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Home  >  Reading and Writing  >  Reading Out Loud
The Birth of a Songwriter Through Poetry
By Wendy Withrow

In her youth, before she had four daughters to raise, my mother memorized poetry. Back then, before television, people did more to entertain themselves. They went to visit each other. They sat on porches in the cool of the evening and sang songs. They played games. They recited poetry.

So Mother used to recite poems sometimes, maybe while she was sewing a dress for one of us girls. When my third-grade teacher made us memorize and recite poems for class, Mother coached me. She not only prompted me when I forgot the words, but also suggested ways to present the material more dramatically. I learned to appreciate how beautifully a poem can encapsulate a feeling, a moment, a scene, an idea.

When I went away to college, I learned to play folk guitar and began writing poetry in the form of song lyrics. I opened and managed a coffeehouse on campus where people could paint on the walls. Most people simply painted their names—Boring!

Wendy Withrow with her daughter

I liked it when people painted snippets of poetry. At the prospect of going hitchhiking with my boyfriend and a mutual friend of ours, I went back to my dorm room one night, after closing the coffeehouse, and excitedly wrote a song about the open road, "Bummin'," which I still perform today, 30 years later.

When I finally did get to go hitchhiking (but not with the two guys named in my song), I wrote another song which I still perform today: "Waiting for the Cable Car." These poems set to music hold feelings and hopes from my younger days which I can open and enjoy and share with others.

Now I'm a mom. Following in my mother's footsteps, I recited and read poetry to my own daughter, Jessie. As a preschooler, she could recite the book-in-rhyme, Madeline. In her kindergarten talent show, Jessie chose to recite --quite dramatically -- Lewis Carroll's famous "Jabberwocky." So it runs in the family, this love for poetry: reading it, memorizing it, reciting it, writing it.

I'm currently hooked on poetry slams. I've only been a "Live Poet" once, reading my own work. The ham in me prefers being a "Dead Poet" and reading the works of others before an audience. It doesn't matter that I've never won. Just getting up and entertaining people with performance poetry is such a kick!

Jessie could never attend the slams with me at the Fly By Night Club, but she yearned to go and even, as a teen-ager, to compete. She had to wait until she went off to college in the fall of 1999, where she organized her own poetry slam, the first ever at Bates College.

Meanwhile, I became a founding member of the Alaska Poetry League and saw to it that poetry slams were put on for those too young to get into a bar. It is my joy to see young people get up on stage and earnestly read their poems to an attentive crowd. Even in these days of Gameboys and portable CD players, poetry survives, even thrives as a performance art!

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