THE BARD OF BOLLI: POET & SGL JAN SCHREIBER
by Sue Wurster
“I woke up one morning with the phrase ‘the shortcomings hotel’ in my head,” poet Jan Schreiber told the audience at Brookline Public Library. He went on to introduce his wry “story poem” about a man with his own inadequacies in a hotel where “the drinks are cheap and plentiful, though watered down and weak.” Jan, a popular BOLLI Study Group Leader, says that he draws inspiration for his poetry from a wide variety of sources—sometimes just a concept or image like that now unforgettable hotel.
At Brookline Public Library’s June 24 “Changing of the Bard” event, the city’s outgoing Poet Laureate Judith Steinbergh was joined by her successor Jan Schreiber and past National Poetry Slam winner Regi Gibson of Lexington for an evening of reading in rhythm, rhyme, and even a little “rap-sody.”
Schreiber’s career has been a long, varied, and distinguished one. As a respected social scientist, his book on terrorism, The Ultimate Weapon, is still cited by scholars, but in recent years, Jan has devoted the bulk of his energy to poetry and criticism. He is the author of four collections of poems, two books of verse translation, and one volume of literary criticism. He serves as co-host of the Symposium of Poetry Criticism at Western State Colorado University; co-founded the journal, Canto: Review of the Arts; and, as literary editor, launched the poetry chapbook series at Godine Press. He has also been honored with the Carey Thomas Award for creative publishing.
Works he shared with the audience on June 24th ranged from his piece about that limited man in a limited inn to his “Inventory” of love in dotage to his fictional Wisconsin “Reverend Charles Colby” and even a translation of ancient Chinese. All demonstrated his acute eye, exacting wit, and deep sensitivity—qualities long heralded in poet laureates.
Brookline established its poet laureate program in 2012 as another way to promote the city’s arts. By reaching out to community centers, libraries and schools, the hope is that authors honored with this distinction will engage the public in poetry. “I think any time you can get young people interested in the tradition of poetry, it’s a good thing,” Schreiber said after his appointment in March.
Schreiber began writing when he was “a kid in Wisconsin.” He says that, at that point, his work was “verse (not really poetry)” and that “it wasn’t till I was about 19 that I started putting down ideas—still in prose—that might somehow turn into poems. When you’re that age, you’re overwhelmed with feelings and perceptions about the world, and, for a while, each observation you make seems unlike anything that’s been seen or thought before. Once you start seriously reading earlier poets, you discover otherwise.”
While working to spark interest in poetry among young people, Schreiber has also provided BOLLI students with opportunities to dig deeply into the tradition. Having earned his Ph.D. at Brandeis, he says, “I’m not rich enough to add a farthing to the University’s endowment, but I can perhaps contribute to the intellectual tradition through teaching.” Jan points to his encounters with class members who are “eager to delve into the complexities of poetry” as being especially rewarding although “doing justice to dense material with limited time” is always challenging. Participants in his courses have not only praised his work as a study group leader but also formed an affinity group, BOLLI’s Poetry Circle devoted to digging into the work of both established and lesser known poets.
Jan describes himself as a “formalist” poet. “I write mainly in meter and often with some sort of rhyme.” He places more emphasis on challenging ideas or observations, he adds, than on “raw feeling or self-involvement.” During his recent spring term BOLLI course on 20th Century women poets, Jan talked about the clash, over the last few decades, between poetry rooted in traditional forms and free verse. He notes, though, that “a particular juxtaposition of ideas can be very moving in itself, if offered in spare and precise language. I think you see that if you look over the most distinguished poems written in the twentieth century.”
In his BOLLI courses, Jan has focused on a host of well-known poets who have made outstanding contributions to the literary tradition. But he has provided class participants with the work of contemporary poets who are doing so in the twenty-first century as well. This spring, for example, those enrolled in his seminar, Imaginary Gardens: Women Poets of the 20th Century, were introduced not only to the work of award-winning bilingual poet Rhina Espaillat but to the poet herself when she actually joined the group for one session. Not only a stirring poet but an inspirational teacher, Schreiber’s long time colleague and friend told the group that “Everyone has a poet inside. That’s where the poem comes from, the inside. Once it appears, the editor takes over and finds the form the poem needs in order to be heard.”
Schreiber joins Massachusetts poets from a wide range of communities—from Northampton, North Andover, New Bedford, West Tisbury, Cambridge, and Somerville to Boston—as a city-wide poet laureate. Joe McGonegal, chairman of Brookline’s selection committee, said Schreiber was chosen for his “commitment to the community and his poetic strengths. His devotion to the town, his enthusiasm for embracing the role, and his career in verse made him an ideal choice.”
The poet laureate tradition, traced to ancient Greece where a laurel wreath was used to crown poets and heroes, was revived in 1341 with the crowning of Petrarch on the Campidoglio. In England, Geoffrey Chaucer was called Poet Laureate in 1389 and given an annual allowance of wine as his award.
When the new Brookline poet laureate was asked if there was anything else he would like to share with BOLLI Matters readers, Jan said, “I could write a book… In fact, I have. You can engage with a lot of ideas about contemporary poetry by reading it, Sparring with the Sun, which focuses on six twentieth-century poets but also discusses several others and questions the ways we determine what poems are worth keeping and teaching to the next generation.”
We point with great pride to our “BOLLI Bard” and, in true Chaucerian tradition, raise a glass of wine to celebrate Jan Schreiber’s appointment to his two-year tenure as a poet laureate.
Click here to see Jan read one of his poems, “Naked on the Island.” Video by Ignacio Laguarda for Wicked Local Brookline.