Monday, July 10, 2017

Scissortail Poets: Jim Benton

For three weeks in April of this year, I did a book tour of the deep south, reading from Dharma Rain, my most recent collection (Saint Julian Press, October 2016). When Jim Benton, my good friend and fellow-poet living in Ft. Worth, told me about the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK, I didn't set out to travel 3,000 miles through 7 states. Jim had attended the festival in 2016, and spoke highly of it. With his encouragement, I submitted poems for the 2017 festival; and with my encouragement, he did as well. We were both accepted as readers.

Shortly afterwards, Jeannie Thompson, Executive Director of Alabama Writers' Forum, emailed me and expressed interest in my work, asking if I had ever toured the deep south. No, I said, but I was willing to consider it--what did she have in mind? She told me about the Alabama Book Festival held every year at the end of April. After a few months of email exchanges, I received an official invitation to be a featured reader. 

As a resident of northern California, I then had a lovely problem--reading in Ada, OK the first weekend of April; and reading in Montgomery, AL the last. I decided to connect the dots and plan a tour, stopping along the way (a circuitous route, no doubt), through Ft. Worth (where I used to live and close to where my 3 children still do), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Little Rock, Montgomery, and back to Ft. Worth for the flight home. I asked Jim if we split gas and motel stays, if he'd be interested in driving his car for the 3,000-mile adventure. He said yes, booked a final "homecoming" reading in Ft. Worth, and the tour was born.

Between the summer of 2016 and April of 2017, Jim put together a chapbook of some of his own poems. He read from it, not only at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, but at several of the readings where I was booked--either as a co-featured reader, or as an open-mic guest. I will never forget our trip, or be able to repay Jim for his kindness in driving the entire way, his patience in putting up with my quirks, and our long, in-depth conversations/arguments about poetry, life, and all things human and divine. 

I offer the following preface I wrote for his chapbook, as a way of honoring him and his work--both of which inform the other, and which are as much in concert with one another as in any person or poet I have ever known. Jim has spent a lifetime tirelessly teaching young people, in and out of the classroom, to be better writers and better people. He has also spent much time since his retirement writing poetry that is better than most written today by poets who have amassed prestigious publication credits. He "killed it," as I told him at Scissortail (as he did wherever he read). But that is not why Jim writes, as you will discover, if you read his work below with "the way of seeing" that a poet sees--the way that he has taught countless students to do over the years.


NOTE: After the preface, I have also taken the liberty to publish a few of my favorite poems in their entirety from his body of work.

Preface to Finding Poetry in Santa Fe 

In 'Finding Poetry in Santa Fe,' Jim Benton offers up a true sample of his work, which is, in my assessment, stronger than poems of the majority of poets who do not yet have a full-length collection—and many who do. I say this as an editor of a national poetry press who reads hundreds of manuscripts a year, not only with regard to the craft and voice present in each poem, but in consideration of the rigor Benton brings to the editing process for each poem and for the manuscript as a whole, being fully aware of Frost’s statement about the final poem being the book itself. Benton’s choices about sequence have created a manuscript with a traceable narrative arc, appropriately interrupted with gorgeous lyrical passages—all demonstrating a mature artistic sensibility.

This achievement comes not only from his almost twenty years of teaching poetry to high school students as “the way of seeing,” but also from a life lived as “the way of being” in the world. Jim is fully present in each poem with all his powers of cognition, his sensitivity of emotion, as well as his delightful irreverence, and scathing satire for anything false. He is the same with other poets’ work and with each person he encounters.

In “Holiness is Overrated,” Jim Benton challenges not only those who are in the clergy, but all who are given to sermonizing and able to be perceived as “above” others in any way, to commit acts of rebellion: “Swing from the sanctuary chandeliers, / say shit in the pulpit, sing hymns without rhyme, / recite  inspired non-sequiturs, pray gibberish,” and to “Preach free verse sermons with such alliterative excess / that only their sounds are true.”

Benton takes his own advice in 'Finding Poetry in Santa Fe.' Every poem not only rings true in the sonic realm, but in the typographical, ideational, and all the other sensory levels, as well.  

Benton has a knack for shining the light of his poems on the most sacrosanct of ideas and the most sacred of gods, showing them for what they are—delightfully ordinary, aberrant, and carnal—and, like Whitman, the grandfather of American poetry, for exalting the profane to the divine. In “Jesus Vacations in Santa Fe,”

            Jesus, restless in heaven,
            slipped away alone,
            for a quiet vacation. Unknown
            and unrecognized in sweatshirt
            and jeans from Goodwill,
            he treated himself
            to a pedicure, soaked in a spa at sunset
            with a bottle of local red
            and the thought of blood never occurred to him.

The poem ends paying homage to two equally great things in God’s creation: “Peace on Earth / and great tacos.” Benton gets it right in diction and tone in this poem, and even a cursory read of the New Testament reveals that Benton gets it right theologically, as well.

In “Santa Fe Dreams,” the action of an unknown lawbreaker chiseling away the word “savage” from an inscription honoring the “savage Indians” on an obelisk erected at the center of the Plaza, is raised to the heavens where “the stars tremble,” and becomes an example for the poet to follow:

            Chisel-bold in the heroic dreams
            Santa Fe conjures in my imagination,
            I am he, raven-eyed justice,
            replacing the savage obscenity
            carved in stone on the monolithic face of memory
            with a graven scar that bears my name
            for eyes that walk uncovered, unbalanced,
            in moonlight.

Many poems in Finding Poetry in Santa Fe have a strong narrative. But, Benton can be quite lyrical, as well. In “Poet at Dusk,” he invites the reader to join him, to “Dress the naked desert / in wordstreams / to evaporate / in sere sunlight. // Clothe the shapely clouds / in see-through verbs / to float weightless / above the page.” That’s because, for Benton, poetry is not some esoteric art, created only by the inspired or talented few, but “a way of seeing” that can be acquired by all who are willing to open themselves to truly experience what they are already experiencing.
Jim Benton found poetry in Santa Fe, a city he has had a love affair with for decades now. In the process, he became a poet. In these poems, he invites you, the reader, to find poetry where you reside. And, who knows, it might just change the way you see and write and live, as well.

*    *    *

Jesus Vacations in Santa Fe

Jesus, restless in heaven,
slipped away alone,
for a quiet vacation. Unknown
and unrecognized in sweatshirt
and jeans from Goodwill,
he treated himself
to a pedicure, soaked in a spa at sunset
with a bottle of local red,
and the thought of blood never occurred to him.

Next day he went shopping,
dressed himself up in gaudy drag,
donned a flashing electric tiara,
AAA batteries entwined in bejeweled weave.
He dyed his hair a lovely, soft
auburn, danced alone an inch
above sandal-worn adobe floors,
dined on Northern New Mexican
Cuisine, sat for hours amid juniper
and sage in the crisp evening air.

A Canyon Road crafter tried
to sell him a pair of white hand-sewn
kid gloves with sterling silver
stigmata medallions, inlaid turquoise, red leather tassels,
and one-of-a-kind ceramic drop-weight
beads, at a Semana Santa Sale price.
Jesus wept.

Silently, he slipped away,
scrubbed his hands in adobe dust,
sat down for a sopapilla
and a soda. At Chimayo,
Jesus tasted his first brisket taco
with a pinch of fresh cilantro, grilled onions,
and lime on a hand-formed corn tortilla.
And fell in love. A gentle abuela
shared the secret of her green chile stew--
fresh corn grilled on an open piñon fire.

The pixilated cascade of golden aspen
took his breath, and no apple ever tasted so sweet
as the one he picked right off the tree
without so much as a moment's thought
of Eden. It was just the quiet vacation
Jesus needed. Peace on Earth
and great tacos.

(First published in Poetry Super Highway, June, 2014.)

If I Were a Poet

If I were a poet I would stop
for every hitchhiking line
and give it a ride
to wherever it could take me.
I would let it smoke in the car
and not turn up my nose
at the smell of urine and asphalt.

I would welcome the baggage
it casually tossed onto my backseat,
and the greasy, matted, misplaced modifiers dangling
from the edges of its wooly watch cap
would not tempt me to avoid
awkward eye contact. Though it ranted
and rambled and raged
and wept and wailed and whined,
the shallow, contrived, unnatural, pointless quality
of over-alliteration would not provoke
my disdain. If it were raining and it had
a rumpled, ugly, smelly, wet
dog with slobbery jowls, mud-caked
paws, and puppies in the pouch,
I would not throw a prophylactic blanket
over my decorous rear seat upholstery.
I would welcome each mud splatter and dirty

If I were a poet
and a toothless hitchhiking poem
in a black leather jacket and yellowed cotton shirt
stumbled dazed and disoriented onto the shoulder
of my awareness, waving bloody hands with dirty nails,
screeching alternately incoherent gibberish and precisely
articulated obscenities from the corner of its mouth,
I would stop, roll down all four windows,
hop into the back seat,
and toss it the keys.

(First published in Sin Fronteras, Issue #19, Spring 2015.)

Three Ladders

A ladder leads me down
into a dusty numinous womb
of fertile Earth.
Here the travails of mother time
linger in adobe and dance
the beat of soft steps.
Step by step I descend
into the darkness of the ancients
to inhale their smoky wisdom.

A ladder lifts me up
onto a branch extending beyond
my reach or grasp below.
Here the flight of scissortail,
raven, and swallow beckon me
build a nest from which to fly.
Step by step I ascend
into the limitless open sky
to soar among sunlight and stars.

A ladder leads me to the edge
between two worlds
I sit astride.
Here the decisive paths are split,
spread before me from dawn to dusk--
forward or back again?
Step by step I ascend
to reach an untenable divide
from which I must descend.

(From Finding Poetry in Santa Fe, 2016.)