There’s not a lot of leverage in the middle, not at first glance.
As a man in the middle – of life, of the country, of the socioeconomic spectrum – poet George Bilgere has noticed this holds true in the literary world.
People at society’s edges – the up-and-comers, the overcomers, the “new perspectives” – imbue a writer with a certain power, a cachet.
The straight, white, middle-class guy, born in the middle of the baby boom, living by choice in Cleveland – what’s he got to complain about? Or write about?
Well, that. Being that guy. Which, when he writes about it, can be pretty funny, but also as serious as being anyone else.
“Can you write a poem about living in a bland, middle-class neighborhood and getting up on Saturday mornings to mow the lawn? I do that, and I never thought that would happen to me,” said Bilgere, 62, who will read Sunday in Spokane as part of Get Lit!, the literary festival organized by Eastern Washington University. “It’s like some fate that I couldn’t avoid. Other people are off fighting wars and battling for various causes, and here I am mowing the lawn? How did this happen?”
Bilgere – who teaches at John Carroll University, “an island of serenity in a sea of serenity” – said he has come to embrace the “intrinsically comic” nature of his position in life.
The annual literary festival’s poetry headliner, he said humor gives him something to say, and it lets him connect with readers and audiences. He said he loves watching the expressions of surprise and then gratitude on the faces of people who’ve clearly been dragged to his readings by their spouses.
And it lets him move to the weighty stuff. Beneath the domestic comedy in Bilgere’s life and his poetry, lie the real fears: of getting old, of losing the people he cares about, of not mattering.
But Bilgere’s poetry often starts with the small stuff. Often compared to Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate known for his approachable writing style, Bilgere is “not just easy but defiantly easy to read,” poet and critic Mark Halliday has written.
Bilgere said while he is drawn to the ordinary parts of life, routines and everyday objects, he’s also attracted to poetry’s ability to recover the strangeness they might once have held – and to infuse them with meaning.
His new book, “Imperial,” is his sixth collection of poetry. The title poem, he said, might be a characteristic joke. The title sounds pretty lofty. Is he extracting profundities from some rumination on imperial global domination? No, he’s extracting profundities from yo-yos, one in particular: a Duncan Imperial yo-yo he had when he was 8.
But in the poem, the yo-yo comes to represent fears shared by children of his generation, in the dawn of the nuclear age: fears of “being nuked,” fears in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations.
The yo-yo becomes “this little explosion of meaning and emotion and history,” Bilgere said.
And, when it comes to using poetry to relate to his readers, ordinariness becomes a position of strength.
Poetry is supposed to be a pleasure, he said, with the best poems finding a way to be both funny and serious. But at John Carroll, many students enter his classes expecting to be punished with some piece of writing they can’t comprehend.
He thinks that’s because middle- and high-school students are force-fed poems by “officially great” poets with whom they can’t connect. If the standard curriculum were up to Bilgere, he’d have students start with contemporary poets in high school, then introduce them to John Keats later.
“I don’t think most high school students are aware there’s this huge, flourishing dynamic world of contemporary poetry, where young people – 25-year-old people and 35-year-old people – are writing about using cellphones and smoking pot and watching YouTube,” Bilgere said. “The actual world exists in poetry now.”