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The Accidental Poet: Kathie Collins on the life-changing art of writing (and reading) poetryby Page Leggett on February 16, 2021
I’m in awe of poets.
I’m in awe of my friend, Kathie Collins, whose poetry chapbook, Jubilee, is one I reach for again and again.
When I cannot find the words for how I feel, sooner or later it’ll occur to me that someone else has had this feeling before and probably written a poem about it. And I’ll reach for one of my poetry books or head to the Poetry Foundation’s website, and there it will be: a poem that expresses exactly what I’m feeling – and in a lovelier way than my abilities will allow.
“Poetry can change you,” said Collins, the co-founder of Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts. “And, I mean that quite literally. Active engagement with poetry can rewire your brain, make you more empathic and creative.”
A May 2017 story in The CUT shared the results of an experiment on the impact poetry can have on the brain: “Their neurological responses … seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films. The authors also found evidence to support the idea of poetry’s pleasure as a slow-building experience, or what they called a ‘pre-chill.’”
“Next time you’re at a bookstore,” she suggested, “pick up a slender volume – not an anthology – by Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, Tony Hoagland, Naomi Shihab Nye, Terrance Hayes and read it slowly, from beginning to end.”
“You don’t have to write poems to benefit from them any more than you have to be a novelist to benefit from a good novel.”
Kathie earned a Ph.D. in mythology and has studied the Bible as if she were in divinity school. Biblical and mythological references that stump me, jump right off the page for her. And her poetry (Call Me Herod, Jericho Road) is rife with them.
It’s About the Journey, Not the Answer
When I find a poem impenetrable, Kathie doesn’t just give me the answer. She walks me through it, line by line, and helps me find the meaning for myself.
Last year, I took a poetry-reading course through Charlotte Lit. Queens University creative writing professor Julie Funderburk taught the course and shared something astonishing: even poets get stumped while reading poetry.
She told the class that poetry isn’t meant to be read once. Like a song, it’s meant to be heard (read) over and over. Only then, can we pick up on everything the poet has to say.
I find most poems so precise, so economical, so deliberate that I’d presumed everything a poet does is purposeful. But Kathie didn’t choose the poet’s life; it chose her.
‘I hadn’t intended to write one’
“I kind of fell into poetry from academic and personal essay writing,” Kathie said. “One day, I was trying to express a feeling, an awareness, that simply couldn’t be expressed in prose. A particular image kept announcing itself, demanding my attention. My sentences kept getting shorter. And, finally, a shape emerged. It was clearly a poem. I hadn’t intended to write one, but there it was.”
For example, in A Blessing for Self-Discovery, Kathie writes about all the different characters that reside within us (“all your forgotten selves”) and reminds us that there’s something to love about even the most damaged of them:
May you one day re-
discover the lost pieces of your soul,
those loved ones shunned
and shamed for sin,
for unseemliness, unpleasantness
and unwillingness to conform.
May you walk the dark streets
on which your banished inner harlot works,
and find her sauntering –
still unchaste …
May you waltz the asylum aisles,
calling into the dark of each windowless room
for the idiot you have written off …
And may you be
self enough to call out from the highest tower
as you watch these lost ones ambling to your door—
“Welcome home, my darlings!
I know from reading Kathie’s poetry that her inspiration can come from anywhere. She’s written about being a mother and a daughter, the breakup of her first marriage, faith, feminism, her beloved dogs.
“Inspiration generally arrives from the inner world – feelings, relationships, psychological tensions,” she said. “But just as often [it comes] from the natural world. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors during the pandemic and discovered a whole universe in my backyard.”
“My subject matter is all over the place, but I would say I’m typically dancing around issues of being human – trying to figure out who I am, what the world is and searching for meaning in the everyday people and experiences of life.”
The mystery of poetry
Kathie is disciplined about her writing practice. She teaches, takes classes and she’s a member of two different poetry groups that meet monthly to read and discuss each other’s work.
She writes more free verse rather than formal, and her work is usually lyrical, rather than narrative. “Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of both ‘ekphrasis’ (poems written about art/photographs) and prose poetry,” she said. Since, while writing poems, I’ve continued to write essays, papers and short memoir pieces over the years, I don’t always know what form my writing will take before I start.”
How reassuring to know that work that ends up so clean and clear may have started out as amorphous.
Finding the balance in life and verse
Every profession has its challenges, and being a poet is no different. There’s more to it than navel-gazing. “Very few poets make any kind of a living from their work,” she said. “I write to express what’s essential to me. When I’m not writing, I’m not such a happy person to be around, but that doesn’t mean I get the balance right as often as I’d like.”
Kathie’s biggest hurdles as a poet are “finding balance, sitting down to write every day, knowing that no one – and I mean no one – is waiting on my work.”
Actually, there’s at least one fan/friend who is. And I suspect many more.
Enroll in one of Kathie Collins’ classes – or take from any of the writers who teach at Charlotte Lit. Classes range from poetry to memoir and from travel writing to music criticism. Learn more at charlottelit.org.