Diane Pecoraro can’t recall the exact moment that she ’fessed up to being a poet, as she put it, but she was in her 50s or 60s.
She’d won a poetry contest and another of her pieces was read aloud on the radio. “One day I said, ‘I’m a poet. That’s what I do.’ I’ve been doing it a long time,” she said.
Now, as the community poet of St. Louis Park, a post she’s held since 2010, Pecoraro tries to rally others around the art form.
The job began with the city’s Friends of the Arts (FoTA) initiative “Our Town: Voices & Verses,” which has also focused on drumming, photography and sketching. In 2016, its theme will be “Our Town Sings,” according to Susan Schneck, the group’s interim director.
The poetry project was only planned to last a year, but it took on a life of its own, and Pecoraro, who joined the FoTA board, has remained dedicated to it in a volunteer capacity.
Schneck, who’s been involved with FoTA on and off since its inception 20 years ago, said, “There was so much enthusiasm and energy around it. It just keeps going.”
She attributes the poetry program’s success in large part to Pecoraro, whose work is concise, down-to-earth and relatable, she said, citing a piece about Old Country Buffet.
Pecoraro’s background in programs geared for those for whom English is a second language is helpful, too, as she knows “how to put people at ease and welcome them,” Schneck said.
The community poet idea originally came from Bob Ramsey, a former associate superintendent in the school district and a poet in his own right, according to Schneck.
FoTA took that to heart, and hired Pecoraro following an application process, she said.
In 2010, Pecoraro led in the crafting of a renga, a Japanese “group poem.” Throughout a number of workshops, 135 people contributed snippets about St. Louis Park, which Pecoraro synthesized into a single poem.
The finished product was developed into a spoken-word piece. It was also featured in a city calendar that highlighted community members’ favorite poems. “We were trying to get poetry out there, make it easy to read,” she said.
Those aspects of the project had a time frame, but Pecoraro continues to edit the poetry portion of FoTA’s monthly newsletter, soliciting submissions from community members, and she still leads poetry jams. She also wants to see a poetry workshop at some point.
Like a talent scout, Pecoraro finds herself saying to people, “ ‘Do you write? Do you want to be published here? Or read? I want people to know about you and for people who write to be joining in,’ ” she said, adding that she strives to encourage diverse voices, including verses in other languages.
Some people say they’ve always wanted to write poetry, but they think they can’t. “I say, ‘You can. If you can speak, you can write a poem.’ ” Pecoraro said. Others write, but don’t see themselves as poets.
Poetry can be intimidating, but a community poet can help bridge the gap. “I want everyone to love poetry, to think about it in a different way” and to engage with it, Pecoraro said.
‘Poetry can be everywhere’
Pecoraro, whose career has been in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, both as an instructor and administrator, said her love for language began in childhood. She studied English and French in college.
Her mother “read us a lot of poetry and encouraged us to listen to poetry,” Pecoraro said, adding that her mother especially liked perusing the Reader’s Digest, which had plenty of rhymes.
Pecoraro doesn’t necessarily write from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but she’s constantly penning poems.
She jots down her thoughts with pencil and paper, only typing things up once she’s further along in the process. Pecoraro brings a notebook wherever she goes, though she sometimes improvises with her smartphone.
For Pecoraro, who counts poets Tony Hoagland, Ted Kooser and Marge Saiser among her favorites, inspiration comes from all over the place.
She likes to write about what she describes as the “iridescent quirkiness of people,” art, everyday things such as food, garage sales and thrift shops. Right now, she’s working on poems about sweat, senior romance and the past. Her format varies, but she’s fond of rhymes and special-occasion poems, she said.
Pecoraro used to write poems at work. For one poem about assessments, “My boss said, ‘This is probably the first assessment poem ever written.’ ” It may not be great art, she said, but it shows how “poetry can be everywhere.”
Finding common ground
At a poetry reading last month at the Lenox Community Center that drew a crowd of 30, people stayed late talking. “They were connected around this common thing. That’s one of the best outcomes of all of this,” Pecoraro said.
Their poems ran the gamut, covering everything from taxes to spring. Some pieces were touching or funny. “Everyone is always grateful for a laugh,” she said.
She’s become a familiar face in the community, as well. Occasionally, people will catch footage from the poetry jams on cable access TV. “Every so often, someone will say, ‘You’re the poet. I saw you at 3 a.m.,’ ” Pecoraro said.
St. Louis Park resident Ruby Livon, 10, was the youngest poet to read her work at the recent event. She shared her rhyming poem titled, “Spring.” In the short, to-the-point poem, she described “these wonderful things about spring, and then I said I have to clean my room,” she said in a deadpan way.
Everyone laughed at that. “I thought it was pretty fun and nice to hear what kind of other poems that people like to read and write,” said Ruby, who first read at a poetry jam a couple of years ago.
Her mother, Michelle Livon, said it’s good for Ruby to “see people writing when they’re older — it’s not just for an assignment for school,” she said.
All in all, the project is “a nice avenue for people to have different ways of expressing themselves and to have opportunities to get together,” Michelle said, adding, “It builds the neighborhood feeling.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.