"Need, Want, Live"
Discourse with a Poet
by Zoë Kirsch
Reviewing my recently conducted interview with Len Germinara, co-host of Spoken Word, Nantucket, author of Reader, Dreamer, Poet; Everything’s Jake; Quaise; and Finding a Bookstore, I mulled over how to transform the dialogue into an article. Currently, the conversation was crisply constructed – typed black against a sterile white screen in italic questions and straight answers. As I thought and pondered and ruminated some more, my eyes fell upon Germinara’s response to, “What poets inspire you?” It read:
Art isn’t about trying to be legitimized. If it’s accepted, it’s accepted. If it’s not, what does that matter? Cummings, Borges, Brodsky, and Kerouac considered thoughts and dreams and hopes of the common person. They tried to break down the academic scriptures that held people back from expressing themselves.
It’s a rebellious stance, I thought. These poets had a fierce indifference to critique and an endearingly impudent appreciation for the individual. Len is following in their footsteps.
Thus I realized. To wrap up Germinara’s words in flashy paper and place a big bow on top would be to build “academic scriptures” up around our interview. Instead, I invite you to directly interpret a Nantucket poet’s deliberate words.
This article isn’t conventional, and that’s only fitting. Len is on an ambitious quest: to write the perfect poem, one that “transcends what has been done before.” Somehow I’d hazard a guess that Germinara believes writing should be anything but recycled.
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YI: When did you first take interest in poetry?
LG: It coincided with puberty, as it does with so many, I think. I was looking for a means of expression for feelings that I didn’t quite understand. I’ve been writing ever since.
YI: When did you pen your first poem?
LG: I was probably twelve or thirteen, even a little earlier than that, maybe. It wasn’t really poetry, more lyric. I wanted to write the next great pop song. The genesis of trying to express myself, that’s probably where it was, in that era. With the advent of the power chords and the pop star, I wanted to ride that crest. That was a fantasy that I think almost everybody had.
YI: Why do you write today?
LG: [Writing] changes significantly when it becomes poetry; I wanted to write poetry well enough that it transcended what had been done before. I am looking to write the perfect poem. There are very few tangible examples of the perfect poem. Poe’s The Bells, I’d cite. I don’t think I have written the perfect poem. But when I sit down, I try to write the perfect poem, the perfect line, the perfect word to express what I’m feeling. As long as the intention is pure, if the intention is to write something transcendent, the process it generates is every bit of what you need to do as far as writing is concerned. We very rarely write the perfect poem, but if the intention is to do it, then the motive is pure.
YI: What are three words you would use to describe the process of writing a poem?
LG: Need. I need to write. I want to write. I live to write. Those are my three words: need, want, live.
YI: What is your favorite topic to write about?
LG: There’s a poet by the name of Charles Olson. He talked about writing what you see. The place is the place that you see in front of you. The thing I can’t escape from writing about is what I see, what is right in front of my face. They talk about writing what you know, and what you know is what you’re in. I write about very personal things: my wife, the place we live, the animals we share our space with, the field station where we live.
YI: Have you ventured into writing styles other than poetry? Which ones?
LG: I have tried writing fiction. I find and have been told that I’m so empathetic as to be almost saccharine in my writing. I’ve tried to write in other forms, but I feel most comfortable in poetry. I’ve taken what I’ve written in short form and long form and turned it into poetry.
YI: Do you ever follow form in your poetry?
LG: No, I don’t follow form at all. I’ve tried, and it puts me into places that I enjoyed going. I find that structure has put me in a good starting place for free form. I’ll take that sestina and turn it into a long form poem that otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to. I love to be challenged and rarely find myself confined by whatever stricture has been put forth by the challenge.
YI: Which poets inspire you?
LG: Absolutely, first and foremost E.E. Cummings. Cummings spoke about writing springing from being a painter more than being a writer. The page is a canvas and the writer has a brush—not a pen—that spoke to me. It freed me from convention. I don’t care for convention or form. I try to stay out of the box because I want to be free and uninhibited. When I got a little more nuanced in my thought, Jorge Borges inspired me. He played with language in a way so far above every other person on this earth. He set the bar so high. Then a couple of the realist poets: Brodsky and Jack Kerouac. I think Shelley said it several hundred years ago: more or less, poetry should be about the every being. Art isn’t about trying to be legitimized. If it’s accepted, it’s accepted. If it’s not, what does that matter? Cummings, Borges, Brodsky and Kerouac considered thoughts and dreams and hopes of the common person. They tried to break down the academic scriptures that held people back from expressing themselves.
Those are the people that speak to me now, and I hope that’s the answer I’ll feel comfortable with ten years from now…who knows?
YI: What is your favorite poem and why?
LG: My favorite poem is Cummings’ may i feel said he. That poem first and foremost set me up as someone who loves poems. It gets right to the heart of the matter. It is so much about first love, when you’re honest with another person. Number two would be Deathwatch on the Southside by Borges. They’re really about two different things. The first poem excited me, caught my attention, the second holds my attention as I grow into my fifties.
YI: Who has been supportive of your writing career?
LG: I think I’d have to say my wife first and foremost. From the moment we met, Sarah has been my greatest fan, my best supporter, and my editor. I have a wide variety of friends in the community, but it’s hard to separate who is supportive of my poetry and my advocacy of writing because the two pretty much go hand in hand.
YI: What do you love most about poetry?
LG: In response to that question, I’m going to cite Gregory Orr’s feelings about poetry. [Poems] have a redemptive and restorative power. That’s what I find most important, most intriguing about poetry… it has the ability to offer redemption. We’ve all got some messiness in our pasts. If we work through what happened, we find restoration. I found tangible evidence of that recently.
I have a friend, Ursula Austin. [Sarah and I] made friends with Ursula through poetry readings. Ursula was one of our two witnesses of marriage. We’ve been very close friends almost since the moment we met. She’s an old school hippie. I’m an old school hippie, too.
A year and a half ago, I sent Ursula an invitation to a poetry reading. She wrote me back that she’d be unable to attend because she had contracted cancer. We began sending poems back and forth. It wasn’t ever my intention for that to happen, but when Ursula told me about the cancer, I could think of nothing other than to send her a poem in support. She sent me a poem back, and before we knew it, Ursula was looking forward to getting my poem every day. It gave her a reason to get up in the morning. She often felt the reason she needed to get up was to see what I had written in response to her poem.
The correspondence produced a book called Healing. I’m very happy to have had poetry be such a positive influence in my life. That it helped Ursula through such a tough time is really a blessing and a joy - Ursula is so important to my wife and me. It was so out of the blue for myself. To make such a strong connection through poetry, for it to have such a tangible effect upon someone else… it still blows my mind.
YI: Can you tell us a little more about your new book?
LG: Healing is being published by Friends of Poetry. [Ursula Austin, who now teaches Tai Chi at the Atheneum, and I] just finishing up now and hope it will be out by September. The book is collaborative, redemptive, restorative, something we’ve been working on since last April. I’m very happy that it’s finding the light of day. We worked hard on it. It would have been enough if it had just gotten us through a tough time, but that it has also developed into a work of art is just that much better.
YI: How did you end up on Nantucket? When did you come here?
LG: I ended up on Nantucket in 2003. I had met my now wife, Sarah Oktay, Managing Director of the UMass Field Station. I was a crossing guard in Brockton for grade school children. Sarah used to walk past me. She saw that I was talking to children and struck up a conversation. At Christmas time, she handed me homemade cookies. I love cookies. I looked for something to give her in return. I gave her a flyer for a poetry reading I set up, and we’ve been together ever since… I often tell my friends I met my wife on a street corner in Brocton. [Laughs] Doesn’t seem true, but it is!
YI: What motivated your founding of Spoken Word, Nantucket?
LG: I feel very strongly about poetry. I wanted to advocate, make sure there was a place for poetry and poetry readings. I also felt very strongly it was something that could add value to what my wife was doing at the station – it was a way to invite people to the field station and introduce them to the wonder that is here in a way that isn’t terribly intimidating. We’ve brought a lot of people here who have lived on Nantucket for all their lives and never been out here. When you’re in a community you need to give something back. I’ve taken a lot and I think I’ve also given back.
YI: Can you talk a bit about what Spoken Word is, how often it occurs, and who participates?
LG: What we have here are poetry readings; the people that come out here are performance poets. We do poetry readings from September through May. We bring up people who are first and foremost exquisite on the page; their talent at performing is the cherry on top. We do once a month, one Sunday a month. We don’t choose the particular Sunday. That way we can accommodate people traveling through the country. We’ve been able to bring in the finest poets and accommodate quite a few people. It’s so easy to say, “Come to Nantucket!” We’ve hosted Pulitzer Prize Winner in Poetry Franz Wright, internationally known poet Jack McCarthy, famous translator and poet Clayton Eshleman, National Slam Competition Winner Regie Gibson, and leading slam poet Taylor Mali, to name a few.
YI: How has the Nantucket Community responded to Spoken Word?
LG: Spoken Word started slowly but has been steadily growing. We have a solid contingent that comes to participate.
YI: Can you talk a little about Nicole Terez, who comes to the Atheneum this Saturday, August 1st?
LG: Tom Daley and Victoria Murray referred me to Nicole Terez. She transcends as a performer; she will really knock everybody’s socks off. She has been here already and is everything you could hope for. She is going to tell the informed and the uniformed why poetry is important. When she gets finished with the stanza, you say, “ahhh.” When someone lays down a line, stanza, or poem that just hits home, there’s nothing else to say but, “ahhh.”
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This Saturday from 7 to 9 pm is Germinara’s free Teen Poetry Slam featuring Nicole Terez. Held in the Great Hall of the Atheneum, 1 India Street, this performance poetry contest is open to all local and visiting poets between the ages of 12 and 19. Prizes will be awarded for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places. The open mic session is open to all ages, and, of course, all ages may come to hear the poetry.
The 6th season of Spoken Word, Nantucket begins in September with a double feature of poets. You won’t want to miss Leah Deschenes and Victor Infante, a couple whom Germinara hails, “very respected.” He adds, “They own ferrets.”
See www.spokenwordnantucket.org for more event information, and look out for Germinara and Austin’s new book, Healing.