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Published: 1/12/2009

Lucas County Poet Laureate guides others who seek his path of verse

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The literary canon teems with poems of love, life, death, and regeneration.

Far fewer in the Western tradition confront the mix of surprise and distress that struck Joel Lipman's parents more than 40 years ago when they learned that once he finished law school, he didn't plan to practice law.

He was thinking of maybe becoming a poet.

"There were anguished conversations between my mom, my father, and myself," Mr. Lipman recalled recently.

But he stayed true to his words. The University of Toledo English and art professor has compiled a body of published works spanning four decades.

And for the past year, Mr. Lipman, 67, has been serving his appointment as Lucas County's first official poet laureate.

With no directives from county commissioners, he has had freedom to carve out the role of the honorary and unpaid two-year position, free rein to determine just what the job entails.

"I take the position of poet laureate as doing whatever is feasible to elevate the visibility of poetry in the county, and to enable writers to find outlets, to find voice," Mr. Lipman said in a recent interview.

He has appeared at civic events, visited and led poetry discussions at several area schools, and held office hours from 2:30 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays at the downtown Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, where a career retrospective of his work is on display.

He appears to be the only current county-level poet laureate in Ohio, which, according to the U.S. Library of Congress, is one of eight states without a state poet laureate or "writer-in-residence".

The Library of Congress appoints a national poet laureate each year - currently Kay Ryan - who "serves as the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."

Since his selection by county commissioners in late 2007, Mr. Lipman has studied up on how other poet laureates around the country have filled their posts.

He said he has tried to follow the spirit of an example set by his former teacher, a past U.S. poet laureate whom he met during her earlier tenure as poet laureate of Illinois: Gwendolyn Brooks.

Ms. Brooks was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry and taught a seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1960s as its poet-in-residence.

Mr. Lipman had just graduated from law school when he took Ms. Brooks' class as a graduate student.

He said Ms. Brooks, who once wrote admiringly of Mr. Lipman's "widening talent," gave honest yet positive and constructive criticism of budding poets' work. She also conducted poetry workshops in her home and at prisons.

For a nascent poet considering a career in academia, Mr. Lipman said, Ms. Brooks became a mentorlike figure.

"Poetry was just something that was part of my interest and part of my practice, but it didn't become the real focus until I studied with Gwen Brooks," said Mr. Lipman, a native of Kenosha, Wis.

"If things had worked out a little differently, I might have ended up practicing law."

Ms. Brooks, who died in 2000, has been called an inspiration to many U.S. poets, including Yale University Professor Elizabeth Alexander, who was commissioned by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem at his inauguration next week.

Along with his own poetry books, Mr. Lipman's work through the years has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, from the now-defunct Ocooch Mountain News of Richland Center, Wis., to the November issue of Poetry and the current edition of Harper's magazine.

His poems are often as much visual as verbal. He coined the term poeMvelope in the mid-1970s to describe his concept of "mail art" that involves rubber-stamping poems on the side of a mailable envelope, often one that's many decades old.

He also mixes rubber-stamp poetry and collage onto the pages of old books, a practice that leaves him with colorfully ink-stained hands.

"I studied printing in junior high school and always maintained a real love for typography, so yes, my hands are frequently inky," said Mr. Lipman, who began teaching at UT in 1975 after receiving a master's degree in creative writing from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The following year, Mr. Lipman and local poet Nick Muska established the Toledo Poets Center, since disbanded, which held get-togethers and poetry readings by local and visiting poets and put on a series of poetry-writing classes for inmates at the Lucas County jail and former Toledo House of Correction.

Mr. Lipman said he doesn't count the visitors to his weekly "open public conversation" at the Main Library, where he's now considered the poet-in-residence, but said one to three people typically show up each Wednesday afternoon.

Many come seeking feedback on their poetry and advice on getting it published.

Some common themes he has seen in residents' poetry are personal motivation, matters of religious faith, humor, and the Iraq war.

He has encountered a wide range of poetic styles, from rhyme to hip-hop.

The impetus for a county poet laureate came from county Commissioner Ben Konop, who said: "My idea behind creating the post was to promote poetry, reading and critical thinking, and writing throughout the community."

The commissioner organized an advisory panel of five local poets who ultimately settled on Mr. Lipman. The position carries no stipend or budget.

Mr. Konop said that so far he considers the poet laureate post a success. He has discussed with Mr. Lipman the composing of an "occasional poem" that would commemorate the planned opening this year of the county's new downtown arena.

"I think it would be appropriate for the poet laureate to christen the biggest public-works project in the history of the county," Mr. Konop said.

Mr. Lipman's adult son, Jesse, is also a poet, and both have made recent visits to the creative writing club at Toledo School for the Arts.

Club adviser Justin Longacre, himself an English teacher and poet, recalled how the elder Mr. Lipman arrived with a box of random objects such as antlers and rusty boat hooks and instructed students to describe the items for a lesson about sensory detail.

Last month, Mr. Lipman visited the Point Place Writers' Group, which meets the second Saturday morning of the month in the public library's Point Place branch.

"There are a lot of writers' groups, there is a lot of support, but as far as someone with some authority saying, 'Here are some thoughts and things to consider,' that's not usually free," said Hannah Vallongo Lammie, branch manager and group moderator.

Mr. Lipman also last month visited the class of Barbara Williams at Deveaux Junior High School in West Toledo.

Gathered around a long table one morning, the students took turns reading their crafted verses aloud.

They had written poems about summertime fun, a road trip, and the bus ride home from school.

The room fell silent when Paige Parker, a 13-year-old who said she dreams of becoming a poet, shared a pair of poems, including "My Glass Heart."

Mr. Lipman stood taken aback when she finished reading. He examined the poems closely.

And as he complimented the seriousness of her verse, he found clues to a precocious combination of talent and work ethic.

"I had a goal to write 100 poems before the end of the year, and I actually reached that," she explained.

Pretty impressive for a 13-year-old.

"Terrific work," the laureate said, handing the poems back. "It's mature. It's emotionally probing - a lot of honesty. Keep it up; you'll reach your goal."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 41 9-724-6065.



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