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To Poem, or Not to Poem! That is the Question: Ryan Leng Launches Poets Against the Blank Page Workshops at the Grand Marais Public Library

Dec 04, 2023 10:52AM ● By Content Editor

Photo provided 

By Kimberly J. Soenen for Boreal Community Media Exclusive - December 4, 2023


The North Shore and state of Minnesota are rich with authors, writers, poets and songwriters. And yet, poetry still has the unusual capacity to intimidate, irritate, and annoy some readers while inspiring, educating and even “saving” others.

The Grand Marais Public Library is inviting people to workshop their poems as part of the new Poets Against the Blank Page series led by Librarian Ryan Leng. This workshop is intended for anyone ages sixteen and older, at all skill levels and no writing or editing experience is necessary to participate.

Leng has said he “understands how difficult poetry can be, as well as how much courage and vulnerability it takes to read aloud unfinished poems…” This workshop is intended to make everybody comfortable writing, reading and discussing poetry. A seasoned writer and educator, Leng taught English for ten years to secondary students, as well as students in AP English Literature and AP English Language. What better way to learn more about poetry and its power and influence? Talk about it and try it.

I talked to Leng about ways to make poetry accessible and meaningful to people of all ages and abilities. Turns out, Leng has a lot to say about poetry and making it a nutritious and engaging experience for everyone. I asked what motivates him at this stage of his career as an educator and why he wants to bring people together around the written word.

Soenen: How did you come up with the concept for this workshop? Why now?

Leng: I came up with the idea because the library here in Grand Marais needs adult programming. I wanted to complement the legendary monthly Full Moon readings at Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais, rather than compete with them, so I went to their poetry reading and put the idea out there, and everybody there thought it was a great idea. And since Cook County is filled with creative people, we had a good turnout for the first workshop with twelve attendees.

Soenen: What’s your own relationship to poetry?

Leng: My relationship to poetry is based on a few core beliefs, to wit: that many subjects deserve their time in the sun, but don't get it; that poetry changes the lives of the poet and the audience; and that poetry helps make life worth living. I also aim to disabuse people of the notion that we have an unlimited need for say, corporate lawyers or telemarketers, but a very limited need for poets. We need poetry. Poetry, moreover, is more than a personal project in which readers are an afterthought, and the question of its goodness is purely subjective. While it's great to write for personal or therapeutic reasons, most poets want readers and want them to understand at least the gist, if not every line, of their poetry.   

I started writing poetry in college when I didn't know what I was doing. I shared the first poem I ever wrote with a woman who had been to poetry workshops, but she immediately cut out a third of my words with no explanation, other than that poetry was more condensed than what I'd done. I didn't appreciate that process, and I let that bad experience stifle my inspiration for a decade. When I taught high school English, I assigned my students a poem to write, which required a fixed meter and rhyme scheme. It was fair that I should write an example poem, so I did, and the process of placing it in fixed verse—perhaps ironically—felt very freeing. 

Nowadays, I'll observe a subject, and something will resonate with me. My conscious mind may not know quite what the takeaway is from that subject, but once I start writing down things, a clear purpose to the poem starts to emerge from my subconscious. I've learned that I may not always know why a subject calls out for a poem, but my brain usually does. Putting my thoughts down and focusing them has a way of drawing out the meaning of the poem.

Soenen: Many readers and writers are intimidated by poetry. To some extent, poets, PEN America, the Poetry Foundation and National Poet Laureates have managed to celebrate it by engaging younger readers and writers—even kindergarten-level students. What is the best way to demystify poetry?

Leng: I demystify poetry by trying to break it down like any other subject. I reject the notion that a good poet is born and not made, because poetic techniques and devices can be taught, and they're all safe to try at home. I am not an expert. I'm self-taught, though I did analyze a lot of poetry in college and as a teacher. Reading a lot of poetry, both widely and deeply, helps to demystify it, as well. One begins to see what works and doesn't in a poem.

As for using a workshop, building relationships with other poets is key to helping them and myself become better. Few people respond well to a stranger cutting words out of a poem, so my goal is to build a community that will eventually be comfortable with editing. The work we will do in these early workshops, though, will focus on addition to, instead of subtraction from, attendees' poems. 

Soenen: Who can attend the workshops? Can people attend to explore and discover poetry as something new? Or is it only for veteran writers and poets?

Leng: Anybody can come to the workshops, no matter how new. The next workshop will feature a lesson on rhyme and meter, as well as exercises and peer review for the development of drafts and the generation of new ideas.

 Photo provided

Soenen: Who are some of your favorite living poets?

Leng: It’s tough to narrow it down but some of my favorites include Gary Snyder, Li-Young Lee, Scott Cairns, Tyehimba Jess, Yusef Komunyakaa and Marge Piercy.

Soenen: Who are some of the deceased poets you recommend reading?

Leng: I highly recommend Lucille Clifton, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Oliver and A.E. Housman.

Soenen: Where can students and participants read your work?

Leng: I am unpublished, outside of a couple of college student publications, so nowhere. I have written a few in the last year including two poems titled "Contents May Have Settled," and "Smoking Class Citizen."

Editor's note: Ryan graciously shared two of his poems for this article, which you can find via the PDFs below.

Soenen: What are the celebrated poetry collections of 2023 that you might recommend for gifts this year?

Leng: “The Agates Journal” from the League of Minnesota Poets is really quite good. 

Soenen: In your view, what makes a “good” poet or poem? Is there any subject or theme to abstract or irreducible to write about?

Leng: Empathy and a little courage make a good poet. A good poem has a message and imagery that go beyond cliche. Getting inside of a subject that is outside of themselves. Certainly, some poets have sought to make the message obscured and they try to resist…either it’s abstract expressionism…it’s there and then it’s gone. I feel you have to be humble for people to come away with some sort of feeling that is definite enough…but they need to understand in some way.

For me, I guess I appreciate the challenge is to not try to be deliberately esoteric or abstract. You won’t find yourself to be celebrated if you are elusive and cryptic. That is just my opinion. There are schools of thought for poems that don’t make sense to anybody.

Soenen: Are you up for a few fun questions? English teachers and poets frequently get a bad rap for being less than lively or fun to be around. Help me dispel that myth.

Soenen: Who is your favorite songwriter or band?

Leng: They are all poets! Tom Waits (much to my girlfriend's dismay).

Soenen: What is your dream job?

Leng: Studio guitar player for my favorite artists. 

Soenen: What is your favorite place to hang out in Grand Marais and why?

Leng: At my friends' place on Pike Lake or the Superior Hiking Trail

Soenen: Pro/Con on AI in literature, poetry and journalism?

Leng: I am not sure I've given this a thought enough to have an erudite answer. We host a couple Dungeons and Dragons campaigns at the library, and I rather like the off-the-cuff improvisational storytelling in which the participants produce actual intelligence--so in a way, it's sort of the anti-AI.

Perhaps there's a place for AI, but I'd rather it be put to use to stave off the impending/ongoing climate catastrophe than replacing writers and poets. 

Soenen: Lastly, are you a relative of the family that owned the legendary Leng's Fountain Soda Shop?

Leng: I am not from the immediate family. Whether I am distantly related to the Lengs of Grand Marais is still an open question that I'd like to close. The short answer is yes, it seems likely, but I'm not sure to what degree.

I didn't know any Lengs had ever lived here, so it came as a great surprise to see my name painted on the side of a building. My great-grandfather, who died the year my own father was born, had several brothers, including an older brother George. My great-grandfather, Douglas Leng Sr., came to North America from Doncaster, England, and originally settled in the Toronto area, which is also where George Leng of Grand Marais came from originally. Beyond that, though, it's not clear to me whether this was the same George, or the connection goes further back to the old country.

I will say, I've never met another Leng until I came to Grand Marais, which is by far the most remote and least populated town I've ever dwelt in. Also of note, the old Wigwam Theater, built by George Leng, used to be where the library is now. It feels like a peculiar twist of fate that I'm working at the library.

Maybe one day I'll revive Leng's Fountain and specialize in customizable seltzers and craft sodas, with a day room for people to catch up on the news and gossip over puzzles, coloring pages, and board games. (Or not!)


Poets Against the Blank Page Poetry Workshops

Grand Marais Public Library

  • December 13, 2023
  • January 18, 2024
  • February 15, 2024
  • March 15, 2024
  • April 12, 2024

Free and Open to the public. Wheelchair accessible. All abilities welcome. Attendees should bring at least one draft of one of their poems to share. Additionally, attendees should bring notepaper and a pen. Non-alcoholic beverages with lids are welcome, too.


Contact Ryan Leng directly with questions and to confirm the schedule in advance at [email protected]


Kimberly J. Soenen is a writer and producer specializing in Health Humanities and healthcare industry investigative reporting.

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