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Saying "Yes" to Experience

Poetry and the City of Ideas

by BARBARA LaMORTICELLA

On November 11, 2005 CounterPunch contributer BARBARA LaMORTICELLA was presented with the prestigious Holbrook Prize at the Oregon Book Awards. We reprint her acceptance remarks.–AC/JSC

I want to thank my old friend Robert Davies, a fine poet and editor, who is also a deeply ethical and community-minded teacher.

At San Francisco State College in the late 60s, people were still talking about a poet, recently released from jail, who had been invited to give a reading on campus at the same time the opening ceremony for an alumnae reunion was taking place. When he got off the streetcar, there was a large "Welcome" banner hanging, and he thought it was for him. Seeing a crowd already assembled, he rushed to the stage and took the microphone from the astounded MC. He struggled with the security guards, who tackled him and dragged him away for observation.

I have been an unpaid public servant in what Cavafy called the City of Ideas since 1975, when Marth Cohen called and asked me to edit the Portland Poetry Festival Anthology. His call came out of the blue. We didn’t know each other. But I had read at a couple of Festival open readings, and had sent a letter to the local underground paper, the Willamette Bridge, defending the art of poetry against a columnist’s charge that it is an elitist art. I lived in the country, had two young children at home, didn’t get to town much, never hung out there, and was glad to get an excuse and a chance to interact with other writers. One thing led to another.

As I stand before you I am reminded of the remarks of the labor leader who said, "If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself." I would have tried to have a clearer idea of what I was about. Instead, I just developed the habit of saying yes when asked. So I stand before you tonight, a large banner hanging over the gate, and no security guards in sight.

I don’t have time to say thank you to all the people I would like to, nor list the many people I feel are worthy of this literary award. But I am especially grateful to the people who drew me into community radio: Jim Grabill, Doug Spangle, Walt Curtis, my co-host on Talking Earth, and Kathleen Stephenson. Portland is lucky to have a community radio station. Kathleen and all the others who work hard at KBOO to put the literary community into the community deserve special thanks from all of us. And I thank my husband Robert, for understanding, or trying to understand, my literary labors, and always encouraging them.

BARBARA LaMORTICELLA is a poet living in Portland, Oregon, and with Walt Curtis co-hosts a poetry program Monday nights at 10 PM on KBOO radio, 90.7 FM Portland. She can be reached at: barbala@teleport.com