Rick Benjamin says the threshold instruction of most good poems is: slow down, be alert, wake up. The reason to write poetry is to be of use, he says. The reason to read poetry is that it might change your life.
In our series “whose words these are,” on the practice of poetry today, Rick Benjamin stands out as an activist, a communitarian, a Buddhist, a globalist, a family man who’s always telling his kids: “Remember, talk to strangers.”
He lives by Rumi’s line from 13th Century Persia: “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” It’s the idea that gets him up in the morning, and animates his classes at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design on “Poetry in Service to Schools and the Community.”
In an essay on pedagogy, Benjamin writes: “Poets are such good teachers, and their learning catches you in ways that very few other things will. . . . Making poetry is not worth doing if you aren’t trying to bring someone else along with you.”
Q: What’s your favorite poem?
A: Here’s one, but I don’t know if its my favorite poem, because I can’t even pick my favorite meal. I’m just going to say one poem that I know I like a lot. “In Black Water Woods” by Mary Oliver.
Q: What is the talent you most want that you don’t have, yet?
A: I’d like to be a much better glass blower than I am. I dabble in it, but I’m very bad at it. I think I’m too interested in the medium to be good at it – maybe that’s paradoxical. I like paying attention to it so much that when asked to do any of my own work I’m at a loss. I’m kind of a glass-blowing voyeur.
Q: What’s the keynote of your personality as a poet?
A: It would have to be something about circulating love, unabashedly and without embarrassment. The love that we are lucky enough to find in structures like families, in our communities, between countries — to honor it, fully.
Q: Who are your fellow travelers in other mediums?
A: Visual artists like Andy Goldsworthy, who are willing to work with ordinary and organic materials and make something beautiful and impermanent out of them. That’s all I aspire to as a writer, to hope fully with fidelity, make a snapshot of something and know that it will have changed and be gone tomorrow.
Musicians: like poetry, I have a range of music that I really love: some of it is Jazz, people like John Coltrane, and some of it is something more contemporary, like the hiphop music my kids listen to, K’naan.
Q: What is the quality you most prize in a poem?
A: Wisdom. All I ask of a poem is that it has some wisdom, and then my job, I think, is to become a vehicle and vessel and to circulate that wisdom if I have the opportunity and the possibility to do so.
Q: Who is your favorite fiction character of all time?
A: The unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Q: What is your motto?
A: “I want to love as if my life depends on it, and when the time comes to let it go, I want to let it go and be on to the next thing.”