- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- A GUST OF VERSE : Ellyn Winslow is still relatively new to the local poetry scene, but she’s already making a contribution with the Favorite Poems Project.
Poetry is a funny art these days,” commented Ellyn Winslow, a San Luis Obispo resident, nurse, and practitioner of the craft. “It’s kind of old-fashioned. There’s no market. The readership is decreasing.” Despite this somewhat bleak assessment, Winslow is optimistic about poetry. Downright passionate, in fact. And she’s furnishing an opportunity for other bookish mortals to pay homage to their best-beloved literary giants by reciting or reading their works aloud in a communal space.
The inaugural recitation for the Favorite Poems Project takes place at the Steynberg Gallery on Feb. 1. Subsequent gatherings will occur on the first Sunday of each month, with monthly themes as follows: love poems in February, expressions about family in March, spring in April (daffodils as “jocund company,” anybody?), and animals in May (Robert Burns’
To a Mouse, perhaps?).
Robert Pinsky founded the Favorite Poem Project in 1997, just after he was appointed poet laureate of the U.S. The effort has since been abandoned—after Pinsky’s one-year effort culminated in taped readings—but the idea, in San Luis Obispo at least, is newly astir. Since moving to SLO a year and a half ago Winslow has attended various poetry events, but always remained at the periphery, slowly meeting fellow poets but never reading her own work.
Then, Winslow attended the Cuesta College Writers’ Conference last October. One of the workshop leaders had an arsenal of poems that he had memorized at his disposal.
“I just went, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful to hear Yeats read out again. Or Frost.’ It really reminded me that poetry is an oral art form, that it needs to be read, that it needs to be spoken to be alive,” she explained.
While much of the formatting for the initial reading will be based on the flow of the event, Winslow estimates that it will last two hours, with half of that time dedicated to scheduled readers and the other half following an open mic format. She selected Atascadero poet Nixson Borah as the first reader. In addition, Winslow will come prepared with a few love poems she particularly admires, if the open mic segment needs some encouragement. For attendees who are inspired to participate but without a selected poem, Winslow will also bring several books of poetry from which to cull reading material.
But, ideally, local lovers of poetry will come prepared, some with old friends that trip rhythmically off the tongue, polished with frequent use, and others with acquaintances freshly met. The emphasis, Winslow insists, is not on the quality of the delivery so much as the act of sharing. Participants needn’t memorize their selected poems or sharpen their recitation in front of the bathroom mirror. Nor do they need to censor their selections.
Winslow has always had a fondness for community spaces, particularly those that serve multiple purposes. So an art gallery that its owner transformed into a coffee shop but that also serves as a community concert and lecture hall was precisely what the poet ordered. The Steynberg Gallery has plenty of space for a large crowd—as demonstrated during quarterly pecha kucha sessions at the Monterey Street artistic and cultural hub.
For Winslow, hosting the Famous Poems Project requires that she crack her introverted shell. And she suspects that it will do the same for many other bookish types who can’t resist the lure of poetry. The beauty of her project is that participants don’t have to be poets; they need merely harbor an appreciation for the art form so prestigious that it merits four muses.
As the inimitable Robert Frost stated, “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” The Favorite Poems Project is simply a manner of grasping life by the throat in polite company, surrounded by stimulating art, and with a latte in hand. ∆
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.