Unsung Hero: Shirley Blackwell

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“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limits,” quotes Shirley Blackwell of President John F. Kennedy. “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Poet Shirley Blackwell has had little time to get much writing done lately as she prepares for the June 2013 National Federation of State Poetry Societies Annual Convention to be held in Albuquerque.

Blackwell does not only believe these words, she lives them as president of the New Mexico State Poetry Society, founder and former chairwoman of the Rio Grande Valencia Poets chapter and author of “Already There,” her first book of poetry.

Blackwell, who has written poetry since college, says when her brother-in-law passed away in 2003, she wrote a poem to eulogize him. It was her first serious poem she says, calling it a cowboy poem for an old cowboy.

Around that time, her daughter was teaching in the English department at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus and shared her mother’s poetry will her colleague, professor Greg Candela, who, after reading her work, invited Blackwell to a poetry workshop in Mountainair.

After attending the workshop, Blackwell decided to enroll in Candela’s poetry class and it was there, she says, that she “caught fire” and found her passion.

With poetry kindling in her heart, Blackwell joined forces with fellow poet George Forrest and organized a group for kindred spirits to come read their poetry in a safe, supportive environment.

“Poets tend to be a lonely bunch,” Blackwell says.

The group gave them a place to be around like-minded individuals, also bringing in those she calls the “closet poets.”

“Being with other poets makes you write, read and think about poetry,” says Blackwell.

She says she sees poetry readings and meetings as a form of public service in that they “give people a place to go to express themselves and develop the arts.”

This group soon blossomed into the Rio Grande Valencia Poets and in December 2005, became an official chapter of the New Mexico State Poetry Society.

When Forrest, who was the first chairman of the chapter, was elected as state president, Blackwell took the helm as chapter chairwoman.

“Valencia County was kind of a little dead spot in the desert as far as literary, and she’s gotten people to come up and give workshops and readings,” says Kitty Eppard, who nominated Blackwell as an Unsung Hero. “In my feeling, (the poetry) has really enriched this whole area.”

Eppard said she sees families attending the public reading with their children, who, they themselves, become excited about poetry and see that literature can be fun.

“We have kids as young as 5 who want to come up to the microphone and say something that rhymes,” says Eppard. “It builds confidence and acquaints them with literature.”

Aside from the impact the poetry events have on youth, Eppard says they have also inspired a number of elderly men and women to write their memoirs and share their stories and experiences.

Currently, Blackwell and the RGV Poets are working toward organizing readings locally and in Socorro for December. In the past, the RGV Poets have taken poetry into the schools to do workshops with fourth- and fifth-grade students through the Children’s Poetry Playhouse program.

“I wanted to do things to promote poetry,” said Blackwell, and that she wanted to find ways to inspire people with poetry the way it had inspired her. “Poetry was a way to talk about things I couldn’t talk about any other way, even to myself.”

It seems despair is often what creates a poet where there was none before, and Blackwell tells how in working with poetry, she has noticed that it’s when a person is experiencing that proverbial “dark night of the soul” that poetry will often break forth.

“I saw in others that (poetry) is what kept them sane and got them through (hard times),” she says. “It showed me what poetry can do for people — for the spirit.”

Besides helping others use poetry medicinally, Blackwell says she wanted to encourage overall literacy in the area.

“The visual arts are well represented here, but the literary arts, not as much,” she said, adding that poetry is being lost in the schools and, “the U.S. doesn’t have a poetry culture.”

She attributed this cultural lacking to her theory that peoples’ native poetry traditions were lost after immigrating to the United States. However, she admits a renaissance of poetry is taking place nationally and central New Mexico is playing a big part in it.

Being chairwoman automatically made Blackwell a board member and eventually she was asked to be state chancellor, tasked with rewriting the constitution, probably, she says, because she kept complaining about how out of date it was.

After rewriting the society’s constitution to bring it up to speed with modern technology, Blackwell was elected president. She says rewriting the constitution in 2011 “changed the whole way the society functions,” by making it so that people can attend meetings using technology, such as Skype, rather than attend in person, thus allowing for the real possibility of a state-wide society.

As a result, the society went from 83 members to about 152 between May and September 2011, with the establishment of four new chapters in Santa Fe, Taos, Corrales and TorC, totalling eight altogether.

And to top it off, New Mexico will be the host for the 2013 National Federation of State Poetry Societies Annual Convention in June, which Blackwell is now in the midst of organizing and planning.

“I think it’s going to be a new chapter for the federation,” she says, noting that since they have never hosted an event like this, it will be different than what regular attendees are perhaps used to. “We’re designing what seems to make the most sense,” she says, “so it will look different.”

Blackwell encourages people to become members of the poetry society, calling it a wonderful source of fellowship.

“I just want people to know that the poetry society is a resource for anyone who writes poetry or likes to listen to poetry,” she says. “Poetry can benefit people’s lives, and society as a whole.”


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.