SEEKING ENLIGHTENMENT Benjamin.
When Governor Lincoln Chafee appointed Rick Benjamin to a five-year term as Rhode Island State Poet last week, he said Benjamin was already an "unofficial" state poet. He had a point.
Since moving to Rhode Island in 1996, Benjamin — who lectures at RISD and Brown — has held poetry workshops at elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community centers, public libraries, and homes for the elderly. He has published a collection of poetry, Passing Love, in which he somehow spins lyrical silk from prostate exams and the head lice he's plucked from his children's hair. (A second collection, Floating World, is due out this spring.) In November of 2010, he even wrote an old-fashioned occasional poem in honor of the Southside Community Land Trust's 30th Anniversary.
When we meet to discuss his new post at the Coffee Exchange, we are flagged down, on separate occasions, by two of Benjamin's former students: one from Brown and one from a "Re-Imagining Social Change" course he co-taught at Providence College. The Brown alum didn't know about his former teacher's new title and when he heard, he said, grinning, "Every once in a while something right happens in the world."
Below are a few edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
YOU'RE ORIGINALLY FROM LOS ANGELES AND THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA. HOW DOES IT FEEL, AS A NATIVE CALIFORNIAN, TO BE THIS CELEBRATED RHODE ISLAND POET? I really believe that you can arrive in a place and grow to love it and feel a tremendous sense of belonging, even if it's not "your" place. And Providence was one of those places for me. I've lived in a number of places, like most people my age, and I've been seduced by the light here. Some of those days in the fall, especially, when the air's turned a little bit cooler and there's a sharpness and a clarity, I think it's a quality in the air so that when the sun goes down, if it hits the stop sign in a certain way, that red is absolutely the reddest thing you've ever seen.
YOU HAVE SAID PUBLICLY THAT THERE ARE PLACES IN RHODE ISLAND WHERE POETRY IS "DESPERATELY NEEDED." WHAT DID YOU HAVE IN MIND WHEN YOU SAID THAT? Every school I've ever been in. And by the way I include in that formulation private schools. If it's true that poetry is one of the last wisdom mediums — and I think it is — then everyone would need it, right?
I mean, I would argue that [poetry is] probably needed in every place. When I was doing community work, I never hesitated to integrate poetry into a meeting. I, myself, dread meetings. So if there can be some moment that's slightly more enlightened at the beginning or the end of a meeting, then, good! I had a boss in Providence [when I was] doing non-profit work and she kept on talking about "inner-city blight" and it would drive me crazy. And I kept on saying to her, "People live there. You shouldn't talk about places where people live in Providence that way." And I wasn't getting through and I wasn't getting through and then one day it suddenly occurred to me that I just needed to say the [Lucille Clifton] poem.
in the inner city
like we call it
we think a lot about uptown
and the silent nights
and the houses straight as
and the pastel lights
and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive
and in the inner city
like we call it
And I said the poem to her and she goes, "Yes, OK." She never used those words again.