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Wednesday, April 10,2013

Being good in spring

Poetry Attack 2013 turns Harrison Meadows into a walk-through chapbook

by Lawrence Cosentino
“It is hard to be good in spring,” read the fluorescent green card tied to a bush in the park. The woman in the gorilla mask and the man with a box on his head moved on. It was 6 p.m., Thursday, and a massive poetry attack on Harrison Meadows Park in East Lansing was under way.

Within an hour, area poet Joyce Benvenuto’s “The Morel Hunters” and 61 more poems, on subjects from daffodils and rats to love and oblivion, were twined to trees, bushes along the popular walking and biking trail that runs through the park.

Some of the attackers were in costume and others were not. A man with a white beard crouched in the rear guard, taking photos of every poem. He called himself “Nosferatu,” but looked more like Nosferatu’s plumber.

“This seemed like a good idea when I thought of it six minutes ago,” he grumbled, making his way through the poky brush.

A few months ago, two East Lansing residents, Carolyn White and Alexandra Carl, enlisted dozens of area poets, from students at Lansing Community College to veterans like Diane Wakoski and Ruelaine Stokes and poets who moved away from the area years ago.To their amazement, everyone who was asked responded with one or more poems, usually the day after they were asked.

While twining verse and verdure Thursday, White explained the purpose of the attack to anyone who stopped by. She directed a jogger to a nearby manifesto asking East Lansing to become “the City of the Arts it professes to be.”

“Yeah, because of that new museum,” the man said.

“Exactly,” White replied. 

The florid manifesto, largely White’s, dubs the area between Holt and Haslett “the navel of the universe” and celebrates the Broad Art Museum as confirmation of that belief. “We have the Broad, we have the Wharton Center, but we must also take to the streets,” it reads. “The common places, too, need to be celebrated.”

“Whenever you have time, read some of the poems,” White told the jogger. “They’re quite wonderful.”

“Thanks for letting me know,” he said, turning to his dog. “Come on, buddy.” 

Farther up the trail, at the leading edge of the happening, Stokes, a mainstay of the Lansing poetry scene for decades, was wearing a purple feather boa, exulting in her first poetry attack. 

“Look at this,” she said. “It’s the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.’” A few favorites from famous poets were scattered among the original poems. 

“Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring, your winter garment of repentance fling,” she read. After a gray Michigan winter, Stokes said, she was ready to fling that garment “into a ditch.”

Carl’s gorilla mask was a nod to the Guerrilla Girls, the feminist group that stages happenings at museums and other male cultural bastions. Early in the attack, it became clear that the mask would cramp her style, so she borrowed a cardboard box head from her friend and fellow attacker, Lino Pretto, then gave Boxhead back to Pretto and worked without a disguise.

“It’s so much more fun than I expected,” Carl said. “It kind of exploded.” Carl and White ended up with 140 poems, far more than they could use.

As a young girl, Carl came to Harrison Meadows almost every day in summer and read in the butterfly garden. She loved the idea of turning her old haunt into an epicenter for guerilla action.

“It doesn’t take someone else to do the cool things,” Carl said. “We can do it ourselves.”

The biggest and most conspicuous tree in the attack zone is dedicated to John Robison, founder of East Lansing’s fabled literary refuge, Jocundry’s Books. Robison was killed in a plane crash in 1979.

As many area shelves and closets still attest, Jocundry’s books came with a free bookmark bearing Robison’s motto for the store: “A comfortable place to find yourself or others, living or dead or to be born.” For the next two weeks or so, until White and her co-conspirators collect the poems, the motto will serve well here.

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