LEWISTON — What makes a poem a poem?
“You ever wonder how dogs know that a dachshund and a Great Dane are both dogs? How are these poems?” U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith asked a packed crowd at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday night.
Peg Hoffman of Lewiston was handed a microphone by a library employee.
“Poems feel like testimonials,” Hoffman said. “They go beyond telling a story to sharing deep experience with another human being about what happened, and what it meant.”
Smith visited the Lewiston library as part of her project “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities.” She read personal poems from her newest book, “Wade in the Water,” and several poems that she selected from her new poetry anthology titled “American Journal: Fifty Poems for our Time.”
During the reading, Smith opened the floor for participants to reread the selections in their own voices, highlighting the differences in each reader’s interpretation of the work.
Smith continued to ask questions about the meaning and intent of each poem, asking the audience to delve deep between the lines and understand the text.
Lizz Sinclair, director of programs for the Maine Humanities Council, helped organize the event with the Library of Congress.
“They asked us if we wanted to host Tracey, and we said we would be honored to,” Sinclair said. “We reached out to libraries, and then to the 21st Century Youth Leadership Program, and other groups.”
According to previous reporting, the six 21st Century programs throughout Lewiston schools serve more than 450 students and are sought by parents looking for a safe place for children to be engaged after school.
For seven weeks, high school students participating in the after-school program at Lewiston High School have been reading poems from the anthology, analyzing them, and writing their own work, culminating in a few students reading poems from the anthology at Thursday night’s reading.
LaLa Drew has been facilitating the poetry class. The class, centered on Smith’s work, has been introducing students to the power of poetry.
“Poetry is not this lofty thing,” she said. “It’s a great tool to deal with our day to day life. There are really intense things going on, and there are a lot of things (students) need to work through,” she said. “It’s also good to have something fun and exciting for them to look forward to and to explore what poetry can be.”
Drew says she has noticed her students grow since they began the poetry unit.
“We’ve been focusing on lifting up each others’ work and pulling up the strength of it,” she said. “I’ve seen kids become more open, and more daring with what they’ve been willing to put down on paper,” Drew said.
The students had dinner with Smith at Mother India restaurant in Lewiston before the reading, and had a chance to talk with Smith. Milly Simbandushe, a student in the 21st Century program at Lewiston High School, worked on the poetry unit.
Simbandushe said her group read the poems, and shared their views of the poems with the group. Afterward, the group wrote their own original poems and shared them with each other.
“There were moments when everyone opened who they really were,” she said.
“Before this program, I would read poems without having so much interest in them,” she said.
“But after this, I felt like it was really magical,” Simbandushe said. “They gave us the opportunity to learn about poetry. I felt like that was a special key, a key to reveal your feelings,”
“I really love to write,” she said. “Before this program, I didn’t.”
Smith teaches at Princeton University and lives in New Jersey. Earlier Thursday, she read, and had a conversation with audience members at the Norway Memorial Library.
Next, Smith will visit women at the Maine Correctional Women’s Center in Windham to continue her “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities” project.