Sydney Lea, Vermont's Outgoing Poet Laureate, Reflects On His Tenure
April is National Poetry Month, and poetry enthusiasts around Vermont have embraced the occasion with readings and new publications. This April, nominations are open for Vermont's next poet laureate, which gives an appointed poet a chance to spread the word about poetry.
Vermont's current laureate, Sydney Lea of Newbury, has spent his time promoting the literary form at libraries around the state. He'll retire from the position in a few months, when the next poet laureate takes the helm.
“I’ve really liked it a lot,” says Lea. “You know, traveling to community libraries. Every visit has been a treat and a novelty in some unanticipated way each time, so I’ve really had a good time in this position and hope that I may have carried the torch for poetry a little bit.” Lea says that even though many may view poetry as “nutty and incomprehensible,” he’s tried to wave the banner for another kind of poetry, that of Ellen Bryant Voigt, another former Vermont poet laureate, and B.H. Fairchild. “Poems that people can actually understand and I think be moved by,” explains Lea.
When he started as poet laureate, Lea had a goal to visit all of the libraries in the state. “I fell short of that mission, although I did visit over 100 of them,” says Lea. “A certain number, I suppose, were not interested. But those who were interested always managed to bring reasonable crowds, even in the smallest of towns, and always seemed to have people on hand who were genuinely curious and interested … [Vermont] is a great place with a lot of great people in it.”
"So many of us are discouraged by the way we're taught poetry. We're only supposed to look at it as a vehicle for deeper meanings ... and that takes a little bit of the play, the artfulness and the mystery out of poetry." - Sydney Lea, Vermont's poet laureate
At his official appearances as poet laureate, Lea says he likes to talk about poetry, read both his own work and the work of others and then speak to what he thinks poetry could accomplish. “Also to de-mystify it a little bit,” he says. “So many of us are discouraged by the way we’re taught poetry. We’re only supposed to look at it as a vehicle for deeper meanings … and that takes a little bit of the play, the artfulness and the mystery out of poetry. I always loved what the great Robert Frost used to say: ‘If you’re looking for a message, call Western Union.’”
Although Lea is a veteran of academia, he thinks the notion that poetry that isn’t difficult has somehow been dumbed-down is “nonsense ... If anybody thinks that Frost was a simple-minded poet, they just haven’t read him very carefully,” he says.
"I keep really being energized by my conversations with the people at the libraries, I find that somehow or another their curiosity and sometimes even their confusion seems oddly generative to me."
In the few months remaining of his time as laureate, Lea says he has five more libraries to visit and will continue writing columns for various publications throughout the state. “I keep really being energized by my conversations with the people at the libraries, I find that somehow or another their curiosity and sometimes even their confusion seems oddly generative to me. It seems to make me want to write more and more accessibly. There is a way in which being poet laureate profoundly affected my life,” he says.
But, Lea adds, his life has also stayed mostly the same. He’s still a poet, a doting parent and now a doting grandparent five times over. “There is always plenty to do and the rest of life goes on,” he says. At 72, Lea has been asked to be on the board to help choose Vermont’s next poet laureate.
Lea’s advice to his successor? “I would hope, not necessarily following in my footsteps with the libraries, that the next poet laureate would seek venues which are not conventional … I hope they will keep that notion alive that to be the state poet means that you’re talking to as wide a sampling of Vermont citizenry as you’re able to manage, whatever your strategy may be,” he says.
Learn more about the nomination process for the next poet laureate here.