Real people: Life of sexagenarian centers around poetry

Ask Dan Veach what he does for a living and he quickly replies, “Starving poet.” It’s a vocation he’s pursued since he was a self-described “Harvard radical” in his ’20s.

Thirty years ago, Veach brought his love of poetry and the arts to Atlanta where he’s managed to keep verse at the forefront of his activity. Along the way, he earned a library science degree and spent 14 years as the head of reference for the Atlanta University Center, all while concentrating on his lyrical writing.

“Poetry has always been in the center, not on the side, of what I do,” said Veach, 66. “Making money has been on the side; the art has always come first.”

To that end, Veach and several friends launched Poetry Atlanta, a publication that spreads the word about literary events going on around the city. “It grew out of our need 30 years ago to find out what was going on, and it’s been going strong ever since,” he said.

Veach followed up that effort in 1994 with the Atlanta Review, a literary journal that has earned a reputation as a well-respected international publication. During the 1996 Olympic spotlight on Atlanta, the Review hit its high point, drawing 10,000 global readers.

“We still get submissions from around the world, as well as from a good number of Atlanta and Georgia poets,” Veach said. “Each fall, we publish winners of a poetry contest, ant that’s a huge draw; between that and the other issues, I wind up reading about 15,000 poems year.”

Veach isn’t surprised that poetry enjoys a loyal following. “I think it’s been making a great comeback because of people like Garrison Keillor and (former U.S. Poet Laureate) Billy Collins. Before that, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were writing poetry you couldn’t understand without going to a college lecture. Now, poets are writing fun stuff, and people are beginning to see that. That’s one of the Review’s main goals: to publish poetry that people can honestly enjoy without faking it.”

Two years ago, Veach wrote his own collection of poems, Elephant Water, filled with pieces he perfected over the last 40 years. The work earned him the Author of the Year in Poetry award from the Georgia Writers Association. But Veach’s talent doesn’t end at the written or spoken word; he’s also a clarinetist who plays with the Atlanta Community Orchestra and the Callanwolde Concert Band, a community organization that performs a range of works from orchestral pieces to jazz and Broadway. He’s also a composer whose work has been performed by both groups.

“In June, the symphony played two movements from my first symphony, and that was quite a thrill to have a piece performed by a real symphony orchestra,” Veach said.

The music will be a bit scarier next week when the Callanwolde band performs selections of spooky music on Halloween night at the arts center on Briarcliff Road. The night will also feature candy, kids’ activities and costumes. But Veach won’t be masquerading as starving aritst.

“The clarinet section is going all Hawaiian,” he said with a laugh. “And the saxophones are going to be gorillas. It’s really going to be something to see.”

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