The first poem in Past All Traps, the debut collection by Pittsburgh poet and small-press magazine legend Don Wentworth, is but seven words long:
"Stop counting syllables, / start counting the dead."
It's a mission statement for Wentworth. While a dedicated publisher and writer of short-form poetry, Wentworth's work is less about the poem's brevity, than about the moments it describes: The waning life of September insects; his wife's trimmed bangs circling the sink -- for how many more times? These are the players in Wentworth's tiny dramas, connected to the traditional themes of haiku, yet diverging at will from its best-known form.
This honed, elemental poetry has not come quickly or easily for Wentworth, a reference librarian whose bushy white hair and beard have made him a distinctive fixture at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Oakland branch. While Past All Traps is his first collection, its earliest poem dates back 30 years. And he's spent 22 years publishing 180 issues of Lilliput Review, a highly regarded one-man operation printing solely poems of 10 lines or fewer, which he runs from his home in Lawrenceville. It has received award nominations from both the Haiku Society of America and the Utne Reader.
Like the best haiku, it all began with a spark. Wentworth had written poetry in high school, in late-'60s northern New Jersey, and at college, but had never taken it seriously. In 1980, Wentworth lived in an apartment at the Jersey shore, "and one day I was home sick from work, and the hippie who lived above starts banging on the door: 'Get out! Get out! The house is on fire!' I ran around the house and I grabbed two things: my dog, Fred, and a file. After a day or so, I realized I had dug down in the closet and grabbed this file of my old poetry.
"I realized that there was something really important to me that I wasn't paying attention to."
Wentworth began writing again. On a friend's suggestion, he mailed poems to Rolling Stone -- which then published short poetry as column-filler amongst the album reviews. A few months later, a check arrived for $75. Then came a letter from famed literary agent Virginia Kidd.
"The letter said, 'I read your poem in Rolling Stone and it's one of the most perfect haikus I've ever read. Can I reprint it in my little monthly newsletter?' I, of course, was incredibly flattered -- and immediately went out to find out what a haiku was!"
What Wentworth discovered was that his work unwittingly followed many -- sometimes all -- of the traditional elements of the Japanese poetic form: the syllable count of its three lines; the concentration on nature and existence in the moment; the convergence of disparate elements. As a writer, Wentworth doesn't always consciously follow these models, and often eschews traditional length or themes. But what perhaps does define Wentworth's work is the haiku "spark" -- poems that live in a single, honest moment. For example, when Buddha appears at "The Weekly Corporate Meeting."
"I was in an interminable meeting, with some phony standing up there," says Wentworth. "And then she moved her hand exactly the way you'd see in a Buddha statue. It took me out of myself for that moment: Who am I to judge this person?"
"It just says the truth -- it says exactly what he feels," says Ché Elias, co-owner of Six Gallery Press, the Pittsburgh-based publisher of Past All Traps. "It's unpretentious work in a medium that [can often seem] pretentious, which is what drove me to publish him."
Elias, and such lit-scene stalwarts as Kristofer Collins of The New Yinzer and poet Renée Alberts, aided in the current rediscovery of Wentworth's work. Over 22 years of Lilliput Review, he has seldom published his own pieces, and for two decades, he shunned readings. A few pieces in The New Yinzer led Wentworth to read publicly again, and quickly to an agreement with Elias to publish Past All Traps as well as a forthcoming 20-year Lilliput retrospective.
And Wentworth continues to find those moments that describe a brief truth of our existence -- whether we like it or not.
Past all traps / my shame revealed -- / September ant.
"I capture spiders and take them outdoors," says Wentworth. "But ants? I'm setting traps. And that's part of who we are, too. This isn't all about being good. It's about being."
Don Wentworth's PAST ALL TRAPS publication party 7:30 p.m. Sat., June 11. ModernFormations Gallery 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. $5 or free w/ covered dish.
Readings by Don Wentworth, Renée Alberts, Nikki Allen, Kris Colllins, Jerome Crooks, Angele Ellis. 412-362-0274
Three Poems by Don Wentworth
The sweet magnolia
bows to all creation --
& you were saying?
Focus group --
the sky, the mountains,
mistake after mistake
after mistake, adding up
to just the right thing