Glenis Redmond, a road warrior poet from North Carolina, will offer creative fire at this year’s Mountain West Arts Conference.
By Ellen Fagg Weist | Photo illustration by Todd Anderson
Say what you want about poetry. Complain that it’s deceptively complicated. Complain about the teacher who made you think you couldn’t correctly interpret a poem’s themes, let alone write one. Or complain about your fear that somebody, everybody, will hate your words, no matter what you write.
There’s even a term for that: Metrophobia.
For Glenis Redmond, who has been a poetry road warrior for 27 years, the truth is more like this: Poetry is immediate. Poetry is accessible. Poetry is healing.
“I find it one of the most valuable things on earth,” says the poet and teacher. “It’s like air, it’s like breath — we need it.”
“Everyone has a piece of paper and something to write with and heart,” Redmond says. “Sure, you have to work on craft. But with rhythm and imagery and concentration — you can turn sorrow or pain or something you are reflecting on into a thing of beauty.”
Redmond, a literary and performance poet also billed as “an imagination activist,” is a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. She will offer a virtual keynote address at 1 pm. May 7, which was the original date of the Mountain West Arts Conference; the rest of the annual regional arts gathering has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Register here.
Conferences offer a beautiful chance for creatives, who might feel as if they are working in separate trenches, to reinspire each other. “Especially in 2020, we have to stay replenished,” Redmond says. It’s an artist’s job “to inspire and uplift, and I think our jobs are not done yet. There are so many histories that have not been told. No matter whether you’ve been in the arts for 20 or 40 years, there’s just so much work to be done.”
As a teacher, Redmond says she doesn’t understand why arts programs are often the first to be cut out of school budgets. Just imagine how successful our schools would be, she says, if we prioritized the arts the way we prioritize athletic programs.
Redmond last visited Utah in 2016, when she met with students in Logan, Ogden and Salt Lake City and led professional development workshops for more than 60 teachers. One of those teachers recently told Jean Tokuda Irwin, arts education program manager for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, how Redmond’s workshop dramatically changed her teaching.
Another significant gift of her Utah visit, Redmond says, was the creative inspiration of eating at Salt Lake City’s Frida Bistro — now renamed Rico Cocina y Tequila Bar. The North Carolina-based writer has since finished a poem that features Frida Kahlo, the colorful Mexican folk artist known for working through great pain, as her personal coach. “It would not come until I took on her voice, as a self-help coach talking to me directly,” says Redmond of the five years she worked on the poem. “I’d never met Frida, so how do I know what she would say, but it’s what I think she would say to me.”
Redmond was the first member of her family to graduate from college, and then worked as a counselor before she enrolled in a doctoral program. That’s when she decided to shift gears and become a poet. She draws upon her counseling skills of empathy, including the tool of “deep, deep listening,” in her workshops, which she teaches to audiences ranging from kindergarteners to at-risk teens, from police officers to CEOs.
Deep listening is one of the themes of Redmond’s current manuscript-in-progress, “The Listening Skin,” which includes poems about growing up poor with a parent with mental illness and, as an adult, enduring the pain of fibromyalgia. Then last summer Redmond was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. “I thought I was finished with the book, and now I have to go back and write the cancer part,” she says.
In April, she was to be featured at the Asheville, N. C., Wordfest, a festival she co-founded, with the launch of “Give Me My Flowers While I’m Living,” a collection of poems, letters and essays honoring her work. The festival was postponed; the book will be launched next year. About that title? Redmond laughs through the phone line. “That’s what my mother would say and pretty much every black elder in the South.” She hopes the collection will inspire teachers, in conjunction with a book she is writing about leading poetry circles.
As she undergoes cancer treatment, Redmond is focusing on poetry and the arts as a way to push aside physical pain. “It’s not an easy walk, but at the same time, it is my walk,” Redmond says. “I’m so happy that I have some tools and skills to be able to deal with this. It really gives me something to get up and live for.”
MORE > Glenis Redmond will offer a free virtual keynote address — title: “Poetry, Inspiration and Empowerment: Needed Lifelines Now More Than Ever” — at 1 p.m. Thursday, May 7. Register here.
MORE > Read more of Glenis Redmond’s work at her website.