When Pesha Gertler arrived at Seattles Bumbershoot arts festival for the naming of the citys newest poet populist, she had no idea that she had won.
I cried, she said when city councilman Nick Licata read her name. I was in shock.
The poet populist program was started by Licata to promote literary arts. Readers may be familiar with the idea of a poet laureate our country has one and so do many states but Licata added a democratic twist by having the poet populist elected.
If you run in one of Seattles many poetry circles you no doubt received more than one e-mail from various arts organizations exhorting you to vote. There were 12 candidates for the post. The winner receives a $500 honorarium and opportunities to read and teach around the city. Over 1,500 people voted.
Im overwhelmed, says the North Seattle Community College creative writing instructor. I never dreamed it would be me.
Pesha feels she accepted the award not only for herself, but for everyone whos marginalized or disenfranchised. Its an acknowledgment of the importance of including those voices, she adds, explaining that she has worked hard during her career to reach adults and children who wouldnt ordinarily have the chance to express themselves in words.
Appropriately, her first official act was to read her poetry at Katherine House, a womens shelter and housing facility recently opened by the city. She read her poem, The Little Match Girl Revisited, and they loved it. At the end of Gertlers poem, the match girl doesnt die, as she does in the fairy tale, but begins crusading for housing for other match girls like herself.
Gertler says the social justice theme of this poem, which appeared in Pontoon and is soon to be on the Switched on Gutenberg Web site, often gets a chuckle of recognition from Jewish groups.
In addition to teaching and serving as poet populist, Pesha is working hard to find a publisher for her manuscript, a collection of poems that deals with Jewish identity, which is extremely important to me.
A poem is a way of entering the mystery, which includes what it means to be Jewish, she says. Being raised in a three-generation, multilingual home in Brooklyn is another strong influence on her work. Her grandmother, who spoke only Yiddish, went to work every day in a sweatshop.
I learned how language can cut you out, as well as help you grow, she states. Im very sensitive to those who are shut out.
As for Seattles poetry scene, Gertler says it has grown and changed enormously, and that was so evident in the 12 poets who read [for the poet populist position].
The scene has never been as alive, as it is now. When I came to Seattle in the 70s, there was the academic world and that was it. Poets were pretty frustrated, she says, adding that Nelson Bentley, the late University of Washington professor, was our only asset.
Now there are dozens of readings every month, with and without open mikes, including the quarterly one that Pesha runs at NSCC. (The next one is Dec. 2.)
Gertler hopes to use the position to continue finding the poems that are hidden or buried in all of us. Shell be working closely with Licata to develop her role.
I was so moved to have public recognition for something that has been so deeply important to me. Ive dedicated my life to healing [through poetry] as many people I could reach. Im delighted to have that acknowledged and honored and I want to do everything I can to make sure this continues.
Seattle native Ilana Balint says shes delighted to be back in her hometown, where shes landed a job as public relations manager at the Seattle Repertory Theater.
Ilana grew up in Seattles Seward Park neighborhood, where her family attended Sephardic Bikur Holim. The 26-year-old graduate of Northwest Yeshiva High School and the University of Washington recently completed graduate studies in arts management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Balint, who did P.R. for the Seattle nightclub Jazz Alley in between college and grad school, says that the program at Carnegie Mellon was awesome and just what I was looking for. Instead of a thesis, a group of students acted as consultants for an arts group that had bought an old church as a performance space.
While she job hunted on both coasts, Ilana says, I knew I wanted to come back to the West Coast. I love it here.
Shes an avid skier and glad to be back where there are real mountains, and shes also enjoying walking around Green Lake again.
If her name looks familiar to readers of this paper, its because Ilana is the daughter of former Seattleite and now Jerusalem-based journalist Judy Balint, whose work sometimes appears in these pages. Ilana tells me that her brother Benjamin has also moved to Israel, where he is working for a magazine. She still has family in Seattle, though. Her dad, step-mom and step-brother are all here.