Thorburn Reflects on Poet Laureate Term
Russell Thorburn (English) has enjoyed the distinction of serving as the first Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate for a two-year term set to conclude in July. He was among the initial group of five finalists nominated by more than 100 libraries, bookstores and authors for their exceptional talents and dedication to literature in the Upper Peninsula. Thorburn has put the title to productive use, engaging in a variety of activities designed to advance poetry in the region. After recently participating in the announcement of his successor, Andrea Scarpino, on WNMU-FM, Thorburn reflected on his term.
“Becoming the U.P. Poet Laureate was a great honor and an easy segue for me,” Thorburn said. “I had been doing related activities in the community for about 20 years and worked in three different school districts before starting at NMU. Probably the most rewarding experience has been working with sixth-grade students in Negaunee. I used to be a poet in residence there for seven years and it was nice to return in this capacity. We worked on an abecedarian poem, where each stanza begins with a different letter in alphabetical order. Each student was assigned a letter and concentrated on that using science, the weather, personal things or whatever they wanted to write about. We had fun weaving a poem from the lines they created.”
Thorburn also gave readings at other universities and elsewhere, contributed poetry for art exhibits, participated in a “Beat Poet” event at the Marquette Regional History Center, helped to localize National Poetry Month and wrote the text for the Halloween Spectacle: Spirit of the Lake event at the Marquette Commons last fall. He also was named Writer of the Year in the 2014 Marquette Arts and Culture Center artists’ awards.
“I hope the next U.P. Poet Laureate gets out there and tramps around a bit,” he said. “My advice would be go into schools, visit classrooms and get kids excited about poetry; do readings at art galleries to demonstrate how effectively words can be connected to visuals; and make community involvement a priority. At Finlandia University, I led a poetry-writing workshop based on a Finnish artist’s whimsical drawings and fabric cuttings. I did a similar thing at the Oasis Gallery with a French photographer’s Vietnam portraits. It’s important to reach beyond academia and demonstrate the value of poetry to the broader community.”
In a creative departure from poetry, Thorburn is working on a noir fiction novel, Salt and Blood, about a Los Angeles detective who encounters difficulties while searching for his missing daughter in Mexico. He also will continue to explore his musical interests. Thorburn is a songwriter, not surprisingly, and has played piano since he joined Catholic high school classmates in a “no name garage band” in his native Birmingham, Mich. He will participate in the next First Thursday concert at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 7, at Peter White Public Library. The event will be a compilation of poetry and music. Thorburn will play piano alongside guitarists Jeremy Morelock and Ian Crane, an NMU student who studied songwriting with the U.P. Poet Laureate.Thorburn’s work is featured in several anthologies. One of his most recent published pieces is the poem, Scars, which appeared in the fall issue of Prairie Schooner.