A Poet with a Mission
Portsmouth’s new poet laureate builds community through poetry
Posted May 14, 2017
By Jeanné McCartin
Mike Nelson, a man with a mission, was named the eleventh Portsmouth Poet Laureate at a ceremony, April 3, at Portsmouth City Hall. Nelson had designs on the position, but with an eye on advancing poetry and programs rather than his own work. The eleventh Laureate said it best in his acceptance speech.
“For nearly two decades, the poetry community of Portsmouth has given me the gift of honoring my voice,” Nelson said. “I’m grateful and excited to use my position as laureate to give that gift back to Portsmouth and New Hampshire by creating platforms for a diversity of voices to be heard.”
It was no surprise his name was submitted to the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program’s selection committee, Nelson says. He’d expressed interest. He had a plan.“I wanted that position,” Nelson says. “I was really excited about the nomination. It was the opportunity to continue the kind of stuff I’ve been doing the last few years that aligns with PPLP’s mission to build community with poetry.” It was a chance to follow through with projects already in the works “and go bigger,” he adds. With that in mind, once appointed, Nelson hit the ground running.
Nelson has a history of building community with poetry. In Portsmouth, where the New Hampshire native now lives, he’s hosted the Press Room’s “Beat Night” for the past three years, taking on the responsibility after founder Larry Simon moved from the area.
“‘Beat Night’ was the first place I’d read a poem to anyone in public, and I’d had a great reception,” Nelson says. “We wanted to keep it going. The band wanted to keep it going. … And I didn’t want it to see it disappear.”
Nelson works a second program in Manchester, which grew out of an earlier one launched in 2015. The original was “The Tribe Poetry Project,” a class for students from the city’s high schools, offered through the Organization for Refugees and Immigrant Success. The group was composed largely of refugee and immigrant teens from countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle Eastern. Its success was evident in the voices that learned to express themselves, he says. Sharing and being heard is as important as writing the words, Nelson says. For that reason, he brings a microphone and and amp to class. “So when they write something, I ask them to read it to the group. They often want to. Then they get to the mic and it’s nerve-wracking, but they do it anyway,” he says. “When you stand in front of people and (read) your own work, sensitive words, and others listen, you feel heard. I SAW them feel heard, and saw that there was value in what they were saying. I could see that impact.”
He recalls one incident that profoundly moved him. A teenage girl had just arrived from an African country to be reunited with her mother after 10 years apart. “She came from a place where young women’s voices are not amplified, but actually the opposite.” She wrote, but resisted sharing at the mic. Eventually she agreed, “but was still afraid.”Nelson gathered the class around the young poet. “She barely whispered what she was sharing, but she shared. That little moment was everything for me. Here these people are, gathered around her. ‘The Tribe’ says listen and be heard. When everyone is there and listening it does something to you,” he says. “I know that for a fact. I know the value because I went through it myself.”
Nelson recalls being that young person wanting to be heard, but too afraid to share. “Fifteen years ago, when I started going to poet readings, I didn’t think my voice had any value, or that anything I said had any worth.” Eventually, with community support, he made it to the mic. “They listened and applauded, and that changed my life.”
“I have always felt that when people listen to you that’s a gift. I’ve been given that gift over and over again. My personal mission with ‘Tribe’ and PPLP is to give that gift back. … I think there is no community without that; without listening and being heard.”
Nelson was contacted by the current New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice B. Fogel regarding a new poetry project, just as “Tribe” classes ended. The two formed “Raising Voices,” the latest program, with the International Institute of New England in Manchester. “Raising Voices,” which again works with refugees and immigrants, was launched shortly before Nelson took on the laureate mantel. “So, it made complete sense to make it part of what I’m doing. That’s the whole point of being laureate, to gain more attention for something – to amplify,” he says. It would have gone forward on its own, but as part of his laureate program, it enhances the visibility of both,“Raising Voices” and the PPLP program. The Manchester model may find its way to Portsmouth, he adds. “But, either way, I’m representing Portsmouth wherever I go.”
Plans for creating additional programs on the Seacoast during his tenure, all still in discussion, are for both larger programs and a number of smaller efforts. “I literally haven’t had the position a month yet, so it will take some time to get the other things started,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s love of poetry began in his late teens. He was out of school, and all “sixes-and-sevens.” “I didn’t feel I’d learned anything or connected with anything,” he says. “I started writing and, once I started, I never stopped.” The art is largely a way to ponder and process, he says. “I use poetry to delve into the questions I have about life; personally, globally and universally,” he says. “It’s such a part of my own process of being in the world, it’s hard to look at objectively.” Nature is an oft visited subject; it’s relatable, Nelson says. And his work is often peppered with humor. Little is more rewarding than making people laugh, he says. It also helps him make sense of life’s absurdities. “I’m trying to find the humor in very serious things. … Life is so often absurd and ridiculous. It just is. I’m not saying everything I write is funny, but it often goes in that direction” Nelson says.” And it’s fun to sort of turn things on their head, to rethink things, to look at it in a new way.” Writing’s process helps put things in perspective, he says. “I think writing in general keeps your feet on the ground. It allows my mind to wander, while staying grounded in reality.”
The hope is the finished product is relatable. As it is with all art, the best poetry allows others to find something of themselves in the work, a moment of true recognition and sharing, he says. When successful, “it’s immensely powerful, not just for yourself but others.” Both poet and listener feel heard, he says. “And once you feel heard, you’re not alone anymore. ”
To date, Nelson has published three books: “The One In The Middle” (2005), “Sometimes At Night” ( 2007) and “Another Forty Years” (2014). He is currently working on a fourth. A short story he wrote appeared in “Compass Points. Stories from Seacoast Authors” as well. He currently pens “Tribe Poetry Project,” a website regarding all his projects with poetry.
“People ask what does (the poet laureate) do. What’s it about? It’s really about the community. It’s about building community, not about me,” Nelson says. “I don’t think of myself as the best poet – certainly not. I don’t think there’s any best anything. And poetry is as diverse as music you know?”
“Poetry is more about how we can build community and amplify those voices that need to be heard,” Nelson says.