River Junction Poets Celebrate 50th Anniversary

Volunteer Poetry Group Keeps the Nourishment of Literacy Flowing Throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region and Beyond

    Additional Reporting by
    icon Apr 25, 2024
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The subject of poetry is as old as history and religion and is best defined as literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience, or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for it meaning, sound, and rhythm.  In many ways, it is the primal an primary form of languages themselves.

For fifty years now, the Great Lakes Bay Region has been fortunate to have a group of dedicated volunteers committed to advancing the beauty, importance, and riches to be rendered through this art form that is known as The River Junction Poets, which initially began back in 1974 as an idea of Diane Gotay, and was then known as The Poet’s Workshop, meeting for several years in the attic of the old Butman-Fish Library building on Harrison near Court street on the westside of Saginaw. 

During the ensuing years the group has met in many various locations, including Zauel Library, The Township Hall, The Montqgue Inn, and in members’ homes.  In the mid-1980s. suggestions were collected for a more ‘poetic’ title for the organization, partly because the term ‘workshop’ implies members work to improve their writing, which is only one of their objectives.

Armed with a litany of admirable goals, The River Junction Poets offer workshops, presentations, and informal open readings. Their goals are to appreciate and improve members writing talents, to share their own work, and to communicate the joy of poetry with everyone. As a part of these goals, they have implemented programs in the schools, presented readings for the community, and invited well-known poets to share with both schools and the community at large. They also network with other arts organizations to accomplish these objectives. 

Back in 1974, the director of Butman-Fish Library, Dave Curtis, began publishing a small magazine of the writing of local poets titled  The Literary Plum, which was free through the libraries.  In 1979, library funding ran out and Dave asked RJP for help in continuing hi magazine. RJP members Rita Woods, Fred Brown, and Marion Tincknell were eager for the new experience of editing, assembling, and publishing, and managed to continue with several issues before the project & publication  ended in 1981.

At about the time of their name change, many members joined in a workshop initiated by Judith Kerman - a professor of writing at SVSU. Participants met each month on second Wednesdays to examine and critique each other’s writing.  Several years later, the meeting time was changed to second Mondays at 7 PM at Barnes & Noble, and was no longer under the leadership of Judy Kerman.   

Today, River Junction Poets conduct regular meetings on the 4th Sunday of every month at Zauel Library in Saginaw Township at 1:00 PM. People interested in poetry are encouraged to attend these meetings, an the group usually averages anywhere from eight to ten people at each of these gatherings.

Back in 1982 then president Rita Woods suggested a presentation of poetry for the public - a reeding by Workshpo members to take place on a Sunday afternoon. She arranged to use a bar that she and her husband owned and many members invited as many people as they could. For the second half of the presentation, a featured poet was invited to read, and this is when Irene Warsaw of Bay City became a faithful member and good friend of the group.

These poetry performances were presented annually, first in the Autumn and then in the Spring, and have occurred at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Bridgeport High School, Delta College auditorium, The Montague Inn, Andersen Enrichment Center, St. John’s Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church, The White Crow Conservatory, Hoyt Library and as of 2011, at First Congregational Church.

Around 1976, Diane Gotay, after reading Kenneth Koch’s book, Rise, Where Did You Get That Read, recruited Marion Tincknell and began visiting schools to present a poetry idea on a theme with the idea of engaging and encouraging students to write their own Poetry.

Later, Patricia McNair and Betty Van Ochten also visited schools to present a poetry idea on a theme in order to expand upon this mission, which eventually grew to six participants calling themselves The Poet Performers, which also added poets Maxine Harris, Kathryn Musenzer, Carol Scott and Marion Tincknell, who carefully planned half-hour performances arranged for multiple voices and designed to entertain as they instructed students about the many various aspects of poetry.  A grant enabled them to publish students’ writings in a work titled  Book of My Own, Poetry by the Children of Saginaw City Schools.

As they now celebrate their 50th Anniversary, recently I sat down Marion Tincknell, Betty Van Ochten, and Jim Fobear - three of the longstanding and dedicated members of River Junction Poets - in order to discuss the legacy, significance, and future goals of this creative collective of literary pioneers as they move their mission forward into this new post-Covid era of the digital age.

Forging a Foundation of Fundamentals for the Future

Involved with RJP since the beginning, Marion Tincknell vividly recalls her first exposure to the group. “I happened to be at a meeting of the University Association of Women when Diane Gotay announced that she would be forming a poets workshop group, which prompted me to leap over furniture to talk with her,” she recalls. “That was the beginning of the group. We met in an attic room at the old Butman-Fish library, which has since been torn down, but it was the perfect meeting space for a group of poets.  We didn’t have a lot of members to start with, but this is what got everything rolling.”

Jim Fobear has been with RJP for 15-years now and says he has always enjoyed poetry and first discovered them when he started searching online for regional poetry groups. “I discovered River Junction Poets and sent an email out to Betty, who invited me to one of their meetings.  The second I sat down with them I felt at home. This group has become much more than a poetry collective; it’s become a gigantic and close family. I felt so comfortable being there that I kept coming back and now they’ve truly become my family.”

As for Betty Van Ochten, her involvement began 33-years ago. “I’ve been seriously into poetry since I was a little girl and remember writing my first poem in the 7th grade,” she reflects. “Because it’s something I’ve always been interested in, I told myself that when I retired I was going to go back to fussing with poetry.  In college I had a teacher who told me there was no money in poetry, so I decided that it would become my retirement hobby. I found out about River Junction Poets and attended my first meeting in January of 1991, and have been responsible for editing and publishing our monthly newsletter.”

Marion Tincknell recalls how the group decided upon calling themselves River Junction Poets. “I went to this meeting and there were several names listed on the bulletin board,” she explains. “Some members were leaning towards a name based around a Theodore Roethke related poem; however, other members suggested that while Roethke was our region’s only Pulitzer Prize winning poet, it didn’t really describe what we were all about. We’re a group from all parts of the surrounding area that come together in Saginaw, just like the rivers that flow to the junction that forms the Saginaw river. So that’s what we are - The River Junction Poets.”

As they work with younger poets through the school systems, has the group noticed much of a change in the way younger people respond to poetry?  “I’ve noticed that younger poets are more Rap Oriented,” notes Fobear. “At first I wasn’t into that type of rhyming, but because their focus seems to be more on spoken word, this is the vehicle that engages them. I’ve always been more of an ‘internal’ poet who writes about how I feel; and because our newer members are still older and in their 50s or 60s, they’re still younger than our regular members, so their poetry has evolved into being more structured to their own voices.”

Given the many different styles of poetry, which range from the simplicity of Haiku to the more studied, classical, and historically symbolic and structured works of poets such as T.S. Eliot and Chaucer, what are some of the challenges involved with imparting a love of poetry to younger generations living in this post-covid digital age?

“The objection I have with the way they teach poetry in schools is that it should begin with poetry that is fun and accessible. Don’t start out by giving kids in middle school grades things like Wordsworth, Whitman, or Shakespeare, but start them out with something fun they can understand,” states Marion.

“I grew up reading Dr. Seuss,” interjects Fobear. “I remember my Mom reading him to us and I still enjoy him. I read him to my children and grandchildren; plus Shel Silverstein is another fun poet. His work sounds childlike but transcends into something else entirely if you examine it. While there’s a lot of different styles of poetry, I think poetry should be based around Free Verse, which Walt Whitman was the grandfather of - he wrote what he felt.  Robert Frost won four Pulitzer prices for his poetry, which was also Free Verse. In fact, one of his statements was, “I read your free verse and wonder who set it free?’ I’m a big fan of couplets and structured poetry, but it depends on the individual and their influences.”

“At the heart of poetry is imagery,” he continues. “There’s a lot of devices you can use in free verse such as internal rhymes, alliteration, and onomatopoeia to add color; but to me imagery is what defines real poetry. This is why even some prose can be poetic, thought inspiring, and very visual poetry. You know poetry when you see it. I’m a big fan of word economy, which is why haiku is one of my favorite styles because you’ve got to get precise and to the point.”

When asked about any special events they have planned for their 50th Anniversary, Betty explains that scrapbooks and recordings, along with various anthologies the group has published over the years have been given to the Castle Museum of Saginaw County for historical archiving and a special exhibition they will be creating, and the group will also do something special for one of the summer picnics at Roethke House.

“Our next meeting is April 27th at Zauel Library at 1:00 PM, and we still do our Poetry Contest for High School and Middle School students to get them excited about poetry and reach out to younger generations who want to stick their toes in the water.  We get a good turnout of students with roughly 80 of them at the high school level and about that many involved in the lower levels.”

River Junction Poets are also planning a 50th Anniversary Book and are conducting a Public Library Poetry Contest. People interested in participating should send one original and unpublished poem on any subject (but in good taste) to saginawlibrary.librariesshare.com/saginawpoetry, or email cpung@saginawlibrary.org

Because of Memorial Day, the group’s May meeting will be held one week early at 1:00 PM on Saturday, May 18th at Zauel Library.

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