introducing 2016's common threads program and poems

Every year Mass Poetry releases a group of poems by Massachusetts poets (living and dead) along with a guide a group of readers can use to discuss them. The guide includes audio and video presentation of the poems selected for the year. The goal is to stimulate as many groups as we can (seniors, book clubs, church groups, schools, etc.) to read and discuss the poems.  Materials for Common Threads programs are available on our site.

The following article is an introduction to this year's series of poems by our wonderful Common Threads editor, Alice Kociemba. 

Threshold is “the point or level at which something begins or changes,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  The 2016 edition of Common Threads shows how, through memory, we can cross thresholds—from past to present, self to other, real to imagined—and enter a single changed, riveting moment of insight that expands our empathy with and understanding of ourselves and our world.

Jane Hirshfield put this experience beautifully in an interview she gave to Claire Patton in the Huffington Post. Talking about her latest collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Hirshfield said, “Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways.  Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means?  Some hunger for more is in us—more range, more depth, more feeling, more associative freedom, more beauty.  More perplexity and more friction of interest.  More prismatic grief and unstinted delight, more longing, more darkness.  More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence and as also the existence of others.”

The seven Common Threads poems in this volume offer thresholds to such “altered” states. Each reader will bring to them his or her own particular experience. Yet in small group settings discussing these seven excellent, accessible, poems, participants will have their “hunger for more” satisfied in nourishing ways.

Denise Levertov’s poem “O Taste and See,” a found poem, captures the delight of a momentary sighting of a biblical verse on a subway, then leaps to myriad associations that allow the narrator to re-experience the pleasures of the body as a form of spiritual satiation.  Upon entering this poem, the reader also tastes and sees life in altered ways.

Susan Donnelly’s “Chanson on the Red Line” describes a passage triggered by an unexpected encounter with a street musician (again on the subway), which enchants the speaker in the poem: Listening to the musician, she becomes transformed from “a middle-aged woman carrying two bags” into an ageless woman who then appreciates the importance of a deeper longing and love for “anyone.”

Alan Feldman’s “The Terrible Memory” is a meditation on the inability to forget, but the poem becomes a universal experience. It never mentions the specific trauma that creates this dark foreboding, but by repeating the word terrible it evokes a haunted and surreal awareness that the past is always in the present: lest we forget.

Natasha Trethewey’s “Incident” continues this theme of traumatic memory, riveting our attention to the threat of recurrent danger.  The form she chose, a pantoum, with its four line stanzas (quatrains) that repeat in a certain pattern, hypnotizes the reader into a surreal state where even when danger is absent, its threat is always present.

Danielle Legros Georges’ poem “The List Grows” addresses the catastrophic distress of political torture.  The poet takes the reader on a terrifying journey to an almost unimaginable place of personal horror that, when it happens to one human being, happens to us all.  Though the reader is first abducted to a place of the deepest darkness, the poem concludes with an awareness of transcendent beauty.

In sharp contrast, Robert Francis’s poem “The House Remembers” creates the experience of the quiet nostalgia of home as sanctuary.  Through the poet’s use of personification (the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects), the tender tone of this poem moves us to feel how ordinary objects (feet, a threadbare sock, cold feet) convey the warmth of remembrance.

A tribute to the imagination, Seamus Heaney’s poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” invites the reader into a state of reverie.  It is a meditation on the physical reality of the body and the occasional agony it must endure, and how by focusing on something larger than one’s self, it can transcend the pain, become “self-forgetful,” and cross the ultimate threshold, into the “network of eternal life.”

Notice how the common threads of these seven poems weave a tapestry of meaning— sometimes with echoes of tone, sometimes with words: imagination, longing, hunger, terror, beauty, faces, safety, story, darkness, disappeared, forgotten, memory.  Often the threads are tied together by the quotidian—the commonplace, the ordinary that belongs to each day: tangerine, cloak, shoe, socks, fairy tale, story, flames, tongue, knees, river, name.

You, the reader, complete this selection of poems.  You are necessary.  Your reactions are important.  You bring this collection to life, by reading them aloud, whether to yourself or to others.  By speaking your thoughts, expressing your feelings, revealing your memories, you will then discover and re-discover the power of poetry to connect to others and transcend our isolation.  Poetry satisfies our hunger and longing, it liberates us with the freedom of the imagination, thereby transforming the darkness of a troubled world into the light on the other side of the threshold.

Writing about the necessity of poetry, Edward Hirsch writes in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry: “Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder… ” This is the purpose of Common Threads.  Come, taste and see—poetry in all its enchanting flavors, in all its bodily pleasures of reading these poems aloud.

Writing Prompts

O Taste and See/Denise Levertov

This is a “found poem”—a poem that is suddenly noticed in the everyday, non-poetic world, e.g., a billboard, a bumper sticker, an advertisement, a slogan.  Choose a phrase you see or hear during the day.  Describe the taste and describe it as it flows through your body outward to a larger reality.

Chason on the Red Line/Susan Donnelly

Write a narrative poem about an unexpected encounter which transforms your mood or state of mind into a receptive connection to other people.  Use a song, if possible, for a jumping off point to be able to love “anyone.”  Weave in the line; “Let me tell you the truth for once.”

Lefty/Brendan Galvin

Describe your relationship with a series of pets, real or imagined. (They could be stuffed animals you had as a child, or animal(s) you longed to have.)  Imagine the animal(s) knowing the real you and loving you anyway.  Write the story backwards, using direct address, from the perspective of “You may be my last_____”.  Use humor to underscore and lighten the love that ties man to pet and pet to man.

The Terrible Memory/Alan Feldman

Without specific details, describe being haunted by a memory, a person, or an historical event.  Consider beginning the poem with the line, “After a while, it becomes your friend.”

Incident/Natasha Trethewey

Write about a moral dilemma, and how you responded.  Now write about that same experience, but imagine what would have happened if you responded differently.  Which story would you like to be told “every year?”  Try writing a formal poem (a pantoum, a villanelle, a ghazal, a sestina) using the form’s prescribed patterns (lines, phrases, end words) to evoke the experience of being obsessed, or unresolved about the dilemma.

The List Grows/Danielle Legros Georges

Research the background and context of someone who has “disappeared.”  Use the person’s name.  Describe briefly and precisely how the person is altered or profoundly changed.  Use couplets and weave in the phrase, “I know only of your voyage/and your image after.”

The House Remembers/Robert Francis

Write a persona poem in which you ask an object (a house, a car, a yearly vacation spot) in which people congregate. Endow the object with memory or conversation, and choose a specific body part to extend the metaphor.  Provide details of as many sensory elements as possible.  Weave in the phrase, “And only then the talk could really begin…”

St. Kevin and the Blackbird/Seamus Heaney

Write a poem about an experience of sacrificing your own comfort or happiness for another’s, or use a myth or a legend to engage the imagination of becoming someone “sainted.”  Use colloquial language to engage the reader.  Try tercets or another regular stanza form.

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Alice Kociemba is the Guest Editor of Common Thread (2015 & 2016). She is the director of Calliope, a poetry reading series, with winter craft workshops, at the West Falmouth Library, now in its ninth season. For the past six years, she has facilitated a poetry discussion group at the Falmouth Public Library. Alice is the author of a chapbook, Death of Teaticket Hardware. Her first poetry collection, Bourne Bridge, is forthcoming in March 2016 (Turning Point Press).