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Discussions with Tod Marshall: poetry & social justice, Irish poetry, spoken word, and National Poetry Month

Posted on February 25, 2017 at 6:00 am

by Erin Dodge

Poetry can sing us a song, open us to a moment, inspire us to reach higher and go further.

Washington State Poet Laureate and Gonzaga University professor Tod Marshall leads a poetry discussion series at Spokane County Library District in March and April. Each event has a casual atmosphere where everyone is welcome to hear poems and discuss the influence and impact of poetry on our communities.

I reached out to Dr. Marshall to learn more about this and the poetry discussion series at our libraries. Here’s our online interview:

Erin Dodge: What poem or poet sparked your love for poetry? What about poetry made you choose it as your life’s work?

Tod Marshall: Well, I’ve always been a reader—going back to childhood books like The Great Brain series and Tolkien. I became obsessed with poetry late, though. A great teacher in college asked me to focus a little bit more on the delightful sounds poetry makes rather than making immediate sense of a poem (some poems are difficult, some simple, nearly all engage with how language can be musical). Hart Crane’s The Bridge—incredibly challenging—woke me up to the music of poetry, and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve continued to be enthralled by poetry because of the many directions it shares with other art forms: song, story, theater—all can manifest themselves in a poem.

ED: You’re leading a discussion on Poetry and Social Justice, specifically the voices that announced Black Lives Matter long before the movement. How do you see the relationship between poetry and social justice? Does poetry have the power to incite change, to empower, to change minds?

TM: I believe that art nearly always arises from an intense engagement with the world. For those who feel, see, hear, who intellectually engage with the world, it’s very difficult not to be affected by social problems, the ways we treat one another. That impact can lead specifically to works of art in response to various injustices—Dickinson writing on the civil war, for example, or, more appropriate to my talk, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and June Jordan writing about the mistreatment of Black people in our country. Those works can and have incited change—from Thomas Hood’s “Song of the Shirt,” memorized by millions as an early labor movement poem, to Hughes’s poems, to hip-hop lyrics in the 80s: all of those texts made people think about who they were, who they wanted to be in relationship to an injustice. That’s important.

ED: At Spokane Valley Library in March, you’re discussing Irish poetry through history. The Limerick may be the first thing to come to mind for many when they hear the words “Irish poetry.” What else should come to mind? What can we discover from the Irish poets?

TM: Ireland has an incredibly rich history—both in poetry and fiction. I had the chance to teach for Gonzaga in Ireland last summer, and Irish culture is one in which the word—written and spoken—is revered. Here is a short list of Irish poets to investigate: William Butler Yeats, Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Tony Curtis, Theo Dorgan, Mary O’Malley, Paul Durcan, John O’Donohue, to name only a few. Politics and poetry (Ireland, of course, existed under British oppression for centuries) are as relevant to Irish poetry as they are to questions of civil rights in our nation.

ED: What would you say to someone who dismisses slam and spoken word poetry as a literary novelty?

TM: I would urge them not to dismiss any art form: one of the great things about poetry is all of the various ways that it’s been pursued: from spoken word to haiku, opaque modernist collages (The Waste Land) to poignant and accessible lyrics (Mary Oliver), from long narratives (Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy) to epic romps (Byron’s Don Juan), poetry has found form in so many different ways. So, I definitely think that spoken word, slam, song lyrics are important poetic modes, and it’s great that these modes have connected with many young writers and listeners.

ED: April is National Poetry Month, and you’re leading a discussion about poems that can save our lives. Would you share a little bit about the ways you see poems saving someone?

TM: Sure.

so much depends
upon
.
a red wheel
barrow
.
glazed with rain
water
.
beside the white
chickens
.

This strange and seemingly tossed-off poem is enigmatic in the best of all possible ways. Let me try to explain how—first, it was originally published as part of a book, Spring and All, that has, at the center of its argument, an enthusiastic advocacy for attention to the “eternal moment.” This phrase is something that William Carlos Williams thought integral to shaping a new and energetic verse that would reconnect us with the fleeting world around us—and, to his mind, what else should art do? The image is vivid (the tactile sense of the “glaze” of rainwater, the brilliant colors, “red” and “white”), but the crux of the poem, how it can “save our lives” has to do with the opening: “so much depends / upon.” We realize after reading the poem that the concrete image of the latter part of the poem is not the important stuff: the crucial moment happens when we ask ourselves, why does so much depend this image? Why does so much depend upon any image? And then it hits us—these images, these glimpses of the “eternal moment” are what our lives are made of, are what our being in the world is all about. So much depends upon red wheel barrows and icy sidewalks and pigeons on a telephone line; so much depends upon upset babies in strollers and their parents trying to calm them down; so much depends upon rusty old Buicks and silly yellow bananas. So much depends upon our tuning in to our lives and noticing the world rushing away from us at an amazing pace.

ED: What poets are you reading right now? What poets do you think are essential reading during times of political dichotomy and turbulence?

TM: I’m reading history books on the Holocaust. Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning is exceptional. I’m reading Kathryn Neurnberger’s new collection of poems, The End of Pink. She’s wonderful. Not much time to read, though—busy, busy!

The Tod Marshall Presents Poetry series:

POETRY & SOCIAL JUSTICE:
Voices That Announced Black Lives Matter (long before the movement)
MORAN PRAIRIE
Tuesday, Mar 14, 6:30–7:30pm

NEVER TOO MUCH OF THE GREEN:
Irish Poetry Through History
SPOKANE VALLEY
Thursday, Mar 16, 6:30–7:30pm

SLAM & SPOKEN WORD:
The Future of Poetry?
CHENEY
Wednesday, Mar 29, 6:30–7:30pm

NATIONAL POETRY MONTH:
Six Poems That Can Save Your Life
NORTH SPOKANE
Wednesday, Apr 5, 6:30–7:30pm

Tod Marshall Presents Poetry is supported by Humanities Washington and Washington State Arts Council.

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Dr. Tod Marshall

Photo: Amy Sinisterra

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Tod Marshall, a poet and professor at Gonzaga University, is serving as the Washington State Poet Laureate from 2016–2018. He succeeds poets laureate Elizabeth Austen (2014–2016), Kathleen Flenniken (2012–2014), and Sam Green (2007–2009). Dr. Marshall is the author most recently of Bugle (2014), which won the Washington State Book Award in 2015. He is also the author of two previous collections, Dare Say (2002) and The Tangled Line (2009), and a collection of interviews with contemporary poets, Range of the Possible (2002).

 

Erin Dodge

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