He loves poetry and wishes he could write it. Meantime he’s inspired by hanging with poets.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, April 20, 2024 – I have been hanging out with poets this past week, which means I’m again keenly aware of my inadequacies as a writer.

I’m jealous of the way poets can come up with a story or theme, build it with rhythm in a couple dozen lines, make it rhyme or not, then turn it loose on audiences.  People gasp in admiration, or they moan in empathy.  They applaud, or in a relatively new trend, they snap their fingers in approval, often while the poem is still being read or recited.

Poets learn to dress funkier, add facial expressions, and woo their live audiences.  Then when we poetry fans are in our T-shirts and sweatpants at home, reading our favorite poets’ work in the friendly-sized little books they produce, our imaginations kick-in and we feel like we’re jiving again in some hip club.

When you see ethanol plants named for the way poets work, you know you’re in a place where poetry is highly regarded. (Photo by POET, LLC)

Meanwhile, we writers of prose are told that we’ve got to grab our readers’ attention in the first three or four seconds, or they’ll click right on over to YouTube or TikTok.  The best I can do with my columns, which seem to me to require a whole lot more time and labor than my poet friends invest, is to evoke an occasional grin or smirk.

Enough whining.

Monday night, I was part of a packed house at Teehee’s Comedy Club in downtown Des Moines. Six actresses from the professional Iowa Stage Theatre Company did what they call a “Scriptease” reading of a new collection of poems, “The Inheritance of Women,” being written by my friend Suzanna de Baca.  They are powerful poems about the experiences – some awful – of women she’s known.

You should recognize de Baca as one of my sidekicks in the Iowa Writers Collaborative, where she writes “Dispatches from the Heartland,” mostly poems on a wide range of topics, and they’re fantastic.  At the recent height of the Caitlin Clark experience, de Baca gave us “7 Haikus for Women’s Basketball” – look ’em up if you haven’t already read them.

Suzanna de Baca, talking to the audience Monday night.

As interesting part of de Baca’s seemingly-sudden success with poetry is that almost no one – even Suzanna herself – saw it coming.  She’s the very busy CEO and top editor at Business Publications Corp., producing multiple glossy & online feature magazines and the always-newsy weekly Business Record.  When Julie Gammack, founder of the Iowa Writers Collaborative, persuaded de Baca to come aboard as a columnist, “I thought she was going to write about business! We all did. And then she started doing all these wonderful poems.” 

Poetry has been been a fascination since her youth, de Baca told the crowd Monday night, one that she’s having fun pursuing again.

My goodness, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

This weekend, I’ve been hanging out at the “Poetry Palooza,” which the last two years has been an event co-sponsored by the Iowa Poetry Association and Humanities Iowa. 

Last year’s palooza was at the Mainframe Studios downtown, and this year it moved to Grand View University, which seems a more comfortable home for it.  It has a good start toward becoming the major success that the Des Moines National Poetry Festival was in a 15-year run until about 2005.

The palooza is featuring workshops, classes, competitions and performances for dozens of poets from high school students to retirees.  Included are instruction and readings from former Iowa Poet Laureate Debra Marquart of Iowa State University, current Iowa Poet Laureate Vince Gotera of the University of Northern Iowa, and Kansas Poet Laureate Traci Brimhall of Kansas State University.

After an opening reception Friday night, Iowa poetry icon James Autry, 91, of Des Moines, did a reading of several of his poems.  He then took part in honoring Deb Marquart with this year’s “James A. Autry Achievement Award for Poetry & Leadership.”  And both helped honor the late Lucille Morgan Wilson, the longtime editor of the Iowa Poetry Association’s annual “Lyrical Iowa” book, as the first “Honorary Poet Laureate.”

James Autry reading at the Poetry Palooza on Friday night.

Now, let me wind up my salute to the art here by telling my two favorite Iowa poetry stories.

The first is that in 2007, the 20-year-old bio-fuels producer Broin Companies, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., shocked nearly everybody in the industry, including all of its employees, and much of the public by re-naming itself “POET, LLC.”

CEO Jeff Broin assembled as many of his employees as he could pull together in one place and told them, from now on, he wanted them to do their jobs “with the same level of creativity that poets use.”  He explained that the poet “takes everyday words and gives them new meaning. We take the humble corn plant and create products with the potential to change the world.”

He did not say – and I’ve never yet been able to find out – if he’s a fan of poetry, or of any particular poet.

But when the news broke, one well-known poet became a fan of Broin and his POET company. That was Marvin Bell, then serving as the first Poet Laureate of Iowa while continuing his career as a revered professor of poetry at the internationally-known University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

I called up Bell in Iowa City and asked him if he’d heard about Broin re-naming his company.  No, he said.  When I told him the bio-fuels maker was now “POET,” and what Jeff Broin’s explanation had been, Bell said, “Well, I’ll be goddamned!”  Then he added: “That’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard a business leader say about poetry.”

Jeff Broin, the CEO of POET, LLC. (Company photo)

And, finally, I want to share one of the feeble attempts I made to include an original poem in one of my columns.

This was in May, of 1981.  Four years into my column-writing for the Des Moines Register, I decided I didn’t know enough about three or four of the outlying larger cities in Iowa.  So I began scheduling a full week in each of them, writing my columns that week from those cities, meeting as many local leaders and characters as I could.

Davenport was one of those.

“No discussion of the upper crust here would be complete without mention of the venerable and still very active V.O. Figge, 80,” I wrote. “Chairman of the board of the powerful Davenport Bank and Trust Co., he came during the Depression when bank failures were epidemic and restored order in the financial community.”

Miss Hortense Finch, a widely-known school teacher in Davenport, told me, “There is no one like V.O. Figge.  He has built up great trust in the community.  When my friends say ‘Davenport Bank,’ it’s almost like they’re speaking with reverence.”

Another of his past dinner partners described Figge as “a total charmer.”  However, as I learned, he had spent little charm over the years on reporters, who considered him something of a curmudgeon.  When I went to visit him at the bank, asking for an interview, he turned me down.

Nevertheless, I discussed him in one of my Davenport columns, and ended it this way:

V.O. Figge, local biggy,
Doesn’t talk to press.
So for more about this man,
You’ll simply have to guess.

The day after that column was published, I had lunch at the elegant old Davenport Outing Club with that teacher, Miss Finch.

“You know that Mr. Figge and his wife are dear friends of mine,” she said. “In fact, last night we had dinner together, and when I told him I was going to be having lunch with you today, he asked me to give you a message about your column.”

Oh, yeah?

“He liked it!” 

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

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