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Poet Annie Lighthart’s cures for poisonous thought

April 14, 2014
Culture, Language Arts


My conversation with poet Annie Lighthart, debut author of the book Iron String published in 2013 by Airlie Press, took place at TaborSpace in Southeast Portland. It seemed predetermined by the poems that Lighthart writes—lyrical, imaginative, tender, metaphysical writings that begin in the things of this world—that our conversation would touch down on topics like the imagination and the soul. How apropos, then, to meet at TaborSpace, founded five years back by the clergy of Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church and community leaders as a donation- and volunteer-based coffeehouse and meeting space. Being here also means that the stained glass reflects off of Annie’s brownish hair and pink cheeks as she speaks with animation about being a poet. (I didn’t take her picture that day, so here’s where your imagination comes in.)

Annie Lighthart

Annie Lighthart

One of the Smartest Things You Can Do

Lighthart told a story about being a poet out in the world that probably everyone with an MFA has either experienced or dreamed about.

“I was in a receiving line a couple years ago and this tall, official looking man with white hair in a three piece-suit, turned around and asked ‘So what do you do?’ I told him I was a student, and he asked me what I was studying. I said, ‘I’m getting an MFA.’ And he said ‘Oh, that’s great! Good for you.’ And I was surprised because few people I know think that going into debt for poetry is a great idea. So I thanked him and told him I didn’t get that comment often, and he said ‘well, you should because that’s one of the smartest things you can do.’ I remember thinking wow, this is great but there’s something slightly off. So I told him it was nice to hear somebody was in support of it. And he said ‘Getting an MBA is just a terrific thing to do in the world.’ Then I had this real moment of embarrassment and I said ‘Oh… I’m actually getting an MFA’ and he said ,‘What’s that?’ And I said ‘It’s a Masters of Fine Arts” and then he stayed silent so I added “… A master’s in poetry?” And he said ‘Poetry—why would you ever do that?” And I just thought to myself shit, I don’t know. It was one of those moments that I wasn’t strong in myself.”

Reading and Writing Practical Poems

What’s poetry for? Old question, and hard to answer beyond the more obvious occasions like marriages, funerals, or religious ceremonies. Meticulously constructed language about despair and picking blackberries or about freedom from shame and wild geese doesn’t seem to find an easy place at the dinner table or neighborhood coffee shop.

“My husband, Michael [Faletra] is a medievalist so we’ve worked together on some translations from Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxons have these charm poems to help people with their everyday problems, and I love them. There is one poem against losing your cattle, one against blemishes, one against getting a stitch in your side, and one to keep bees from swarming. I just love poetry that you can pass over to someone like a recipe, and say ‘Oh, your bees are swarming? Take this poem.’ People ask me if I have a poem for their wedding or maybe for a funeral, so poems are useful and practical at these intense moments, but then people forget. Maybe what people could really use would be a poem for while they are cooking.”

“I was thinking about these Anglo-Saxon poems and decided the cure that I really needed was a cure against poisonous thought.”

A Cure Against Poisonous Thought

Believe the world goes on
and this bee bending
in honeysuckle just one
of a mighty nation, golden
beads thrumming
a long invisible thread.

In the green drift of an afternoon,
the body is not root but wick:
the press of light surrounds it.

This poem and along with the rest of Lighthart’s manuscript was published by Airlie Press, a non-profit publishing collective in SW Washington and Oregon. If Airlie accepts your book, you agree to be a member-editor with them for three years. Each year they accept one or two new poets to join the press and have their book published. The team of editors makes recommendations about the order, cover, font, and line edits, but the poet has the final say in what changes are accepted. It’s a very different process than some traditional presses that accept your manuscript and change what they will as they see fit.

Lighthart has been delighted with her experience at Airlie so far. “So many first-time authors are disappointed with their first books, where the order of the poems didn’t feel true to their vision or they were sad about the cover. Of course you don’t want to put too much importance on the cover but it is like your child and you don’t want to be sad and get an ugly baby.”

Airlie Press had a book release party for Lighthart and Salem-based poet Dawn Diez Willis also at TaborSpace last November. Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Peterson introduced them both, and on an unrelated note, I want to point out that I have never seen such a fabulous cheese spread at a poetry reading. It was a packed house, and Annie took us, leap by imaginative leap, through her poems.

There are poetry readings where people read poetry, and there are poetry readings where energy gets exchanged as in a chemical reaction. This reading last November was chemical, and I don’t think it was the gruyere. If you haven’t been to a poetry reading where you come out feeling more alive, Lighthart is doing a reading for Mountain Writers Series with Gary Thompson on Wednesday, April 16 at the Press Club.

Accessing the Imagination

At the reading in November, Lighthart read “White Barn,” to a strong effect.

White Barn

When I need to, I go into my mind, close a little door, and begin to paint
a white barn. It is huge and splintered and may take many years.
The long boards are what I want to paint, the ones that ask for a whole sweep

of arm, a brush-worth of paint, one long breath. I am in love with this barn
and its thirst for the paint. It is summer and the brush drips on dry grass.
Bees come to look at the work and then go off to their flowers unharmed.

This barn is my ungainly white flower. Sometimes I sense
animals settling inside, others behind me out in the fields. Sometimes
it is evening and the barn seems to rise. If I paint to the roof I may see

each cow coming in like a thought due for sleep, each distant sheep another,
pleased to stay scattered and away. I might see the unnamed white horse
for whom the barn was once built, the one that never takes hay

from the hand. It runs alone against the pull of the earth and so fast
that everything disappears when it goes. The barn is just a flash in its eye.

Many things are notable about this poem–the long, sinuous, musical lines, the images that are so clear and sensory, the way the poem moves from the point of view of the poet to the horse-eye witnessing the barn—but what I appreciate most is how Lighthart has fully imagined a scene that readers are given full access to. This is a hallmark of poetic generosity and Lighthart’s poems are rife with it. There are poetry readings when people sigh because they get the last line of a poem, and are struck by it, and there are poetry readings where the audience doesn’t need to sigh, because they’ve followed the entirety of the poem, and are changed by it all along.

“The imagination is one of the most powerful elements of being human. And we have been losing it. It’s a terrible loss. If we fully imagined what we’re doing to the environment or doing to each other, I don’t think we would do it as easily as we do. Poetry allows us to make great leaps in order to gain understanding. You could be sitting in your house in Oregon and enter Emily Dickinson’s summer and feel her bees around you, or go way back into Chinese texts and to those ancient poets who speak so clearly to us.”

“I wrote ‘White Barn’ after learning how to meditate which was a really fantastic journey—I’m quite terrible at meditating since I fall asleep in a snap. I have the best naps while trying to meditate. But the meditation gave me a new understanding of a quiet voice that is observing and living at the same time, and that’s where this poem comes in.”

No Easy Answers

Lighthart has two boys and one of them has strong poetic leanings. Just as she had trouble answering the MBA-oriented man’s questions, her sons pose equally challenging ones.

“The other day my nine-year old asked me, ‘What is the soul and where is it?’ He caught me off guard because we both were talking about what to make for dinner. So here I am, and finding ways of talking about the soul is part of my profession as poet, so I should have a great short answer for him, but I didn’t. And then he said, ‘Where do the doctors think it is?’ I still couldn’t answer him like I would have liked to, because scientists write about the soul like they write about the imagination, as if it’s the brain or not at all, but these are both also in the heart. They’re so valuable and yet so easily lost, or at least not easy to find.”

“If I could talk back to that white-haired man now I would tell him that I have not found a better path than poetry to living a deep life. I want a life that is full of questions and meanings and I hope to really be awake and aware to my life. All these years after having continued to write poems, I haven’t found a better way of understanding the world. I find that by reading and writing poetry I can find answers to my questions about the soul that I can’t get from my neighbors. I am absolutely fascinated by the soul, and when I look around, I believe that everyone’s got one but nobody wants to talk about it. Some people turn to religion and they find the soul there, but I’m able to discover it in poetry, my path.”

You can read reviews of Lighthart’s book on her website, most notably a review from Portland poet, A. Molotkov, who praises her fresh voice and insight to the core of each situation. I agree and would add that Iron String mixes the actual with the imaginative in a way that can change your day, not simply leave you saying “Oh, that was nice,” the perfunctory response for a beautiful poem that left you unmoved.

You can buy Iron String directly from Airlie Press, at Powell’s, or pick it up at the Press Club, 2621 SE Clinton St., on April 16th at 7:30 pm and get the poet herself to sign it for you.

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