Written by Catharine Bramkamp
April is National Poetry Month, so we’re interviewing a member poet!
Member Jeanne Powell is an accomplished California poet whose work has been praised by Al Young, California Poet Laureate Emeritus. She writes prose poems, flash fiction and short stage plays. For ten years Jeanne hosted an acclaimed spoken word series, “Celebration of the Word.” Celebrating the word is something Jeanne has done her whole career.
“I came to the writing of poetry later in my life. In the beginning I was attracted to spoken word events because I loved the sound of words, and the images which came to mind as I listened. I was in transition from one life to another, and poetry appealed to me. I was inspired by adult moments, and the challenges of coping with those moments.
“What helped me a lot was listening to others speak their pieces either as recitations or performances. In the beginning I did not send out poems for publication. Friends practically had to come to my home, grab poems from my notebooks and send them to prospective publishers. That’s how one of my haiku wound up in a Canadian journal, for example, and how another poem came to be published in Drumvoices Revue. When I met Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor at a reception in Oakland, I gave her a copy of MY OWN SILENCE. From that contact, two of my poems appeared in Essence. Awareness of my writing came about gradually, and probably was based more on my featured readings and the popularity of my chapbooks in the 1990s – February Voices, Cadences, and Tangerine Dance.
“Writing letters and essays came easily for me. The writing of poetry was more difficult, and I developed ability over time with a lot of trial and effort. I started with CCSF classes led by Aaron Shurin back in the day, and then attended various workshops for a while.”
She did not name herself Word Dancer. “Another poet may have called me a word dancer, and then I embraced the term. Once I decided to use WORD DANCING as the title for my collection of flash fiction, poems, and collages, the publisher chose to make the title “dance” on the cover. I did use the title “word dancer” on my Red Room literary site, now archived. My previous nom de plume was Word Doctor.”
Poetic inspiration comes to Jeanne from a number of sources including documentaries, watching people and “experiencing the moment occurring in front of me. For instance, I will hop off a cable car to attend an art show I suddenly spy in Union Square. That’s how I discovered Jesse Fry and his beautiful love poems to his late wife. I said to him, “You don’t know me but I am going to publish you,” and so I did. Or I may pause in running errands to enjoy a street musician ‘playing real good for free,’ in the words of Joni Mitchell. Of course, I remember to put a dollar in his/her jar or basket, because we all know that musicians are working when they’re playing.”
Of course, reading, something that writers do all the time, sometimes compulsively. “People have teased me by saying I read ‘everything,’ from graffiti at bus stops to descriptions of entrees on restaurant menus. Reading is magical, and I wish all people had this opportunity and this right. Perhaps one day our nation will recognize the importance of educating its citizens. Finland, Cuba and Poland all have much higher literacy rates than the United States.”
Poetry is important. “There are times when situations leave such an impression on the artist that you as artist are able to capture the righteous indignation in ways that affect most listeners. This happened with “Stop the Loss,” my performance piece about women serving in the military, and “About That Woman,” my performance piece about double standards faced by women in political life. No matter the audience, the reaction to these poems is the same – respect for the subject and tears in the eyes of those whose personal experience is echoed in either poem.
“When I wrote my current poem on gentrification, the one in TWO SEASONS, I was writing about an irritating personal experience made much worse by the sudden changes in my neighborhood due to “Silicon Valley North,” as some are calling it. I still am stunned by the nerve I touched. I receive an incredible response when I perform this piece. It should be mentioned that I’m not serious all the time. I love laughter. My sense of humor is reflected in essays like “My Big Adventure” and “My Worst Vacation . . . Ever” (in CAROUSEL). And then there are my haiku about Martha Stewart.
“This balance between the personal and the universal is instinctive in part, but it can be developed by those who are willing to walk in the shoes of others, difficult though it may be. We all know of situations where writers, singers, and actors have told the stories of others, those who did not live to tell their own or who were not free to speak for themselves.
“To get published – well, that’s a different subject. Not everyone wants to go through the time-consuming business of sending out poems for consideration by periodicals, or searching for a publisher for an entire manuscript. For some the answer is to earn an MFA at a college or university that opens certain doors; others develop their own voices in their own ways. One may enter writing contests, apply for a grant to finance a writing project, set up a literary press, begin a blog, or create a web site. For me it was important to attend and participate in spoken word events; I even hosted three different series over a period of 14 years. There are many choices with today’s technology.
Or exasperated friends may come to your home and send out your poems for you, if you’re lucky.”
Visit her website to learn more and read some wonderful poems: http://jeanne-powell.com/