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Poet laureate spreading the words

More communities ascribe importance to honorary post

North Andover's Mike Souza calls poetry 'the place I go to recharge my batteries.' North Andover's Mike Souza calls poetry "the place I go to recharge my batteries." (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kytja Weir
Globe Correspondent / January 31, 2008

NORTH ANDOVER - Mike Souza could give some words of advice to Boston's new poet laureate.

The city of Boston appointed its first poet laureate this month amid headlines and some controversy, but Souza already has nearly two years under his belt in such a post.

He is the laureate in North Andover, population 27,196. Though the town hasn't nearly the land mass or number of people as Boston, nor quite the Hub's storied literary history, it is one of several communities around the region that decided a while ago that poetry should be lauded.

It is unclear exactly how many officially acclaimed poets exist. This country has named a poet laureate - previously known as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress - every year since 1937. And 40 states have them, according to the Library of Congress.

But such titled poets also exist on a smaller stage from Alexandria, Va., to Hazleton, Pa., to Alameda, Calif. Locally, in addition to North Andover, the communities of Gloucester, New Bedford, West Tisbury, Worcester, and Portsmouth, N.H., are among those that have recognized residents with the honor.

Still, no one tracks just how many. Even Souza did not know he had peers in other small cities and towns and was pleased to know others are spreading the word - quite literally - about poetry, a solitary and often underappreciated art.

A lot more people write poetry than the public knows, Souza said.

It was Boston that got the headlines - and some mockery - when the City Council considered appointing a poet. Some scoffed at the role, while even some poets disapproved, arguing that poets should remain independent. But Sam Cornish, a former Emerson College literature professor who lives in Brighton, took on the appointment as Boston's first laureate.

It's an odd job, certainly not full time, nor well paid, if at all. Some poets laureate follow a mandate to create poems for special events.

Others use the post to share their love of poetry, trying to convince people to pick up verse, not video games.

"It can be a useful thing and help bring cohesiveness to a community," said Stephen Young, program director of the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation.

But, he noted, "there's a lot of bad poetry that's been written in commemoration of public events."

Some 94 percent of readers say that they have read poetry at some point in their lives, according to a 2006 report from the National Opinion Research Center. But it's not a mainstay in most people's lives, despite what some may wish. The same survey found that 64 percent of adult readers think that people should read more poetry.

Souza is trying to help that cause. Nearing the end of his second year in the post, he launched a Poetry Passion Project this month that is designed to encourage poetry and photography inspired by the town.

Submissions have filtered into Souza's e-mail box. High school classes have sent poems. One came from three generations - a young girl, her mother, and grandmother. The project has inspired a number of people, including Dee Forsythe.

The North Andover resident, who says she is over 65 but won't say by how much, doesn't enter contests. She's not someone who joins groups. And she doesn't write poetry - or at least hasn't in a long time.

But after she read about the poetry project and gathered some of her photographs, the ideas started to flow. "I just did it as a lark," she said. "I sat in my reading chair, and all of a sudden it came out."

That's Souza's goal. He will be displaying the submitted poems around town and on a website with hopes that others will be inspired as well.

"Typically what's put on display is politics and athletics," Souza said. "It's a nice breath of fresh air."

Souza is not the poet laureate some might expect. By day, the 50-year-old works as vice president for business development at Alliance Imaging, a California-based company that provides diagnostic medical imaging services such as MRIs.

But every night, he spends about a half-hour writing in a journal. Sometimes all he writes is a word or an idea. Other times, the poems tumble forth.

"Poetry is my balance," he said. "It's the place I go to recharge my batteries."

It used to be something he kept to himself - not out of shame, he said, but it just wasn't something he shared with co-workers until he became the town laureate. "They were shocked," he said. "They see me as this kind of analytical athlete."

Now it has become part of the office banter, with colleagues referring wording questions to the "resident poet laureate," he says.

But Souza says he sees dispelling stereotypes as an important part of his role - whether in the workplace or among high school students. He says he surprises students when he visits classrooms because they have an image of what a poet should be. And it's not what they see - a former college athlete who is 6 feet 2 inches and 230 pounds.

He says it's important for people to hear someone stand up and say, "I write poetry and it's an important part of my life."

He has been doing it since high school, though he has never been published professionally. Robert Frost and the 19th-century Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier are among his favorites. But he said he tries to see poetry beyond the old tomes.

For example, he gives high school students the lyrics to the Natasha Bedingfield pop song "Unwritten." One verse says, "Staring at the blank page before you/Open up the dirty window/Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find."

The interest already seems to be rubbing off. Souza said his example has convinced his 17-year-old daughter to write some poetry, and even his 5-year-old.

Kytja Weir can be reached at kytja.weir@gmail.com.

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