A Conversation with a Poet and Friend, Remembering Margo LaGattuta

Margo LaGattuta was a Michigan poet, although, if you met her in mixed company she would have introduced herself as a writer. Margo told me that when she would introduce herself as a poet, the conversation ended there. For some reason people were uneasy around poets. She suggested, maybe they “… are afraid of poetry … they think it’s going to be a bunch of cornball emotional crap.” People were much more comfortable around writers.

In addition to being a poet and a writer, Margo was also a columnist, lecturer and college teacher. She was even a radio talk show host for years. I asked Margo about being a teacher and the fact that many writers teach to supplement their income between projects. She commented that she was “a writer who also teaches, rather than a teacher who also writes.” She loved teaching and did it to promote the excitement of reading and writing within others.

I first met Margo in 1995 at the radio station I was working for. She had a program called Art in the Air; and as the name suggests, it was a program about the spoken word: poetry. After all, poetry is an oral tradition and is perfect for audio broadcasting. But more than the poems being heard on the air, it was a platform for discussion surrounding the art going over the airwaves; it helped listeners (including myself) to try to unravel the mystery of metaphors and the sometimes hard to understand art form.

One annual event she had on the air was a poetry contest. Margo and a colleague would judge many entries for the contest from poets all across North America. Then she would have the winners read their poems on the radio. It was a lot fun. Some were nervous, others outstanding, but all were pleased to win and have a chance to share their creative writing on the air. Listeners had the opportunity to hear the story behind the poem, which added so much to the experience.

Margaret Elizabeth LaGattuta was born in Detroit on September 18, 1942. She lived in Germany for two years, other than that, she lived in the Oakland County area all of her life. And my hometown of Rochester Hills has been her home base for years now. Her parents, deceased, were also artists and attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Margo also went to Pratt and has her MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) from Vermont College. She passed that creative gene to her three sons: One is a scientist, one is a painter and the other one is a special effects person in Hollywood. They also write, but according to Margo, they were always shy about showing their work to their mother.

While talking about how creative, artistic genealogy seems to happen, I had to ask Margo about becoming a poet. Looking back, “I always was one, even when I wasn’t writing.” In graduate school she realized that is who she is – a poet. And that a room full of writers were people like her, “I just thought I had this weird way of thinking” before graduate school. She went to school a student and come out a poet. But it still took a few years after school to understand that poetry was something she would always do. It was not just a segment of her career; she was now a poet, by title.

Titles are an interesting thing. You may always be what you are, but cognitive acceptance happens at another point. What about being a columnist versus a writer, are they the same thing? Margo’s response, “[you] can’t stop being a writer,” but “columnist” is just a title. Her column in Community Lifestyles, A Word in Edgewise, allowed her to have a wide and regular audience. It is a fun part of being a writer. “I became a writer because the world was never the way people told me it was and I needed to clear things up.”

Margo told me that, “Being a poet was like standing in the closet dancing, and I’m dancing faster and faster, and every once in awhile someone opens the door and says, ‘oh that’s nice,’ and closes the door again. But I just keep dancing.” It seems like this is very true about those that have such a passion for what they do, their mind never strays far from the motivation.

To really understand the poet Margo LaGattuta, you need to understand what poetry is. Or at least what Margo believes it to be. “It is a way of using language in a very focused and particular way that evokes ideas and emotions – it’s condensed language.” She likes the use of the metaphor (a comparison) in her poems and explains that the “poem is in the ear.” It has a rhythm, or a beat to it. That is why it is best to hear poetry, not just read it. Poetry “is like a bouillon cube – you take an idea and squish it all down to a little essence of itself – you get a poem.  Like a bouillon cube, you add water – you add your imagination – and the meaning can become very large.” It could be “the whole world in a grain of sand.” Margo went on about how poetry is really a compression of ideas into a musical language, “just short of singing.”

Margo has several books, including: Embracing the Fall, The Dream Givers, Noedgelines, Diversion Road, and Bears are Taught to use Cameras. I wanted to know if all writers have a book in them and to my surprise, Margo told me “No.” She thinks “everyone has a story to tell,” but not necessarily in the form of a book. It is always difficult to find a publisher and it is very hard to live off just your poetry. Poets have to teach, write, lecture and give workshops – Margo did all of those.

You may have been fortunate to have Margo as an instructor at The University of Michigan – Flint, Oakland Community College, Baker College, or with Springfed Arts. She liked to start a fire under her students and she brought creativity out in a person. Margo went to school with Wally Lamb and Mark Doty, both established writers. Doty said, “In The Necessary Angel, Wallace Stevens made a famous distinction between metaphors that discover and those that invent. Margo LaGattuta’s inexhaustibly inventive poems confound this dichotomy: she reveals by imagining and discovers by invention. The result is revelation. Riding the ‘tough horses’ of dream, she writes, ‘I get alive this way.’ And so do we.”

Margo has earned the right to call herself a poet and many in the industry believe that as well. She received the Mark Twain Award in May of 2005 for her body of work from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature at Michigan State University. It is not the only honor or award she has won, but the one she is most proud of because it is an award for her writing as a whole, not just one poem or one book.

Margo loved her family. When she was not writing or teaching, she liked to spend time with her children and grandchildren. She also enjoyed reading, going to movies and plays, and traveling. She told me that after she retired from teaching she planned to travel more, and of course, write more; one never retires from one’s passion.

I never took one of her classes or one of the many workshops she taught, but I am a better writer for just knowing her. I can’t really explain the details, but that fire she lights under people, she must have sparked something in me when we were engaged in conversation somewhere – it just happens – thank you Margo.

Margo LaGattuta died on Monday evening, August 22, 2011. Visitation will be at 12 noon on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at Potere-Modetz Funeral Home in Rochester. More details here: http://web.me.com/adamlag/Margo_LaGattuta_Memorial/Memorial.html

By Michael Dwyer

Springfed Arts will hold an Open Mic Tribute to Margo, Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. at the Lido Gallery (33535 Woodward Ave) in Birmingham.

More on Margo, by Andrea Walker https://rochestermedia.com/a-community-says-goodbye-to-beloved-writer-margo-lagattuta/

About Michael Dwyer

Michael Dwyer is a freelance content provider. Michael writes about happenings in the Rochester area, travels across Michigan and destinations around the world. Contact him at [email protected].

Comments

  1. Anita Walters says

    Thanks, Michael, for this beautiful tribute to Margo. I recently became acquainted with her through the Poetry Society of Michigan. You rounded out my appreciation of her many talents.

  2. Thank you, Michael, for an interesting look into Margo’s life as a poet. I love this: “Being a poet was like standing in the closet dancing, and I’m dancing faster and faster, and every once in awhile someone opens the door and says, ‘oh that’s nice,’ and closes the door again. But I just keep dancing.” I was in the second Plain View Press anthology she edited, and it was a wonderful experience- I learned much from her. You got it right, she lit a fire under people. She’ll be greatly missed.

  3. I knew Margo for many years, took several of her amazing workshops, and worked with her at several conferences — but learned a lot from your article here, Michael. Thank you.

  4. Tammis Donaldson says

    Even though I had been getting Community Lifestyles for years I never read her column until September 11th…after that I was hooked…she got me through it. Thanks Margo.

  5. Thank you everyone. Margo was one cool woman. Tonight’s reading was very nice – great poetry – good people. Thanks to everyone that has shared about Margo.

  6. Patricia Lieb says

    Very enjoyable article of Margo LaGattuta … Shared it on http://www.facebook.com/Poetry-for-Fun

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