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Mainers, poets and friends: Two local writers to read work on campus next week

April 13, 2017

Two local poets and friends, Christian Barter and Jeffrey Thomson, will be coming to campus to do a reading as part of a three-event book launch for both of their new books, “Bye-Bye Land” and “The Belfast Notebooks,” respectively. Many of their poems discuss connection to place and physical landscape.

Just in time for National Poetry Month, the event will be put on in collaboration with From the Fishouse, Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, and the English Department. From the Fishouse is a non-profit, audio-archive of poets that focuses on poets with fewer than two published books. Since 2005, the organization has brought more than 50 poets to campus.

“It’s important to hear contemporary poetry because I think typically, students’ experience with poetry is not one that they can often relate to,” said Matt O’Donnell, editor of both From the Fishouse and the Bowdoin Magazine. “Throughout this series, all the different poets we’ve brought to campus, we’ve tried to make it a wide range of poets, of different voices, of different backgrounds.”

In many ways, Barter and Thomson are similar. They both began writing poetry when they were young, both reside in Maine and much of their work deals with connection to place, an important value at Bowdoin. They’re also good friends and workshop much of their writing together.

Originally from Sullivan, Maine, a town on the Northern coast, Barter now lives in Bar Harbor. He has found his experience living in Maine and the landscape surrounding him has strongly influenced who he is as a person, which, even when he is not directly writing about it, still reveals itself in his poetry.

“The poetry we write is an expression of our character. Sometimes we wish that it weren’t,” said Barter. “Sometimes I look at a poem that I’m not happy with and really, what I’m not happy with is the person who wrote it.”

“Bye-Bye Land” is Barter’s third book of poetry and is a book-length poem that, at its essence, is about America. Barter began writing the poem while living in New Jersey, after receiving a fellowship from Princeton. Barter drew inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” using the landscape around him as way to discuss the state of the world.

“I chose that landscape of the New Jersey/New York City area to try to get at larger things. We all need a small portal to get into the big stuff. You can’t just attack the big stuff head on,” said Barter.

Similarly, Thomson’s recent book, “The Belfast Notebooks,” is mostly based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he spent six months as a Fulbright scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. Thomson found Belfast to be a complicated, beautiful city and had the opportunity while living in Ireland to travel to other cities around Europe.

While he didn’t write much while he was there, the book came together quickly when he returned to the United States.

“[The book is] dealing with the sort of deep history of this conflict in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, it’s dealing with other places where there’s deep layers of history and culture,” said Thomson. “That’s what I was trying to work out.”

Thomson’s other two collections, “Birdwatching in Wartime” and “The Country of Lost Sons,” are both focused on his particular fascination at that time. “Birdwatching in Wartime” was inspired by the landscape of the tropics, particularly that of Costa Rica where he, along with a biology professor, teaches an environmental writing class.

“The Country of Lost Sons” discusses Thomson’s son and the US conflict in former Yugoslavia. Ultimately, all of his work tends to be rooted in the places he travels and the experiences he has.

“I don’t tend to like poetry that happens in poetry land. This sort of ephemeral, kind of non-landscape, non-place where anything can happen,” said Thomson. “And I certainly don’t really write that.”

Besides being a poet, Thomson is also a an associate professor of English at the University of Maine Farmington. Although being a professor is a demanding job and Thomson finds he is unable to write as often when he is teaching, being a poet allows him to teach poetry in a way that is more readily understood by his students.

“It’s really useful to be teaching poems and teaching poems to young people who are grappling with the same problems that I’m grappling with: how to make language work, how to make words do what I want them to, how to make something happen in the reader’s mind, because the poem is not just me expressing myself,” said Thomson.

Both poets also believe that poetry readings contribute to the poems themselves.

“I do think you get more out of it, hearing the poems in the author’s inflection, with the voice, with the intonations that he or she makes,” said Thomson. “There are little pieces of information from the outside that can come in and really illuminate or help the reader find a way in.”

“It’s also just fun to connect with people,” Barter added. “It’s always a bit of a one-sided conversation, but I always like that I’m in a conversation with the audience when I do the reading.”

The audience is able to better relate to contemporary poets by listening to them read their own poems and it also continues the oral tradition of poetry alive.

“It’s inspiring,” said O’Donnell. “I think it’s important to hear those voices and to cultivate the next generation of poets to get them excited.”

Barter’s book-length poem, “Bye-Bye Land,” will be released on May 16 and Thomson’s collection of poetry and poems, “The Belfast Notebooks,” was published on April 12. Barter and Thomson’s reading will be on Thursday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Nixon Lounge in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.

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