It’s remarkable that a city the size of Northampton wants a poet laureate. It’s more remarkable yet that Northampton’s 30-ish thousand residents include a sufficient number of poets to sustain the office of laureate.
The office, with its two-year terms, only began in recent years, so the list of past Northampton poets laureate is short: Lenelle Moïse, Lesléa Newman, Jack Gilbert, Janet Aalfs and Martín Espada. It would be unfair to try to divine a common thread among them other than a pleasing number of accent marks over letters (and an umlaut!). Some of the poetry of past laureates addresses issues of identity, or of place and politics, certainly a good fit for Northampton.
With the recent announcement of the new poet laureate, author and gallery owner Richard Michelson, a particularly interesting flavor of poetry gets its two years in the sun. Michelson does not shy away from concerns of identity, place or politics—much of his work is drawn from his years growing up in Brooklyn, and Jewish identity is a clear concern. In his most recent volume of poetry, 2006’s Battles & Lullabies (preceded by Head of the Family, Tap Dancing for the Relatives and a very limited edition work with etchings by Leonard Baskin called Masks), Michelson writes autobiographically, but also ventures into poems about other things, including the life of artist Edvard Munch and the Holocaust. When he addresses matters of identity or politics, he accomplishes something rare, using personal details to connect beautifully to those who don’t necessarily share that identity or those politics; he reaches for that ultimate power of the poetic word, the universal and transcendent.
It’s no easy task to work such magic, but Michelson, at his best, arrives there. Take these lines, for instance, from a poem in the section of Battles & Lullabies called “The Jews We Are”:
Already I’m late. I’ve missed the cruise missile
and the silo debate, but I hand my wife her robe
and let her rest my head in what we’re calling
the cradle of civilization. “Listen,”
she whispers, and I do hear something,
deep underground; a heartbeat,
like the tiniest test explosions.
That’s typical for Michelson, a conflation of elements of the everyday and the large-scale that accomplishes more than either direction might offer on its own.
The affable Michelson says he’s nearly done with a new collection of poems. He’s hoping to publish it soon, during his time as poet laureate.
As for his plans to promote poetry during the next couple of years, Michelson says, “Because I have my finger in so many different artistic pots, one thing I hope to do is stir those pots together. There are so many writers as well as artists, et cetera, and a lot of groups don’t even know each other.
“That’s good in some ways because it shows that a lot of artistic things are happening,” he continues. “One thing I can do is try to create some synergy between them. I am going to be doing interviews, probably every other week or so on Bill Newman’s WHMP radio show, and talking about events that are happening around town. And I hope to add a poetry connection to the Arts Night Out. Beyond that, I’ve got a lot of ideas and I encourage people to email me with ideas about what they’d like to see.”
Michelson’s inaugural reading as poet laureate happens Thursday, May 3 at 7 p.m. in the Coolidge Room at the Forbes Library in Northampton.