Poet Gary Whitehead will come to McDaniel College this month for the school's 31st annual Bothe Poetry Reading. Whitehead, who is also an English teacher, is originally from Rhode Island, but currently lives in New York. He's in his 20th year teaching English and creative writing at Tenafly High School, a public school in northern New Jersey, Whitehead said via email.
In addition to writing and reading, Whitehead paints, gardens, explores nature and creates professional crossword puzzles, he said. He's published three full-length books of poetry and three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of national competitions.
Whitehead will speak at 7:30 p.m. March 28 and will also meet with students enrolled in the Creative Writing-Poetry courses at McDaniel taught by English professor Kathy Mangan.
The Carroll County Times caught up with Whitehead to talk about his current work and his upcoming speaking engagement.
Q: How did you get involved in writing and poetry?
A: I started writing poems in my early twenties and, on a whim, enrolled in a creative writing course in college. My professor, early in the course, told me with all sincerity that I was a poet, and this had a deep effect on me. I've been writing poems ever since. A few years into my poetry writing, I founded, edited, and published a small poetry journal called Defined Providence, which I published for about seven years before switching to publishing books through the press. This experience connected me widely with other poets around the country and gave me an appreciation for the often thankless work of editing and publishing a literary journal and running a poetry press.
Q: What do you love about writing?
A: I love the process of a poem taking shape, the slow growth of discovery as word follows word and the poem carries me along with it. I love the ruminating that often happens, how I'll ponder the direction, shape, or sound of poem over the course of days or weeks, maybe even months. There's something magical about it, and I imagine the same must be true for composing music, sculpting, choreographing a dance. To create something out of nothing and have others find it meaningful is a profound act, and one to be cherished and respected.
Q: Can you tell me about some of your published works and how they came to be?
A: I've published some short stories and essays, but I'm primarily a poet. As a high school teacher, I'm frequently consumed by my teaching, but I've tried over the last 20 years to carve out time for writing whether it be during summers or vacations, in class with my students or on my drive home, or on evenings or weekends when I can put aside my school work to write. I mostly write poems miscellaneously and randomly rather than toward some predetermined project or theme. The latter, I've found, doesn't work that well for me. The books and chapbooks I've published have been collections of these miscellaneously written (and often published) poems, ordered as best I could. This is the way most poetry collections come together. In terms of individual poems, I've published over 200 since I started keeping track in the early '90s. I can speak about two recent poems, one just published, one soon to be. "Music from a Farther Room" took shape while I was vacationing at the Jersey shore a couple summers ago. After a day at the beach, I was relaxing on the deck with my writing pad and listening to all the ambient sounds, and I began to contemplate the sounds that people hear upon their deathbeds (a bit morbid, I know). I wrote this poem rather quickly, over about two or three days. I tinkered with it on and off up until it was accepted by The Massachusetts Review for a theme issue they were doing on music. To my delight, the poem was recently chosen by the editors for the Anne Halley Poetry Prize, an award given to the best poem published in the calendar year. The journal invited me to conduct a reading in Amherst, Massachusetts in April as part of the prize. Another poem, "Wild Columbine," came together last summer while I was at an artist's residency program in Vermont called The Marble House Project. One morning, I took down a book from the library shelf. It was an old book, its pages almost crumbling in my hand, and it was a kind of dictionary of literary, mythical, and biblical symbols and tropes. I turned to a page on bells, and I read of several legends of bells ringing on their own. This gave me the first line of the poem: "Some bells ring of their own accord." In a kind of classification set up by the first word, I followed with: "Some need the boy who pulls the rope / and is lifted off his feet on the upswing." The lines that follow begin to explore the subjects of faith and loss of innocence, and the poem culminates in a meditation on a different kind of bell, a wild columbine flower, which I'd seen growing by one of the paths on the property. This led to a reflection on the ruination of the flower's name by the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. I can't ever look at that wildflower without thinking of that terrible and tragic event. This poem is forthcoming in the journal Ploughshares this spring.
Q: Why do you think writing, poetry and art are so important to people?
A: Poetry and the other arts confirm and document our human experiences or, as the poet Robert Hass has said, make images of a livable common life. Poetry in particular, which is the art of language, has as its very medium something inseparable from thought and deeply encoded within us. It also has the power to transform or transport others. I don't like to go a day without reading at least one poem.
Q: How does it feel to get to speak at McDaniel and share your passion with students?
A: I'm honored, humbled, and quite excited to share my work and my experiences with the McDaniel students and staff. I hope that my visit honors the spirit and memory of alumnus and poet Christopher Bothe and that I'll inspire students the way visiting writers inspired me when I was in college. It's truly an honor to join the long list of distinguished poets to have visited McDaniel in Chris's name.