Benjamin Grossberg was officially named West Hartford’s seventh poet laureate this spring.
By Tracey Weiss, West Hartford LIFE
While April came and went with town residents still stuck at home, one happy ritual took place under the radar: the naming of West Hartford’s new poet laureate, Benjamin Grossberg.
Mayor Shari Cantor, whose first-ever resolution for the Town Council, about 15 years ago, was establishment of a poet laureate position, presented Grossberg with the proclamation at a physically distant ceremony at his home in April, and later made the appointment officially at a Town Council meeting.
Benjamin Grossberg’s credentials more than qualify him for the role. His fourth book of poetry, My Husband Would (University of Tampa Press, 2020), is being published this summer in time for what will hopefully be one of his first duties as poet laureate.
As is now custom in town, Grossberg was the unanimous choice for the role, chosen by a committee of previous poets laureate, including Maria Sassi, Dennis Barone, Ginny Lowe Connors, Jim Finnegan, and the outgoing poet laureate, Julie Choffel.
“Ben Grossberg has great personal energy and charisma that immediately engages any audience,” Finnegan said. “His genuineness and empathy toward others can be immediately felt. Those in West Hartford who don’t know his poetry, will be very impressed by his work.”
Grossberg will serve a three-year term as poet laureate, holding workshops, readings and other events.
“I will try to find ways for people to come out to share,” Grossberg said. “Poetry makes us slow down to look at the world we’re in. I want to provide that attitude to help people with their poetry. I’m formulating my plan.”
It shouldn’t be difficult considering that Grossberg is the director of the Creative Writing program at the University of Hartford.
“I love teaching because I can see the growth and discovery of my students,” he said. “They go from being children to adults. The brain development during those years is amazing. There is something wonderful about witnessing letting the imagination loose and processing what it means to be human on the page.
“And I get to read some great stuff and some not so great stuff.”
In addition to his upcoming book, Grossberg is also the author of three full-length poetry collections, including Space Traveler (Tampa, 2014), and Sweet Core Orchard (Tampa, 2009), winner of the Tampa Review Prize and a Lambda Literary Award.
Space Traveler is a metaphor for human isolation,” Grossberg said.
Sweet Core Orchard is a tribute to apples and all of “the things apples can symbolize,” Grossberg said.
Grossberg lived in Ohio and taught at Antioch. He had an apple orchard on his property and loved it so much, he has recently added 14 apple trees to his backyard in town.
His new book, My Husband Would, is “About marriage and the world we are born into,” he added.
Grossberg’s poems have appeared widely, including in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies, Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and the magazines Paris Review, Ploughshares, Boulevard, Kenyon Review, and The Sun. A recipient of individual artist grants from the states of Ohio and Connecticut, he serves as Assistant Poetry Editor and book reviewer for the Antioch Review.
“I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember,” Grossberg said. “I thought I might be a playwright. More than once I’ve had the experience of reading a poem and feeling completely displaced. Poems do that to me.
“I see the orchestration of poems from the inside. I feel like I get a sense of the scope of a person’s intelligence. We know our own minds so well.”
“Ben tends to explore major themes through a series of related poems,” Finnegan said. “His language-craft is second to none, and he’s capable of working both in freer forms and in formal verse. He has a real gift for the ‘telling image.’” That may explain his love for classic poets such as William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, as well as more contemporary poets like Jane Hirshfield, C.K. Williams, and Mark Doty.
Grossberg is looking forward to being involved in events in town.
“I love West Hartford,” he said. “People are friendly. This is such a vibrant community.
I feel like a part of it. I hope to spend the rest of my life here.”
Two poems by Benjamin Grossberg
Benjamin Grossberg’s poems are often strong reminders of the evil that men do. Heaven, for example, “is a poem that I wrote in response to the nightclub shootings in Florida (in Orlando in 2016). I used to go to Houston nightclubs in the 90s.”
The Houston nightclub, long shut down, where
I once spent Friday nights.
Someone shoots up Heaven,
both bars and the small
dance floor in the back.
But the patrons, all just
my memories now,
ethereal, wisps of smoke
and soul, don’t notice
or care. The bullets
spray through them
where they cluster at
the second bar, blurring
their bodies as they flirt
and throw back cocktails
that turn to vapor
in their mouths.
Heaven’s dance floor
is a sway of boys. It’s still
early nineties here,
so pastel disco lights flash
to “Strike it Up” and “100%
Pure Love.” Patrons dance
as only memories can,
pressing so close they pass
through each other
at the lips. When bullets glide
through them, their bodies
mingle at the entrance wounds.
Fridays, cover charge
is a canned good, a donation
for the local soup kitchen,
and booze, a pour of smoke
in a plastic cup, costs only
twenty-five cents till eleven.
On a night like this, sultry, with
boys lined up to enter, a can
of Kroger peas or hominy
in hand, the click
click click of an empty
magazine, his last, is lost
to disco. He throws down
the gun, its cold solidity,
and charges the crowd.
But the boys turn to mist
still laughing at their own jokes
and settle once he’s passed.
Spent, he collapses unnoticed
against and through
one of Heaven’s walls,
and tumbles right out of it.
At the bar, one of the boys
drifts toward another
a few stools down, the swirl
of him blown back
by the movement.
All night, he’s been watching
a guy—Michael—who he
will continue to love
long after they’ve parted ways.
He’s just found courage
to go up and say hello.
In The Dogs of Sochi, Grossberg writes about the known stray dogs in Sochi, Russia, that were killed before the Olympics were held there in 2014. “The poem is about survival, and the actual news of one dog who broke free from a truck and escaped his death,” Grossberg said.
THE DOGS OF SOCHI
Shot with poisoned darts, tossed in trucks.
Can you imagine that? The questing snout
snapping back toward the stung flank, the flux
of rising pavement, two-legged blur, a shout
before you’re hefted by front legs, thrown
on a pile of your kind—the cold, sour tang
of death encircling, theirs and your own—
and then, perhaps, nothing. But one sprang
free—the News said one—small, red, prick-eared—
the dart dropped off, she shook, bolted the mound
of bodies, leapt out, hit the street, heard
them scrambling after and shot from the sound.
Just one. You taste the air rushing on her tongue,
the push of blood and breath, a running song.
A version of this story originally appeared in West Hartford LIFE.
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