In celebration of National Poetry Month, members of the Guilford Poets Guild were invited to share their thoughts about poetry and the life of a poet. Here’s what Guilford Poet Laureate Gordy Whiteman had to say:
How did you come to being a poet?
I was aware of poetry from when I was a little child. My mother wrote poetry and published some of her poems in local papers. She was also a really good piano player and wrote songs — some, of which, my siblings and I still sing. I have only one of her finished poems, but many first and second drafts of many of her poems.
I took a creative writing course at Southern Connecticut State University when I was about 30 years old and wrote my first poem — it was a nature poem and I think I received a mark of B. The poem is in one of my many binders. After that, I wrote a number of poems until, at age 55, I joined The Shoreline Poets which was the forerunner to The Guilford Poets Guild.
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
I looked up the first poem, which I made reference to above and here it is:
Squirrels and I were gathering today,
storing up for the barren cold;
the abundance that rain, heat and farmer folk
have given Autumn to hold.
And we took, each in our way
(cautious and creeping)
the nut of the hickory and oak
(waiting and watching)
the gleam of the maple, the dogwood so bold,
strong tulip tree covered with gold.
What else do you write besides poetry? Do you have other creative pursuits?
In my “bring home the bacon” work-a-day-world, I had jobs that required writing. I wrote much advertising copy ( I sold over 800 homes in twenty-odd years as a real estate broker) and as a manager in the dairy business (15 years) one of my responsibilities was the presentation of on-going training programs to around 45 managers and supervisors. Critiquing other managers required my acquiring some diplomatic skills while still getting my point across.
For years, my love of painting ( pastels, oils, charcoal and colored pencil) was my main pursuit. I really enjoy drawing the human face. So much is there in the expression, the eyes, the wrinkles, although when I have drawn Andrea, she has warned me, “no wrinkles !”
Singing — Guilford, for many years, had a choral group The Guilford Community Chorus I sang in that group for, I would say, about fifteen years. When I was in high school, I was honored to be chosen to represent Guilford in Connecticut’s All State Chorus. A great experience.
What has been the defining moment in your life as a poet/writer?
I would have to say when I published my first book, Whitfield Crossing. It came out less than two months after the terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers. I think the Guilford public needed something that would bring them back to normal. I gave several readings over the ensuing weeks. I sold over 600 copies; most within the next six months. Other defining moments — being named Guilford’s Poet Laureate. Having been born in Guilford and, aside from US Air Force time and college, I have lived here my whole 90 years. Also, having been asked to serve as president or co-president three times by The Guilford Poets Guild. I do not want to leave out of your question the honor of being a founding member of The Connecticut Coalition of Poets Laureate. When the Coalition was founded, there were five known town or city poets laureate in the whole state. Now, there are well over 35 laureates plus another 15 or so that are emeritus.
How long have you been a member of the Guilford Poets Guild and what’s that like?
I joined the fore-runner of The Guild, The Shoreline Poets, in 1985 and became a member of the Guild almost immediately after it was formed, by Katrina Van Tassel, into an on-going community-minded organization. One way to measure the value of any group is to look at how often its membership changes. The Guild has had an unchanging, rock-solid membership for years. We would like to have new members but, at this time, simply do not have the room to accommodate any additions. Therefore, we encourage would-be members to participate in our meetings that are open to the public. There are various ways that non-members can become involved.
What is it like? Since 1985, when I became a member, it was expected that I and the other members would show up at the twice-a-month meetings with a poem that would be critiqued by the other members. We meet twenty-four times a year for these sessions so, you can do the math..- lots of poems — lots of poetry books, many of which are in the stacks at the Guilford Free Library. And (this is a big and) The Guilford Free Library has been generous in making room for us to hold our Second Thursday Poetry Readings where we usually have a well-known poet from Connecticut or some other northeastern state as a featured guest poet — and an open mic for poets who might not otherwise have an audience.
What inspires your writing today?
I am inspired to write about my fellow men and women of all ages — the goodness – the quirkiness — the history — the heroism — the quotidian — the love
Describe your poem-writing process. Where do you like to write?
I have found that certain rooms in our house are good for doing certain things. Just as when watching TV, if one is used to snacking, then snacking becomes habit. Likewise, when I sense that a poem is coming forth, I go to my den (Andrea also has a den). That is my habit. I will write one-liners on subject matter, anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen. Then I will concentrate on the opening line and the opening stanza. If I don’t have words that are going to inspire the reader to continue down the page, then why go any further? So, a lot of thought goes into the opening. Then I go to my list of one-liners and I write. More often than not pure creativity takes over and the first draft comes to life. The next part, the rewrite, I just thoroughly enjoy. Here, to use an analogy, its like the sculptor who has gotten beyond the lump of clay, beyond the rough form and, if lucky, can see something of worth beginning to take shape. At some point the poem goes before the Guild for a friendly, but serious, critique.
Who are you favorite poets and authors?
My favorite poet is Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely. She is a poet who has a unique way with words, and that, coupled with true insight into the human condition, has made my heart sing on many a reading of her poetry. To be a great poet, one has to have, among many other things, courage to say it like it is. She has that quality also. Other poets high on my list are Gray Jacobik (genius qualities there) and W.S. Merwin for form and always a good story.
What book are you currently reading? (poetry or not)
I usually have five or six books going at the same time. Andrea and I have a pretty good library to choose from. Downstairs I am reading Gray Jacobik’s Banquet and upstairs, in my den, I am reading Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott. If I run out of a good tale, I will happily read the encyclopedia or the dictionary.
What’s your favorite poem to carry around and share with others?
Shakespeare’s soliloquies are pretty good. Portia’s “The quality of mercy …” has stood up well for a few hundred years. But for a modern-day poet, I don’t think any poet can top Robert Frost — snowy woods — two roads diverged — some say the world will end in fire – birches — stone fences make good neighbors — and on and on.
Any last words?
And finally – “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”
Gordy Whiteman was born in Guilford in 1929. He is a member of the Guilford Poets Guild. Whiteman is the author of two volumes of poetry: Whitfield Crossing and Home Town Guilford. He is a founding member of The Connecticut Coalition of Poets Laureate and currently serves as Guilford’s Poet Laureate. If he can keep his short-term memory intact, he hopes to complete a third book of poems in the sometime soon.