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WORDS NEVER FAIL HER

Portrait of a poet at work: She hears the baby crying. She climbs the creaking stairs, coos at her crying baby, changes her crying baby's soiled diapers. She carries the whimpering child down the creaking stairs into the living room, where there are toys and books and so many things to play with including a television. The baby toddles unsteadily to the television and pushes the "On" button. In triumph. No! Her mother _ the poet _ turns off the TV. Pleased to be engaged in a battle of wills, the baby homes in on the TV again.

Meanwhile, words stream through the air like radio waves. Only Silvia Curbelo, the poet, can hear them. They are colorful and interesting _ secret words in search of a radio called a poet. Later, perhaps, she will write them down and find a use for them. Later, perhaps, she will come up with something as inspired as "Distance is like a stone beneath the water

The pieces keep floating up for years."

"A word will come to me, or an image, or a line, wherever I am, whatever I'm doing," says Curbelo, the 36-year-old Tampa resident and winner of three fellowship awards, including a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. "Sometimes I'm driving on the interstate and I'm trying to write something down and steer the car at the same time. I have scraps of paper everywhere. It's the most annoying habit."

Poets tell the truth

Paper scraps evolve into poems and poems grow into collections of poetry. At 6 p.m. on Friday, Curbelo will read from her new work, The Geography of Leaving, at the sixth annual open-poetry celebration at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida.

Curbelo will be joined in Davis Hall, room 140, by other established Tampa Bay poets. USF English professor Willie Reader will recite from his Fishing in a Whirlpool. Eckerd College's Nancy Carter will read from Dragon Poems and Spider Woman, and Peter Meinke from Liquid Paper: New and Selected Poems.

When they have finished, the microphone will be turned over to anyone _ anyone _ who cares to read from their work. "Poets are always dying for a chance to read to other people," says Curbelo, poetry and fiction editor of Organica, a literary magazine published in Tampa. "Poets usually aren't shy. They hope that what they are about to read is literature, though secretly they just want to hear their own voices."

Curbelo can relate to unheard poets and their poetry. She can remember when nobody was familiar with hers. As a commercial photographer, she earned a living in a deep freeze making pictures of butchers cutting meat for a supermarket brochure. The job required creativity, but hardly the kind she had envisioned in her dreams of life as an artist. At night, at poetry readings in Tampa coffeehouses, she swallowed hard and took her chances at the mike.

Friday's USF open-mike reading, a phenomenon Meinke describes as democracy applied to poetry, is likely to attract writers of varied ability. Poetry is enjoying a modest renaissance in Tampa Bay and elsewhere. Poetry clubs are thriving, there seem to be a few more poetry collections on bookstore shelves, and some of Meinke's poetry classes at Eckerd have doubled in size.

"Poetry becomes popular at times of crisis, when people don't quite believe the other organs of communication, like the government or even the press," Meinke says. "Then people will listen to poets. They may not understand everything they say, but they know poets are trying to tell the truth."

Some poets write about politics. Others write about matters of the heart. One of Meinke's best-known poems is about a late-night visit to a supermarket. The centerpiece of Curbelo's new chapbook is a long poem about Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher killed in the space shuttle tragedy.

"Everything is fair game," says Curbelo, who has written about childhood, friendship, love, forbidden relationships and death. "A poet can write about anything."

A crisis, a turnaround

It is a little past noon, but she looks like midnight, with her black hair, black slacks, black sweater and black-frame eyeglasses. Adrian, her wide-eyed 1-year-old daughter, sits on her lap and reaches for the silent television. Curbelo jiggles her child, stands, walks to the kitchen refrigerator, retrieves Adrian's bottle.

"Adrian has a cold."

There's a trace of the Caribbean in her accent. Born in Cuba, Silvia Curbelo was 11 when her family arrived in Florida in 1967. Curbelo, who can remember the poverty and fear of Castro's Cuba, found comfort in poetry. Her grandfather wrote poetry and her father often read poetry to soothe her. She even wrote poetry. Her childhood writings were lost, along with family belongings, when she moved to America.

"Poetry has always had this awful reputation with people," she says. "I remember having to read Romeo and Juliet in high school. My friends were saying, "Oh God! We have to read poetry!' I could never understand how my friends couldn't love poetry."

At the University of South Florida, she never took a poetry course, though she continually wrote in her spare time. Instead, she studied magazine and fiction writing. After graduation, after her marriage, her outlet for creativity turned out to be taking pictures for Kash n' Karry. Four years later she foundanother disappointing job _ in a camera store.

Then her luck changed. For the worse.

"My midlife crisis came along." She was only 29. "I wasn't writing much poetry. I wasn't getting published. I hadn't written a book."

Physically she was doing no better. She had a constant fever and felt exhausted. She was dizzy, and sometimes her vision was blurred.

Doctors launched a series of frightening tests. She endured sonograms and magnetic resonance imaging scans. Doctors found nothing. Psychiatrists told her she was neurotic.

Finally, she was diagnosed. She had chronic fatigue syndrome. The cure was a long rest.

"Actually, it was the best thing to happen. I had to stay home and take it easy. I started writing again."

One night, about two years ago, she attended a poetry reading by Maya Angelou in Tampa. When Ms. Angelou was finished, she invited other poets to read from their work. Curbelo took advantage.

Afterward, to Curbelo's surprise, someone in the audience suggested she apply for government arts grants. Curbelo filled out papers, mailed them out, and forgot about them. Meanwhile, she and her husband, musician Tom Errico, decided to have a baby. After she was pregnant, grant offers began showing up in her mailbox.

She has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Florida Arts Council, Atlantic Center for the Arts and CINTAS, a grant awarded to Cuban-born artists.

The grant money, more than $30,000, has allowed her to buy a home computer, work part-time at Organica magazine and spend more time with her daughter and her poetry. She's been invited to read at gatherings all over the country.

"I think she's a very fine poet," Eckerd College poet Peter Meinke says. "She has a very distinct writing voice, kind of a sad voice. She uses these surprising images that stick in your mind." Her poetic voice may sometimes be described as melancholy, but she couldn't be happier.

"It's like pinch me time," she says.

Words that will wait

She works in an upstairs bedroom that seems swollen with books and papers and notebooks. She plays a Night Rider Bally pinball machine _ her husband collects pinball machines _ when words fail. A poster of Tom Waits, the gravel-voiced, down-on-your-luck rock poet, hangs near her, watching.

For years she wrote in longhand, but her new computer has allowed her to revise her work more easily. Some days she does nothing more than fill the computer screen with appealing words and images she has collected over time.

She doesn't know quite what she will do with them _ she just knows that something like "Life is one lonely cab everybody rides" will come in handy when an idea for a poem arrives.

When she was sick, and spent a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms, and wondered if she were going to die, every magazine she picked up seemed to have a story about Christa McAuliffe, the lucky teacher who had been chosen the first lay person to be launched into space. McAuliffe was killed along with six astronauts when the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986.

"She was the ultimate innocent bystander," Curbelo says. "She went up so starry-eyed. I watched the explosion again and again on CNN. I tried to imagine the horror of her family as they watched from the ground, and her own horror when she realized she was going to die."

All the poems in The Geography of Leaving are about departures, including the ultimate departure, death. Silvia Curbelo, a wife and a mother and a poet, imagined Christa McAuliffe's last thoughts and wrote them down.

POETRY READING

Silvia Curbelo and other bay area poets will read from their works at 6 p.m. Friday at the St. Petersburg campus of USF, in room 140 of Davis Hall. An open mike is scheduled after their readings.

Christa: A Monologue

Jan. 28, 1986, Cape Canaveral

11:39. The morning holds

the last light up before

it crumbles.

I'm talking to you.

Already I know things

you can't imagine. Already

I feel the blue sky taking hold,

the way the pear tree imagines

its first blossom months

before the first snow disappears.

I see you standing in your plaid

blue shirt, a man in his own

country, your hand encircling

Carline's white wrist, and

behind you, the town. The rows

of A-frames climbing up

Mortgage Hill, the school,

the supermarket, the municipal

pool, the county jail.

All that longing like railroad tracks in summer

when I was a child watching

the whole sky going out, the small

and shining worlds climbing

out of the dark.

That summer night walking

under the same thin and distant stars

you said forever, and now

it comes to this.

I see your face, a kind of miracle,

and I feel myself lifted

through myself, the way

a vessel becomes the thing contained,

so that later, the water forgets

the cup. And I see my hands

reach out for something else,

a child pulling a ribbon off

a Christmas box all in a moment

and the moment turns to breath.

I say your name.

I say it once, Steve,

and the name tumbles out

of reach and rolls down into

the light, into the tiny world

below, across the city, and past

the solemn traffic, and back

into the wind again,

and past the hills, the immense fields,

and past the tall pines

standing like lone women,

each with a sad, exotic name.

And all the names come back

to me at once. I want

to tell them to you.

The names of rivers, the names

of trees, the proud mystical

names, the words I love, henna

and cypress and skylark,

the names of flowers,

the hard names of the dead,

a white chain strung a thousand

times across the world.

Our children's names,

Caroline and Scott.

And my own name,

the one my mother taught me,

the one she whispered over

and over each night

leaning into my bed, her voice

like rain falling on

the blue earth.

_ Silvia Curbelo, from The Geography

of Leaving

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