General 7-9-2007

Poetry Floats

The Vista Fleet (an enterprise of the Goldfine family, arts patrons in Duluth) has partnered with the Lake Superior Writers group and others for waterborne writing and artmaking. Read on for Ellen Sandbeck’s account of the first of these adventures.


On the evening of Sunday, June 24th, I, along with dozens of aspiring writers and poets, large and small, embarked on the First Ever Poetry Cruise (with dinner), named “Pasta for Poets” for obvious reasons. I’ve lived in Duluth for 23 years and have never taken a sightseeing cruise. I likely never would have if not for this event. So I wasn’t expecting much more from the boat ride than free spaghetti.

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed myself enormously. That Sunday evening was lovely, and the lake breeze was refreshingly cool after the uncannily warm temperatures that day (The Vista Fleet may be one of the businesses that will eventually benefit from global warming). As our motley crew of happily relaxed aspiring writers steamed out of the harbor and under the Aerial Lift Bridge, we returned the waves of dozens of fascinated onlookers. It was quite heartening that so many admirers of poetry had turned out to see us off, and many of us graciously bestowed our grandest versions of “The Rose Parade Queen’s wave” upon these intelligent fans.

But poetry is of the moment, and so are poets; as soon as we left the ship canal and headed out to lake, we forgot about those we had left behind and concentrated on the business at hand: the pasta buffet. It was decent, as such things go, but the scenery from the big windows was wonderful. After the Vista (King? Queen? Knave? I hadn’t read the stern before boarding) left the ship canal, it turned port for a short distance along the shore to the northwest of the canal, then headed out to (inland) sea as far as Leif Erickson Park, then made a starboard turn and headed along the coast of Park Point, at seven miles the world’s longest sandspit. Our trusty Vista thing followed the Park Point shoreline all the way to the eastern entrance to the harbor. We steamed through the canal that divides the end of Park Point from Wisconsin Point, then headed back toward the boat’s home dock.

After the pasta repast, the poetics began. Two seasoned poets, Cal Benson (retired English teacher, creative writing instructor, and active poet), and Sister Naomi Tamar (whose business card reads: “Prophetess * Poetess* Motivational Speaker* Spoken Word Artist* Prayer* Spiritual Counseling* Resource & Referral”) had been signed on to lead the festivities. And eight of the nearly two dozen children on board had signed up to read their own poems. You could have cut the anticipation with an oar. I already knew Cal Benson, but I had no idea what to expect from Sister Naomi.

Sister Naomi is a big, brown, elegant, charismatic woman with a deep, melodious voice, who read, sang, hummed, chanted, orated, and preached her poems, “Soul Food,” “Big Mama,” Big Mama Remix,” and “Africa.” Her poetic voice ranged from the colloquial to perfectly enunciated King’s English. The dichotomy between Sister Naomi’s warm, melodious charisma and the cool northern landscape outside our picture windows was truly startling, as if an avatar of Mother Africa had suddenly materialized in the middle of a Norwegian fjord. The title “Prophetess” suddenly began to make sense to me.

Cal Benson began his segment with a wry: “That’s an act to follow!” And he was right. She was. She is a force of nature, and he is an accomplished, sophisticated poet who reads like one. Benson’s poems are well crafted and engaging, but a Prophet he is not.

After the pros finished, it was the childrens’ turn. The eight junior poets who had signed up to read took turns. If I were one of the aspiring adult poets on the voyage, I would have been intimidated, very, very intimidated. (Luckily for the poetry-reading world, I am not an aspiring poet.) These kids were serious about their craft, and they were good. The young Billman brothers had prepared notably sophisticated works: Billman the Elder’s poem was a cinquain about a piano, and Billman the Younger’s offering was an acrostic poem about camping. Another notable poem (a rhymed, romantic one about Atlantis, somewhat reminiscent of Blake) was read with admirable feeling by a young lady whose name I did not catch because I never learned to do shorthand.

Once the prepared poetry had been read, the group was segregated by age. The juveniles went downstairs with Sister Naomi, while the mature specimens stayed put with Cal Benson, who started us off with this statement: “Abstract is bad. Concrete is good. You can’t touch honesty or smell honor.” (This leads me to wonder whether dogs actually can smell honor, and if so, how this ability affects canine poetry?)

He then led us through a series of exercises intended to get our poetic juices flowing: “Pick a place mentally to be. Step through the area, step on it.” (I found myself on our home trail and contemplating a mossy boulder, while a mosquito landed on my arm and our old dog walks down the trail while shitting: “God damn it, Tulie! Stand still!”) After a time warning and a few more minutes, we began another exercise: “Look out a window. What do you see? (I looked out the window of our first home, and saw the neighbors’ birdfeeder with a rat on it, the neighbors’ window being slid open, and a .22 rifle stealthily poked out. A sudden pop! and the rat fell, shot through the head. I was always grateful for Dave’s WWII sniper’s training.)

These exercises are quite effective, but Sister Naomi’s honeyed voice was floating up through the floor, and I suddenly remembered that I was on assignment. I snuck out the door and headed downstairs to the children’s workshop where the poetic children were completely absorbed in their endeavors. The cruise was nearly over. Sister Naomi thanked the children for coming, told them quite sincerely and truthfully that they all have potential, that they should draw inspiration from their surroundings, that they should write about personal things, and that they all have potential. Then something truly amazing happened. The children, unbidden, brought her their poems and she read them aloud. Even the seven-year-old’s poem sounded epic. (Sister Naomi often performs her poetry at Amazing Grace in the DeWitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park on the second Wednesday of the month. Be there or be square.)

Before we disembarked, I talked to Jeff Nelson, who was shepherding a dozen children. I was surprised to learn that he was neither a teacher nor a camp counselor, but simply a father whose daughter has a serious interest in poetry. Nelson wanted to find other poetically inclined children who might be interested in the cruise, so he contacted several teachers, asked for names of children who were interested in poetry, then called their parents. The result was a happy little flock of young poets.

All in all, this was a remarkable event! And more events are planned: “Paint the Harbor” will leave the dock at 6:30 pm on August 27, bearing a pasta dinner catered by Savories, and a load of guest artists who will conduct a painting clinic and workshops. A Photography Cruise is also in the works, date TBA.