April 12, 2016

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Source Poems: "The Singers"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Today, guest blogger Shirley Brewer invites us to join her in finding a poetic voice.

Shirley Brewer
I came late to poetry.

Granted, I considered myself a writer at age seven (fairy tales), wrote some poems in high school and college (Viet Nam, teenage angst), and used poetry with children in my work as a speech and language therapist in the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (Maryland).

Poetry became real to me on Christmas Day, 1996. I was visiting friends in Santa Cruz, California, and walked to the beach that morning with a notebook and pen.
When I returned, my friends asked me to read aloud what I had written. They pronounced me a poet and I agreed. I took two poetry classes at Anne Arundel Community College in 1997 that fueled my journey. Over these past seventeen years, I often included travel as part of my poetry studies, participating in workshops in various states, as well as in Italy and Ireland.

Ireland! In 1998, I spent two weeks in Dublin immersing myself in poetry under the guidance of Irish poets. Our guest for one session was Eavan Boland, who remains my favorite poet. That evening, she joined us at The Teacher’s Club, where she sat next to me and bought everyone at our table a drink. What a thrill!

Eavan Boland and students.
Photo: Shirley Brewer
The first book of Eavan Boland’s I purchased was In aTime of Violence, in which she explores the social and political realities of her Ireland. Her collection begins with “The Singers.” Here it is – 16 lines:

The Singers
By Eavan Boland

The women who were singers in the West
lived on an unforgiving coast.
I want to ask was there ever one
moment when all of it relented--
when rain and ocean and their own
sense of home were revealed to them
as one and the same?
                                    After which
every day was still shaped by weather,
but every night their mouths filled with
Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars
and exhausted birds?
                                    And only when the danger
was plain in the music could you know
their true measure of rejoicing in

finding a voice where they found a vision.

[This poem is published online at Stanford Magazine and Project MUSE.]

I connected with this poem in a completely visceral way. Every time I read it, I feel myself inside the poem. And I believe this poem has guided my own poetic path.

In the years I studied poetry what mattered most to me was discovering my “voice.” How would I find it? I read poetry voraciously. I still do–every day! One could become dizzy with all the voices! I began attending Peter Murphy’s annual Poetry andProse Getaways in Cape May. Excellent teachers. I slowly began to develop more confidence in myself as a writer. But did I have a voice?

To me, Eavan Boland’s poem speaks of the poetic journey–“an unforgiving coast.” Not an easy path. So much to learn, to read, to know, to weather. So much time not knowing if one is a poet at all. The desire to discover one’s “own sense of home.”

And always, it’s about filling one’s own mouth with words and sounds… “every night their mouths filled with Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars and exhausted birds.”

I often made the connection that–for 32 years–I filled the mouths of children with sounds. With my career change and early “retirement” in 2001, I realized it was time for me to focus on self-fulfillment, as risky as it was–like the dangerous weather of Boland’s poem. Time to follow my vision, to seek a more creative path. My journey brought me to Baltimore City’s Charles Village, to the University of Baltimore–where I earned my Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing/Publishing Arts in 2005–and to the vibrant poetry community that exists in Baltimore/Washington, DC/Annapolis and beyond.

I remember a poetry event at Maryland Hall in Annapolis a number of years ago. There was an intermission right after I read. I heard someone call out my name. It was the wonderful Philadelphia poet, JC Todd, who had been one of my instructors at Peter Murphy’s Getaway. She grabbed both my hands and exclaimed: Shirley Brewer, you have a voice! I’ll never forget that moment. It felt like such a thrilling validation. No matter what we surmise internally, it sure helps to receive external support. A moment to rejoice!

To have a poem inspire you early in your journey, and then serve as a companion all along the way, is the greatest of gifts.

And only when the danger
was plain in the music could you know
their true measure of rejoicing in

finding a voice where they found a vision.

Eavan Boland
from Poetry News in Review
Shirley J. Brewer graduated from careers in bartending, palm-reading, and speech therapy. She has served as poet-in-residence at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology in Baltimore County. Shirley will present "Healing Through Writing" with novelist Tom Glenn at the MWA Conference on April 26, and is scheduled to teach a poetry workshop at LitMore (Baltimore) in May. Recent poems appear in The Cortland Review, Little Patuxent Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Pearl, Comstock Review, Passager, and other journals. Her poetry books include A Little Breast Music, 2008, Passager Books and After Words, 2013, Apprentice House/Loyola University.


Patricia VanAmburg said...

A fine poem and reflection. It took me a long time to unlearn exclusion of the "I" pronoun. But even without first person, poetry needs a voice.

Linda B said...

I love hearing about your journey and this poem's voice that helped you find your own path. It's that self-reflection I heard in your words that means much.

Shirley Brewer said...

"The Singers" has always meant a great deal to me. I never thought of it as a "Source" poem until Laura Shovan issued the challenge. Writing the essay helped me clarify what this poem means - and will always mean - to me. And isn't that what poems do? Speak to us in strong and lasting and intimate ways. Thank you both, Patricia and Linda, for your comments.