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Bring it right down to the people

Linda Bierds
Thursday, April 11
Smith Center Browsing Library
7:30 p.m., Rm. 238
Free to students/ staff

Washington Poet Linda Bierds is testimony to the adage that hard work pays off. The director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington has published six collections of poetry, including her most recent, “The Seconds.” Her work has also appeared in the New Yorker and Harpers, and she was the recipient of a 1998 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Through all this the self-described recluse has continued to bring poetry to classrooms and to the people in an effort to make it a more accessible art form. Tonight at PSU she will read from her work, which is something of a rarity.

Both Bierds’ writing style and approach follow her desire to demystify poetry. Her writing is not an attempt to abstract images or obscure meanings. Rather, her writing is an attempt to grasp her subject and illuminate it. Her subjects have ranged from historical events to the dotted codes of Samuel Morse to Zelda Fitzgerald and beyond. With her direct and compelling writing she has taken seemingly disparate people, ideas and events and explored them, linking them thematically and historically.

Within her poetry and subject matter there is a feeling of connection. Past events and present situations feel linked because of her attention to detail. In these details are found meditations on life, death and the way lives are lived that allow the reader to understand the universality of the human experience. The narrative manner with which she presents her ideas allows readers to experience the power of her writing but also feel in the middle of a story.

All of this, though, seems a part of her impression of what poetry should be.

What makes her poetry is her overwhelming idea of inclusiveness. She neither writes to baffle nor does she write to exclude. Her writing is a down to earth presentation of the complexities of history pared down to direct commonalities. Within her work we are introduced to a history, both large and small, that finds a mutual humanity for the reader to identify with and relate to.

Exploring her writing style, it is easy to return to her overall impression of poetry. She has constantly railed against the idea that poetry should be viewed as a rigid art form but has instead presented poetry as open and inviting. In her writing, interpretation is wide open and a poem offers no correct answers, only a new way to view the world. Her rejection of a correct reading of a work does not debase a poem but rather embellishes it.

This methodology brings forth a larger idea: A poem is not something that should be seen as holding merely one right and academic response. Any readers or listeners should be allowed to understand a work within their own worldviews and not within a rigid framework of intent and higher understanding. The reader should be allowed a space to incorporate writing into specific objective interpretations that relate on a personal level, not feel locked into a binary right or wrong interpretation.

Much of this is played out within the Poets in the Schools program in Seattle, which she champions. Through a variety of funding sources poets have been introduced into classrooms to present what they do directly and to directly engage a young audience with writing and ideas. In turn young audiences are allowed to respond with their own ideas and encouraged to compose poetry of their own. All of this adds up to poetry being understood as a form of expression, not merely a math-like subject with right and wrong answers.

Additionally, Bierds acts as editor of the newly launched Pacific Northwest Poetry Series, sponsored by the University of Washington Press. This is yet another venture that allows her to present poetry to a larger audience outside small academic circles. Missoula, Mo., writer John Haines is the first to be published under this new banner.

It remains to be seen whether Bierds’ efforts will bring a larger readership to Northwest poetry, but in her own way she has undeniably introduced a larger understanding of poetics to those she has connected with. Certainly this is only a drop in the bucket of potential readership but in her own way she has presented poetry to a larger audience. She is a gifted writer with a straightforward style and an even more straightforward agenda: to bring the power of poetry to the people. The MacArthur checkbook was certainly opened to a worthy and dedicated recipient.