For members of the Southern Minnesota Poets Society in Mankato, poetry is an opportunity to take personal, authentic, even daily and seemingly mundane experiences and turn them into something vivid and profound.
So, it wasn’t much of a leap when the group embraced the pandemic by challenging each other to write about it.
“In March, we started writing pandemic poetry,” said Susan Stevens Chambers, who joined the group in 1982.
At a recent Saturday’s Zoom meeting, Chambers read a poem she had just written, a reflection that combined the daily reality of the pandemic with a rare celestial event not seen in over 800 years — the close alignment of Jupiter and Saturn on Dec. 21.
“We crane our necks; our masks safely cover nose and mouth,” Chambers said. “Our eyes remain unprotected from this celestial harbinger.”
She was one of a half-dozen members of the group to share that day, following a speech by award-winning Texas-based poet Budd Powell Mahan, who encouraged his fellow poets not to get bogged down by perfection while writing.
“It’s better to write profoundly about something simple instead of trying to be profound,” he said.
Chambers has found that tidbit of wisdom to be a mantra in the decades she’s been a member of the group. When she recently spoke at a VINE Faith in Action forum on poetry, she emphasized the importance of taking a big issue, whether the pandemic or a celestial event, by looking at it “sideways.”
“You don’t take them head-on,” Chambers said. “If you sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a poem about world peace,’ it’s going to freeze you up. But if I sit down and say, ‘Let’s talk about a boys’ fight over a marble game, I can get to world peace somewhere in there; you go sideways.”
While the pandemic has put a hold on in-person gatherings, the group still meets once a month virtually on Saturdays featuring a different guest speaker. In the past, those guest speakers primarily came from the area. But the internet has expanded the caliber of speakers and guest visitors, who increasingly are signing in to the local group meetings from throughout the country, even beyond.
“It’s been building,” Chambers said. “The first couple times we had maybe one person (from outside the area), but then they tell others who attend.”
“We’ve had by far the wildest combination of guest speakers from different walks of life and definitely from farther distances than ever before because it actually fits into how everyone is interacting and connecting at the moment,” said SMPS President Derek Liebertz. “For people who never would have joined a single event, they can do this from Santa Fe and see what our group is like.”
Chambers encouraged Liebertz and his wife, Yvonne Cariveau, to join the group in 2005. The couple have been instrumental in spearheading the annual poetry walk and ride about five years ago. There are about 40 signs featuring the poems of Minnesotans scattered throughout Mankato and North Mankato.
SMPS organizes a contest every year, which was recently expanded to include all Minnesotans. The winners' poems are featured on the signs, scattered around town on the city’s bike routes.
Cariveau said a big reason for launching the poetry walk and ride was to encourage the younger generation to write their own poems, including a student category for the annual contest.
“We’ve had poems from kids as young as 7,” Cariveau said. “One mother said, ‘My daughter now identifies herself as a writer.’”
Chambers said poetry is something to explore together with others, especially because solitary writers often fall into the trap of being the harshest critics of their own work.
“It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at, there’s something about networking with other poets that just triggers you,” Chambers said. “I can be sitting in with a whole group of beginners, and that will trigger all sorts of poems for me. When I was a beginner, I could sit and listen to what these people were doing, and it was inspiring to help me want to write.”
The group dynamic tends to bring people out of their shell and leads members to take more risks, with permission to stray away from perfection.
“We often have people who come and say, ‘I don’t write poetry, I just appreciate poetry.’ Within one or two of these meetings, they’re writing,” Chambers said.
That was Cariveau’s experience when she joined the group. She said she started out as more of a consumer than a producer, but her confidence began to build as the group shared strategies and prompts to generate ideas. Now she finds herself encouraging others.
“For me, it’s a lot of helping other people who feel as unsure as I do — to feel like it’s something they can do to express themselves,” Cariveau said.
Liebertz said it’s easy to put a lot of pressure on himself without any feedback or bouncing ideas with others. Being part of the group has helped him to take a step back and not worry so much about the bigger picture when writing a poem.
“It’s definitely been helpful to be in a group instead of sitting by myself in a room with a blank page going, ‘OK. Now what?’ In a group, you absorb the learning through osmosis,” Liebertz said. “You end up having this smorgasbord of ideas and concepts when you’re in this group over the years.”
SMPS Vice President Jana Bouma, a member since 2002, said the stereotype of a solitary poet isn’t particularly accurate.
“I think poetry writing works much better in a community,” Bouma said. “It’s not really the lonely poet in the attic, the way it’s often perceived. Being a part of the group is how I found my voice in poetry.”
As an avid reader and former college professor who taught composition and literature, Bouma always has had appreciation for multiple genres of writing, but poetry has become her favorite.
“The beauty of language is part of what the poem is about,” Bouma said. “You don’t have to have a plot or dialogue. One of the things that you can do in poetry that you can’t do as well in other genres is to play around with language and make language do things that it doesn’t ordinarily do.”
Chambers said she appreciates the simplicity and shortness of poetry and how it compels emotion. Her poems have won multiple statewide awards — and she credits that success to learning to take risks and letting go, and the understanding that you don’t have to know where a poem is going to lead.
“You learn to trust to your subconscious that it will go somewhere that you can make sense out of it,” Chambers said. “I just take what’s there. Sometimes I don’t get anything and that’s fine; you just put it aside and don’t worry about it. But once in a while you get something magical.”