Ancient art finds modern platform

Larry Keith launches collected works of poetry in print, online

Poet Lawrence E. Keith, right, looks on as Keokee web designer Ben Robinson takes him on a tour of the Sunrise Tortoise site, where visitors can view Keith’s poems or hear him read them aloud. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — If there is a subtext that weaves its way through the more than three decades that Lawrence E. Keith has been writing poetry, it might be the thread of longing for real and lasting communication.

With six separate books to his credit, the poet recently fed his penchant for reaching out with the launch of a thicker tome, “The Collected Poetry, 1969-2012” and a new website that gives the reader access to his entire body of work.

In a flurry of activity, Keith managed to roll out the collection, the Internet presence and updated editions of his earlier books at the same time.

“Six books, a collected works, a web site, audio — you have to be crazy,” he said.

The audio aspect he mentioned refers to the files that accompany each of his poems on the recently unveiled Sunrise Tortoise site.

“You can go to the website, click on a poem and read it, or hear me read it,” said Keith, who is no stranger to performing his work after having done so at poetry readings for the past 30 years and change.

In concert with the multimedia experience offered online, the poet has entered a new and more immediate phase in his relationship to printed editions of his work. His connection with publishing goes back almost to the beginning of his writing career, when he worked at a local print shop in the days when “you’d print a few hundred copies of a book and store it forever.”

During a visit to his son, Orion’s, home, Keith learned about “books on demand,” where a customer places an online order and a supplier prints and delivers a copy, often within a day or two. By his own admission, he has absolutely no idea how the technology works.

“I don’t understand it — I want to see it,” he said, adding that he envisions a gigantic machine that has a “start” button on one end and a place where a book pops out on the other.

In the arena of new technologies, Keith jumped in with both feet as part of his decision to christen his on-demand library of books and website at a single stroke. To do so, he surrounded himself with a stable of youthful talent from Sandpoint’s design and audio recording community. Singer Coats, from the downtown studios at Flatpick Earl, mastered the audio files, while Ben Robinson and Laura Wahl of Keokee handled web design and book design, respectively.

Keith is enthusiastic about how these individuals and several others prepared his work for a larger audience. In fact, he downplays his own role by comparison.

“To me, the whole idea is to honor the people who helped you get there,” the poet said. “It’s not about me. I’m just the goofball behind the pencil.”

No starry eyed newcomer to the publishing world, Keith has little in the way of illusions of mass fortune or fame resulting from his writing. All the same, he does relish the idea of the work finding its way to unknown readers in faraway places.

“Am I going to have a best-seller?” he asked rhetorically. “No. The idea is, I put it out there and, at this moment in time, my life’s work is available anywhere in the world — wow!”

There was a time in Sandpoint when Keith might have been better known as the friendly guy driving a local school bus or as the genial postman making his rounds than for his poetry. These days, his words have moved into a position of prominence after such high-profile outings as having his poem “Listening Point” included on photographer Dann Hall’s Festival at Sandpoint poster. Equally meaningful to the poet was the time his “Sonnet to a Flyer” — a poem he penned in honor of his father — was included as part of a national ceremony paying tribute to pilots.

“Those are the things that keep you going,” he said. “When it touches somebody, you know it. And it’s not about how many. If you touch somebody and they feel something deep within themselves, there’s no money that can compare with that.”

In his print editions, the reader gets at least a rough sense of the poet’s intended structure and pace, based on the way the words play across the page. On-screen, the lines benefit greatly from having Keith’s voice only a click away.

“Formatting poetry for electronic stuff is apparently not easy,” he said. “I’m blown away by how well this site does all of that. “And I think being able to hear it will also make it more interesting.

“Poetry is an oral art — I didn’t know that in the beginning,” he continued. “That’s why the website is designed the way it is.”

Keith’s slow-but-sure approach to gaining that knowledge is in keeping with the Sunrise Tortoise moniker he has chosen for his publishing persona. He started writing poetry in the Army as a way “to deal with the knots that go on in life.” As his father grew closer to death and he found common ground with a man who had been distant for most of his life, Keith chronicled that defining moment in poetry, as well.

Thumbing through the collected works of Lawrence E. Keith paints the picture of a man intermittently wrestling with the meaning of life and love, before stumbling upon it unexpectedly. But flipping the pages or clicking to new screens allows one to breeze through a literary journey that, like the steady tortoise, Keith took one slow step at a time. At times along that plod, he had to ignore voices that told him he was headed in the wrong direction.

“I wasn’t going to let people tell me how I was going to write or what I was going to write,” the poet said. “And if they didn’t want to publish it, I didn’t care.

“I never had any vision of what things were going to look like,” he added. “But I knew that, whatever happened, the sun would rise.”

Keith will read selections from his two most recent books, as well as from his collected works, during a reading titled “Poetic License” on Sat., Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Gardenia Center, located at the corner of Fourth and Church in Sandpoint.

To read — and hear — Keith’s work for yourself, visit the website: www.sunrisetortoise.com.

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