For aspiring poets, putting pen to paper or words on a computer screen is daunting. Too often, many become discouraged, thinking their writing needs to be momentous, or embody a high level of sophistication to be taken seriously. That narrative is something the writers of “13 Poets From Long Island,” an anthology of poems from 13 authors, hope to do away with.
“Unfortunately, in schools, poetry is taught in a way that isn’t any fun,” said Evelyn Kandel, a former county poet laureate and Glen Cove resident. “Poetry is just like reading a good book, you’re just reading a short poem, and it’s telling you something. You shouldn’t always think of it as something you have to study.”
Some of the book’s contributors met 14 years ago as students in Kandel’s poetry class at the Great Neck Library’s adult education program. Her classes started out with a few students, but over the years, Kandel developed a loyal following from her classes in Great Neck and Sea Cliff.
Sheila Saferstein, one of the book’s contributors and retired North Shore High School English teacher, said she joined Kandel’s class to fill her spare time. Before joining, her poetry was often based on allusions to classical mythology, but Kandel encouraged Saferstein to explore a different topic — herself.
“(Kandel) had me dig deeper into my background, and my life experience, and I really hadn’t tried to write so much of that,” Saferstein said. “If you let yourself go, poems take you into reasoning and thinking and creativity that you don’t know you had in you.”
Other students, like Victoria Bjorklund, of Sea Cliff, joined the class by happenstance. Both Bjorklund and Kandel were members of a support group for at-home caregivers. Bjorklund joined when her husband Hank was diagnosed with a chronic brain condition possibly caused by repetitive hits to his head he experienced in tackle football. Kandel joined after her husband, Bob Kandel, was diagnosed with lung disease. When Victoria learned of Kandel’s class, she asked if her husband could join. Kandel said yes, with the condition that Victoria also became her student.
Although Kandel offered writing prompts to her students, the class became an emotional outlet for the Bjorklunds, who believed Hank’s injury would become fatal.
“I woke up one morning, and I thought, you’re getting older, and your days are numbered,” Hank Bjorklund recalled. “If you want to make sense of the life that you’ve lived, and leave something behind, you better get busy and put it on paper.”
Through their writings, the Bjorklunds learned poetry doesn’t need to be abstract like entries in “The New Yorker.” Instead, the Bjorklunds improve their writing with constructive criticism offered by classmates.
“We as classmates raise questions,” Victoria Bjorklund said. “Those are the kinds of things that we offer to one another, and then it’s up to the author, to choose whether or not to accept those suggestions.”
In 2022, John Valenti, a journalist for Newsday joined Kandel’s class. After writing a story detailing her life as a veteran and poet laureate, Kandel suggested the class self-publish their work. Valenti offered to help, saying he enjoyed the process of formatting books. Eventually, he placed the book on Amazon and sent it out for reviews.
The authors of the anthology, “13 Poets From Long Island,” didn’t expect the recognition from Kirkus Reviews, IndieReader, or to become a finalist in the American Book Fest for best fiction and book anthologies. Valenti didn’t tell his classmates he sent the book out for reviews.
“This really was a project that came about by accident,” Valenti said. “Most time people set out to write a book, our poets didn’t, and I think that’s one of the most remarkable parts of this book. We all joined a poetry class run by Evelyn to really have something to do and explore the possibilities of writing. We’re kind of like the accidental poets.”
Kandel said she will start a new poetry class at the Glen Cove Public Library in the coming weeks. The free class will meet Mondays at 5:30 p.m.
“You will never be in a class of mine that allows anyone to be mean,” Kandel said. “I know what it’s like to be in a situation where you’re not exactly sure what you’re doing, and you don’t want somebody to start giving you advice about how you should change everything.”