Arts & Culture

Piedmont Laureate Mimi Herman: You’re a poet and you don’t know it

Poet Mimi Herman will work on taking poetry to the people during her tenure as 2017 Piedmont Laureate.
Poet Mimi Herman will work on taking poetry to the people during her tenure as 2017 Piedmont Laureate.

Lots of people are completely convinced that they can’t write poetry. But poet Mimi Herman, the incoming Piedmont Laureate for 2017, begs to differ.

“If you say you can’t write poetry,” Herman said, “that only means you haven’t worked with me yet.”

Over the next year, anyone in the greater Triangle who might want to give poetry a shot will certainly have the chance. Herman’s Piedmont Laureate tenure begins on New Year’s Day, when she replaces 2016 laureate mystery writer Katy Munger of Durham. Herman’s official introduction set for Jan. 10. And while her schedule still taking shape, Herman already has an ambitious series of workshops, readings, poetry salons and teaching programs in the works – to happen at museums, schools, gardens and most any other place where people gather.

Herman, who lives in Durham, has been a teaching and writing presence in the Triangle for decades, with her work turning up in publications including Michigan Quarterly Review, Kansas City Voices and The Independent Weekly. She’s the ninth Piedmont Laureate since the program started in 2009, as chosen by the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council.

The position pays a modest stipend and each year’s laureate has a different writing specialty, from novels (2010’s Zelda Lockhart) to children’s literature (2013’s John Claude Bemis). But whatever the focus, each year’s laureate has a mission of “Promoting awareness and heightened appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont region.”

To that end, another of Herman’s projects will be putting videos of people reading their favorite Piedmont-related poems online. But mostly, being Piedmont Laureate involves trying to get people to start writing themselves.

“Mimi has been around a long time doing really solid work in becoming a community-based writer,” says poet Jaki Shelton Green, a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame and the first Piedmont Laureate in 2009. “She’s very invested in that and I think the Piedmont Laureate position will be a great one to further the good work she’s already been doing.”

Along with leading by example, Herman will spend this year reaching out to other poets — including those who don’t think they have it in them.

“I believe poetry is in everyone, and good teachers listen to what’s under the surface and draw it out,” Herman says. “I’ve never met anyone who can’t write poetry. Almost every adult has some art form where they thought they learned at a young age that they’re ‘bad’ at it – they can’t draw a straight line, can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I see my job as taking people back to the time before then, when they took joy in creating, and help them find their way through that.”

It can be a tall order, of course. Part of that, Herman acknowledges, is how insular the world of poetry seems to be.

“I don’t think poetry is a secret club where you need a password,” Herman says. “It should be a gift to the reader rather than a test, or something inaccessible. A good poem draws you in, ties a blindfold around your eyes, spins you around and sends you off in another direction. Or it makes you think, ‘That says something I’ve always wanted to say but could never quite find the words.’

“A good poem can make you gasp,” she concludes. “Not all of them do, but it’s one sign and it should not just make other poets gasp. Poetry is for everyone.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Meet the laureate

Mimi Herman will be introduced as 2017 Piedmont Laureate at the “State of Arts & Culture in Wake County” gathering at 4 p.m. Jan. 10 at the NC Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh. Admission is free. For details on upcoming Piedmont Laureate programs, keep up at PiedmontLaureate.com.

Herman and 2016 Piedmont Laureate Katy Munger teamed up to answer questions that writers often get at the laureate blog at PiedmontLaureate.com.

On New Year’s Day

You meant to plant those bulbs all fall,

and now you need them,

even if a few will dry to dust in the dirt.

Find them in the cobwebbed corners of your shed.

Scrape away the layers of leaves and dig.

You’ll have to shove the shovel harder into the ground

to plant the out-of-season bulbs

that are better than resolutions,

because months later they may wake up, green,

to remind you that hope has to sink roots

in the dark caves we make inside ourselves

to find its way to the surface.

Trust me, winter is worth waiting out.

I say, when the cold turns on you, turn on the cold.

Wrap the ones you love in hand-pulled wool.

Walk the woods through a hard startling rain

Remember that spring is worth

whatever you’re willing to spend

from your dwindling account of grey days.

Mimi Herman

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