Poets have suffered a great deal in the perception of the general public over the years. If they were not portrayed as effete and delicate, they were presented as drunken geniuses that dissipated any talent they had. If they weren’t imagined as bucolic men of the soil, they were urban ghosts singing of shattered glass and deep city shadows.
They were many things, and they were anything but ordinary.
Now comes Rick Benjamin to brush the stereotypes aside. If poetry were a crime and he was accused of disrupting orderly minds with his printed verse, the readers couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. But now all that is changed. His gift for lapidary poetry has been exposed and more people will be seduced by the disciplined disorder of his work and the ardent proselytizing he does for poetry.
Last week, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee appointed Rick Benjamin of Warwick as State Poet of Rhode Island.
“Dr. Rick Benjamin is an accomplished and committed poet and educator who has taken his love for and belief in the power of poetry far beyond the classroom and out into our Rhode Island communities,” Governor Chafee said. “One of the many letters of recommendation sent on Dr. Benjamin's behalf stated, ‘Rick Benjamin knows that poetry can change people – that the writing and reading of poems can change how we live within and give back to our communities.’ Another wrote, ‘Based on his extensive community involvement with poetry, I think he has already distinguished himself as an unofficial State Poet.’ With this in mind, it is my pleasure to make the unofficial official and appoint Rick Benjamin the State Poet of Rhode Island.”
Benjamin is currently a lecturer in public humanities and environmental studies at Brown University, where he has also taught in literary arts and in the departments of English and education. But if you went back to the lineup and were asked to pick the college lecturer, you’d pass him by. The truth is, he looks as much like a plumber on his day off than a college don. He’s approachable and personable and hardly looks like the Bohemian stereotype of someone who also lectures at the Rhode Island School of Design and is on the faculty of the MFA Program in interdisciplinary arts at Vermont’s Goddard College.
Benjamin’s unprepossessing demeanor gives him the camouflage to walk around undisturbed as he does what he does best: paying attention.
“There isn’t anything I won’t write about,” said Benjamin. “My work is fairly unfiltered and often about what is happening to me and I can only bring that to it by paying attention.”
The natural world often comes to his attention and Benjamin successfully convinces the reader that there is a soul to non-human life worth looking at and approaching an object with empathy can bring that life into focus:
Split by wind, wish-
boned, half of
a twin-ship fallen
over a fence. Which
is the lucky one, trunk
sawed as firewood or
the one that can
be saved? Too
early to know if, out
of loss, it can still bear
that seal of separation's
You don’t have to be an archaeologist to appreciate Benjamin’s evocation of the wonder of discovering life and a back-story in something as inanimate a fragment of pottery:
Surfaced from the site
of some archaeologist's dig,
as a piece of plate shaped
like a tooth.
Sometimes what you bring
up's bacteria eating through
the body's memory of boy-hood:
the one where he gets
on the bike with no brakes
toward the wall
he will run into
in order to stop.
The viral bite
of the verb, or the deep
hole his body
has already bitten
its way through.
Benjamin is the author of a number of collections, including, “Passing Love: Poems” (2010); and the forthcoming “Floating World: Poems,” both from San Francisco's Wolf Ridge Press.
He also edited “Love, Loss, Life: The Epoch Poets” (2011) and “Words from Mothers: Poems from Project Hold” (2009). His poems have also appeared in Ars Poetica (Logolalia), Berkeley Poetry Review, Blackletter, Chalkboard, Creature Comforts, Journal of New Jersey Poets, Paterson Literary Review, Urthona: The Buddhist Journal of the Arts, Watershed, Poem, Home: An Anthology, and Haiku Year. His essays have appeared most recently in “American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics” (Wesleyan University Press), Watershed, and La Petite Zine.
Benjamin also has been extensively involved with non-profits and community organizations, having served as statewide director of Rhode Island River of Words, associate director of Project 540, the National High School Civic Engagement Initiative, leading workshops at the West End Community Center and at Epoch, an assisted living center in Providence, and serving as an arts mentoring fellow with New Urban Arts.
“My deepest wish during my tenure will be to saturate this small state with poetry,” Benjamin wrote upon learning of his appointment last week, “in schools, community and assisted living centers, in places where poetry already has a presence and in some other ones where it is desperately needed. I am delighted to accept this position.”
Benjamin very candidly admits that being selected has many elements of politics involved and, being no more or less political than most people, the news was completely unexpected by him.
“To be perfectly honest, I know poets who are better than I am in the state,” he said. “But when I heard about getting it, ‘Wow!’”
The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) assisted Governor Chafee in the process of choosing the new State Poet, which is largely ceremonial and offers no more than $1,000 for travel expenses by law. RISCA’s Executive Director Randall Rosenbaum thanked Governor Chafee for his support of this important position.
“Poetry, among other things, helps us grapple with the highs and lows of life in a complex society,” said Rosenbaum. “I'm delighted that our state has someone who can help Rhode Islanders of all ages find new and creative ways of expression, and through the art of poetry help us celebrate and memorialize what life offers to us all in the Ocean State.”
According to the governor’s press release, the position of Rhode Island State Poet was established by law in 1989, and is traditionally held by an artist who represents the highest achievement in poetry in our state. While no specific duties are mentioned in the legislation, the State Poet serves as the principal advocate for poetry in Rhode Island. Rick Benjamin will be the fifth Rhode Island State Poet. Previous state poets are Michael Harper (1989-1994), C.D. Wright (1994-1999), Thomas Chandler (1999-2006) and Lisa Starr (2007-2012).
As for Rick Benjamin, he’ll be writing poetry long after his tenure as laureate.
“I’m 53 now and I’m better than I used to be,” he said. “I hope I can say that many years from now.”