June 2011 Issue
A Way With Words
For more than 20 years, the Greenville Poets have supported, encouraged and critiqued each other’s work.
The components are simple: wine, some good food, a table, printed words on paper and the collegiality of longtime friends. Then the conversation starts. Since it’s a monthly meeting of the Greenville Poets, nothing stays simple for long.
“We’re very critical, but we’re very supportive of each other, too,” says one of the members, Cathryn Essinger. “We’re long past trying to impress each other.”
“Sometimes I disagree vehemently with what someone else at the table is saying,” says another poet, Myrna Stone. “I don’t think everybody’s always right about things.”
“I think you have to be together a long time,” adds Lianne Spidel, “to have the honesty that we can have about each other’s work without hurting each other.”
Writing is normally a solitary pursuit, as true of poetry as anything else. And once one completes a poem, all alone, there follows the anxiety-inducing process of bringing the new creation out into the light, for others to see. This is why writers groups exist, but anybody who’s ever been part of one knows two things: They’re not always helpful, and they’re hard to keep going.
Somehow, Essinger, Stone, Spidel and the three other wordsmiths who comprise the Greenville Poets have figured it out. In one form or another, they have been meeting monthly, sharing and critiquing and shaping each other’s work, for more than 20 years. They count each other’s input and support so vital to their creative process that at this point, none of them can imagine trying to write without the chance to run their work past their colleagues — often, to have that writing wrung through difficult, harsh critique.
In fact, the tougher the better. That’s just what they want.
“For me, the days we get together are sacrosanct,” says David Lee Garrison. He’s not kidding — at least two of his fellow group members use the very same word to describe their meetings.
So what do the members do each month that makes the gathering “sacrosanct”?
The Greenville Poets began in that small Darke County city in 1985, when poets Miriam Vermilya, Myrna Stone and Belinda Rismiller got together to start sharing work. Lianne Spidel and Cathryn Essinger joined four years later, and a few years after that David Lee Garrison, Erika Tweed and Deanna Pickard came on board, all of them residents of the Ohio terrain between the Dayton suburbs, Greenville and the Miami County area. In addition to working monthly with each other, they appear as a group for readings, classes and workshops around the state.
Vermilya, Tweed and Pickard have passed away in recent years, memorialized to this day on the group’s website, greenvillepoets.org, which also contains sample poems from the members. Two years ago, Garrison’s wife, Suzanne Kelly-Garrison, joined the Poets, bringing the group back up to six — the average size it’s been all along, and at which it’s likely to stay.
“Six feels about right,” David Garrison says. Guests are occasionally invited to sit in, but none in the group expects to add more permanent members. “It’s the right number to give everybody the chance to get what they need from a meeting,” he says.
They meet on the third Sunday of the month, from about 1 to 5 in the afternoon, usually at Stone’s house in Greenville — a gorgeous, restored home from the 1760s that she and her husband moved to Ohio from Rhode Island. After talking about business — upcoming readings, contests, awards, events and such — they settle down to business. One at a time, each shares a poem, passing out printed copies, face down. The writer reads the piece aloud, and the others “just listen, for the sound of it ... ,” Garrison says. “They’ll just process it. It takes a few minutes, and then when everybody is ready to say something, we go around the table and offer suggestions, criticisms — take this line out, say, or this is a cliché, or that’s a great poem, or it’s not your best.
“We try to combine sensitive, but also honest, criticism. Good enough friends really can do that.”
“They are good at picking out what doesn’t work,” notes Spidel. Adds Kelly- Garrison, “They’re like a court of appeals, very thorough in their analysis and judgment, asking probing questions: ‘Why did you do this?’ ‘How is this working?’ This isn’t just a social club. Everyone is very committed to the quality of each other’s work.”
So, what do these friends bring to one another?
Garrison, who lives in Oakwood in suburban Dayton, is a retired professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Wright State University, and has been writing poetry for years. He has published 11 books, including two poetry chapbooks. He favors free verse, has been published in numerous journals and has had two poems selected for inclusion in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” radio program. One of his poems, “Driving with Uncle Bailey,” is in Keillor’s new anthology, Good Poems, American Places
(Viking). “I tend to write about people,” Garrison says. “I’m not much of a nature poet. People are what interest me.”
His wife, Suzanne Kelly-Garrison, is the newest member of the group. She taught law at Wright State and has been a fiction writer most of her life, having turned to poetry fairly recently — and gratefully. “My poetry is fairly lyrical. I have a couple of degrees in English, so I was brought up with Yeats and Wallace Stevens being wonderful poets worth emulating — and I’m certainly not trying to write in that style, but I do like to write about ideas and dramatic ironies in life. I think my poetry tends to be narrative, since I write fiction as well. I look for a good story to be told. But I think my poetry writing has informed my fiction writing, and vice-versa; poetry forces you to be very precise and imagistic.”
Lianne Spidel, who lives in Greenville, is a retired high school and college English teacher who misses the days when she could work closely with her students on how to write better; it led her to want to push and work on her own creative writing. She likes free verse as much as she likes formal poetry, and “I’m not much for rhyming verse, but I like rhythmic patterns.” Topics? “Whatever happens to come along.” She has published a chapbook, and will see her first book of poetry, What To Tell Joseme
, published this summer by Main Street Rag Publishing, a North Carolina house. “I’m so proud of it,” she says. “It’s about time.”
Belinda Rismiller, who also lives in Greenville, has had a number of jobs over the years that have added to her life and writing experience. “My poetry is mostly free-style, free verse,” she says. “I’m a child of Darke County, of the earth — a farming background, a rural background, and that’s where my poetry comes from: everyday, rural life. What you do if you’re raised poor, if you’re raised with animals, with farming. I identify a lot with [American Indians] and their connection to the earth.”
Myrna Stone considers herself “something of a maverick” in her poetry: “Most people who write poems start young, drawn to meter or rhymed verse; I started out doing free verse and over the course of three books, have become a formal poet,” says the 2011 Ohioana Book Award finalist. She works with difficult, set forms such as the sonnet and the French triolet, a one-stanza, eight-line poem with a tight rhyme scheme. “I try to look at the bigger shape of things,” she says of her work, “not just the poem, but how it will fit into a larger manuscript, how it will fit into a theme.”
Cathryn Essinger, of Troy, has published three books of poetry and has also been featured on “The Writer’s Almanac,” and in several anthologies. Working over the years as a journalist, teacher and freelancer, she calls herself “kind of a whimsical poet. I tried angst many years ago, and I ended up realizing it just wasn’t me. I like to take a light subject and find something significant in it.”
What’s made the Greenville Poets work so well, and hang on as a group for so long?
All agree that seeing each other only once a month for the regular session, not socializing in between, is key. Focusing on the work and staying disciplined is, too. And most of all, each of the members is committed to helping the others improve, be published and grow as poets.
“We’re friends,” Essinger said, “and we’ve kind of grown up together. We started out at about the same level, all kind of self-taught — I mean, we don’t have M.F.A.s in the field, but we went to workshops together and helped each other. And there are just not that many serious poets in Ohio who can get together and work together. There are lots of poets in the world, but to find a group that is actively working, willing to critique, willing to be honest and willing to get together — that’s rare.”
Advice to writers starting a group? Rismiller says: “Find one or two individuals you can start the core group with, have a few basic rules — the fewer the better — and be selective about who else you bring in. You don’t want them to think like you, but you have to be able to sit around the table and exchange ideas and be respectful to one another.”
And, they say, you have to look forward to celebrating each other’s successes, large and small. “Wine,” Rismiller observes, “is always a good thing to celebrate with.”
to read more of the group’s work.
The following are poems with Ohio connections by two of the Greenville Poets.
by David Lee Garrison
from Dayton through corn
and soybeans to Lake Erie,
eat maple nut ice cream
from Woody’s and watch
the barns drift by.
Wave to the people
lolling in porch swings
and they’ll wave back.
Take your time—
stop for LIVE BAIT and fish Honey Creek,
have dinner at Bubbles Burgers,
then see a play
at the Attica Little Theatre.
Ask for directions at a gas station
and three bystanders
will help the attendant
tell you the way
to Milford Center, Marion,
Bucyrus, Chatfield, or Reedtown.
They’ll all wish you a safe trip
and someone will say
Hurry back, now.
The best place to stay
is the Stay Inn,
and the best breakfast
is at the Hen House,
where you’ll want to take a biscuit crust
and sop up the last of the sausage gravy.
Next door you can pick out a Bible
in purple leather for Aunt Gladys
from J & R’s Gospel Gift Shop.
The welcome sign assures you that
Salvation Is All You Need
at the Mechanicsburg
Church of God,
whose fallen parishioners
lie a few steps from the door
with all the time in the world.
Published in I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio
(University of Akron Press), and in Garrison’s book, Sweeping the Cemetery
By Lianne Spidel
During his first orbit, I lay
in a hospital bed, wrapped
in a piano concerto by Brahms
which someone had turned on
by accident, my black-haired son
bundled in his isolette, caught up
in the first of wordless dreams
he would never learn to compromise,
while an Ohio-born traveler
circled our adventure with his own.
When we met him years later,
stumping Ohio in the seventies,
he crinkled his eyes and said
I looked like Annie. She told me
they ate by candlelight every night,
even if it was only hot dogs.
Last week my son, late bloomer,
weightless with euphoria, married
the girl he said he had to have,
and today the old astronaut,
launched safely again into space,
comments on the beauty of Hawaii,
where perhaps the honeymooners
find a moment to shield their eyes
and scan the sky.
On my refrigerator a clipping—
Annie brave in a pale hat,
her balding husband’s hand
on her shoulder, reminder
that all adventurers who soar
must then descend, survive
the terrors of re-entry, and find
their footing on this common ground.
for John and Annie Glenn
and John and Sara Spidel, October 1998
Published in Wisconsin Review
, Vol. 35, Issue 2, 2001, and I Have My Own Song For It: Modern Poems of Ohio
University of Akron Press, 2002