Celebrate National Poetry Month with These Cincinnati Poets

We checked in with four local poets to talk beginnings, inspiration, and honing the craft amid a pandemic.

Photographs courtesy of Matt Hart, Roberta Schultz, and Geoffrey Woolf.

It’s been 25 years since the American Academy of Poets kicked off National Poetry Month, a yearly celebration of the written word. Today, the academy calls it the world’s largest literary celebration.

To celebrate National Poetry Month’s silver anniversary, we checked in with some of our favorite local poets to chat about when they got started, why they write, and how the events of the past year have influenced their work.

Geoffrey Woolf, Columbia Township

Photograph courtesy of Geoffrey Woolf.

How long have you been a poet? I published my first poem during my senior year in high school. So if you measure that way, let’s call it 34 years.

Why do you write poetry? I think people find the genre that suits their temperament. I’d love to be a fiction writer or even a philosopher, but I don’t have the discipline or attention span for either of those things.

Have you found poetry helpful over the last year or so? Poetry has been a little stressful for me during the pandemic. My new book came out just as the lockdowns were starting. I was looking forward to traveling and doing readings with this one. So that stings a bit. I don’t write well during times of stress or unhappiness, so poetry has been very much on hold for me.

What is your favorite part of the process? Honestly, I don’t enjoy much about the writing process. It’s like Dorothy Parker said: “I hate writing. I love having written.” I think I’m a bit of a frustrated comedy writer. For the majority of my poems, I get a punchline or an ending stuck in my head, and I can’t clear my mind until I write my way up to that punchline. I do most of my drafting in my head, so by the time I sit down to write, the poems are uncomfortably taking up space in my brain.

Are there any recurring topics that continue to find their way into your work? I think the vast majority of what I write has to do with people finding ways to make meaningful existences for themselves while struggling with a world that has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. I return again and again to old testament storytelling, variations on “a guy walks into a bar” jokes and what I call “fake ekphrastic” poetry, which instead of being poetic descriptions of real works of art, are poems describing imaginary works of art.

Read “God” and “Amputees,” which appeared in issue 82 of “CutBank,” and check out Woolf’s most recent book, “Fontaine’s Golden Wheel Fortune Teller and Dream Book.”

Roberta Schultz, Wilder, Kentucky

Photograph courtesy of Roberta Schultz.

How long have you been a poet? I’ve been a poetry lover since Miss Gosney, my seventh grade teacher, told us to drop our grammar books and notice the snow by writing about it. She collected our scribbles in her notebook, so we figured we were published. But I began writing poems in earnest about 10 to 12 years ago.  I’ve been a songwriter since I was a child and a literature teacher for most of my adult life. It finally occurred to me that I could also write my own poems more often and not just encourage my students to both appreciate and create theirs.

Why do you write poetry? Poetry has become a lens through which I make sense of the world. Reading it used to be a kind of meditation for me over the years.  Now, I find that writing it helps me process new information and emotions. When I reviewed books for WVXU’s former cultural program, “Around Cincinnati”, I sometimes wrote poems about the books before tackling the scripts for my on-air reviews. Since I often reviewed authors published by academic presses for the program, this poetry pre-writing helped me process scientific texts about paleontology, ornithology and even the study of tree rings.

Have you found poetry helpful over the last year or so? I’m not sure I would have made it through the pandemic without poetry.

What is your favorite part of the process? I love drafting poetry, but have to admit that revising and editing feels a lot like sculpting—or how I imagine visual artists feel when they move and change their media. There’s “hands-on” thrill to moving words around until they feel just right to me.

Are there any recurring topics that continue to find their way into your work? I can’t stop writing about my family of origin. I can’t stop writing about places I used to live. I can’t stop writing about the natural world. There are so many little photos in time swirling about my head, things I wish I’d said to people who are gone.

Read “On Reading ‘Skeleton Keys’ by Brian Switek” in literary zine Panoply and check out poems from Schultz’s most recent chapbook, “Touchstones.

Lisa Ampleman, Colerain

How long have you been a poet? When I was four, I dictated a story to my mom and then drew the pictures. Since then, I’ve always been writing.

Why do you write poetry? I was just wired to be this way. Also, writing poetry helps me synthesize my experience of the world and share it with others. It helps me process the everyday and the mystical and the cosmic and the nitty-gritty. It makes me feel more alive.

Have you found poetry helpful over the last year or so? Yes, tremendously. Particularly as a reader. Poems are short bursts, usually, so I’m able to read one at a time if my brain is particularly distracted or can’t sustain reading longer works. Reading and writing poetry has often helped me process my own emotions. During the pandemic, especially in the beginning when we were physically apart from each other, reading poetry was a way to feel connected to others. And it’s an escape: I’ve become very interested in space and spaceflight in the past year, so reading poetry with those motifs or subjects, in addition to nonfiction, helps me feel like I’ve escaped to somewhere else.

What is your favorite part of the process? Sometimes I like thinking of an idea for a poem and letting it marinate while I live my life (I’m a working mom), until I have time and energy to sit down and write. Other times, I love to take a draft of a poem and rewrite it, perhaps drastically, to make the poem better, particularly after I’ve gotten feedback from a reader or readers and have a chance to re-see it.

Read “There’s a Bobcat in the Neighborhood,” “Transfiguration,” and “Appropriate Care” in The Shore, an online poetry publication, and check out Ampleman’s most recent book, Romances.

Matt Hart, Westwood
Photograph courtesy of Matt Hart.

Why do you write poetry? To transcend, undermine, explode and otherwise reconfigure the constraints and limitations of ordinary life. To surprise myself and others. To get to the things that are on mind that I have no idea are on my mind. To correspond and co-respond with the Vast and the Void. To connect, to sing, to invent, to play—seriously and absurdly with exuberance.

What is your favorite part of the process? I write every day, and I love the drafty discovery phase of things. I never know what I’m going to write until I sit down and start putting words on the page. It’s a process of stumbling around in the dark until suddenly a light comes on (or sometimes, anyway). It might be a single bulb, or a stadium, or a sky full of starburst, but so much of life is darkness.

Are there any recurring topics that continue to find their way into your work? The search itself (the process of being alive) is a recurring theme for me—the search for meaning, for generosity, for empathy, for attentiveness, for how to be and be better, for how to live and what to do. I don’t think it’s art’s job to solve the world’s problems. Art’s job is to make us better people than we are (to make us the people we might be) so that we can solve the world’s problems in other more practical ways.

Tell me about one of your recent books. The following is from the afterword to my book, “The Obliterations,” which came out in 2019: I call these poems “obliterations” because very often they began by rioting with and against something—an experience, a feeling, an idea—or, in many cases, another poem/poet. Nothing here is factual, but everything is true. Sometimes the scaffolding or formal architecture of the original source remains with entirely new contents. Sometimes the result is not at all like what I started with, either in terms of form or content.

Read Hart’s work in The Literary Review, Sporklet, Kenyon Review, and Academy of American Poets.

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