Whereas many poets, both famous and not so famous, have made their homes in Seattle due to Seattle's long history of supporting poetry and...
WHEREAS many poets, both famous and not so famous, have made their homes in Seattle due to Seattle’s long history of supporting poetry and other art forms; and …
WHEREAS Pesha Joyce Gertler has been bringing poetry to the people of Seattle for over 20 years; then
BE IT THEREFORE KNOWN TO ALL that the City of Seattle has named Pesha Joyce Gertler to be its fifth poet populist, “to represent and promote the idea of populist poetic expression in and around the city in the coming year.”
Loosely translated, this proclamation from the Seattle City Council this fall means that Pesha Gertler has been elected to do what she has always done: to bring poetry to the places where poetry isn’t usually heard.
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There are some who think the words “poet” and “populist” should never be used in the same sentence. Some who, when they think of poetry at all, think of it as a quaint anachronism from another century, an effete undertaking best left to pointy-headed aesthetes or sentimental dreamers far removed from the bustle and thrum of modern life. Enter Pesha Gertler, whose recent election as Seattle poet populist is public recognition for the work she was doing anyway.
Councilman Nick Licata got the idea for poet populist in 1999, after attending a reading at Town Hall by U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky.
“I thought what a great gift this was to the country,” says Licata. “Why shouldn’t cities do the same thing?”
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
By Pesha Joyce Gertler
In England, poets laureate were appointed by the king. It was Licata’s idea to have the people of Seattle vote for poet populist, “since this is a democracy.” The city had poets populist for the next four years, but the idea ran out of ink in 2003.
This year, with the support of Bumbershoot and the Seattle Public Library, Licata made a pitch to bring back the poet populist. Twelve candidates were nominated by various arts organizations, and Pesha Joyce Gertler triumphed, after receiving 509 of the 1,550 votes cast.
To Licata, the marriage of poetry and politics makes perfect sense.
“To understand the democratic spirit of literature, you have to see that the basis of poetry and literature is that you are sharing your thoughts, whether joy or sorrow. A poet shares something from within that has an impact on people’s lives. Pesha will represent these democratic principles.”
Gertler was born in Portland and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She returned to the Northwest for graduate school at the University of Washington, where she earned a master’s degree in creative writing in 1980 while single-parenting five children. Her first poem, titled “If,” went like this:
if is an ocean
and I have not a boat
nor can I swim
Gertler says that that poem “describes my life at the time, cut off from possibilities.” But she was able to publish the poem, which she hadn’t been able to do with the fiction she had been writing. So in many ways, she found the answer to her “what if?” through poetry. She turned from fiction to poetry and hasn’t looked back since.
Gertler has taught English and creative writing at North Seattle Community College (NSCC) since 1985. But perhaps as important to her is her work in what she calls “the quality noncredit environment.” On Tuesday nights, Gertler leads “Self-Discovery for Women Through Creative Writing,” the class that makes up her fan base, the constituency that rallied to vote her in as poet populist.
Pesha Joyce Gertler will be reading at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, at the Rose Room at North Seattle Community College. Information: 206-527-3709.
She also will be reading at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E. Information: 206-523-0210.
More information on her work: www.peshajoycegertler.com
“When I started teaching, poems about mothers and daughters were labeled sentimental,” she says. “But there was a large body of father/son poetry. It didn’t make sense.” She set out to change that. Gertler leads women to write about their own lives, using the framework of myth and archetype.
“When I started, it was a radical and new idea to support women’s voices,” she says. “In many ways it still is. Someone had decided that women had already had their decade and there was no need to teach women’s poetry any more. But I feel that the emergence of women’s voices in our culture is a healing force for the entire human race.”
Gertler sees her work as poet populist as being an extension of her work as a teacher. She is as devoted to her students as they are to her, and determined to help those be heard who might not otherwise have a voice. In addition to her work at NSCC, Gertler teaches at the University of Washington Women’s Center and at Cancer Lifeline, where she teaches both men and women.
“The divine feminine”
Irit Weisel is a student who quite literally “found her voice” in Gertler’s NSCC class. Weisel emigrated to Seattle from Israel in 1992 and ended up in Gertler’s English 101, trying to improve her understanding of the written language. She soon found the “Self-Discovery” class and has attended on and off since 1997.
“Pesha’s class is a gypsy caravan,” Weisel says. “Women leave and then they come back. For all of us, it’s like always coming home.” Weisel adds that Gertler’s class is more than a support group, because Gertler helps class members connect to a source within themselves, “whether you want to call it the divine feminine, the subconscious, or something else. She inspires us in a way that lets us find our true, genuine voices.”
Weisel was pleased but not surprised that Gertler had been elected poet populist. “Pesha … always reached out to the underdog. There’s no better person to serve as poet populist.”
Gertler’s responsibilities as poet populist dictate that she must make one appearance each month and write a poem for the city sometime during her tenure.
“My goal is to take poetry to places where it usually isn’t seen or heard,” she says.
That is not too far removed from what she has done through her teaching, most recently in her “Haiku in the Park” class, where students wrote haiku and hung them on trees in a North Seattle park. Gertler says the best part was “watching people come and pick the poetry off the branches.”
As for her “official poem” for the city: “I think it’s going to be about a sculpture that fills the wall of a women’s shelter I visited in my first assignment as poet populist,” she says.
The sculpture had masks, faces of different skin colors, with “welcome” printed in many languages. She said it made her more determined to bring poetry to those who “may not have had the same opportunity I’ve had.”
Seattle’s poet populist has dedicated her life to bringing the power of poetry to everyone.
“I want people to know that the same healing power is available to the nonprofessional poet as is available to the professional poet,” she says. “The common denominator is the healing power of poetry.”
Dana Standish is a freelance writer based in Seattle.