hiding hunting for other things.

I am a Sule Skerry Silky

Alice Melzer
Port Washington

Now we are encouraging salt marsh poetry for the Long Island natural history build-up, these wetlands being essential habitats. This got a start about four years ago at Cedarmere with a round-robin participatory reading of salt marsh poems. This continues in October. We will be sending a package to natural history organizations suggesting that they do the same, scheduling field trips with a sheath of poems that we will provide. I am scheduling a salt marsh poetry writing workshop at Nassau County’s Cow Meadow Preserve in Freeport.

My appearance before one of the program sessions (about 25 people attended) at the 33rd Annual Long Island Library Conference, May 8, in Woodbury, was a focusing of what I have been telling people throughout my first year that everybody can enjoy a good poem and on Long Island they have hundreds of poets producing marvelous poetic language. In fact I say that the Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Poet Laureate and the other major literary honor winners are excellent — Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Billy Collins , etc. They write as well as the Long Island poets — and this is the truth!

I told the audience that our libraries can let people know that there is this Community of Long Island Poets as we are referring to ourselves. I wanted to let the librarians know that we poets are living among them, using the same libraries they are using. Poets who are publishing and self-publishing attractive books and chapbooks (the latter being small volumes of poetry), hard-cover, clothbound and paperbacks — volumes of wonderful poetic language, books and chapbooks that are appearing virtually weekly. Some published, most self-published. That is the practice now — we don’t wait for the publishers. We self-publish our books, hard cover and paperback. They are attractive and offer fine literature. This is what I wanted librarians to know so that the shelves can be cleared of barriers against self-published books and chapbooks.

Frank McKenna, Director, Island Trees Library, who made my appearance possible, chaired the session. The session was preceded by Jeffrey Feinsilver, Chairperson, Intellectual Freedom Committee/NCLA, presenting a certificate to Nassau County Legislator Wayne Wink for his courage in casting the lone vote for me when the Legislature’s Government Services and Operations Committee voted me down as the County’s first Poet Laureate because of my chapbook, “Iraq and Other Killing Fields,” which criticized the Iraq War.

For what I have been able to accomplish I am indebted to the members of the Nassau County Poet Laureate Committee: Paula Camacho, Farmingdale, Coordinator; Beverly Kotch, Merrick, Outreach Chairperson; Maria Manobianco, Farmingdale, Outreach, Public Relations; Ursula Nouza, Syosset, Outreach; Judy Turek,  East Meadow, School Project Chairperson.

Thus my first year as your Nassau County Poet Laureate. I and the Nassau County Poet Laureate Committee are working to have a great report to give you, June 24, 2009.

Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr.
Poet Laureate
Nassau County, New York

4 Responses

  1. Congratulations to you. :-) I received a flyer about the contest and put it on our library’s Young Adult blog. Hope the contest is a success!

  2. […] So, we have one of those.  His name is Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr. […]

  3. I haven’t gone to a poetry reading in awhile. I really need to, thanks for the reminder.

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