Featured Poet: Samantha Libby

Samantha Libby describes herself as “a muppet in a world of cartoons and marionettes.” She is mom to two children, and just said goodbye to her twenty-year-old cat. Sam was a co-host of the Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge and Lizard Lounge in the late 90’s and was a member of the Boston slam team in 1999. She currently teaches creative writing at Nichols College. She is also the poet rabbi to an alternative Jewish congregation in Weston, MA. You can find her online at: www.poetrabbi.blogspot.com and www.samalamaspins2.blogspot.com.

(Soul-Lit) Speak a little about your coming to poetry and your progression as a poet.

(Libby) I wrote my first sonnet as a senior in high school and I was surprised to find it was…easy. I'm not saying I wrote awesome sonnets, but to me it was a sort of code, not plain as day, but layered. When I went to college I began writing to alleviate anxiety; I found it very comforting to leave my thoughts and feelings as words on the page and walk away.  As time went by, I found I had some way with words.  I found poetry was a good form for me, as I was afraid to “write long,” to write stories. I’m working on that! I dropped out of McGill when I was 20, moved to Boston, finished school at UMass Boston and discovered that I liked to perform my work. I had always loved to read aloud and sing, ever since I was young. I took a workshop at UMass with Lloyd Schwartz; we had to be admitted and he said I wasn't ready. Turned out he was completely right but I insisted I wanted to take the class anyway! In 1998, I found the Cantab Lounge and the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge.   I did a workshop with Michael Brown in 1998 and began co-hosting the slam and open mic while a lot of shifts were happening in the community. I competed for and won a spot on the Boston team for NPS in 1999.

 So, do you consider yourself primarily a “stage poet” or a “page poet”?

Yes! For me it’s not just a matter of stage or page. I write down my small piece of truth that I want to share with the world.  I hope that I know what I’m talking about! For me it’s about  psychology and  poetry and spirit. How can we use words to make sense of people and the world and even, perhaps, the unknowable.

Who have been your primary influences?

Ani DiFranco, singer-songwriter.  Her words are just incredible. She’s my age and watching her grow as an artist, and activist and a woman has been a true inspiration to me. I think she’s my hero. Lots of truth telling. And politically very spot-on.  Music has always been a great influence on my own poetry. I also love Naomi Shihab-Nye. Her depth and ability to bridge cultures and find commonality blows me away. Sharon Olds’ ability to articulate pain, longing and love has left an indelible mark on me; she’s so brave. I think that’s the thing – you have to be brave to be a poet, laying yourself bare. Others can take it or leave it, but the act of reaching in to pry yourself open, no matter your skill level, to me, it’s holy.

How do you see ‘spiritual poetry'?

 It’s about using words to describe the quest for God, for unity, for humanity, in the everyday. To feel a part of something bigger.  To some degree I think all poets are  spiritual poets, even if they don’t call themselves that. I think  poetry allows for our common humanity to be seen as we wander through the world, and I consider that wandering and that capturing to be spiritual in nature.

You describe yourself as a “poet rabbi”.

Truth be told, I made up the term but it seems to fit. Every two weeks, I stand up in front of our unnamed but joyfully gathered congregation, and offer my interpretation of the Torah reading, as a poem. It’s usually pretty straight-forward, but people really seem to resonate with it. Somehow it works in the context of our services. I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me (different people, different weeks) and say, “You know, your work is always great but this week you really nailed it. Better than the others.” I am so grateful to be there, offering my words and really feeling listened to. It’s amazing!

Rabbi used to mean, simply, "teacher." Not an ordained minister of Judaic ceremony as it is now (or can be in a strict definition) but rather one who teaches in community. For me, poems are a vehicle to speak my truth, a truth that I hope speaks to the larger core of our shared humanity.

So poet rabbi (with a small "r") is a self-created naming of a small bit of myself that offers my poem-teachings in a way I sincerely hope allows others to enter into that space of the shared core... the glimmering gladness of god in all of us.

What advice do you offer to poets?

Read and write and listen. Pay attention. Write about EVERYTHING! Nothing is off limits, whether it’s the toothpaste stuck in the tube in the morning, the best sex you ever had even though your lover left you, or a spiritual moment on a mountain top! You can bitch about taking trash to the curb or describe the curve of a lover’s ear.  So much of it is just about seeing and feeling and noticing the beauty of the universe.

I’d also say, don’t worry if you haven’t read all the greats, received an advanced degree in English and American poetry. Find and read poets you like. Then find another poet you like. Practice listening to poets and trying to hold their words and images in your head, find phrases you love and write them down. Collect them. Then use them as jumping off places for your own work. We learn through imitation. So, see what others are doing and then practice. And don’t be afraid! Fear is the joy-killer! Free yourself from fear and you can write anything.

You know, we could have 20 people write a poem about the smell of garbage on a hot August day, flies buzzing and meat rotting, and we would get 20 different poems. 20 different glimpses of the world as it is. Everyone’s perspective is a little bit of truth. I think that’s really the core of why I write We all have ways of seeking encounter with the divine.  For me, the vehicle has always been words.  Even in the quiet times, the down times, the times when it seems the well is dry, it always comes back. The words have a way of bubbling up, and then I’m back in the stream again, writing away.