James P. Lenfestey Featured at Santa Barbara Poetry Series

Whimsical and Wise

James Lenfestey

The second Santa Barbara Poetry Series of the season welcomes Minneapolis poet James P. Lenfestey, cofounder of the Ojai Poetry Festival, as he makes his way around Southern California to promote his latest book, A Cartload of Scrolls: 100 Poems in the Manner of T’ang Dynasty Poet Han-shan (Holy Cow! Press, 2007). Lenfestey will read his poems on February 2 starting at 7 p.m. at Contemporary Arts Forum, along with regional poets Christine Kravetz and Beth Taylor-Schott.

As the story goes, in 1974 when Lenfestey was running an alternative school in Minneapolis, he discovered a book of Han-shan’s poetry translated by Burton Watson, and the poems made him laugh so loud “it cured his warts.” He immediately became enthralled with the meditative tone of this hermit Buddhist monk’s poems written in the ancient Chinese poetic form, the l¼-shih, which reached its peak during the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 ce) The “regulated verse lyric” is an eight-line structure based on an opening line or couplet that establishes the scene, followed by images that elaborate in simple parallel sentences, and a final couplet that completes the poem with a surprise. Reading Han-shan’s poems, Lenfestey felt he’d found his own “missing voice,” and began writing poems back to the ancient Chinese poet. In 2006, 32 years later, Lenfestey traveled to Tokyo to meet Watson, whose translations he still praises, and then to China to “pay homage to Han-shan at his hermit cave.”

Lenfestey has a wonderful time following “in the manner of” his hero yet being completely his whimsical, wise, American self. Many of his poems are about coping with the stressors of modern life, such as “Paying Taxes” and “Mortgages,” but often he returns to the joys of nature, writing poetry, and seeing his own children and grandchildren through fresh eyes recast by an ancient light.

#41 The Monk Locks

His Cell Behind Him

Going out, I lock the door.

What if someone stole my laptop!

Your lap is attached to you,

said the quilter, sewing her smile shut.

My grandchildren agree, fussing on it like a lumpy chair.

I have so far to go to leave my sharp-edged keys behind,

leave the door of my life entirely open,

leave whatever is inside orderly and forgotten.

What keeps you reading these poems is how Lenfestey captures your own secrets and worries, then sends them off to be one with the natural order of things:

When my mourning ends for what I might have been,

I will be someone else. My wings will shine.

Nothing will know how to stop me except flowers.

Lenfestey delights in the l¼-shih form as a “wonderful rhetorical structure” which allows the space to say more than in a haiku or tanka. For the past eight years he has fully embraced his “lifelong devotion to the concentrated magic of poems,” abandoning his careers of academia, advertising, and journalism.

Christine Kravetz, a graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars where she received an MFA in creative writing, has similarly abandoned her previous life as an attorney to become a poet. She has been published widely in many journals including Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, and Red Wheel Barrow Literary Magazine. Her short story “Margie” is included in the National Public Radio Anthology I Thought My Father Was God, edited by Paul Auster. She teaches through California Poets in the Schools, for whom she is the current area coordinator and vice-president of the Executive Board.

Beth Taylor-Schott, who has a doctorate in art history from UC Berkeley, taught art history and writing for 12 years at Berkeley, USC, and UCSB, an experience she says is most relevant to her poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including North American Review, California Quarterly, and Illuminations, which nominated her for a Pushcart prize. She also teaches for California Poets in the Schools and writes for The Santa Barbara Independent.

Should be a great evening! See you there.

4•1•1 James P. Lenfestey, Christine Kravetz, and Beth Taylor-Schott will read their poetry at Contemporary Arts Forum on Saturday, February 2, from 7-9 p.m. For more information, call 966-1423.


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