NYWC hART beat: A look at the poets and writers of our community

In case you missed the memo, April is National Poetry Month, and as of this twenty-fourth day, poets and writers around the world are in the home stretch of their Poem-a-Day challenges. In New York City we’ve seen another Poetweet contest come and go, and just last week, NYWC Volunteer Corps members shared some awesome haikus on Poem in Your Pocket Day. But The Narrator couldn’t let April go by without giving a formal nod to the incredible wordsmiths in our own backyard.

Over the past 10 years, NYWC has been lucky to snag dozens of talented, compassionate volunteer workshop leaders — ballpark number: 120 and counting — all hard at work at the business of life yet still finding time to facilitate the free flow of writing and creative thinking for hundreds of people around NYC.

For the rest of the month, The Narrator puts the spotlight on the writing lives of these artists and activists in what we’re calling NYWC hART beat. Here, we’ll dig deep into what makes these poets and writers so outstanding at what they do and the artistic philosophies they bring to the NYWC community year after year. First up: Geer Austin, who has led writing groups for LGBT homeless youth at New Alternatives, Sylvia’s Place, and the Times Square, a  supportive housing residence. He’s also been a faithful contributor right here on The Narrator.

Geer’s poetry and fiction has appeared in MiPOesias, THIS Literary Magazine, Potomac Review, Big Bridge, Mary: a Literary Quarterly, and Ganymede Unfinished, among others.  He is the former editor of NYB, a New York/Berlin arts magazine, and lives in Brooklyn.

Q: When did you know you were a poet? Tell us a story about your first poem.
A: I always knew I was a writer, even as a child. At first, I thought I wanted to be a playwright, and I wrote plays and convinced my friends, siblings and neighbors to act in them, but I wasn’t a director and chaos ensued. In my teenaged years I wanted to be a rock star, but guitar strings hurt my fingers and I didn’t sing well. Later, I thought I wanted to be a novelist, and I wrote a couple of novels that ended up in the dead letter bin. But throughout these trial careers, I wrote poetry on the sly, and when I finally started sending my poems into the world, people said, “You’re a poet!”

I still have an elementary school anthology (that I found in my mother’s papers after she died) that includes my first published poem. It’s about the March wind and is a bit dark. Buried among the other children’s sweet holiday ditties, it stands out, perhaps not in a good way.

Q: If your writing was an instrument, what would it sound like?
A: My writing/poetry would sound like a kazoo.

Q: Where do you hear poetry?
A: I hear poetry at poetry readings and workshops. I like hearing just-written, unedited work and works in progress. I also hear poetry in snatches of conversation overheard on the subway or on the street.

Q: When you get an idea for a poem, what do you get? An image? A line, etc.?
A: Sometimes I get ideas for poems by starting to write in my journal and waiting until a poem emerges from the words on the page. Sometimes I’m inspired by movies. Sometimes by nature. Other times, poems come to me in a flash, like a revelation, but sadly, these revelatory poems don’t show up that often. On a recent windy morning, I saw a used condom flutter across the sidewalk, and by the time I reached my office, I’d composed a poem in my head starting with that ghost-like image. I recall reading that Wallace Stevens wrote many poems while walking to work at an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. I suppose poems can come to mind anywhere or anytime. The challenge is to remember them and write them down.

Q: How do you take risks in your writing?
A: I didn’t train in academia to become a poet, and I tend to make it up as I go along, not relying on theory or trying to emulate anyone (though I owe a debt of gratitude to the many poets whose writing has influenced mine). I think writing is a tightrope walk. Sometimes I fall to the ground and get badly bruised. But the other times, when I dance across the rope, make up for my crash landings.

Q: What is your least favorite poem? Why?
A: I don’t have a least favorite poem, but my least favorite category of poetry is work dripping in irony and pretension that seems intended to impress the reader with the poet’s fashion-ability.

Q: What poem do you carry in your pocket (or in your heart)? Why?
A: I carry Walt Whitman’s poetry inside me always, though I haven’t committed any of it to memory. I absorbed Leaves of Grass like a transfusion when I first read it outside the classroom.

Q: Why does the world need poetry?
A: That’s a very important question, and I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer it. I suppose I’d say the world needs all the Arts, and in some ways poetry is the most elemental, inclusive and adaptable of the arts. While it flourishes in our contemporary electronic environment, it also thrives in handmade chapbooks and looks gorgeous when chiseled into a slab of stone.