By Annie Newcomer:
Pat Durkin and I met at Turning Point, a Center for Health and Healing in Kansas City, Missouri. We were in a class of over 25 writing participants that was structured on a tight schedule, so because we were generally on opposite sides of the room, we never conversed. When Pat read her work at sharing time (work based off one liners from poems used as writing prompts that often led to something remarkable), even though at that point we had never talked directly, I often wondered if we might be kindred spirits. And secretly, I felt as though she was the popular girl back in high school who from afar I wished I knew but never did. After class, it seemed that she was always engaged in conversation with others, so I never expected to get to know her. However, later when I decided to teach poetry workshops at Turning Point, Pat signed up for my class, and our poetic friendship, filled with mutual respect, exploded.
There are many reasons why I chose Pat as one of my North Stars. Two are predominant, though: her full-throttle love for and joy in her grandchildren and her skill at poetry recitation. I do not have grandchildren, so I delight in stories that my friends share about theirs; and while I work diligently on writing poems, up until the day she recited in class, I hadn’t thought it was possible for me to take the challenge of recitation on. She demonstrated that it was when she recited "The Long Boat" by Stanley Kunitz for the class. Since then I have memorized Robert Hayden’s "Those Sunday Mornings," and reciting the poem on my daily morning walks with our puppy takes my enjoyment and appreciation of poetry to a whole other level. I highly recommend giving it a try, and I am grateful to Pat for showing me the importance of this skill.
Therefore, it is no surprise then that Pat has fostered this love of poetry in its purest form in her grandchildren. With Thanksgiving so near at hand, I interviewed Pat for North Stars, my series on people who touch my life and make me better, and I am so pleased to share this interview and recitations by her grandchildren and Pat following this flash interview.
AN: Pat, can you share a little bit about yourself with our readers?
PD: I worked in education for 42 years in Special Education. Most of that time my role was that of a Transition Specialist, planning for life after high school with students, their families, and their teachers. Training and Employment and college preparation were major areas of focus. For students with severe disabilities, my goal was connecting them and their families with adult-service agencies. I found great joy in my job and decided to retire at 68 having so many travel adventures to explore.
AN: I have been told that you are an exceptional athlete. Might you share a little about this side of your life?
PD: I started running in my thirties, doing triathlons in my forties, and most recently added race walking in the last seven years as a way to walk my way back to health after surgery for a brain hemorrhage. Heartland Racewalkers club is a Kansas City area institution. Competing in Masters athletics at the local, state, and national level has become a new way to keep moving joyfully and express my competitive spirit in the Olympic sport of race walking within the social network of camaraderie and support in Heartland Racewalkers. This summer I inherited the role of president of Heartland Racewalkers when our president moved out of town and left big shoes to fill. I was thrilled in September at the Kansas Senior Games when, at seventy-five, I had 2 PRs and broke Kansas records in my age group in the 1500-meter and 5K events. Full disclosure: there were only two people in my age group.
AN: You mentioned that you retired to travel. Might you share about some of your travel experiences?
PD: Backpacking has filled me with joy for weeks at a time in destinations far and wide, such as New Zealand, our national parks, and Colorado wilderness areas. Sailing, too, is a joy-filled experience, from owning a boat and sailing Kansas lakes to chartering in exotic destinations such as the San Juan Islands, on the great lakes, and the British Virgin Islands. I’ve sailed in the South Pacific Islands of Tonga and Vanuatu for a month each time with friends. I’ve biked in Italy for two weeks and in Acadia National Park for a week. The connecting thread in each of these adventures is extended times of joy in nature with the trees, the water, the birds, and the mountains.
AN: Now for another love of yours: poetry. Please share with us how you came to poetry.
PD: From as early as I can remember, poetry has been a part of my life. Mom read
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson at night. Grandmother recited her life lessons in poetry. I memorized my favorite poems and carried them with me to recite.
AN: Ahh. So this is a gift that has been passed down through generations in your family.
PD: Yes, that is correct. Sharing poetry with my children and grandchildren was a natural extension of my heritage. Books by Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein were added to the hours of poetry shared with giggles and exclamations.
My grandchildren (Sydney,13, Grey, 9, and Helen, 5) have listened to poetry sitting on my lap, sitting beside me on the sofa, snuggled down next to me in bed at night, flying in imaginary spaceships traveling the galaxy, and hunkered down under the dining room table in our makeshift fort covered with quilts. I love reciting poetry; I have memorized and taught my grandchildren to love reciting too.
AN: Pat, I would love to hear yours and your grandchildren’s poetry recitations. Do you have some that you might share?
PD: I do. I am often asked to say a form of Grace at our family dinners together using Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poem #VIII. It could be titled How The Young are Taught. And I have some video clips of Sidney, Grey, and Helen reciting. Would you like to hear those?
AN: Yes, indeed. Thank you, Pat. I think these recitations will make a perfect Thanksgiving Day gift for our readers.
Sabbath Poem # VIII
I tremble with gratitude
For my children and their children
Who take pleasure in one another.
In our dinners together, the dead
enter and pass among us
in living love and in memory.
And so the young are taught.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.