In Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden, a world of people, events, and creatures become seen—not seen the way we see Twitter updates, but the way we see a new land for the first time.

The speaker of the title poem is a knowledgeable tour guide, a lover writing letters by hand, a mother speaking to the baby in her belly. The voice ebbs and flows between watcher/participant, mother/lover, I/We. The poem emphasizes dichotomy–us vs. them, insider/outsider, safe/endangered–only to dissolve such boundaries a moment later. The taken-for-granted becomes seen, the political becomes intimate, the intimate becomes public–and all of it swirls together like the waters of the ocean. The speaker is on a tour of the world by boat; she is of the sea–a cetacean; she is on a trip with her lover; she is Homeland Security agent; she is detainee. We the readers are also in shifting territory, observing and participating in a land both familiar and strange. The work is full of language from Homeland Security and the George W. Bush presidency. It also contains language of pregnancy and birth. Something is trying to be born. We stroll through a fantastic garden of whales, embryos, fences, labels.

Losing it

By Priya Keefe

Poem

Veined leaves
slip
off their branches,
twirl and float
to the ground, to
join
the others,
already crumbling and broken,
returning
to the earth.

Over the table,
where many
meals are taken,
a young man’s face
slowly shifts,
like a river,
like a train veering left.

Lacing a boot
is like climbing a ladder.
These boots
crack concrete,
bend leather
into worn, supple hide,
put miles behind
them.

The brick building
on the horizon—
warm like a
campfire,
shimmering like
heat, shimmying
like a dancer—
is 564 steps

a step
is 1,379 movements
a movement
is a pocket of air
where we all
rest
like hang gliders

I I I I I I
I can’t
I don’t know I won’t
I shouldn’t
youthem
himhershehers
histheirsyours
you you you
themhimher
I reach up
and brush
away, away
brush away

this feeling,
a spiderweb
webweb
on my face
I my I eye
I brush
have I brushed?
Is it there?
I reach
R e a c h
and brush
it away, it
which is there
it’s there
there

no, there
No Yes
there
then
when?
ahead
NoNoNo


Why poetry?

a) Because it’s not golfing, trading stocks, or selling lipstick

b) I think in metaphor

c) Life is ambiguous; so is literature

d) I like bread, water, and candlelight

e) All of the above

f) None of the above


What is poetry?

Poems are experiences. They are meant to be felt.


So, poems on the bus? What’s up with that?

Seattle had this program where adults and kids could submit a poem 50 words or less in a contest (first yearly, then every other year). A panel of judges picked poems from the adult and student submissions to appear on bus placards inside the buses – where usually there are advertisements. Poems could appear one, two, three on a bus – coexisting with commuters, transients, children, parents, immigrants, bankers, construction workers. There was also the occasional poetry bus where the inside placards were all poems and no advertisements. I was not the only person who would seat-hop or stroll the aisle just to read the poems. Other times, on a crowded bus, at the end of a long day, the poems were a welcome break from the ever-present marketing that characterizes modern American life. In 2007 – the last year the program ran – there were 3000 submissions, from which 55 poems were chosen.

I had a poem on the buses in 2003. One evening on the bus home, I saw it and had to tell a complete stranger that was my poem. She was nice.

Other towns have had poetry bus programs, including Albuquerque, Scottsdale, Madison, Charlottesville, Denver, Morgantown, New York.

You can read Seattle’s bus poems here.


Do other places have poetry in city government?

I don’t know of any. There are city-sponsored art festivals, but Seattle’s program is the only one I know that incorporates poetry into government business. Council member Nick Licata invites a poet to read his or her work before the City Council Committee meetings that he chairs. Art isn’t just for enjoyment—though we may enjoy paintings and sculptures in a government building—art can be a way to get us thinking and talking about things that matter. You can view the City Council meetings on the Seattle Channel, or read the poems any time here.


Should writers read?

Yes. I’ve actually heard people say, “I prefer my own work.” That may well be true if you never read other writers. But if you want to write well, you need to be open to learning from others.


What are your tics as a writer?

Chickadees; narrative; more serious than funny (taking itself too seriously?); intimacy.


What is your work about?

What it’s like to be human. Seriously. Don’t ask me this at parties.


What songs do you do at karaoke?

Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame?”; The Platters’ “Harbor Lights”; Lenny Kravitz’s “Lady”.


Are you a dude?

No, I’m an alto.


What’s next?

Finding a publisher for my book and work to support my dance habit.