Poet in Residence

April 9, 2010
Statement of Dr. Barbara Mossberg,
Pacific Grove Poet in Residence—Pinch me!

I’ll tell you something very funny and wonderful about Pacific Grove and this appointment. Is poetry practical in these days of civic crises? Is it an extravagance, optional, a luxury we cannot afford, a time-waster in these demanding and hurried times? But a doctor—an obstetrician—who had daily responsibility for life and death, thought otherwise. William Carlos Williams wrote, “my heart rouses to bring you news that concerns you and concerns many men. It is difficult to get the news from despised poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” He would know. He saved lives by day, bringing new life into the world, and at night, he saved lives in a different way, writing poetry—and in the process, saved his own life, his own spirit of resilience.

He was not alone. Pacific Grove knows! Like eating, like walking, poetry is something people do for quality of life, for life itself. It is essential to nurture and exercise the soul and heart. But most people think that this activity is something quirky (and charming) about themselves or people they love. If we x-ray a flourishing community, we find bankers, insurers, teachers, presidents, chefs, business owners, massage therapists, mayors, airline pilots, artists, city council members, florists, making  poetry part of their lives, for joy and solace, to organize their thoughts, calm their seething spirits, focus attention on the divine, find beauty and truth and meaning in their lives, and send messages  of hope and comfort.

How fitting of Pacific Grove to identify poetry as a civic function, part of its governance, a city service. Writers have been integral to its history and ethos. Its famous architectural preservation, its vibrant “Main Street” way of life, go hand in hand with its respect for the role of arts in community living. And in fact, poetry has supported and stirred civic spirit from the beginning of civilization, the way people originally came together. Poetry has been at the heart of movements for democracy (including the founding of the U.S.), peace, war, civil rights, and activism on the part of the earth. It has played an indispensable role in civic life from our most ancient times, the root of civic culture, law, philosophy, business, ethics, religion. Poetry was the voice of the community as people gathered around a campfire to share what we know, to listen to each other’s stories and discover we are not alone, and we each are precious. Poetry packages our knowledge and values, and in its lines is resilience for our human condition—there is grace, to forgive ourselves, and there is insight, to find new hope. No wonder this is the place where the wise butterfly Monarchs find a home on their journey, sensing that here is a place on earth that values beauty. No wonder this is place where a Poet is invited “to perch.”

So it is a special honor and excitement for me to have the chance to engage with this historic and iconic city, and contribute to your vision of a poet in residence, to join this work in promoting the practical necessity of poetry in a community committed to its continued vibrancy and resilience and respect for what a community can be in these hectic and confused days.  Thank you,

© Barbara Mossberg

A personal word: I’ve always been a poet, and humored by various generous-spirited communities to organize poetic events. My job titles have been wonderful–President, Dean, Professor (the best of all), Scholar in Residence, Senior Fellow, Fulbright Lecturer, each an incredible opportunity to serve. But to have the title of Poet in Residence! This makes whole my various selves: thank you, Pacific Grove! In honoring me with this title and position, you honor each of your poets, the ethos of your community. You have many “poets in residence,” and I will do my best as a symbol for this amazing community of poetry-minded citizens celebrating the spirit and letter of poetry in our daily life. “Ink is dripping from the corners of my lips, there is no happiness like mine, I have been eating poetry”—Mark Strand. It is my hope to convey such happiness poetry brings to our city’s life.

Reflection: I saw PG as a civic model of creativity long before I came to live on the Peninsula. For example, in my federal appointment as Scholar in Residence at USIA and as ACE Senior Fellow, based in Washington, D.C., I designed and led a program to bring leaders to PG’s Aquarium to see the role of language in promoting a civic culture of respect for earth–how the intersection of language arts and environmental and entrepreneurial interests worked, as a national and global model. And PG called to me like Bali Hai: I came here with the Society of Women Geographers, and stayed at Asilomar, and was so taken with PG’s beauty that I put a continuous stream of photos of that experience on my desk as president of a Vermont college, a promise to myself that someday I would come here to live. I was brought again to PG to speak to the high school, and to keynote the Annual Meeting of the Northern California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and to the business and arts communities of PG for various projects, my go-to place for walking, restaurants for birthdays, cafes for recession cappuccino, massage, nails and hair, hardware, paper, lumber. . .  when I have manuscripts to send out I drive to the PG post office for luck . . . .PG has already invoked  several poems as odes to PG enterprises. So I look forward to learning PG from the poet’s lens, hearing its voices, and giving back in return new words and life out of myself that PG draws forth.

© Barbara Mossberg 2010

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