Ruelaine Stokes’ poetry unfolds with glorious insights and gentle images and the music of the language. When she reads at Creole Gallery or at A Rally of Writers, you can hear her singing.
She also knows how to make use of nervous energy, can show you the importance of enunciation, and adds depth to the spoken word with body language.
Whether she is reading or teaching a workshop on poetry or creative writing, her work is simply magical. All writers—and teachers—can learn from Ruelaine, a true master.
Lansing Community College
Co-founder, A Rally of Writers
Sept. 15, 2014
Versifying through a soul megaphone — Lansing City Pulse
By Lawrence Cosentino
Lansing poet Ruelaine Stokes looks over her glasses granny-subversively as she reads her poetry, sighing over the veined splendor of her own hands (“Fan of Diamonds”) and zooming over the 10,000 red poppies inside her heart like DeMille cranking a movie camera. She does this through crinkles and twinkles and apple cheeks, like a hippie librarian with lots of stories under her sweater.
She’s funny, endearing and very serious about poetry. She learned long ago that “If you worked hard enough, you could say what was true and it would ring,” according to a terse manifesto at the end of one of her poems.
As a federal grand jury would say, Stokes seems to be the ringleader of a Lansing poetry collective called “4 Against the Wall,” now celebrating the release of a collection of some of their favorite poems from the past 15 years.
When the quartet gave a reading at the Creole Gallery (minus one member, Sam Mills, stuck in Detroit’s winter weather), Stokes explained the group’s name. “You are the wall,” she told them. Nobody was insulted — in fact, the reading was like old home week, with shouts of encouragement, laughs, hugs and greetings among members of Lansing’s small but indefatigable poetry scene.
The collective formed a decade and a half ago, in the crucible of open-mic poetry nights at Hobies. “An entire community of folks would voluntarily show up on a Thursday night,” Stokes said, “and equally shared in making the night memorable.”
“My entire life revolved around that Thursday night,” poet Zachary Chartkoff said at the reading. “I was mortally shy, but that event got me to get up and do something.”
The book also contains two roundtable discussions in which members of the group reminisce about their beginnings and pre-beginnings. Area old-timers will have fun recognizing old hangout names like Café Venezia and Hearthstone Bakery.
Stokes calls the group a “poetry quartet,” and the group traded readings all night like soloists in a jazz combo. A bowler hat on the fourth stool represented the absent Mills, as the remaining three took turns reading his poems, putting on the hat and “channeling” their colleague.
The other two members present — sugar-crusty Robert Rentschler, the eldest of the group, and earnest, barefoot Chartkoff, the youngest — vied with Stokes in a collegial “who’s cutest yet most dangerous” contest.
Rentschler is a fascinating amalgam of shameless entertainer, unreconstructed Jack Kerouac hell-raiser and I-just-walked-in-off-the-street regular guy. He’s a master at the dramatic pause, raising one Paul Newman-esque eyebrow as he leans on a word. He was very funny, especially when reading Mills’ “Emotional Traffic Report”: “A semi hauling a load of regret has overturned; sobbing policemen are directing traffic.”
But Rentschler wasn’t all schtick. His own “Ice Storm,” a tiny crystal of perfection all of 32 words long, drew gasps from the December-dusted Creole audience. “Crowns bow down; glazed wings fold against the wind around/the glass-boned birds.”
Under Rentschler’s ingratiating little dance steps and rubbery face is a steely armature of confidence. . . . . .
Anchoring the reading, and the group, was Stokes, a longtime teacher who loves to share the poetry buzz with others. The proximity of her fellow against-the-wallers seemed to help her conquer the gravity that constantly threatens to pull her, like everyone else, earthward.
“I wanna fly tonight,” she breathed in a husky get-down voice as she read from “Poem for Zack.” Ever the generous spirit, she spends much of the rest of the poem fantasizing about giving money away to everybody.
As Stokes listened to her colleagues, cheek in palm, her delight in their gifts seemed every bit as strong as her joy in her own muse. It’s as if poetry were a splendid conch shell, a soul megaphone, she had miraculously picked up on a deserted beach thirty years ago. Like her colleagues, Stokes never seems to have gotten over her good fortune, and most amazingly, has no problem showing everyone where the beach is.
December 21, 2005
Local poetry is taking flight — Lansing State Journal
By Justin Schneider
Come to the edge./We might fall./Come to the edge./It’s too high./Come to the edge! —/And they came/and she pushed them/and they flew.
For years, Ruelaine Stokes feared her own personal cliff.
Like the anonymous people in the poem, Stokes was reluctant to come to the edge of performance. But when she stepped off the cliff, she soared.
Now Stokes is a persuasive poet, calling others to take wing, and using the poem’s inspiring words to do so. Other poets in the Lansing area also are sharing their words and their souls, from Old Town to the Lansing Mall to coffee shops throughout the area.
“I read something that said, ‘Creativity exists at the edge of chaos,’ said Stokes, 56. “There is this powerful energy that is life, and in poetry, you’re trying to tap that creative energy and move beyond basic categories of reality.
While Stokes’ poetry is certainly edgy, her recent reading at Creole Gallery dispelled any myths that poetry is always aristocratic, cerebral or pretentious.
For example, she presented a poem on George W. Bush, read a magazine advertisement verbatim as a “found” poem, and suggested that the poetically inept write a poem about their inability to write a poem.
“You have to step away from life a little bit and take the time to write,” Stokes said. “It requires a combination of concentration, belief in yourself, and having the patience and perseverance to do it.”
But Stokes’ influence isn’t limited to words. Before an audience of more than 30, and bathed in the glow of Creole’s soft light, Stokes allowed her emotions to seep through her skin. And with every wave of her arms and clench of her fist she breathed life into the words.
“The way she dramatizes is tremendous,” said Ben Bohnhorst, president of the Lansing Poetry Club, and one of Stokes’ most vocal supporters.
The Lansing Poetry Club meets the third Sunday of each month at Lansing Community College. Bohnhorst said the club includes 31 active members.
“One of the things you do is pull things forward to make into a poem,” said Bohnhorst, 78. “You use past experiences. You start going through life with a sonar on, a radar, scanning the emotional horizon for material.”
Bohnhorst got hooked when a poetry group formed at East Lansing’s Unitarian Universalist Church in 1986. He said prospective poets must trudge through some bad poetry before getting to the good stuff.
“I wrote some awful stuff,” Bohnhorst admitted. “God, it was terrible!”
“I really don’t think the stuff that appears in Hallmark greeting cards is poetry,” Bohnhorst said. “Poetry is terribly important. Poets serve our culture in a very vital way.”
Poetry’s vitality knows no bounds, and its appeal extends to people of all ages and backgrounds.
Eleazar Barzart, a philosophy senior at Michigan State University, began writing poetry when he was 7. Since becoming a member of the Black Poets Society at MSU, Barzart has tried to convey the black experience through poetry.
“Poetry allows us to unite as African-Americans,” said Barzart, 23. “We have hip-hop music, but we don’t have too many ways to unite in a literary sense. Books and novels and short stories are a part of us, too, and this is a chance to show people that we’re doing those things.”
The Black Poets Society will host a spoken-word contest titled “Poetic Eclectic” April 21 at Erickson Kiva on the MSU campus. The event will feature a trio of guest poets, a host and 10 confirmed entrants.
“It’s self-expression, and it allows you to express yourself in a way you wouldn’t do verbally or emotionally,” Barzart said. “Through paper, you can touch people who might feel the same way you do and inspire at the same time.”
Bazart said the society hosts “Soul Night” twice during the semester at Espresso Royale Caffe in East Lansing. The event is a mix of a poetry reading and an open-mike night, where anyone can take the stage.
Barbara Sturdivant-James also is an audible voice for the black community. Her diverse experiences have taken her from the deep South to Michigan.
Unlike her younger cohorts, Sturdivant-James didn’t discover poetry until age 55, when a piece of poetry slipped from her lips.
After the death of an acquaintance she knew as Mrs. Davis, Sturdivant-James began contemplating her kitchenware, specifically, her expensive China plates and her “everyday dishes.”
“I said that Mrs. Davis wasn’t fine China, she was everyday dishes, and that was my first poem,” Sturdivant-James said.
“Poetry is a real sense of fulfillment in myself,” she added. “I like putting my feelings out and onto paper, and I want to be great. One day, I’d like to be like Maya Angelou, but if I never make it, that satisfies me.”
Sturdivant-James grew up in what she calls a “clapboard shack” in Shellford, Ark., before coming to Michigan when she was 12.
“I really go back on life experiences,” Sturdivant-James said. “Sometimes I’ll be sitting and thinking about things, and I’ll have to write something down. You have to work on it a little bit, it doesn’t just come together. Then I go to the tape recorder and see if it’s in rhythm. Then I go back and rewrite.”
Sturdivant-James’ poems deal with reality issues, including domestic violence (“Paper Shackles”) and teenage pregnancy (“Wading in Chocolate Streams”).
She often leads off open mike night at Barnes & Noble’s Lansing Mall location.
“I have seen a lot of good young poets, but it seems that a certain quality of writing and depth comes later in life,” said Randy Glumm, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble, and one of Sturdivant-James’ most loyal fans. “You need to get some distance from your experiences.”
Barnes & Noble holds an open mike night at 7 p.m. on the third Friday of every month. The event often is followed by live music, and the March 16 installment will feature local band Knee Deep Shag.
Glumm said open-mike night regularly draws 20 to 40 attendees and 10 to 15 readers. Gift certificates are given away, too
Glumm said he was initiated into poetry 12 years ago when he took a narrative poetry class taught by a friend, Marcus Cafagna.
“The joke was that my haiku was novel-length,” said Glumm, 54. “But I’ve learned much from poetry. It opened my eyes to a different style of writing and expression with a lot of compression, compaction and severe editing.”
Glumm’s knack for the format eventually lead to one of his works being published in Burning Bush. He has since taken up producing a magazine of his own, providing exposure for poets and fiction writers, distributing by mail.
Glumm said Barnes & Noble also plays host to a writer’s guild for poetry, fiction and nonfiction, which meets the fourth Friday of every month.
March 1, 2001