PORT ANGELES — Gary Copeland Lilley’s poems are about rhythm, blues, religion, Sept. 11 and what happened after the hurricane. Among other things.
A Southern writer who’s lived on both coasts, Lilley comes to Peninsula College to give a free public reading Wednesday at 12:35 p.m. in Maier Hall, on the campus at 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd.
Now Lilley usually doesn’t choose his poems until the night before a reading, but he said there’s a good chance listeners will hear from his first book, The Subsequent Blues, his latest poetry collection Alpha Zulu and the forthcoming High Water Everywhere.
Life on a nuclear submarine while Lilley served in the Navy informed his Alpha Zulu poems.
Other works come from his childhood in Sandy Cross, N.C., and, much later, his research at the University of Mississippi’s Blues Archive.
The poems in High Water Everywhere, to be released in spring 2013, are mainly about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
After the September 2005 disaster, Lilley made seven trips to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast doing relief work, gutting houses, working in food banks, tutoring in schools and renovating — “anything and everything that I could do.”
He had no intention of writing about it. But “after those seven trips,” he said, “that first poem came, and then others.”
Since moving to Port Townsend in 2009, Lilley’s done more poetic exploration of his native South.
Coming so far, he believes, gives him objective distance and the ability to “rechannel memories.”
This corner of the country, Lilley finds, is a nourishing one.
“I love, particularly, living in an area with all this creativity, with all these artists. This place is teeming with them,” he said.
The artists were “the deciding factor in me moving here, particularly the drummers. I’d been playing African drums for years, and first came here without a drum.”
“When I showed up at a session, one of the drummers loaned me a great, high-quality djembe” he said.
“Of course, the town has some tremendous guitar players, too, and when my sister died last year from pancreatic cancer, I found that my friends here recognized my grief and did not let me be isolated in it.
“That’s Port Townsend. One of the friends gave me a guitar from the Andy Mackie Foundation, and I’ve been playing guitar ever since.”
His music of choice: blues and gospel. He grew up with both.
To those around him who want to take up the writing art, Lilley offers words of encouragement.
First, “find your tribe,” he advises. “Writing is solitary, but the learning and the sharing is not.”
This can be done in or out of college, in community workshops or writing groups.
Lilley himself has taught at the Poetry Center of Chicago and the Writers Workshoppe in Port Townsend, among other venues; he’ll be on the faculty at Centrum’s Writers’ Conference (Centrum.org/writing) this July 8-15 at Fort Worden State Park.
“Read good writers,” is another piece of advice he offers. “When something they write resonates with you, examine why it does so.”
The main thing, though, “is just start, and then keep on.”
“Poetry is my way of coming to some understandings about the world I live in.
And with poetry as in life, “what you get out of it is proportional to the effort you put into it.”
Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.