September 11, 2013

Cool Women Poets at the Library Riff on Fall, Falling, and The Fall

COOL WOMEN: The monthly Poets at the Library series introduced the Cool Women on Monday for an entertaining evening of poetry. From left: Gretna Wilkerson, Lois Harrod, Maxine ­Susman, Juditha Dowd, Eloise Bruce, Betty Lies, Joyce Lott.(Photo by L. Arntzenius)

COOL WOMEN: The monthly Poets at the Library series introduced the Cool Women on Monday for an entertaining evening of poetry. From left: Gretna Wilkerson, Lois Harrod, Maxine ­Susman, Juditha Dowd, Eloise Bruce, Betty Lies, Joyce Lott. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)

Over 60 poets and poetry lovers turned out to hear the poetry performance group Cool Women at the Princeton Public Library Monday evening.

The event was part of the monthly Poets at the Library series co-sponsored by the Library, the Delaware Valley Poets, and the Princeton-based US1 Poets’ Cooperative.

The larger than usual audience lent a festive air to the evening. The Cool Women are well-known to Princeton area audiences.

Joyce Lott set the tone for the reading which was themed, as is typical for the Cools. “Since we began as a critique group 16 years ago we’ve shared our losses, joys, fears, and wild imaginings with each other. We have supported each other’s creativity and accomplishments. Together and separately, we have published 56 books, been married 16 times, had 19 children and 17 grandchildren. At this point in our lives, it might be easier to fall back but that’s not our way,” she said. Instead, the poets riffed on the season and all that it suggests to the imagination with “Fall Ahead,” each poet selecting one work in response to the previous reader. Only the order was pre-arranged. Gretna Wilkerson was first up followed by Lois Harrod, Maxine Susman, Juditha Dowd, Eloise Bruce, Betty Lies, and Joyce Lott.

Missing from the nine-member group on Monday were Judy Michaels, and Penelope Schott.

“As is our custom, we will read our work one poem at a time, in three rounds, so that we can resonate as a group,” said Ms. Lott.

Like seasoned jazz performers, the poets improvised a dialogue, having been together long enough to let their hair down with each other and with the audience. Their performances are unpredictable and compelling. Since their debut at Micawber Books in Princeton on Valentine’s Day, 2000, they’ve performed at venues throughout the tri-state area and beyond and they meet once a month in each other’s homes

Over the years, they have won many awards as well as prestigious fellowships to the likes of the Virginia Center for the Arts, Vermont Studio, and Ragdale. Members of the group have received the New Jersey Governor’s Award in Art Education and have been named Dodge poet, Princeton University Distinguished Teacher, Klingenstein Fellow at Columbia Teachers College, and Exchange Professor to Duksung Women’s University in Seoul, Korea.

Together, they have produced four anthologies and two CDs of their work. A fifth poetry anthology will be launched at the Princeton Arts Council on December 6.

Ms. Wilkerson opened with a poem about trying not to fall behind: “My Ex-Man and My Feelings Must Have Thought I Was a Jackass.” Originally from Guyana, Ms. Wilkerson has a rich voice suggestive of islands and honey. Her work is filled with wry humor and her delivery fairly bubbles. For educator Lois Harrod, fall means going back to school and her poem recalled a young female from Iran and the headscarf she wore to class. Maxine Susman recalled her own childhood in Mount Vernon, a small town in Westchester, New York, and then Juditha Dowd moved into the garden in autumn, “the season we must practice grief,” with her “Putting it to Bed.”

Inspired by Ms. Harrod’s mention of Persia, Eloise Bruce conjured the Garden of Eden at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. She juxtaposed Baghdad and Babylon, Biblical references, and road-side bombs. Betty Lies then selected “Microcosm” from her latest collection Padiddle, evoking a childhood paradise. Joyce Lott “piggy backed” on Ms. Wilkerson’s poem and presented her “Full Strawberry Moon,” about how it is possible to fall in love in our 70s and 80s.

A second and then a third round of readings followed. Ms. Wilkerson went back to “the first famous fall,” of Adam and Eve with her poem, “Why I Blame Genesis for Exodus.” With further selections, the poets moved seamlessly from love to death, the origins of life, gardens, creation myths, Newton and his apple, gravity, Einstein, and God.

“That went fast,” one audience member was heard to whisper when Joyce Lott announced the final poem. And indeed it had.

As is usual with Poets at the Library events, an open microphone session followed the main event, which ended promptly at library closing at 9 p.m.

Poets at the Library takes place every second Monday, at 7:30 p.m. in front of the Fireplace on the library’s second floor. The next meeting is on October 14 with Peter Murphy and Carolina Morales. C.K. Williams reads on November 11, and Tracy K. Smith on December 9. For more information, call (609) 924-9529 or visit