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Poetry Matters

In Honor of Barry Spacks, Poet Laureate Emeritus, 2005-07


For the past two years, Barry Spacks, creator and author of this column, has honored poets far and near, so it seems fitting to shine some light on him as he leaves his office. “He just took the ball and ran with it,” a member of the poet laureate selection committee commented on Spacks’s tenure. As new poet laureate looking for some pointers, I asked Spacks how the job was. “Busy!” he replied, with his signature chuckle, adding that he enjoyed every minute of it: giving talks and readings at schools and senior centers, planning several open-mike series for poets, organizing an extensive schedule of events for April (poetry month), and especially writing poems for various city events. One of his favorites of these was “Tree-Lovers,” written for Santa Barbara Beautiful. In the poem, which appears in his new book, Food for the Journey (to be published in August 2008), he invents a folktale of a woman who marries a tree:

Barry Spacks

It made, she felt, the best of husbands:
silent except in storms of wind,

rooted firm to be leaned upon,
never tempted to sneak down an alley

though naked
and willing to burn.

This poem speaks pure Spacks: invention and jest, wordplay, and the surprise at the end that makes you gasp and catch your breath for how he works the metaphor.

Breath plays an important part in Spacks’s work. In one of his nine volumes of poetry, The Hope of the Air, he writes in “What Breathes Us”:

We are a voice impelled to tell
where the joining of sound and silence is.

We are the tides, and their witnesses.

What breathes us likely means us well.

The concept of breath is closely tied to Spacks’s years as a practicing Buddhist. He speaks of how “mindlessness,” rather than mindfulness, inspires an “instinctual freedom : not having intent, but waiting for the gates to open, until a certain task says ‘It’s time.’” The same is true, he says, of painting-“letting the brush take the lead”-and of teaching. His writing has often been touted as “wisdom poetry,” which suggests a kind of advice-giving. This can be dangerous, Spacks says, so “a sprinkling of whimsy leavens the bread.” For example, in his poem “Snippets,” he writes:

In India a courtesan
may wear a red rose as her badge of profession.
I often wear a baffled grin.

But I bow to the words as they ease forth
from their plain black wrappers, either worth
a raising in public, or still-birth;

and I ride the surge of the moments like
a wood chip on a wave, a bike
downhill, where you daren’t slam the brake:

Spacks has recorded a CD of “Dharma poems” with the same title, as well as two others: A Private Reading, which contains 42 poems spanning 50 years of his work, and Selected Poems from Regarding Women, his book which won the 2003 Cherry Grove Poetry Prize. He is a true Renaissance man-not just an often-awarded and prolific poet, but also an artist, singer/songwriter, playwright, actor, essayist, encourager, and highly regarded teacher (for many years at MIT and UCSB in the English department and College of Creative Studies). His poetry is like a good friend you want to be with again and again for the many mysteries revealed each visit. James Baker Hall has called Spacks “the hummingbird of American poetry,” an apt metaphor for the way his quick mind probes every object and emotion, from ecstasy to sorrow, for the nectar. In “Beginning Again”-inspired by a question from the late Kenneth Rexroth, “What is it for, this labor of poetry?”-Spacks writes:

:we are the choosers reporting this realm,
all its grand displays, its flowers, its glory
declaring the world so to be in the end-
having our say, and beginning again.

Thanks, Barry, for showing up for us in all the ways you do, giving us hope about how much poetry matters.

4•1•1

Between July 5 and August 2, the great pleasure of Spacks’s vast talent and imagination can be experienced in Words on the Voice, Works on the Wall: poetry readings and selected images at Sullivan Goss, where Spacks will also read his poetry as part of 1st Thursday events on July 5 and August 2 from 5-8 pm.

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