We’ve gotten out of the habit of paying attention. While hunched over phones, we consume information rapidly with limitless accessibility. The internet is a source that asks very little of its recipients and has created a culture sans critical thinking.
But, through their work, artists such as San Antonio’s 2016-2018 Poet Laureate Jenny Browne challenge us to do more. Poetry has historically been a contemplative place to question and respond in an exchange of consciousness between writer and reader. It requires observation, thought, study and analytical thinking.
So how does a modern poet interact with this tough crowd – an audience with no attention span to whom poetry isn’t palatable or easily digested?
“Poetry offers a cheap, democratic opportunity to someone who is paying a heightened state of attention,” Browne said. “I think poetry is both deeply adored and misunderstood. What should we do with poetry is to acknowledge that is has a higher purpose. You don’t have to be any smarter or more dramatic or self destructive to write it, but you do have to pay better attention.”
Bestowed with the honor in March of this year, Browne is San Antonio’s third poetry public servant of sorts. When her new title as poet laureate is mentioned, Browne finds it is met with enthusiasm quickly followed by confusion.
“Everyone’s been saying, ‘That’s so cool,’” she said. “What does that mean, exactly?’”
It means that San Antonio has created an official city position designated for a poetry representative, suggesting that having a voice for poetry remains a valuable thing.
Browne doesn’t take her new position lightly. Since her investiture, she has been speaking and leading workshops all over the city at the Carver Library, Ricardo Romo Bibliotech, the NISD Student Poetry Awards Banquet, Celebration of Women’s Voices benefitting Family Violence Prevention Services Inc., and Zachry.
“The spectrum of who I’m reaching is really important to me. I’m an academic now, but I worked for the Texas Arts Commission previously,” Browne said. “In some ways, this position is a continuation of the work that I have been doing for 20 years.”
Browne has published three collections of poems and two chapbooks, including her latest chapbook, Welcome to Freetown, which was released this year.
“Since taking its position, people have come out of the woodwork – people who were closet poets,” she said. “They used to think they could do this and somewhere along the way got lost.”
Browne’s eyes lit up as she discussed her plans for one of the most exciting responsibilities designated to the city’s poet laureate – her “signature initiative.” The project will be a collective “lost and found” that will launch in April 2017.
Careful not to divulge too many details, Browne noted that the work will center around celebrating San Antonio’s Tricentennial – which is in May 2018 – through the act and art of remembering.
“We can’t fully consider where we are without thinking of where we’ve been and what we’ve lost along the way,” Browne said. “By naming what we’ve lost, we find it differently.”
The elegiac initiative also will pay homage to our city’s namesake, Saint Anthony, the saint of lost things. Browne’s hope is to create something that is individual, personal and collective to reflect the belief that any one person’s struggle is all of our struggle.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear Browne in person, below are some opportunities:
- Aug. 25 – Poetry with a Purpose featuring Jenny Browne at Carmens de la Calle
- Sept. 28 – Collaboration with the Telling Tales: Contemporary Narrative Photography exhibit at the McNay Art Museum
- Sept. 29 – Moderating “Here, Bullet” at Gemini Ink
- Oct. 6 – Poetry Reading with Naomi Shihab Nye at Villa Finale
- Nov. 8 – Briscoe Museum of Western Art Book Club meeting at the Briscoe Western Art Museum
- Nov. 17 – Moderating “Seam” at Gemini Ink
“There’s a reason why poetry has been with us this long,” she says. “We look to newspapers for information, but we look to poetry for the full landscape of human emotion…it’s how magic works, it’s how religion works – there’s something about speaking a thing into existence.”
In honor of creating, remembering and repeating, Browne has written an original piece specifically for the Rivard Report readers. Enjoy.
Peace. Love. Poetry.
Late Summer Elegy
I keep forgetting
which part of my body
I’m supposed to use
for lifting whole seasons
of unpredictable rage
& flowering. Maybe
the old maps can show
where land & sea
once touched painlessly?
Was it my terror
or my sigh? Thumb
or thigh? I have
into the skid
but I did not come here
by machine. I did not
come to carry that gun.
Did you know
the average human
only seven seconds?
beginning this poem
& I still haven’t given
my neighbor a fish
or asked the glacier
Top image: San Antonio’s 2016-2018 Poet Laureate Jenny Browne. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.