Vermont doesn't lack for mission-based organizations with "center" in their names, devoted to pursuits such as peace and justice (Burlington), agricultural economy (Hardwick) and ecostudies (White River Junction). Now poet-educators Tamra Higgins and Mary Jane Dickerson have given poetry a center of its own: the Sundog Poetry Center in Jeffersonville.
Higgins is president of the Poetry Society of Vermont and a former elementary educator, English teacher and literacy specialist. She started the SPC in 2012 as an LLC; this year, it became a nonprofit whose mission includes promoting poets and poetry, creating audiences for poetry and sharing verse throughout Vermont. The center's HQ, which is also Higgins' residence, houses an administrative office and a meeting room for poetry workshops. Over the past two years, SPC has offered four poetry workshops on themes ranging from "Poetry of Place" to "Reading (and Writing) Robert Frost." It has also held seven "Evenings of Poetry, Music and Delectable Delights" — smorgasbords of poetry readings, concerts and local cuisine.
As SPC turned the page and became a 501(c)(3), Higgins reached out to invite Dickerson, an English professor emerita at the University of Vermont, to serve as copresident. Recently, SPC partnered with Shelburne's Wind Ridge Books of Vermont to create an imprint that just released its first two titles: Higgins' debut collection Nothing Saved Us: Poems of the Korean War, based on interviews with her Korean War veteran father; and Water Journeys in Art & Poetry, Dickerson's literary collaboration with artist Dianne Shullenberger. A third title by part-time Vermont poet Neil Shepard is in the works.
Later this month, Higgins and Dickerson will lead their first poetry retreat at Fielder Farm in Huntington. And, as if this epic effort on behalf of verse wasn't enough, SPC has also organized a statewide lecture series called "Poets and Their Craft," to be offered in independent bookstores throughout Vermont beginning in 2015.
While Higgins' efforts may not yield generous profits, she says the payoff is feeling like poetry can and does enrich Vermonters' lives. Part of her organization's struggle, she told Seven Days recently, is to overcome the potential audience's reluctance and "re-expose" them.
"I think a lot of people are afraid of poetry," Higgins says, citing the confounding and sometimes alienating ways in which poetry has been taught in classrooms over the years. She sees part of her mission as reaching out to people who have given up on poetry and luring them back in "by pairing it with another art form: music, food, visual art, lecture or performance." The approach works, Higgins continues: "I've had many people tell me that they've come to an event for the music or food, even, and were surprised how much they enjoyed the poetry."
Higgins has experienced the surprising power of poetry firsthand. For years, she relates, she tried to write about her grandmother, "a terribly mean woman," using essays and fiction to explore her memories. Then Higgins turned to verse, and her view of her grandmother was transformed: "In the crafting of the poem," she says, "I realized what a complex woman she was and that she wasn't just an ornery farmer's wife but an ingenious artist trapped on an Iowa farm in the 1930s. It changed my perspective of her, changed my personal history in a way."
It's revelations like those that Dickerson and Higgins seek to foster and support through SPC's programming. While they're already offering a full spectrum of classes, books, readings, retreats and lectures, Higgins says they're open to more possibilities for sharing poetry. Seven Days attempted to paraphrase SPC's essence and Higgins' parting thoughts in a haiku:
Unsure how verse might
fit in your life or business?
You can contact them!