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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 11, 2010

Vatic poet will be laureate of Voorheesville

By Philippa Stasiuk

VOORHEESVILLE — Four judges, unique in taste, ear, and experience, will come together on April 25 to distill from 25 contestants reading 75 poems, Voorheesville’s first Poet Laureate.

After listening to three rounds of poems of differing lengths, the judges, all poets themselves, will choose a first, second and honorable mention, with cash prizes donated by Smith’s Tavern for the top three. 

Poets Dennis Sullivan, Michael Burke, and Edie Abrams will be hosting the contest, and last fall Sullivan spoke to The Enterprise about his aspirations for a local poetry contest, explaining, “Some people believe that, unless Knopf or St. Martin’s Press publishes the poems, that the value is minimal. An argument had to be made for the poetic voice at its root. If a tree grows from that root, you can say what you want but that tree is vatic.” Vatic means seer or prophet.

Head judge Art Willis said that although Sullivan is not judging, his idea of the vatic poet would affect how he himself judged the contest. “It’s inevitable, I suppose,” said Willis. “It goes along an instructive line. We’re often surprised by a poem when it makes us aware of something that we weren’t aware of before. That’s vatic and I’d say that would have an influence on how I listen to the poems.”

Willis, a poet and retired high school teacher, explained the judging criteria as encompassing the structure and form of the poem, the use of language, the depth of feeling and purpose, and the overall impact of the poem.

“This is marvelous what Dennis has done, calling attention to the importance of poetry with this contest. For that alone, it’s well justified,” said Willis.

Willis and Sullivan have known each other through the Every Other Thursday Night Poets group, as well as another gathering that Willis describes as more scholarly, in which a smaller group of poets gets together and explores the work of members’ favorite poets such as, in Willis’s case, Vladimir Mayakovsky. He also taught Sullivan’s children.

Willis began a lifelong love of poetry in Russia. “My father was an American diplomat, the first cultural attaché to the Soviet Union. This was in 1946,” he said. “We went to Russian schools as kids in Moscow. My father believed in a real cultural exchange. I became fluent in Russian; so did my sister and that’s when I became aware of Russian poetry.”

Willis cites Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin as poetic influences, as well as Emily Dickinson. “She’s the greatest writer poet this country has ever produced,” he said. “Her writing covers the human condition altogether, yet it’s done with extraordinary concision,” said Willis.

Tom Corrado, another judge and fellow member of the Every Other Thursday Night Poets, explained what he will be looking for as a judge: “We’re looking at such things as the mechanics that the poet uses, metaphor, imagery, concision, delivery, do line breaks work, is it the right tempo, does it have a good rhythm?

“Is it a unique take on something? A fresh perspective on something?  Surprising? Different? Does it affect the listener? What is the overall impact? It’s all subjectivity from one vantage point. It’s how you interpret these words that will operationalize the effectiveness of the poems.”

When asked how he thought the 25 poets entered in the contest would be preparing, Corrado, the chief information officer of a state office, said that, if he were a contestant, he’d be working on editing poems that he had already written.

“Writing is rewriting and you have to work hard to get better. I don’t think anyone sits down and just comes up with a very effective masterpiece,” he said. “Everybody has to have something: gardening, art, music, crocheting. Poetry is just something that we do.”

Another judge, Marilyn Paarlberg, explained the source of her own poetic endeavors. “I’ve often said that I like the Joan Didion approach: ‘I write to find out what I think.’ I resonate with that.”

Paarlberg said she responds to narrative poetry but that, no matter what type of poem she hears, it must have a certain communicative appeal. “People shouldn’t think that poetry is all very erudite and off-putting because it’s real people writing about real things,” she said. “That’s certainly what I try to do. I don’t aim for grand themes, but for the common human experience. Some express it one way and some another, depending on their gift and inclinations.”

For those who are new to poetry, Willis offers this advice after years of teaching high school students about poetry: “Open up. What are you feeling here? That’s the door through which perception can occur. It’s not a matter of analytically understanding something. You want to feel it first and then allow the intellect to play on it. A lot of people feel inferior, and they shouldn’t because poetry is a universal language.”

In much the same spirit as Voorheesville’s weekly poetry groups, the contestants and judges will adjourn to Smitty’s after the contest.  Jon McClelland, co-owner of Smitty’s said that, after years of hosting weekly poets, he’s even gotten into the spirit of poetry.

“But I don’t know that I’ll be reading,” he said. “We have a pretty interesting group of characters — they’re regulars and they’re friends. It’s grown into a nice weekly event that they’re proud of so, when they asked if we could sponsor their get-together, we were happy. We just have to come up with the prize money, and make sure there’s enough Guinness available.”


The Poet Laureate Contest is open to the first 25 poets to register, beginning only on March 31 at noon; poets should e-mail DSullivan6@NYCAP.rr.com. The first 25 e-mails received will be selected. Poets will be notified by April 1.

In addition to Art Willis, Tom Corrado, and Marilyn Paarlberg, Darcy Meacham Morrison will also be judging.

Contestants will each read three rounds of any style poem in English. The Poet Laureate will win $100; the runner-up will win $50, and the poet who receives honorable mention will win $25.

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