Jan Seale quite literally heard the call of poetry when she was 6 years old. She said it was akin to a spiritual awakening.
“As a child, I remember rocking back and forth and holding my ear, like you would a seashell to hear the ocean,” she recalled. “Because I felt like there was — when I said poems aloud — that it was another voice, like something had come to me.”
Seale was named the 2012-2013 Texas Poet Laureate in May of 2011, and since then she has traveled more than 26,000 miles and spoken to more than 5,000 people at universities, coffee shops, festivals and libraries about her work, and moreover, the power of poetry.
The post is an honorary position given by the Texas State Legislature — each poet is given a year of tenure, but the title lasts forever.
Poets laureate are generally expected to attend special events, give talks and readings, and work to promote the art in their home state. Seale is the 49th Texas Poet Laureate, and the first-ever from the Rio Grande Valley.
The 73-year-old has come a long way from her first poems — she finished her first anthology at 8 years old. In the handmade book, she honored her mother and grandmother — it was also the first sign of her love of nature and mature grasp of meter and rhyme.
“I don’t know what my very first poem was, but there was one about a bullfrog and I got a little mixed up calling it a willfrog,” she said. “My parents teased me endlessly about the willfrog… I had rhyme schemes worked out and all … That was the beginning.”
Since then, the former teacher has published her work in many noted journals including The Yale Review, Texas Monthly, The Chicago Tribune and Writer’s Digest, among many others. In her time, she has written eight books of poetry, two volumes of short fiction, three nonfiction books, and nine children's books.
Seale said that she is not done yet. When her official time ends this month, she has a lot left to tap, and projects that have been set aside to make time for her duties as poet laureate.
“I have four manuscripts that are unfinished,” she said. “I need to do that, and I had to stop writing almost altogether this spring because of my trips. … So I’m looking forward to that. I also have a strong teaching bent, so I enjoy teaching workshops, giving talks and things like that, so I’ll have a little more time for those things.”
Despite looking forward to a little more free time, Seale said that she feels her job as a teacher, a poet and poet laureate, is to continue to educate and inspire others with what she calls “the noblest and most historical of the literary arts.”
“I tell people, ‘I daresay that most of you know by heart, 25 to 50 poems,’ and they are shocked,” she said. “Just think about all the hymns you know, the songs, the adages, the couplets from Shakespeare. … I challenge people to think about all the poems they know already and realize the power of poetry. It’s a literary genre and a way of life. … A poem is not just a transcription of some thought. As you read the poem, as you hear the poem, it can right then touch your life as an event.”
Edward Vidaurre, a local poet, author and arts event coordinator for the City of Edinburg, called Seale “an inspiration.” He worked alongside Seale at the Valley International Poetry Festival, even sharing a stage with her.
“She has always been readily available and personable,” Vidaurre said. “When I first met her, I never thought she would become such an inspiration in my writings. … I have grown to challenge my own writings after sharing thoughts and conversation with her. … We have been blessed to have our Texas Poet Laureate come from the (Valley).”
This accessibility is exactly what Seale said she was striving for in her work: to make poetry as an art more enjoyable and attainable for all people. She receives letters from children and adults that she has exposed to poetry, and treasures the ones that say they’ve had their minds opened.
Seale sees poetry as something transcendent — more than the sum of its parts. A few words, she feels, infused with emotion and tempered in the fire of the spirit, can alter the course of humankind.
“…I would like us to use the art to enhance our lives and to improve the human condition,” she said. “Art’s not good for anything unless we can apply it to our lives and be better people, whether it includes helping others or … feeling bliss.
“There’s still a lot of beauty and discovery in the world. … I have, in recent years, felt that there is so much harshness, so much violence … so much downright ugliness … and I would like to turn away from those things and have people substitute in their lives the things we all know are precious to humanity.”
Madeleine Smither covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4425.