DeWitt community shares lessons in love, life through poetry

A free workshop on writing love poetry at the DeWitt Community Library brings quirky and touching moments from community members.

Love can be an erupting volcano, purring, the emotional trajectory of a yo-yo or even an aardvark. These were just some of the thoughts shouted out by eager participants in a free love poetry workshop held at the DeWitt Community Library. Local poet and retired librarian Martin Willitts Jr., 65, had invited the dozen or so members of the crowd to expand their definition of love through free association, while he scrawled their responses on a large sheet of paper.   

Photo: Nathan McAlone
Willitts said poetry brought back love into his own life after facing the loss of a loved one.

The public workshop was the second in a three-part poetry series run by Willitts and funded by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. Elizabeth Lane of CNY Arts, who facilitated the panel that awarded the grant, said the panel was impressed by how accessible Willitts’ workshops were to the wider community.

“Poetry is a genre where we don’t see a lot of applications,” Lane said, explaining many of their applications are for events that involve more spectators, like music festivals.

But there were no idle onlookers at the love poetry workshop.

“People from all walks come and they are writing,” said participant Ana Cecilia Tafur, a Peruvian-born professor at SUNY Oswego. “That’s a miracle nobody else does.”

Willitts said his goal was to get poets of all talent levels to stop worrying about if their work was any good and to get to the creative part. The universality of love poetry can be a key to this, he said.

“Maybe it’ll be Hallmark—roses are red, violets are blue. But at least they’ll be writing something, and they’ll progress from that,” Willitts said.

Amy Hamilton, an administrative assistant nearing retirement, wrote her first poem during the workshop.

“Would a professional call what I wrote today a poem?” Hamilton mused. “I don’t know. But I feel accomplished having produced something.”

She later admitted she didn’t necessarily like poetry any better afterward.

“It feels like a foreign language to me,” Hamilton said.

While some participants were more practiced poets than others, all of them had radically different ways of expressing love.

“I don’t like relationship poems,” Tafur said. “I love poems about the love of nature and peace. For me, haikus are the best. They capture a moment in time.”

And though the topics within love ranged, each poem, no matter the skill of the poet, felt deeply personal. David Forest Hitchcock, who published his first poem in college, said he came to the workshop to have time to do something on his own.

“I’m taking care of my mom who’s almost 95 years old,” he explained. “My brother is sitting with her now.”

Even in searching for a break, Hitchcock’s poetry ended up bringing his mother into the workshop with him.

“I feed her spoonful by spoonful,” Hitchcock read aloud. “A glass of apple juice I help her sip. The visits to the toilet. The words I read to her. The songs I sing to her. I hug her. Hold her hand. Let her cling to me. Kiss her cheek. Brush her hair. 95 next Friday.”

As Willitts guided others in writing about love, he revealed poetry and love have had a tangled relationship in his own life. After publishing three chapbooks early in his career, he quit writing poetry in 1984, he said.

“I was about to get a really big break with a full-length book, but I walked away from it and didn’t write again until 2001. I had a child and I wanted to spend time with him.” That love was more important than poetry, he said.

But poetry also brought love back into Willitts’ life after his first wife died. One snow-filled day in January, he read about a poetry reading by the local Palace Poetry Group. He called the woman running the event, afraid it would be was canceled due to the weather. It was, but the pair kept talking and talking.

“The next thing you knew we were seeing each other every weekend,” Willitts said. They’ve been married for six years.   

By the time the love poetry workshop ended, every member of the eclectic group had read a poem out loud. The poems spanned from butterflies and the force of the wind, to Legos, to the deaths of grandmothers. The defining feature of the program was that no one had remained silent, or written just a few words. Willitts thinks everyone has the capacity to write love poetry, he said.

“There’s no such thing as a person without a relationship. It’s impossible,” Willitts said.

The final workshop in this series, on “Publishing Poetry,” will take place on October 14 at 7 p.m. at the DeWitt Community Library. 

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