Poetry Unites New York
"Poetry Unites New York" features four New Yorkers who read their favorite poems and talk about the impact that the poem has had in their lives. Four amateur writers were chosen from an essay contest asking about their favorite poems. In collaboration with New York State Poet Laureate Marie Howe, who helped judge the essay contest, this film attempts to show how poetry brings people together.
[ Waves crashing ]
Boulos: My first memory was my third birthday
because of the pink cake.
In the American-occupied Japan, food supplies were very scarce,
and I had never seen anything so beautiful.
I guess that pink cake came from one of those G.I.s
that came to our home, to my father's church.
My name is Marita Boulos.
I was born in China by Swedish missionary parents.
I grew up in Japan and the United States and Sweden.
I graduated high school in Japan.
I went to college in Canada and then moved to the United States.
I worked at the United Nations as a tour guide,
and after, I worked in the family business with my husband.
I have a son and a daughter.
My son is 37, and my daughter is 34.
I live in Rouses Point, Upstate New York.
I've only lived here about 6 years,
and after my husband died,
I decided that I needed to change place.
I'm working part-time as a tutor.
I'm active in the church, and I also am a member
of the Friends of the Library in my village.
When I was in 10th grade,
was each student had to memorize a Shakespeare sonnet,
and I memorized it, and that was fine,
but that I've forgotten.
In the same book, there's Shakespeare,
and John Donne is the next poet.
John Donne's "Sweetest Love" --
"Sweetest love, I do not go for weariness of thee,
nor in hope the world can show a fitter love for me.
But since that I shall die at last,
'tis best to use myself in jest, thus by feigned deaths to die.
Yesternight the sun went hence and yet is here today.
He hath no desire nor sense, nor half so short a way:
Then fear not me,
but believe that I shall take speedier journeys,
since I take more wings and spurs than he.
Oh, how feeble is man's power that, if good fortune falls,
cannot add another hour nor a lost hour recall!
But come bad chance, and we join it to our strength,
and we teach it art and length, itself over us to advance.
When thou sigh'st, thou sigh'st not wind
but sigh'st my soul away.
When thou weep'st,
unkindly kind, my life's blood doth decay.
It cannot be that thou lov'st me as thou say'st,
if in mine thy life thou waste, that art the best of me.
Let not thy divining heart forethink me any ill.
Destiny may take thy part and may thy fears fulfill.
But think that we are but turned aside to sleep,
those who one another keep alive, ne'er parted be."
The way he spoke of parting and reuniting was the way
I would like it to be because I was always leaving,
and I knew in my heart that in most cases,
I would never physically see some of these people again.
The only way I would see them again
would be the very end of the poem.
So I had to just rely on that, that I would be with them
only in my thoughts and my memories.
When I read this poem, I was a teenager.
I knew nothing about John Donne's life.
I found out later he had 12 children
with one wife, and he traveled a lot.
Basically, I would have to say,
it's probably better to be a reader of his poem
than to have been his wife.
He was an expert at parting.
But he's telling his wife not to be sad, to,
"Just be happy that I'm away.
I'm going to be away a year or two."
I have met a wonderful person up here,
a man who lives right on the lake.
It sounds funny to me to say "boyfriend."
How do you say it at my age?
Woman: Romantic partner?
Yeah, there you go, yeah.
My romantic partner was born and raised here.
He showed me how important it is
to try to capture something about your past.
Every time a person dies, a library burns down.
My mother was wonderful in creating albums and clippings,
and she kept a past alive to us, but he has nothing like that.
So this has sort of really encouraged me
to do something about recording the past for my children.
"Those who one another keep alive never parted be."
Both my parents and my husband, I just think of them almost as,
sort of, sitting around in a room with...
We're all sort of sitting around
and exchanging our ideas and feelings.
The past is with me much more now
than it was in my middle years.
I was so busy with the daily life of business
and children and things.
A paradise, to me, is a very green place
and very bright,
and, actually, Rouses Point could very well be a paradise,
maybe if it wasn't for the brutal winters.
[ Dog barking ]
This house was built in 1890.
This house has had four owners, I believe, before us.
The happiest day of my life, without question,
is the day of the birth of my children, hands down.
I mean, second, my wedding day, that was pretty awesome.
No offense, babe.
-It's fine. -Yeah.
The babies, you know, they were amazing.
That was quite an ordeal.
So that's the Victrola.
It was owned by a friend of ours down in town.
My grandfather's, on my dad's side, his bookshelf,
this was also made in Little Falls, and I...
It was made in, I think, the 1920s.
I've went to the University of Rochester
where I've got my master's degree there,
and now I teach at Herkimer County Community College
where I teach lots of crazy stuff.
I teach writing, intro to literature,
the poetry, Shakespeare, and I developed a class on horror film
because I have an interesting fascination with it.
I am Matt Powers.
I am the husband to Laura Powers,
my beautiful wife, and the father
to Logan and Declan, and I'm 31 years old.
We live with two dogs, and we have three cats
and two guinea pigs.
My grandparents were born here.
and they were first-generation immigrants here.
I have a very profound sense of belonging to this area
because my family was here, and my wife's family is here,
and all my friends and relatives and the village I love is here,
and the house I love is here.
Even the furniture and our animals, too,
everything, everything is from this area.
My favorite season, I think, would have to be late summer,
early fall, oh, winter.
Well, my least favorite season, without a doubt, is winter.
Winter is not for me.
Maybe that's why I like this poem of Mark Strand,
"Lines for Winter."
"Tell yourself as it gets cold, and gray falls from the air,
that you will go on walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where you find yourself:
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white of the moon's gaze
in a valley of snow. Tonight, as it gets cold,
tell yourself what you know, which is nothing,
but the tune your bones play as you keep going.
And you will be able for once to lie down
under the small fire of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot go on or turn back,
and you find yourself where you will be at the end,
tell yourself in that final flowing of cold
through your limbs that you love what you are."
Some days, I read this poem,
and I read it with a sort of biting, miserable edge, like,
"Tell yourself you love what you are, you scumbag."
That's kind of how I feel, sometimes.
Other times, I feel more positively about it:
"Tell yourself you love what you are,"
and I find the ability
to read the same words with different tone
to be incredibly powerful and very adaptable.
When I first read it, it really struck a chord with me
in a way that brought me comfort,
despite, you know, I will eventually die or life
sometimes gets hard that I have to go on.
Most recently, it's taken on a new dimension
for me because of my -- the boys and...
I think [clears throat]
I think about them, sorry,
and they have to go on.
Both of my sons were born January 1st at 26 weeks
and 5 days, which is almost a full trimester early,
and they spent several months in NICU because of that.
There was a time where we didn't know
if they were going to make it, and when...
Logan came home before Declan.
I don't remember the dates though.
2 months, 2 1/2 months.
It was March 3rd and March 16th.
But after March 16th, they've been home with us
full-time, and it's been a whirlwind of diapers,
of feedings, of late nights, of no sleep.
It is the most beautiful, wonderful thing in the world
when they look up at you and they smile.
I used to run every day, and now it's once, twice a week.
The only thing, like, I manage to really do consistently from
before babies to after babies is read.
Mark Strand did have a very nice book about Edward Hopper.
I can see myself in those paintings.
They're very familiar.
The characters in the Hopper paintings,
I'm not sure if I'd let them anywhere near my sons.
They seem so impassive.
They're just concerned about themselves,
and to take care of a child,
you have to put yourself behind you.
No. No babysitting for them.
I am ambitious, and I try to be better.
I just try to be perfect, and it's stupid.
It's silly. I know I can't be perfect.
You cannot be perfect, but I can't help myself.
I have to try.
This poem does help me stop feeling some guilt in a way.
It makes me come to terms with who I am as a person.
White: My wife and I toured this building,
and I just felt so much emotion being in that building.
I just felt the presence of the past, you know,
and the people and the suffering.
Few months ago, I had a poem in the "Buffalo News"
about Niagara Falls, using it as a metaphor
for what a breakdown feels like.
My name is Paul White.
I'm 53 years old.
I'm married to Nancy Mueller, who's a librarian.
I was born in a suburb of Buffalo, New York,
and been here all my life.
We have two cats that we treat like our children...
[ Laughs ]
...which is kind of silly, but animals are a wonderful thing.
Nancy and I have been married 23 years,
best decision I ever made in my life.
She means everything to me, very happy,
happy to live here in Buffalo,
and it's a wonderful life when you learn how to live it.
I work as a registered nurse, and I love my job.
It's the second best thing I ever did.
That's always a joke my wife and I have.
What's the grumpy face for, hmm?
When I was 17, I was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.
I was having delusions, and it was like having a dream,
you know, and I started acting as if the dream were real,
and at first it was a very good dream,
but then the dream started to fall apart
because I could make no sense
of what was going on inside of myself.
So I was admitted to the hospital.
I went to the hospital willingly, you know?
I remember on the ride in the hospital,
on the way to the hospital, my father was driving the car,
and my mom was in the car, and I was in the back seat,
and I was just sobbing, sobbing, sobbing.
I remember my mom saying, "Let it all out.
Just let it all out,"
and I remember my dad started crying, driving.
It was so hard to go back to school.
It was incredibly hard to go back to school.
Couple of years later, and I was deep in recovery,
I mean, I was still very anxious, so...
And I was in therapy at the time,
and I went to visit my aunt in New York,
and I bought a book by David Ignatow.
When I read poetry, I look to find what sings in me.
I look to find what I say, "Yes, that's...
I know what that is entirely."
poem -- "Sunday at the State Hospital."
"I'm sitting across the table eating my visit sandwich.
The one I brought him stays suspended near his mouth.
His eyes focus on the table and seem to think,
his shoulders hunched forward.
I chew methodically,
pretending to take him as a matter of course.
The sandwich tastes mad, and I keep chewing.
My past is sitting in front of me,
filled with itself and trying with almost no success
to bring the present to its mouth."
I knew immediately when I read this poem
that it was about someone in a mental hospital.
I knew from personal experience.
Yeah, this poem shows an ability
to be engaged with normal reality,
you know, an inability to be present.
It meant so much to me to find poems
written by David Ignatow about his schizophrenic son.
I can't tell you how much that meant to me,
that someone would talk about it
because what I found from my experience
is that people wouldn't talk about it.
I was nervous about talking about it,
and people were nervous about hearing me talk about it.
I read in David Ignatow's notebooks this...
The son would go on rages,
and he would tear up his notebooks,
and he threw them in the Hudson, and David Ignatow was terrified.
He wanted to be like Hercules and wrestle his son
"back whole to us," he said.
But he helped me, helped me so much.
He was the first person I ever read
who made me feel like I could be a writer.
Finding a way to express yourself heals.
Finding your voice inside yourself heals.
Finding other people who write about things
that mean something to you heals.
What saved my life was psychotherapy,
very good psychotherapy and poetry.
Yes, there's no doubt.
Oh: My dad reads a lot, but he reads in Korean.
He loves James Joyce.
Since he's very involved with the Buddhist temple,
he's started to read a lot of Buddhist texts.
In Buddhism, fish stands for good luck.
My favorite fish is salmon, and my dad knows this,
so whenever he goes to the market for the store,
and he thinks the salmon is good,
he brings a lot of it home.
I remember going up to her as a child,
and I remember grabbing her hand,
and she was touching roses, and her hands were very rough.
They were always cut, and I asked her, "Why?
What's wrong with your hands?"
And my mom say, "Oh, I'm working."
To some people, running a grocery store may not be a lot,
but I think to come to a new country,
to build something like that from absolutely nothing,
I'm very proud of them.
My name is Rosanna.
I was born in Korea,
and I moved here with my parents when I was 2 months old,
and I grew up in Jericho, Long Island,
with my parents and my two younger brothers.
I graduated from Yale in 2010,
and since then,
I've earned an MFA in poetry from Johns Hopkins
and an MA in English literature.
I was a very obedient child.
I felt like, you know, as the oldest daughter,
I had to set an example for my younger brothers,
so I listened to what my parents said.
I had a lot of time at the store,
so I would spend my time reading novels,
and then I just started writing poems just naturally
because of a teacher in middle school.
Then I started reading poetry.
Poetry will always be a part of my life.
I will always read. I'll always make time for it.
"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden --
"Sundays, too, my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blue-black cold,
then with cracked hands that ached from labor
in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze.
No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know?
What did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?"
Reading the poem led to a revelation
that needed to happen, I think,
for me to better understand myself, who I am.
So the poem made me think about my family because at that time,
when I first encountered the poem,
it was very easy for me to compare myself
to people who I thought had better lives than me,
whatever that meant,
and this poem made me realize the binaries I was setting up
were false and shallow, you know, superficial.
If I just looked close enough,
everything that I needed was around me.
It stayed with me.
That means that the poem is very good,
you know, if it stays with you.
I haven't been back here for seven years,
and while I like it here,
I'm looking forward to the next stage in my life.
I think one of the happiest days was getting into Yale.
Everything in my life
that I had done up to that point was affirmed.
Neal's graduation was very important to us, too.
I hope Yale is not the climax of my life
because that would be very sad.
[ Laughs ]
[ Man chanting in foreign language ]
Oh: Like an ethical question, actually,
because I grew up in a working-class background,
and to go into academia was very,
to me, very self-indulgent.
You are reading this book just for you, you know?
Like, there are people out there who are working.
They're like my parents, like, standing up,
like, 13 hours a day, working, and so to...
It's a very luxurious lifestyle compared to that.
I've -- I want to be a working poet.
I don't just want to be a poet, like, applying for grants
and, like, waiting for money.
I cannot live like that.
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