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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Artist Review: James Ragan

On Oct. 16, I had the pleasure of listening to internationally renowned poet James Ragan at the John Natsoulas Gallery in downtown Davis. In his career Ragan has written plays, poetry and essays.

Ragan is an incredibly effective and eloquent speaker, and through his poetry reading I discovered how language can create a unique, shared human experience among listeners.

This was the first time I’ve attended a poetry reading. Part of me expected to be bored to tears. The visual arts have always been my area of concentration and I had never given too much thought to the art of spoken word. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ragan did not live up to the self-indulgent beatnik persona of what I imagined a poet might be like. He was very personable and his work was stirring. There was never a dull moment during the event.

It did not take very long for me to truly feel that I was not just sitting back watching Ragan speak; I felt I was communicating with him and having a conversation of sorts through the shared feelings and emotions he evoked.

I found the poetry reading to be an intensely personal, yet somehow communal, experience that I shared with the others in the room. Ragan’s words resonated with the 20-something attendees in different ways. I found myself glancing around the room, wondering how the others were interacting with him.

The ethereal imagery in Ragan’s poem, “A Good Sky,” washed over me with a beautiful, comforting ease. This particular poem about the loss of loved ones conjured up peaceful emotional resolutions to replace the unsettled ache I had been feeling over the recent loss of my grandmother.

The poem ended with, “I show you a good sky, / its broad blue ribbon will wrap / its mind around your eyes’ imagination / and tease you into smiles — / Now, be patient, let your grieving rest awhile.” This final stanza moved me in a way I didn’t think that the art of the spoken word could. I loved the way the image settled in my mind.

I was fortunate enough to participate in a question-and-answer session after Ragan’s reading, and I asked him if he could tell us about his creative process. I told him that as a visual artist and design major, I would begin by sketching or painting pictures and find the words to write a poem from there. I asked Ragan if he ever tried this approach, to which he responded, “I pick up [and read] a book when I need inspiration.” He also stressed the importance of revision.

“I revise like crazy. Sometimes I’ll come back to a poem after six to eight months. I give it time and let it sit,” Ragan said.

The poet also invited attendees to be aware of the trust and experience you bring to the poem. These words were encouraging to me and I vowed to pick up a book and channel another writer’s style the next time I found myself with writer’s block.

Through Ragan’s event, I discovered that poetry readings can be a personal experience for the individual as well as a shared experience for the group of attendees as a whole. I feel very lucky to have participated in Ragan’s performance and I certainly gained new insights that I did not think were possible to gain from a poetry reading.

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