Taking Poetry to the Public Square


Martin Steingesser offers a poem at rally to defend the rights of immigrants in Portland, Maine. (Photo by Marie Follayttar)


Steingesser’s poems have been published in the New York Times op-ed page, The Progressive, The Sun, The Humanist, Country Journal as well as literary journals such The American Poetry Review, Poetry East, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Poetry International and the Ohio Review.  His poetry books are Yellow Horses; Brothers of Morning; and The Thinking Heart: the Life & Loves of Etty Hillesum.

Since 1981, he has worked 30-100 days a year teaching poetry in Maine schools and New England cultural institutions.

“On Eagle Lake” appears in his collection Yellow Horses.

Taking Poetry to the Public Square

He is also a member of the ensemble Off the Page—a  Musician and 2 Poets, currently performing a collaborative version of his earlier work The Thinking Heart: The Life & Loves of Etty Hillesum, now titled Etty’s Song: A Courageous Love Song to Life based on The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, which played for nine years across New England and in Poland and Belgium.

Taking Poetry to the Public Square 1




I’ve been trying to bring poems that deal with relevant issues to public events. My mission is to contribute something in a different key for people at hearings, rallies, lectures, ceremonies, etc., rather than only to those who attend poetry readings. For example: a poem on the lack of corporate credibility performed at a South Portland City Council hearing on whether or not to bar Portland Pipeline from exporting tar sands oil through its installations in the city; a poem written at BMC (see below) for the Monarch butterfly and against toxic pesticides use performed for the Portland City Council; poem performed for a “Fight for DACA Rally” to defend immigrants (pictured in photo above), and the same poem for the opening program of an exhibit “America Now, a Dialogue: 28 Artists in Maine,” at the Maine Holocaust and Human Rights Center. 

  “On Eagle Lake” was performed at a Portland, Maine, city council meeting where legislation to limit toxic pesticides was under discussion. It was also printed as a broadside along with information about how to save monarch butterflies, and passed out at the event.


On Eagle Lake

There used to be rivers of butterflies.

Now there are years with none.

This is a village of ghosts. 

—Homer Aridjis, poet & naturalist

Contepec, Mexico


Peel time off the blue air of morning, or sunlight

off the lake’s surface. That’s what I did, drifting so easy you could hear

pickerelweed brushing the sides of the canoe. The gods

are like that sometimes, no credit to me. One moment oxygen

pressed out of my heart. The next some angel

slips a feather of light in my hand.


                                                                        Who knows why

I wanted to be swallowed in that dawn mist. And I don’t give a whit

anyone says finding reasons after the fact is like predicting

yesterday’s weather. I was meant to save one butterfly, this monarch

early frost put in my hand. None of the monarch orange and stars

dressed over vclvety wings and black, twig-like body

had paled. In cupped hands, lifting its ounce of brilliance,

I breathed over the petal-like wings. Breathed. And breathed again.


I could tell more how I did that, drifting through lake smoke

most the next half hour, occasionally paddling, sometimes breathing

over a knee with the monarch, till mist started thinning and sun

warmed on my cheek. Wings were trembling now like harp strings.

Yes, it flew—

                                 I’d like to tell to that forest in Mexico they migrate,

hundreds of thousands filling the trees, their wings folding, opening,

like small fans, every tree limb covered in monarchs.  What I’ve got

is morning sun, this lake, breathing in my hands.