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Music Librarian is Newest Portsmouth Poet Laureate

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
April 27, 2011

John-Michael Albert’s mother was always quoting Shakespeare out of context. “Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!” was her way of getting him out of the house. It was only later that he realized it was from “Macbeth.”  By then, poetry was in his blood.

Albert is the equipment manager and music librarian at UNH. He also has just been named Portsmouth’s eighth poet laureate, a two-year tenure that will have him serving as the community’s face of poetry.

It is a face he has worn since childhood.

“I remember sitting in my bed making up poems when I was in the 4th grade,” Albert says. “My parents would send us to bed at 7:30 and we could do whatever we wanted as long as we stayed in bed so I’d make up poems.” He cites this one from those days: ‘Wash the dishes, clean the floor, do the woodwork, still do more.”

“Obviously, rhythms spoke to me,” he says.

As did music. In fact, to Albert, who has a degree in music, poetry and music are inseparable.

“The marriage of music and words is so absolute to me, I cannot hear one without the other,” he says.

He has published 40 compositions and spent 15 years conducting a men’s chorus in Texas. In all ways, his voice is his instrument. During the last 10 years he has had more than 160 poems published including the collections “Two-Ply and Extra Sensitive” and “Vivaldi for Breakfast.”

“I write a lot of poems,” Albert says. “A good year will end with around 300 poems. Then I start revising and halfway through the next year, I’ll have 40 or 50 that work.”

Part of the reason he is so prolific is because of this philosophy: nothing is ordinary.

“Everything has a poem in it. It’s the poet’s obligation to show and surprise people with what they already know,” Albert says. “And it’s a writer’s obligation to write in as many voices as possible. If you want me to write meter, I’ll do it. If you want me to write slam, I’ll do it.”

Because of the way poetry is often taught in school (typically, a poem is introduced and then the class spends two weeks dissecting it) people come to think of poetry as arduous.

“It’s not introduced in drunken reverie. The world is awash with poetry. If it comes at you, you keep ingesting it,” Albert says. “Pretty soon, there’s a giant sea you’re comfortable swimming around in.”

Albert arrived in New Hampshire in 1999 when, he says, poetry was just beginning to explode. It was the same year Portsmouth’s Poetry Hoot started. Albert soon became a host. He also joined the Poetry Society of New Hampshire and in 2008, he edited “The Poets’ Guide to New Hampshire,” a two-volume set of 400 poems by 300 poets on all things New Hampshire.

As poet laureate, Albert is charged with developing a project that promotes creating community through poetry.  While he hasn’t yet settled on what that might be, he is partial to public literary programs like the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry in Motion. Launched in 1992, Poetry in Motion has poetry appearing in subway and transit systems around the country.

“To get poetry in front of people in this way—it’s like being ambushed by verse. You go through the day in the kind of daze we all go through and something jumps out at you and you realize it’s not an ad, it’s a poem. Maybe one line. And it makes you take a second and remember there is beauty in everything,” he says.

Summer Lunch on the Footpath
        from Two-Ply and Extra Sensitive

    the breezes, the shade
    the cold but comfortable brick bench
    turkey-ham on cracked wheat
    with mustard (or not)
    the crust offered to the chipmunks.
    maybe Fritos, maybe a banana,
    maybe a plastic Coke bottle filled
    at the men’s room sink
    on the way out to lunch;

    a book of poems, a novel,
    always a few sheets of scratch paper
    (just in case);

    and little green pellets showering
    from the crowns of the maples
    onto my floppy white hat,
    into the between-page creases:
    cast-offs of the ceaseless work
    of next year’s butterflies, next year’s moths;

    and an anxious prayer that someone
    might stop the University clock
    before it Westminsters me back to my desk.

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