For the love of poetry

If siblings Joe Bastow and Anne Bastow Heraghty had their way, more people would take a chance on poetry.

“Poetry is something that everyone references at some point,” said Bastow, who currently teaches English at Alpena High School. “Think of a funeral or a graduation. Poems are always the under current. They are referenced at such times. They express our joys and sadness in ways that we just don’t have words for.”

The two are mutually doing their part to encourage an appreciation of poetry as well as other literary forms. Not only have they hosted numerous well-received poetry events in the Alpena area, but they also established the Susan Lane Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting literacy and celebrating literature.

Their intent in forming the foundation was to establish Alpena as a hub of Northeast Michigan for performance and workshops highlighting poetry, fiction, memoir and a variety of other writing possibilities.

Already, their efforts appear to be working. When they put together a poetry reading at Alpena County Library a couple of years ago that featured award-winning, published poets from across the state, even they were surprised by the healthy turnout.

Then they planned another similar reading at The Courtyard, highlighting more topnotch poets from around Michigan, along with other local poets. The event packed the place.

“The room filled up and we had to turn people away,” Bastow said. “People couldn’t find seating for poetry. One of our guest poets, Keith Taylor from the University of Michigan, was flaborgasted. He sold $250 worth of books. He’d had a recent reading in Grand Rapids that drew maybe eight people. He was blown away by the response in Alpena.”

Despite successes, both Bastow and Heraghty believe people still view poetry through a skewed lens. Through their foundation and by networking with like-minded organizations in the arts and education across Michigan, they hope to convince others that today’s poetry is anything but boring.

“I think that people are hesitant to come to poetry readings because they think it’s going to be stodgy and boring and long,” Heraghty said. “Really, the poetry that is being written now is so free and so potent and so electric. When people who haven’t been before come to an event, they come away surprised. We encourage people to show up and give it a try. We want to start a little fire in our area.”

Brother and sister grew up in Alpena and trace their love for poetry and the written word back to music.

“Music was a huge part of my life,” Bastow said. “I got that from my parents and my siblings. I always loved the story in the music, and I wanted to be moved by the lyrics. The words had more magical power in music than they had in conversations. They opened up the world. They were grander. Music is really where I started.”

Heraghty has similar memories from her childhood.

“For me personally it started with music,” she said. “My dad was a big music lover. My entire family really was into music. I started becoming obsessed with lyrics.”

At an early age, the two developed a close bond and began writing songs together. They encouraged one another in all their literary and musical pursuits.

Later, Bastow played drums and guitar in Chicago and Grand Rapids, but always continued to work on his writing. He obtained a degree in English and communications in 1992 from North Central College in Illinois, a Master’s degree in education in 1997 from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids and a Master of Fine Arts in 2010 from Ashland University.

Meanwhile Heraghty, who kept journals and wrote poetry all throughout high school, headed off to the University of Arizona where she studied literature, gravitated toward poetry and concentrated on getting her work published. Both also married and started families of their own.

“I was pretty far away from Joe at that time,” Heraghty said. “He was doing his own things, and I was doing mine.”

When their paths in life ultimately drew them back to Alpena, the siblings were surprised to find out how much poetry meant to each other.

“When both moved back to Michigan, it was pretty awesome that we were both poets,” Heraghty said. “We both started working on poetry we could submit. That got us started with doing a reading together.”

Over time, some of their public events have taken place at Art in the Loft, a venue for which they share a special affinity. Their late aunt, Susan Lane Bastow, was a founding member of the loft.

“She was a pretty powerful figure in both our lives,” Bastow said. “She was an artist. Her main medium was photography. She was just a spitfire, full of life. She was diagnosed at 16 with rheumatoid arthritis. She had seen in Anne and I our passion for writing and artistic expression. She was always there to tell us we can do it.”

Their beloved aunt passed away in 2007. Her death came as a blow to her family and friends.

“So when we were looking at what we wanted to name our foundation and how we wanted to frame it, it came naturally to honor her work,” Bastow said.

Last year, the duo released a collaborative book effort titled, “Splitting the Equator: Essays and Poems.”

“It’s a work about growing up in the same house and how two people can have the same experience, but different perspectives,” Heraghty said. “We explored that big sister, little brother idea, and growing up in Alpena, and what that can mean to us. We did a lot of memory dredging.”

The two currently are at work on a second joint book, this one a collection of poems with approximately 15 new ones written by each.

Through their foundation, they also have another major event, the second annual North45east Poetry Reading, planned for Aug. 7 from 6-9 p.m. at Art in the Loft. It will feature award-winning poets from around the state sharing original work, catered refreshments and live music.