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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Creating poetry in bleak times

Montana poet and editor Natalie Peeterse will lead a writing workshop at Spark Central on Sunday. (Courtesy photo)
By Kathryn Smith For The Spokesman-Review

The title of Natalie Peeterse’s new poetry collection might sound like an oxymoron. But to Peeterse, “Dreadful : Luminosity” is an essential description of a world that’s wracked by difficulty yet “just throbs with connection and meaning.”

Having witnessed vast economic disparity in Washington, D.C., suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, and knowing her role in “a system that puts a lot of kids in America and in the global south in terrible positions,” Peeterse feels torn.

“I don’t know how to go on living knowing what I know about injustice and cruelty, how to enjoy dinner or buy a new handbag, but I also cannot stop thinking about the real beauty of this world and this life,” she said.

Peeterse, a poet and editor from Helena, will share this perspective and encourage others to think deeply about these juxtapositions when she visits Spokane on Sunday for a writing workshop and poetry reading.

It’s a perspective Spokane poet Ellen Welcker calls a “commitment to poetry in conversation with the world,” and it’s what first drew Welcker to Peeterse’s work.

“As a poet and literary organizer, she is no isolationist,” said Welcker, whose organization Scablands Lit is partnering with Spark Central and Central Food for Sunday’s events. “She asks big questions and asks others to join her in thinking through being via poetry and poetics.”

Sunday’s workshop, titled “Against Forgetting: The Grief of Witness,” is designed to help participants address the grief that bystanders often feel at witnessing injustice, explore the role of the witness, and put those thoughts and emotions into words, Welcker said.

Peeterse created the workshop partly because of her own struggles as a writer. “Right now I am really grappling with how to be a poet and how to write in this time,” she said. The workshop will use poems written by other poets at various times. “I think it is helpful to look at what people worked on in bleak times, because things are bleak.”

The workshop’s title comes from the anthology “Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” edited by Carolyn Forche.

“In the description of the anthology Bertolt Brecht is quoted: ‘In the dark times, will there be singing? /Yes, there will be singing. /About the dark times.’ As poets, I think we are wondering how to go about singing, what to say, and how to process the grief we are feeling about some of what we have witnessed in the last few years.” Peeterse said.

“Yes, the kind of injustice we have seen as a nation has always been happening, but with smartphones and body cams, we have witnessed murder in a very intimate way, repeatedly. What do we do? What do we say? The witness grieves, too. … We have to know when to speak, but more importantly when to listen. And also, how to sustain the gaze. We cannot flinch, we cannot look away.”

Peeterse doesn’t flinch in her own work, either. This sustained gaze permeates the succinct, untitled poems in “Dreadful : Luminosity,” which are written as letters to the poet’s young daughter.

“My daughter is a lightning strike. There is no denying her presence,” Peeterse said. “I thought about how I would explain this world to her when she is old enough to start asking questions. You know, babies don’t care about your poetry. They don’t care what you think, really. I felt myself being erased in a way when I became a mother, and I wrote to push against that and at the same time I wrote so that one day she would go to some of these places and see the world for what it is, hopefully without the whitewash.”

One poem puts it this way: “In the dark, cold light of the old chapel / I made a wish for you – go there and find it.”

Peeterse’s wish, and the directive to seek it out, extends beyond her children to her readers, and to those who will join her at Sunday afternoon’s workshop. While the workshop will focus on poetry, it will be “open to anyone at any level,” Peeterse said. “I think some of the theoretical discussions can be important to any genre.”

She hopes participants leave the workshop with a new poem, or at least the start of a poem. But mostly, she hopes to spark conversation. “I want to hear what other people think about this stuff and how they are working through it. I am sure I have a lot to learn.”