Lisa Starr wraps up five years as poet laureate

Tue, 12/04/2012 - 3:37pm

As Lisa Starr and I walk outside chatting, she kneels down to inspect a praying mantis, fascinated by the tiny creature, and she muses about how it’s a good luck sign.

Later, as we sit crossed-legged on the back porch of the Hygeia House, where Lisa serves as innkeeper, she’s distracted. Her cat is determined to hunt down the mantis, but Lisa won’t have it. She eventually jumps up, scoops up the cat and brings it inside, all while continuing her train of thought.

Lisa is a poet who observes everything thoughtfully — from that praying mantis, to her two teenage children, to birds outside the post office.

And for the past five years, Lisa’s served as Rhode Island’s Poet Laureate, a position appointed by the governor and with a mission to advocate poetry. It’s a job that has no set hours, no lengthy description, and no specific listed duties, but Lisa took charge of the role like no other state Laureate before her.

Her five-year term is up, and despite being slightly relieved, she’s not going to stop her efforts to spread the gift of poetry.

This includes a statewide poetry pen-pal system between students and the elderly; poetry circles in hospitals, homeless shelters, and even the state prison; and readings and workshops across the state and beyond.

“It’s been a really fast five years,” she said. “For me it’s an opportunity to do the work I always wanted to do, and to work with those who need the language.”

A space where people can be heard

Lisa is involved with a group called Ocean State Poets, a nonprofit outreach group of about 25 volunteers and about three dozen programs that specializes in helping marginalized communities. It has created published writers out of those in the men’s prison, and has allowed the homeless to compete in poetry competitions.

“I don’t have solutions to the problems,” these communities face, Lisa explained. “But it’s an improvement to me if the truth can be heard.”

Lisa tells a tale of an awards ceremony where Ocean State Poets presented a poetry reading. The poem of choice was an amalgamation of many different lines originating from Ocean State’s poetry groups. The reading gave a voice to senior citizens, to students, to those in hospitals, homeless shelters and more.

But even all this wasn’t encompassing enough — listeners at the ceremony were then encouraged to participate, too, by being asked to read lines of the poem.

“That was really cool,” she said, “to reach people we’d never been able to with poetry, and they got to own those lines.”

Beyond outreach groups, in her role as Poet Laureate Lisa taught at various state schools, including the University of Rhode Island, and traveled all over giving talks, hosting poetry circles and workshops. Some of her favorite destinations: Yosemite, Norway, England, and the Library Of Congress, to name a few.

“I love traveling,” she said. “Traveling gives the gift of anonymity... No one bugs me in the airport. I’m deliriously happy with rotten airport food.”

But while traveling also provides a contrast for her Block Island life, where things can become all-too-familiar, she’s still rooted to this island, tending to the Hygeia summertime and weekends.

“I knew I needed to be living here on the island,” she said. “I can’t see myself being Poet Laureate of another state.”

This place here

A Southern Connecticut native, Lisa came to Block Island to waitress at Dead Eye Dick’s. That’s when she became hooked to the island — and to the Hygeia house, then a forlorn, abandoned building that was supposedly haunted.

“I used to hide up here,” says Lisa, motioning to the very porch area we’re sitting on talking, “with a notebook and write poems on the deck.”

It was the perfect escape for a poet. The hilltop location provided her a breathtaking view of the island, yet the neglected, overgrown grass had shot up so high, no one could see her.

“It was my my place,” she explained. “There’s something about this hilltop that’s important to me.”

So important that in 1998, Lisa and her then-husband bought and renovated the Hygeia House, and Lisa began running the place as an inn during the summertime.

The inn, she explains, occupies much of her summer hours, but also provides a nice breakup of routine: “I can be an innkeeper for six months, and have six months to do my writing.”

And over the years, the Hygeia House continues to serve as Lisa’s place for poetry. She says she still spends much of the time on the porch, gazing at the scenery, watching the birds, and simply living life.

Some of her latest poems, she said, explain the “car-to-kitchen-door-experience” of living on Block Island. “‘This place here’ means the island, this yellow dog, this community, daily routines,” she says, and motions to her dog, Brother, who lies next to us, basking in the November sun.

“I’m told this I have this hallmark ability to recognize the extraordinary in everyday,” she said. “My material has just been my life.”

Inspiration from the everyday

She describes herself as an “untraditional” poet, and said that she didn’t send out her writing to be published until Block Island’s Jill Helterline urged her to compile a book in 1993. “She’d been reading my poems, and asked to see certain poems,” said Lisa. “The poems were published out of need.”

And just as she didn’t initially push to publish her work, she wasn’t the one who sought out the recognition of Poet Laureate; Lisa was nominated by friend Jen Lighty, and then selected by the governor out of a pool of 14 finalists.

Lisa started writing as a little kid, just for fun. But the fun turned into something more meaningful. When she was 11, her father was struck down by illness, and she struggled as she watched him slowly pass away.

“Language was necessary” during this time, she explained. “When my father was dying, nobody said it.” Her writing acted as a way to give voice to thoughts she otherwise didn’t understand, such as upheaval, pain and silence.

“I write when I have to, usually huge grief or huge joy,” she explained. “It’s therapeutic for me.”

Lisa delves into describing a recent experience she witnessed just the other day at the Block Island Post Office.

Two sapsucker birds — one red breasted and one yellow breasted — were near the ground, diving at her feet. Looking down, she noticed that one of the two looked like it had been injured by a car. The other one, she said, looked like the mate.

“I was so devastated, I started crying feeling such sadness,” she said. She plans on writing something about it, but she’s not sure what yet. “What happened was poetic.”

Lisa finds meaning in many things like this. “My kids think I’m nuts,” she said, laughing. Lisa is a mom of two, Orrin, 16, and Millie, 15.

Her children — much to their chagrin — are often a subject of her writing. For example, she recently went to write a poem about Millie, who was bird-watching on the porch.

“Millie tiptoed in, watching me write about her, and she says I have to stop writing down everything,” said Lisa. Lisa later wrote a poem about this conversation.

Lisa stresses the importance of “really being there. Are you holding the door, are you listening and answering?”

The Block Island Poetry Project

Although her Poet Laureate term has ended, Lisa will keep up with the Block Island Poetry project, which she founded in 2004. The poetry event is hosted each spring at the Hygeia House and brings in many well-known poets.

The Block Island Poetry Project was borne out of a sudden inspiration, she says. “I was traveling the country to poetry circles, and would come back thinking I would do things different,” she explained. “It occurred to me, ‘Wait, I could do it.’”

The event is a way to bring creative locals and visitors together, and rejuvenate them after the long winter months, and consists of workshops, readings and other creative crafts.

“I’ve had some great poems of our time at this inn,” she said, and later shows a bookcase in the Hygeia that is graced with volumes of poetry and novels from different poets, poetry circles, and events.

This past year, poets in attendance were Billy Collins, twice America’s poet laureate, and Coleman Barks, known for his interpretations of the third century B.C. Persian poet Rumi.

Lisa can’t say she has just one favorite poet, but does mention she’s a big fan of E.E. Cummings, among many others. “It’s got my attention if it’s got my heart,” she said.

Her advice to aspiring poets: “Keep writing and keep living... It’s more important to get your life right than your poem right.”