Smile Politely

Looking into the Glass Room Poets

Spring poetry reading featuring esteemed local poets. Check.  Said poetry reading plus a chance to visit a new wine bar.  Done and done. 

I was excited to see an announcement of the Glass Room Poets’ spring reading pop up in my newsfeed. So I decided to reach out to them to find out more about the event, the members, their work as a group, and, of course, their very cool name. 

First I spoke with Robert Manaster, who founded the group in 2003. 

Smile Politely: Tell us about the group? How did you get started? How long have you been together?

Robert Manaster: I’d been in several poetry groups in the Champaign-Urbana area. The first one I joined was the Red Herring Poets, where anybody who came could just share a poem. The group welcomed anybody who wanted to join. It had a broad mix of poets—from beginners to more experienced writers. 

Eventually, I moved on and joined the Sangamon poets. That was by invitation; I was sort of “discovered” or “acknowledged” as a poet. A lot of strong writers and their skill level appeared to be more uniformly higher than the previous group. I eventually discovered, though, I didn’t fit in well. While I was not a beginner, I was really not in a place that intersected well with this group. . . I had too much energy invested in being a “poet” and wanting to be a “good-enough poet.”

{The Glass Door Poets began because}. . . I wanted to connect with the poetry community—to give and receive response to poems and to participate more in a broader sense— to talk “shop,” so, I asked some of the poets whom I met before to see if they’d be interested in being in a poetry group. I specifically asked poets who I felt were serious about their writing and who could contribute both as writers AND readers.

Smile Politely: Is there a certain mission or set of goals that the group shares? How does it work? What’s your group process?

Manaster: Our meetings {are} divided into two kinds of exchanges: 1) About Poetry and 2) the Poems…. Depending on the feel and flow of the meeting, these exchanges can be in either order. {During “About Poetry” } we share what in the poetry world is on our minds. It could be about the mechanics of what you sent out and what you’ve heard about submissions. It could be about a poem you read that you liked or didn’t like. About a book or magazine you liked or didn’t like. 

In “The Poems,” we read the poems and respond. {First} the poet reads his or her poem. {Then} another person reads the poem (we just started doing this second reading)
{Finally} the group discusses the poem while the writer of the poem says nothing. Usually we say what works before what doesn’t work in the poem. I think this tone acknowledges the gifts in the poem and encourages the discussion to uncover ways in which the poem can work better to enhance the mentioned gifts or develop new ones.

Smile Politely: Are any members currently published or self-published? 

Manaster: We’ve had people in our group as a natural progression of their process receive some outside success as well: publications, awards, etc. Glass Room Poets have included Janice Harrington, Karen Kowalski Singer, Elizabeth Majerus, Matt Murrey and Julie Price. Matt received an NEA (before group), Janice won the BOA first book award, Karen won a chapbook prize, Elizabeth is getting numerous publications, Julie places in Rattle’s recent competition, I have received a few residencies. We’ve all been published here and there in fairly decent places.

And now, onto solving the mystery of the Glass Room Poets name. Ever observant and on the hunt for a good turn of phrase, the poets were inspired by the glass-walled conference room they met in at the University of Illinois Library. 

Next, I spoke with Glass Room poet John Palen about being a poet today, the performance of  poetry readings, and, of course, his own poetry. 

Smile Politely:  It’s so important to hear poetry read aloud. It makes the work so much more accessible and immediate. But it also requires a separate set of skills. How do you prepare?

John Palen: I know the poems well and try to read clearly and at a leisurely pace so everyone in the room can hear and understand.

SP: Do audience responses impact your process or your sense of what’s working (or not working as well) in a given piece?

Palen: Absolutely. You can tell when you’re connecting.

SP: How does being a part of this group support your process?

Palen: The high level of perceptive critique is very helpful

SP: What are the biggest challenges, or opportunities of being a poet today?

Palen: In one sense, same as always: Knowing what makes a good poem and striving to meet those standards. In another sense, I think the degradation of language we’re seeing in the Trump era is a challenge to poets to try to use language honestly.

SP: Can you tell us about your process?

Palen: I write a lot, including a lot of revision, sometimes over a period of years. I also read a lot, poetry, fiction, non-fiction.

SP: What inspires you?

Palen: The whole idea of inspiration is that it comes from outside you, out of your control. So it’s a different thing each time. Recently, watching workmen deliver a 1,200 pound grand piano inspired me to write a poem about it. It was amazing how they kept the thing balanced and coordinated all their movements — like a dance.

Don’t miss the chance to stop by Analog on May 30th and meet the Glass Room Poets in person. 

Glass Room Poets Spring Reading
Thursday, May 30th, 7 to 9 p.m.
129 N Race St, Urbana

Photo from Facebook event page

The Glass Room Poets are Emily Kerlin, Elizabeth Majerus, Robert Manaster, Matt Murrey, John Palen, Julie Price, and Gale Walden. 

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