A Recent Poetry Reading: Jack Ridl and Linda Nemec Foster

Whoever thinks that poets are somber or humorless should make an effort to be present at the next reading given by Jack Ridl and Linda Nemec Foster.

Although Jack Ridl has taught poetry for 36 years and Linda Nemec Foster has authored no less than nine collections of poetry, neither poet fits the traditional academic or artistic profile of the solemn poet. In fact, both poets are so vivacious and cheery that not even the repeated shrill interruption of digital noise can sober them. At the Schuler’s Books April poetry reading, a cell phone interrupted Ridl’s reading twice in a row. Instead of getting flustered or angry, the seasoned poet simply pulled out his own cell phone—strategically placed in the front pocket of his shirt—and began to carry on a staged conversation telling the imagined caller he could not talk, as he was in the middle of a reading. The tension in the room brought on by the unplanned disruption immediately dispersed as people laughed at Ridl’s antics.

As the reading continued, it became clear that Ridl’s humor extends beyond impromptu stand up. For Jack Ridl, humor is a way of living, and a way of facing and interpreting the world. This comical edge is apparent in his poems as well, which often end in an ironic or humorous twist. However, his collection, Losing Season, which he read from at Schuler, contains emotions that run the gamut. Ridl admits that both humor and grief are aspects of his inspiration: “My art form is to blend the serious and the comic.”

Losing Season draws from Ridl’s extensive background knowledge of basketball gleaned from growing up as the child of a well-known basketball coach. Jack Ridl’s father, Charles “Buzz” Ridl, coached the Westminster College basketball team from 1956 through 1967 and The University of Pittsburgh team from 1968 through 1976. Memories and ideas about all aspects of the popular sport are woven into a heart-wrenching and passionate series of poems centering on a fictional high school basketball team in a small town.

“[The collection] comes more out of a sense of realism rather than reflection,” said Ridl. “[It is] about America and everything that goes around and around basketball…If you’re going to present something you should know the thing. I know my stuff.”

Just as Jack is an expert on basketball because of his upbringing, Linda Nemec Foster is able to speak with authority on the immigrant experience—especially as it transforms the lives of second and third generation immigrant children. Many of the poems that Nemec Foster read at Schuler Books were from her book Talking Diamonds, which includes several poems about her relationship with her mother. Nemec Foster comes from a traditional Polish family in which her parents were both first generation Americans, born of Polish parents. A slight Polish accent is detectable in the way that Nemec Foster inflects her mother’s voice. Conflict arises in many poems when her mother’s inexorable traditionalism clashes with Nemec Foster’s more modern approach to life.

Despite some disagreements with her parents, Nemec Foster credits her mixed-culture upbringing for teaching her to approach America and American issues in a different way than many of her peers. Her unique, outsider’s perspective has given rise to numerous poems about America and American traditions.

“I look at [America] through the prism of the immigrant’s eyes—especially Eastern European [immigrants]” said Nemec Foster. “That is the other Europe that the world is just learning about now.”

As a whole, the book explores the processes of loss, reconciliation and ultimately, transformation and healing through artistic expression. One of the most touching poems that Nemec Foster read was a long, three-part poem called “Red Amaryllis, 1937,” which is inspired by true events. The poem describes three separate scenes which are connected by floral imagery. In part one, the poem describes a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit in Chicago at the Terra Museum, in which the speaker first experiences the O’Keefe painting for which the poem is named.

The second part of the poem centers on a man who goes against the norm in a sleazy situation, and acts with a sense of dignity in the undignified atmosphere. The third section of the poem describes that same man in his home, near the end of his life. The poem closes with a heartbreaking and poignant depiction of the man staying up all night to watch the sunrise on his birthday—knowing that it was probably the last time he would experience such an event. As the poem moves into a description of the stunning colors in the sky, the audience is able to feel and understand the significance of every second of life on this precious and magnificent planet—a lesson which unfortunately, often goes unlearned until one’s life is threatened.

Both Jack Ridl and Linda Nemec Foster added an interesting and expressive quality to their work in the reading, and fully engaged their audience with their enthusiasm at Schuler Books. Their humor and direct interaction with the audience made what was bound to be a fabulous reading even better. Most significantly, both poets shared an important piece of themselves, revealing childhood and lifetime experiences that helped make them into the poet and the person they each are today. Both poets expressed the necessity of not being swept up in negative enterprises, and the importance of taking joy and comfort in life’s small wonders: the value of humor, or the simple pleasure of watching the transient beauty of a sunrise.

Works by Jack Ridl

Works by Linda Nemec Foster

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.