Monday, April 14, 2014

Phone call during a spring blizzard leads to article

A few weeks ago, the Cape was visited by a late March blizzard. My class was cancelled and I decided to stay home from work. The winds were howling and snow was coming down sideways. It seemed a good day to stay inside. Although the lights flickered once or twice, we were fortunate not to lose our power. In the early afternoon, I noticed I had a Facebook message. The editor of the Mashpee Enterprise wrote to say one of his reporters wanted to speak to me about my recent third place win in the WOMR contest. Soon after, I had a twenty-minute phone interview with Lannan O’Brien. This article appeared in the Mashpee Enterprise on Friday, March 28.

Mashpee Resident Places Third in Outermost Poetry Contest
By Lannan M. O Brian

Mashpee resident Robin L. Smith-Johnson was pleasantly surprised when she learned that her poem placed third in the regional category for the WOMR/WFMR Outermost Poetry Contest, out of hundreds of entries from across the country.

“I received the press release at work and I looked at it, and it didn’t compute,” she said. “I said, “Oh, wow!””

Ms. Smith-Johnson, a newsroom librarian for the Cape Cod Times and an adjunct professor of English at Cape Cod Community College, recently released a new book of poems titled, “Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter,” with collage-style cover art by her sister-in-law, Liz Smith.

The book was launched at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod the same night that she received news of her award, and several other winners – Judith Partelow of Harwich, who won second place in the regional category; Lauren Wolk from Centerville, who earned an honorable mention, and Neil Silberblatt from Chatham, who was mentioned in the results as one of the “top poets” from Cape Cod – who happened to be in attendance were invited to read their award-winning poetry.

“It was amazing that everybody had their poems with them,” Ms. Smith-Johnson said.
Additionally, members of the Steeple Street Poets group that she leads with fellow English professor James Kershner at the Mashpee Public Library each read one of her poems and one of their own.

Ms. Smith-Johnson’s winning poem, titled, “A Dropped Stitch,” uses imagery of a woman knitting to depict isolation and death.

“I guess I’ve been working recently with thinking about isolation and how it affects people,” Ms. Smith-Johnson said. “Because I live in a family setting, I’m not isolated, but I guess I’m just interested in that.”

At the time, she was attracted to the theme of her subject knitting “threads of her life” because she was knitting herself and reading a book about knitting.

Unconsciously, Ms. Smith-Johnson said, her interest in death may have been partly inspired by her father’s death two years ago, for which only she was present. Through lines that describe “hoarse breathing” and “pulsing in the neck or wrist/until it too stopped” she recalls feeling  her own father’s pulse in his last moments of life.

The last stanza describes the woman gathering dropped stitches  only to drop them again. Finally she is instructed, “Never keep what won’t last.”

Although she has been a finalist in several other contests, including two others judged by writer Marge Piercy, the judge of the Outermost Poetry Contest, and one judged by poet Naomi Shihab Nye at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, this was her first time winning a contest.
“I guess you do it (enter contests) for validation,” she said. “You want to see if you’re making progress.”

Moreover, she said that there is a community of writers and poets on the Cape who enter contests and encourage each other to do so.

When she was 9 or 10 years old, Smith-Johnson, who was raised by parents who were both writers, was inspired to write poetry when a teacher read William Blake’s “The Tyger” in class.

“It was one of the first times I thought, ‘I could do that..’” she said.

Ms. Smith-Johnson lives on Ships Anchor Drive off Mashpee Neck Road with her husband, Gregory R. Johnson, and her son, Ross.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mutual Muses: “Angel of Cape Cod”

I love the phrase ‘Mutual Muses’ – it denotes a shared creation and the exhibit/poetry reading last night perfectly captured that idea. The artist who received my poem “The Season When” created a huge painting of spring flowers in a vase. By contrast, I wrote a poem titled “Angel of Cape Cod” for Carole Johnson’ delicate pendant.

Often when I begin to draft a poem, I have little idea what the finished product will be. I might have an image or brief narrative in mind. Working with a visual picture gives the poet focus. For the past few months, I have studied the angel-looking pendant as its picture graced the piano in our living room. Lauren Wolk, associate director for the center,  had told me last November that the name for the piece was “Angel of Cape Cod” so I took that for my theme.

I knew I didn’t want some ethereal, floaty depiction of an angel, but something more earthly and evocative of the Cape. In my poem, I addressed my angel like this: “Oh, barnacled one, with gull feathers for wings,/skate egg cases as eyes,/seaweed dangling – a bedraggled gown.” My husband, Greg, thought my description was creepy but I liked its raw, sea-inspired tone. Later in the poem, I wrote: “Shy soul adrift in the waves/you float over blue harbors/kettle ponds and salt water bays./Birds trail in your wake, their cree cree/signalling your earthbound work.” When the angel is called back, there is “only mist as it rises/over open waters.” I wanted to capture power and healing, presence and absence.

Now, it was time to share this new poem with a hundred people! I think it was a good omen that the very first creature I saw on entering the Cultural Center last night was the resident cat sitting by the front steps. I almost think she gave me a wink as I entered the large, noisy room brimming over with expectant people looking for their friends.  During the reading, I anxiously awaited my turn. Since the poets are called up in alphabetical order, I was one of the last to read. I sat clutching my poem and my reading glasses as I waited. When my name was called, I tried to remember to slow down my reading. I realized it’s easier to read a familiar poem rather than a brand new one. Still, there was a nice roar of applause when I sat down. It was a magical night and wonderful to share with so many local poets and artists.

In the next few weeks, I hope to travel once again to the Cultural Center to take a quiet hour or two to study the pairings of artwork and poetry. Perhaps I’ll take a friend or family member to share the experience with. It’s a nice way to absorb the experience and feed my creative spirit.