Urbana attorney loves poetry ... and the law

URBANA – You could call Carl Reisman a poet lawyerate. He's a poet who happens to put food on the table by practicing law. And he's a lawyer who likes to write poetry.

"I don't think you can say either comes first. You can't separate out identities that way. People are complicated," said the 45-year-old Urbana resident, who wrote poetry long before he earned his law degree.

Reisman is a firm believer that the practice of law and the writing and publishing of poetry needn't be mutually exclusive. That's why he has organized a conference to be held in Champaign and Urbana later this month called "Opening Arguments: Poetry and the Law."

Co-sponsored by the University of Illinois College of Law, the UI's Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program and award-winning author and UI Professor of English Richard Powers, the conference is free and open to anyone and will feature a few other lawyer poets from around the country who have agreed to participate for the love of their craft and not cash.

Reisman, however, is hoping to make a special connection with law students.

"Law students are taught they have to give up their old identities and ... learn to think like a lawyer," he said. "There's nothing specifically wrong with that. It's sort of like an initiation ritual people go through, particularly in the first year of law school, where there's tremendous pressure to perform and conform."

But having been a poet, husband, father and cook for several years before he entered the UI law school at age 32, Reisman wasn't as willing to shed his past or his passion. Instead, he saw it as a way to make him a better lawyer.

Although he admits he doesn't know many fellow local lawyers who admit to being poets, he knows several who have other outlets, such as music.

"This is a way of letting people in the community know that stereotypes of lawyers aren't completely accurate. I think whatever can be done to humanize the profession is a good thing," Reisman said.

"There is a lot of depression, alcohol abuse and suicide among lawyers. This is speculation on my part, but some of it starts with being a very competitive field where people are taught that they need to cut out parts of themselves that don't fit into a certain mold, and I think they start feeling worse and worse about themselves. I think people go into the law because they want to help other people and they become disillusioned and see that it's just like a big rat race," he said.

Reisman said as a workman's compensation attorney, he sees human suffering daily.

"It doesn't help to get emotionally bent out of shape about it," he said, noting that for him, writing poetry helps keep him grounded.

"It gives me a way to try to take an experience and condense it and to process things that are very difficult, contradictory and put it into some sort of expression that other people might find meaningful. That's always helpful to me, not necessarily to anyone else," he said, adding that there seem to be a lot more people writing poetry than reading it.

However, he noted that public poetry readings are popular events.

"Poetry is an extremely condensed language," he said. "Even for someone who writes poetry, I can read two or three poems and like shots of whiskey, that's enough for me. On the other hand, it can be really wonderful to hear someone read poetry for a half-hour or so."

The Feb. 15-16 conference will feature live poetry readings and lots of discussion about how law and poetry mesh. Although Reisman doesn't want to give any one "keynote speaker" status, he was able to get James Elkins, a West Virginia University law school professor, to attend the conference.

"Last summer I did a random search on Google of poetry and lawyer. I came up with a Web site put together by Elkins," Reisman said. "He is the foremost scholar in the field of lawyers as poets. He got interested seven to eight years ago and publishes poetry of lawyers in The Legal Studies Forum.

"All law journals have an audience within the legal academic profession. This has a little wider audience because there are people interested in his topics like film studies, literature, poets. He also publishes on law and psychiatry. It's eclectic but very interesting if you're a thinking person about the way law influences culture."

Five other poet lawyers, including Reisman, also are featured speakers. The conference opens at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the UI College of Law, 504 E. Pennsylvania Ave. Friday's session begins at 8:45 a.m. at the Channing-Murray Foundation, 1209 W. Oregon St., U, and wraps up about 6 p.m.

For more details on presenters, specific sessions, locations and times, go to www.law.uiuc.edu.

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