A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Today I visited my friend Bill Foglia who’s a master potter. He’s a founding member and the landlord of Penn Avenue Pottery, an artists’ cooperative located in the Strip District, an old part of Pittsburgh. The front part of the building is a gallery where a number of potters and artists display their work, and in the back is a workshop where Bill can often be found. I sat and talked with him, catching up on news about our respective families while he shaped wet clay with his hands as it spun on the potter’s wheel. I love watching him bring beautiful symmetical form to what is essentially mud.
There’s something almost god-like about the potter’s work. The merest touch to the spinning mass forms a recessed base, a touch on the inside of the pot bulges the middle, a touch at the top forms a lip on the pot. When he has the shape he wants, he cuts the bottom free with a piece of twine and puts the pot aside to glaze and fire later. I’ve loved Bill’s work for a long time; in fact, every morning, I drink coffee from a cup and saucer he made.
Bill has raised the craft of pottery to a sublime art. He is also, not coincidentally, a very good man, devoted to his family and his students, and he and his partners run the cooperative in a responsible and respectable way. I admire him and his work tremendously.
Part of the potter’s art is the principle of “centering” which refers not only to the physical act of putting the clay in the center of the wheel, but also to the mental, perhaps even spiritual, practice of finding one’s own center — that place inside oneself that is pure, clear, and peaceful. If the potter is not centered, then he will not be able to subtly alter the form of the spinning clay. A potter who works when he’s angry, for example, will produce a misshapen pot. Bill’s pots (and cups and plates and teapots) are consistently perfect because he is at rest in his work.
Poetry too requires us to be centered, our minds at rest, in order to listen and not feel a need to speak. If the Muse, for lack of a better word, chooses to speak through us, then we need to let it happen, and not allow our fears and ambitions get in the way. In reading the poem later, the poet is sometimes surprised at the beauty of the words, and worried that it’s not really something that he or she created, a sense that the poem arrived fully-formed – a gift of the cosmos, rather than a made thing.
Every poet is at the mercy of the first line giving him or her the direction of the imagination. Past acclaim and publication history make no difference to the Muse. Children receive these gifts more often than professors. Proverbs, folk tales, nursery rhymes, and the daily complaints of working men and women are the library of the poet.
copyright 2015 Michael Simms