Poetry is Art, although these days it feels more like the bastard stepchild of Art. It’s as if poets drew the short straw in the new-age creative community, and are now waiting in a long line for tickets to a show that’s gone on without them.
But a quiet, underground revolution is occurring. Gone are the days of impenetrable metaphor, cryptic allusion, and lofty language. Poets are beginning to realize that in order for poetry to regain its former glory, they must redefine writing as a vernacular art form by becoming more “2016.” Whitman and Dickinson understood this more than a century ago. Wake up. Art shouldn’t be stagnant; it must bend, sway, dance…it must move.
And this magnificent artistic movement is happening in Salem with the help of local wordsmiths like Henry Hughes.
To my surprise and immense pleasure, I devoured his newest poetry book, Bunch of Animals, in just two sittings. (Go. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed.) Unlike the dry, dense verse we’re used to kicking through, Hughes’ poetry is easy to bite, and wonderful to chew on afterward. It’s accessible. His poems are refreshing and clever, infused with a relatable, Oregonian love of language and an appreciation for the unspoken beauty of our abundant nature.
“Salem’s art scene is untapped. Portland—forget about it. It’s like elbowing into a crowded sardine can. But not here. This is a river you can leap into, and create a great literary scene.”
“Salem’s art scene is untapped,” Hughes explains. “Portland—forget about it. It’s like elbowing into a crowded sardine can. But not here. This is a river you can leap into, and create a great literary scene.”
Hughes has a keen eye for untapped potential. A Long Island transplant, Hughes accepted a teaching position at Western Oregon University in 2002 and left behind his life in New York. An avid fisherman and traveler, Hughes immediately fell in love with his second home in Oregon—an area full of lush forests, and rivers teeming with salmon and steelhead just begging to be appreciated.
Hughes recognized Oregon’s uncommon personality, and acknowledged that we’re all just students of her rugged individualism. Artists are natural hermits, but Hughes understands that in order for the local art scene to strengthen and grow, it requires a passionate village of people to support it. Advocating for literature and art wherever he goes, Hughes takes the time to listen and interact with people from all walks of life, gleaning lessons and inspiration from their stories. “I grew up very working-class, but also spent a lot of time at universities, so I feel like I can talk to anyone,” says Hughes. These interactions often lead to collaborations, even friendships. Few people know that all of Hughes’ book covers were done by local painters.
And that’s what is so visionary about fine art in Salem—here, after decades of indifference, people are meeting on level ground, recognizing each other’s abilities, and then creating beautiful things together. They are meeting at book stores and coffee shops to share their ideas, even collaborating with other mediums to bring a multi-faceted visual and auditory experience to Salem.
There is no room for elitism here; going it alone on a high horse is setting oneself up for a bad fall. Collaboration and mutual support allows for good relationships between writers, artists, and musicians. “I think we can really help each other,” Hughes says, explaining how artistic, emotional, and financial support keep people encouraged and creating good work. This quiet revolution which is raising awareness for Salem’s literary scene is crucial—it benefits everyone and builds a dynamic art community for all to enjoy.
Even after four collections of poems, including the Oregon Book Award-winning Men Holding Eggs, and a new memoir, Back Seat with Fish, Hughes remains modest. But I’ll willingly admit that he is just one of our numerous local artists who have worked long and hard to bring something innovative and insightful to the area, shedding light on the seemingly mundane and forgettable. He’s passionate about what he does, and it’s contagious. I want that passion to overflow into our community.
Hughes just smiles. “It feels good to write poems for people who actually read closely and care. I get emails from people in Salem that read my stuff. It’s so nice. You don’t usually get that when you’re a poet, unless you’re really famous.”
But fame is relative, and Salem is waking up to the new face of Poetry. If I’ve learned anything from reading Hughes’ works, it’s that everything and everyone has potential…it just takes time. And good, healthy poetry, like any work of art, cannot be rushed.