What is poetry? "Poetry is just the evidence of life," Leonard Cohen explained. "If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash."
Or maybe "poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes," a sentiment expressed by Joseph Roux. Pablo Neruda thought if it this way: "Poetry is an act of peace." Wallace Stevens harbored a similar notion: "The poet is the priest of the invisible," he said.
Sonia Sanchez, instead, thought of poetry in pragmatic terms. "All poets ... are political," she said. "They either maintain the status quo, or they say, 'Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better.'"
It's safe to say that South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth would agree with all the above. More than most, Wentworth has kept a finger on the pulse of the state since she moved to the Lowcountry in August 1989. She does not shy away from either the beauty or the misery.
Lately, she's been collaborating with Kwame Alexander and Chris Colderly on a children's book called "Out of Wonder." About a year ago she saw the release of "We Are Charleston," a prose collaboration with Herb Frazier and Bernard Powers written in the aftermath of the 2015 Emanuel AME Church shooting.
There's always something she's working on.
Q: What’s the oddest experience or observation that inspired a poem, and how did you harness it artistically?
A: I was changing planes in an airport once when I saw young people run past me at one point. They were carrying all sorts of wedding paraphernalia. The bride had a paper bag with a wedding cake peeking out of the top. Later, I saw them in line and asked them if they had just gotten married. It turns out that they had, and that they were heading back East, where they had grown up, to celebrate with their families.
I never found out their names, but they stuck with me and I wrote a poem called “Newlyweds” about that experience. It was published, and a few years later, composer Nathan Jones read the poem and composed a choral piece using the poem as lyrics for the Westminster Choir, which seems the most unusual. What a trajectory!
Q: It’s often been said that misery is an artist’s best bedfellow. Do you find this true? Does pain and suffering result in better poetry?
A: If you get a bunch of poets in a room, you often hear some sad stories. Unfortunately, for some writers, it begins as a response to some sort of hardship. We want the language that articulates our pain. This initial impulse is true for many poets, but the discipline required of any writer is the measure of their worth. In other words, the work is what determines whether or not others read the poems.
Poetry is perhaps our greatest resource in a time of crisis. Poems help us make sense of the world around us, particularly when we are feeling overwhelmed with emotions. This is why we hear poems at weddings and funerals. It is not surprising, then, that during the days and weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the Emanuel AME Church shooting, we turned to poetry. In the haze of media, it was poetry that consoled us and helped us express our grief and outrage. The core of poetry’s power is its ability to find language that describes the indescribable.
My life in poetry began when I was in middle school, which was when my father was diagnosed and succumbed to leukemia. Writing poems was a tangible way to process what was happening in my life, which really wasn’t something I talked about. It really helped me get through a difficult time, but deciding to become a writer came much later.
Q: As poet laureate of South Carolina, you are a kind of moral guidepost and often have found yourself standing firm against a strong political or social current. Is this a role you relish?
A: I don’t know about being a moral guidepost, but the underpinnings for my ideology have not changed much in my lifetime. I worked in the field of human rights for many years and co-wrote a book on the subject called "Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights." I look at everything through that lens. This framework comes from a deeply spiritual place. If you are a person of faith, I really don’t understand how it could be otherwise.
My life's work is based on empathy, creativity and diversity. At no time in my life have I had to harness these interests more than the last year and a half in Charleston. As the singer Ben Harper would say, “I am blessed to be a witness.” The operating word here is "blessed." And I am blessed by the community of Charleston, home to a diverse, talented, loving, creative community.
Current political trends come and go. And the history of the world teaches us that most people go with the flow, but the role of the writer, or any real artist for that matter, is to think creatively outside of the box. We have to imagine a world that is different. I believe in the possibility of Rev. Martin Luther King’s beloved community, and I interpret this as something local, regional, national and international.
4. Who are the writers and artists of the past you most admire?
A: I admire the writers and artists who were the truth tellers, the ones who believed in the possibility of justice in all its manifestations. Almost every African-American writer in our history was writing about injustice, and I continue to read, and be inspired by, writers like Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, Audre Lord, Langston Hughes and, of course, the true American prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King.
I admire the Eastern European and Russian writers who suffered under communist dictatorships — the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova speaks to us across the decades. The Latin American writers who suffered under similar political repression continue to inspire me. Chilean poet and statesman Pablo Neruda has been my favorite poet for as long as I can remember.
Of course, Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes and I have read his extraordinary book "Walk to Freedom" many times. I would also love to meet the brilliant and brave theologian and writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I started reading Elie Weisel's novels in junior high, and his work and life continue to inspire me. I also love the work of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the Zen poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
5. You have written poems (and prose) about race, about the Mother Emanuel tragedy, about the Confederate flag. What other sensitive issues will you tackle in the near future?
A: Good Lord, it’s overwhelming. I still think that racism is the giant unhealed American wound. The Confederate battle flag is off the Statehouse grounds, but the things it stands for have never been more apparent. Social justice issues tied to racism must be changed. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of evil and cruelty. I wish it was outlawed the way the swastika is outlawed in Germany. I posted that on Facebook and people went nuts.
This disconnect between pride about Southern heritage and white supremacy is a huge concern. Where do people think Dylann Roof got his ideas? His white supremacist symbiology combined Nazi symbols and the Confederate flag and fueled his twisted ideology. The uptick of hate crimes across the country is terrifying: a wave of anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions. All of this, it seems to me, is anti-American.