Local poet found her calling during tumultuous teen years


June 20, 2000|By Pamela Woolford | Pamela Woolford,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LINDA JOY Burke has been a professional poet for nearly a decade. Her nights of open-mike performances and coffeehouse freebies are long gone, she says, with the sound of relief in her voice.

As hard as she worked to establish herself as a poet, Burke, 43, experienced tumultuous teen years that were even harder. It was then that her career began.

"I was a kid that was numb a lot," said Burke, an Oakland Mills resident. "I was able to develop a sense of trust through the arts."

On Saturday, Burke and fellow poet Edgar Silex, a Laurel resident and a National Endowment for the Arts fellow, will hold a reading for teen-agers from noon to 1 p.m. at the Wilde Times CafM-i as part of Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Poetry is Burke's life. When she's not writing poems or reading them, she's spreading the word about the art form through workshops and speaking engagements.

Poetry is therapy, she says.

Burke left home at 14 and spent part of her teen years living at the Barrett School for Girls in Washington. She became an emancipated minor at 17, and says poetry changed the direction of her life.

"That's one of the things, I think, that saved my life ... people who brought art therapy [to the School for Girls], because trying to get us to talk just wasn't going to happen," she says.

She says that residents found it easier to open up, share their troubles and deal with them when they were able to draw a picture, write a song or write a poem.

Burke, president of the Baltimore Writers' Alliance board of directors and poet-in-residence for the Howard County Center of African American Culture, became a published poet by the age of 16 when two poems she submitted to the Washington Star appeared in the newspaper's weekend supplement.

"It was pretty exciting for me," said Burke, who also works as a booking agent for children's performers.

"I think I jumped up and down for 15 minutes. I think a lot of that was about being noticed. I was living in a situation with young people who, for whatever reason, weren't being noticed by traditional families."

Although she excelled at the art form - winning a scholarship to take a poetry course at Mount Vernon College in Washington about a year later - Burke was in her 20s before she began seriously studying the work of other poets.

"I found writers whose stories influenced my work: Adrienne Rich and Marge Piercy - a lot of the feminist poets who were speaking in a much deeper language," she said.

In the '70s, the work of spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron helped shape Burke's ideology of poetry. The political tone of his work, along with that of the feminist poets, influenced her to write less about her own experiences and more about the world around her.

"You have to have some kind of philosophy that's grounded in something bigger than one's self," she said.

Burke's poem "Echoes in the World I [for Claudia]" ends: "In your words/dear poetess/the world echoes - /`it's only pain again'/and even the willows be weepin',/and their lacy green tears/be fillin'/this chalice/called spring."

The Wilde Times CafM-i is in Wilde Lake Village Center on Twin Rivers Road. Information: 410-715- 3089

Volunteer of the Year

The Kings Contrivance Community Association honored Scott Waters, a resident of Macgill's Common, this month as the village's Volunteer of the Year.

A 15-year resident of Kings Contrivance, Waters was recognized at the community association's volunteer party June 2 for his work cleaning up litter along Shaker Drive and striving to get local government to address litter problems.

Waters "continues to lobby our elected officials, police, Atholton Shopping Center merchants, CA [Columbia Association] and Parks and Rec staff to keep this area litter free," wrote those who recommended Waters for the award in a nominating letter simply signed "neighbors."

"There's a grocery store and a liquor store there, and they generate a tremendous amount of trash," said Waters. He said that he once collected eight 40-gallon bags of trash, about half of which was liquor bottles, in one afternoon.

Waters has met with two Howard County executives about local litter problems over the years.

Recently, he met with Howard County Councilman Guy Guzzone, who, as a result, instituted a program in which juvenile offenders fulfill community service requirements by picking up litter in the Shaker Drive area, Waters said.

Father's Day baskets

Last week, Long Reach High School's National Honor Society coordinated a school effort making 35 Father's Day gift baskets for dads staying at Baltimore's Ronald McDonald House, a facility for children with cancer and their families. Several businesses contributed in-kind items for the baskets.

The project also involved the volunteer work of dozens of students, teachers and community members.

Volunteers include Virginia Himmelheber, a social studies teacher; honor society co-chairs Ann Strozyk, a gifted-and-talented resource teacher, and Katie Chesler, an English teacher; and students Shelby Orndoff, a 10th-grader, and Anatoly Brekhman and Bobbie Chern, both 11th-graders.

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