A group of local writers come together to stir up the poetic spirit and share an affection for their community.
On the north end of Peoria, six poets gather with coffee, scribbled papers, and an arsenal of criticism, ideas and passion. For eight years, the group has met monthly to encourage each other’s writing and bolster the range and power of their own literary voices. They call themselves the Grandview Hotel Poets, and they just released their third chapbook of selected poetry. As they reflect on their collaborative efforts and look ahead to the future, they remain eager to nurture their shared passion for poetry… and the place that has shaped their lives.
The Grandview Hotel Poets began in 2008, its members brought together by a mutual love for poetry and the desire to hone their individual skills in an accessible and consistent group of peers. “I was not a poet,” explains Dr. Thomas Palakeel, professor of English at Bradley University. “I was a fiction writer and an essay writer. And then it dawned on me that I needed to write poems. Now I have about 300 poems [in my portfolio].”
“All of my poetry community lived far, far away,” adds Dr. Jannett Highfill, professor of economics at Bradley. “So I was very excited to meet people here. It was great, in my case, to put my personal life together with poetry in some unique ways.”
Others didn’t have much of a record with poetry and felt it was time to branch out. “I’ve been writing for a long time—poetry and essays,” says Mark Liebenow, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Huffington Post. “[But] the poetry was just kind of there… I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t technically proficient at it. I thought this was a chance, with other good writers, to actually develop the craft.”
“I was taking graduate courses at Bradley,” explains Burt Raabe, a retired counselor. “I took a course with Kevin Stein [Illinois Poet Laureate and an English professor at Bradley] and I took a course with Thomas [Palakeel]. Thomas was my connection to this, and Kevin Stein was my connection to writing poetry.”
“I was in a grad class with Burt, and he invited me to one of the meetings,” adds Janeil Page, who earned her master’s degree in English at Bradley. “I had no idea that I had any inclination towards writing or poetry, and poetry just stuck. My first poem was at Bradley.”
The group’s most extensively published member, Elizabeth Klise has seen more than 60 of her poems published in literary journals nationwide. She, too, felt the attraction to like minds that could help her continue to learn and grow in her craft. “It began from a sense a lot of people were having of wanting a community of writers with whom they could share their work, provide deadlines for each other, and create that sort of camaraderie that creative writers really need.”
It soon became apparent that a name for the group was in order. That’s when Raabe came up with an idea that tied their love for poetry with another common interest: the central Illinois area. One of his earliest poems was about the old Grandview Hotel in Junction City—a once renowned guesthouse which had decayed to the point where local government action shut it down. The building was demolished a decade ago, but the Peoria connection—as well as the symbolic representation of the hotel scene—stuck.
“Each ‘room’ is a different persona or perspective we bring,” Page notes, explaining the connection. “I think it’s helped us unite toward a common cause.”
“That’s who we are,” Klise adds. “Guests through Peoria, and travelers through life.”
Over the years, the Grandview Hotel Poets have continued to build on this foundation of camaraderie and mutual respect. At the same time, their diverse range of experience and artistic thought has made for a stimulating journey—one that began by establishing rules and expectations for how to work through their material and provide good criticism.
“We established procedure,” Palakeel notes. “Everyone would have to bring a brand-new poem, and everyone would have to write something to say about each poem.” They also came to an understanding of how the critique process would work, and how dissenting opinions should be expressed as different styles and personalities came to light.
“We start with a lot of respect for each other’s writing,” Liebenow explains. “We understand that the other person has an informed opinion, but we also realize we have different voices… So we pick up on techniques from each other and learn how to do our own poetry better.”
“At first I was hesitant [to critique], because I’d think, ‘I’m supposed to know what this [poem] means… Why don’t I know?’” notes Raabe, who says he found his voice within the group. “But now when others say [the same thing], I think, ‘Okay… now I can say that!’ Now I’m not afraid to say that I’m a poet.”
The nature of collaboration is not without challenges, as informed opinions and bold ideas collide and sometimes conflict. But while it can be draining to find compromise in criticism, the group remains open-minded and supportive. “We’re all extraordinary generous and helpful [with each other],” Page adds. “That’s not something you always see. They’re great people, wonderful writers, generous poets in workshop… always willing to spend the time.”
Path to Publication
The Grandview Hotel Poets published their first chapbook, Bluffs and Five Bridges, in 2011. “It was obvious that we would publish, because we work together so well,” notes Palakeel. “So the first book was a product of the harmony of our group and how we worked together.”
The poems in Bluffs and Five Bridges feature themes and references that a central Illinois audience would find familiar. Liebenow, for example, speaks lovingly of Forest Park Nature Center in “Classical Woods,” describing its trees as having “the deep aroma of earth and oak.” Elsewhere, Highfill’s “Examples of Midwestern Monumental” regards well-known Illinois landmarks, including the statue of Bradley University’s famous founder:
Over on campus, Lydia Moss Bradley stands two
shallow steps higher than the passersby,
on a level still easy to shake hands with.
She is both small and substantial, prompting
a city and a university to be likewise.
Their second book, 2013’s Directions Home, was an intensive collaboration with Gold Quoin Press, a printing press housed at Bradley University. Its director, Robert Rowe, worked tirelessly with the group to design an innovative publication that expressed each poet’s individuality—and challenged the format of the common chapbook. With both parties contributing to the design, printing and typesetting, the result was a portfolio of poems printed in a variety of unique formats and bound together within a die-cut folder. Liebenow’s work, for example, was contained within a mock passport book; Klise’s poems were printed on cardboard coasters; Page’s came printed on stationery enclosed in a first-class envelope.
“It was the excitement of having somebody interested in design, interested in our work,” says Highfill of the allure of the unusual printing and design process. “[Robert] is a very good reader of poetry. So it’s just lovely to have that kind of artistic intelligence engaged in the work.”
The Grandview Hotel Poets again worked with Rowe’s Gold Quoin Press while creating their third and latest chapbook, Ordinary Time: A Poet’s Calendar. Released in July, it returned to the standard book format, while still leveraging Rowe’s design talents for visual flair. Ordinary Time features a focused seasonal theme, with each month of the year defining a new set of poems. The poets tasked themselves with writing poems to fit the season—reflecting on feelings and events as they explore each month, their phrasing and cadence creating a window through which the reader can share in their experiences.
“It’s a really beautiful book,” Page declares. “I enjoy reading it, and I’m proud to share it with others.”
A Friendly Home
With a wide range of experience, style and personal taste, part of what keeps the Grandview Hotel Poets a cohesive group is a shared love for their community. It’s no wonder, then, that each of their three publications is grounded in the emotions and experiences attached to their time in Peoria—an opportunity to “share the people, the places, the events,” Liebenow notes.
“We all found ourselves writing in different directions, but sometimes it’s good to write towards something,” Klise explains. “And in our diverse styles, all of our poems were about Peoria.”
“Poetry is often about place,” Highfill adds. “It is a response and appreciation and celebration of place, seasons, the built environment, the natural environment… We couldn’t not write about it.”
As for the future, the group hopes to spread their work throughout the community, with readings at Bradley University and various arts venues, bookstores and libraries—each described by Highfill as “a friendly home.” In the meantime, they continue to meet and strengthen their group dynamic: sharing their writing, enhancing their skills, and cultivating their collective passion for the exploration of poetry.
“Once in a while, [we discuss] the really impossible questions like ‘What is a poem?’” Highfill says. “I always walk away with a broader point of view, more enriched.” She pauses for a moment, pondering the value of her trusted group of peers. “Your poetry will not be the same.” a&s
For more information on Gold Quoin Press and the works of the Grandview Hotel Poets, visit goldquoinpress.com.