Renowned poet, activist, and MSU alumna Carolyn Forché returns to campus

By Kelsey Block

The Residential College in the Arts and Humanities Center for Poetry was proud to welcome Michigan State University alumna and poet Carolyn Forché to campus on April 22 and 23. Forché joined the Center as a part of its annual Spring Poetry Festival, which is held in conjunction with National Poetry Month in April.

Crowds packed into the RCAH Theater for a poetry reading on Wednesday, April 22, and reconvened the next day at the Main Library to listen to Forché talk about her experiences writing and working internationally.

Forché, a Detroit native, first got started writing poetry on a snowy winter day when she was 9 years old. School was cancelled, and to keep chaos at bay, Forché’s mother assigned each of her seven children a task. Carolyn’s was to write a poem.

So, Forché’s mother took a book of poetry down from the shelf and taught her a bit about the structure of a poem, and Forché got to work.

“I wrote a very boring poem about snow and I became enchanted with writing,” Forché said.

Her newfound joy for writing merged with her interest in reading and Forché was hooked.

“It was a bit audacious,” she said, laughing. “I felt as a child I could write like the authors of the books were doing. I somehow knew I could do it.”

Forché went on to study at Michigan State University, where she met her mentor, English Professor Linda Wagner-Martin. Years later, Wagner-Martin would be the one to encourage Forché to apply to graduate schools.

Forché earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University, which is where she got her first taste of teaching. During her time at Bowling Green, she was tasked with teaching a freshman composition course.

“I had to teach them well enough that they would pass a written exam at the end in order to stay enrolled at the college,” she said. “It was challenging and wonderful. I would never have thought of myself as a teacher prior to that, but I discovered that’s what I wanted to do.”

Forché won the Yale Younger Poets Prize soon after she graduated from Bowling Green. At the time, she was teaching at San Diego State University. She received a message from another professor that she had missed a telephone call from someone in Connecticut. Forché didn’t know anyone in Connecticut, and she remembers she was hesitant to call the number back. When she did, the director of the Yale University Press informed her she won the prize and would have her first book published.

“I danced around the office and I was very excited. I started to cry. It was what you would expect of a young person who now knows that she’ll have her first book published,” she said.

Forché believes wining the prize led her to new heights in her career. Not long after winning the prize, she was appointed to a new, tenure-track position at San Diego State, something she says would not have happened otherwise.

In addition, it was her time in San Diego that, eventually, led her to El Salvador. Well, that and a “torrential rainstorm.”

Forché was visiting a friend in San Deigo one day when it began to rain. She decided to hang around a while and wait for the rain to let up, and while she was waiting, she read some of her friend’s mother’s poetry, which was written in Spanish. Forché was so moved by the work that she decided to translate it to English. She spent a summer in Spain working on the project. Not long after, she received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, which led her to El Salvador, a country on the verge of war.

“I didn’t really understand that to be the case at the time. El Salvador was not a country that was well-known to Americans,” she said. She traveled there intending to study, not to get wrapped up in something much bigger.

Since then, Forché has written a number of pieces on her time in El Salvador, nonfiction as well as poetry. Internationally, she’s known as a “poet of witness.” She’s currently working on a memoir.

“I didn’t set out to write poetry about El Salvador. I did set out on occasion to write journalism about El Salvador, but poets don’t have any choice really about what they’re writing about,” she said. “I understood my role to be to speak about the conditions there, to try to help the people in my own country to understand what was causing the disruption and the war … I didn’t consider myself a political person; I considered myself a person trying to do the right things.”

Forché feels it’s especially important for writers to stay in tune with current events.

“I don’t understand how something serious could emerge from hand of someone who’s not paying attention to the world,” she said. “The more one knows, the larger the sphere for the writing, the more available the world is to you. I don’t think we can never know enough or experience enough. I don’t think it’s a question of politics but of human community and our relations with each other.”

2015 Balocating Prize for Poetry: “Memorial Day” by Connor Yeck

Congratulations to Connor Yeck, a Senior in English and the winner of the 2015 Annie Balocating Undergraduate Prize for Poetry! Yeck’s poem “Memorial Day” was selected by guest judge Carolyn Forché and presented during her reading at the RCAH Center for Poetry on April 22, 2015 in Snyder-Phillips Hall. The Balocating Prize is an award of $500 for a single poem submitted by an undergraduate student at Michigan State University. Started in 2010, the award is in honor of Annie Balocating, a poet and alumna of the former ROIAL program at MSU.

“Memorial Day”
by Connor Yeck

We were washing graves at the edge
of June. Veterans, my father had said,
handing me pail, rag, twist-tie throat

of plastic peonies; family we mustn’t
forget, even here, the way-back-simple-
sticks of Hart, Shelby, Newaygo & Irons.

So I go to metaled spigot, swatting gnats
& potter wasps, half-proud, half-angry
at a weekend spent with dust-dull acres,

stern watch, stone-chip fields of knotweeds
& shagbark. Rubbing slattered bird filth,
I rinse those men in granite, marbled boys

who’d seen Belleau Wood & Saint Quentin,
the pined Hürtgenwald, till he calls me restless
across the day. It is near-time for lunch,

he says, & so opens the fish chest—fried
chicken cutlets, sweet rolls, iced-necks of soda
for the both of us. We eat in silence, crushing

chiggers, spotting sun-pricked pillar tombs beyond
a bank of hedge. I ask if we might turn on the radio,
& he says no, it is disrespectful to those passed,

(as if it might shake them back to living sense).
Rather, he tells me of work, though I am young,
& uncaring—how I can go to the Dow plant,

like himself, or the carom factory if I so wish.
It makes me ill to think of fall bowling leagues
& company picnics, shouting in the Polish bars,

& for a moment, I hate him, a thing kept hidden,
loose, & careful, yet what he must’ve known, going
to the nearby fence line where curled, sun-spry

buckwheat had begun to overtake. A farmer’s field,
next-door. Brown-green runnels filled with migrant
workers. He calls to the nearest & three appear.

Cuánto cuesta? he asks, so loud and fool-clumsy.
The men hold up sky-burnt fingers. A few creased
bills, & they are gone, off to blue-bent buckets

on an endless, running turf. I am given the clutch
of asparagus, ribbed & gritty, a baton-like thing
of morals, perhaps. I expect him to say how young

they were, working on their knees in gingham aprons,
pulling, plucking, proud; how they’d be glad to clean
old graves for an afternoon, have something to drink.

But instead, he simply says, eat, & I do, tasting loam,
wet musk, the raw-keen bite of insecticide as he tells
me Oceana County, despite its meager size, is this-
that, crop capital of the entire living world.

Poem of the Week: “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché

Perhaps Carolyn Forché’s most well-known poem, “The Colonel” was published in her book The Country Between Us (1981) and captures “her now-famous encounter with a Salvadoran colonel who, as he made light of human rights, emptied a bag of human ears before Forché” (from The Poetry Foundation). Forché will visit the RCAH Center for Poetry this Wednesday and Thursday for a reading & reception as well as a talk about her travels and her experience as a poet of witness. More information about her visit here.

%22The Colonel%22 by Carolyn Forche

Courtesy of The Poetry Foundation

RCAH Center for Poetry Hosts Conference for Educators and Writers

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By Kelsey Block

On March 28, 2015, the RCAH Center for Poetry hosted its first-ever conference, titled: “Exploring Our Own Amazement: Learning the Language of Poetry.”

A crowd of approximately 40 people filled the RCAH Theater to participate in workshops and discussions with a number of presenters, including the Center for Poetry staff, associate professor of MSU’s College of Education Laura Apol, and local poet, teacher and coordinator of the Old Town Poetry Series, Ruelaine Stokes.

Laura Apol started out the day with a discussion on how to teach poetry effectively. Ruelaine Stokes followed with a lively presentation on strategies for oral performance. Center for Poetry Assistant Director Linnea Jimison and interns Jenny Crakes, Sarah Teppen and Kelsey Block followed with a panel on community outreach and public relations. Anita Skeen closed the day with her talk on the “compass points of poetry” and helping young writers find direction in a poem. For more information, visit our website.

The Center for Poetry plans to host another conference next year. We welcome your suggestions.

Poem of the Week: “Ice Music” by Terry Blackhawk

Detroit-based poet Terry Blackhawk will join the Center for Poetry for a reading and talk on April 15th as part of our Spring Poetry Festival. You can read more about her visit on our website.

“Ice Music”
by Terry Blackhawk

ice melt ice lace ice
breaking up upstream
coming down from up
north in variegated
quilts of floes
no instant’s act this
crumbling an entire
season sends broken
continents our way
once-miles-wide chunks break
and bob or push up
against the shore in
spun sugar turrets
they rise fall glistening
dissolving ice lace
ice music I seem
to hear a tremolo
in the trees
but it’s March no leaves
no breeze just the score
for the scene
before me silvery
glissandos rising
from a streaming swarm
of glinting
creatures herded
by the current
in a living touching
clinking singing surge

Courtesy of the author

Center for Poetry Holds Edible Book Contest

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On April 1st, the Center for Poetry held its annual Edible Book Contest, inspired by the International Edible Book Festival. Special thanks to RCAH Communications Manager Katie Wittenauer for being our guest judge, and to the Roethke House in Saginaw, Michigan for contributing prizes and a magnificent cake inspired by Theodore Roethke’s children’s book Party at the Zoo. The winners were:

Grand Prize: Charlotte’s Web submitted by Alli Rayburn
Best Literary Classic: Pride & Prejudice submitted by Jean Krueger
Most Edible: Holes submitted by Hannah Warren
Most Creative: Superfudge submitted by Joy Whitten & Aaron Williams
Most Humorous: Julius Caesar submitted by Holly Bronson
Best Pun: Heart of Darkness submitted by Brian Teppen
Best Children’s Literature: James and the Giant Peach submitted by Darby McGraw

You can also read about the contest in the State News.

Spring Poetry Series opens with Michigan poet, teacher Dennis Hinrichsen

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By Kelsey Block

“You’re always in the process of becoming a poet. You keep going on and striving to become that thing,” 62-year-old local writer Dennis Hinrichsen said.

Hinrichsen visited the RCAH Center for Poetry last Wednesday as the first guest in our annual Spring Poetry Series.

Hinrichsen first discovered the pleasure of words in the Bob Dylan song, “Visions of Johanna” with the line: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”

“I thought, ‘Holy mackerel!’ It created this amazing image in my mind, a cinematic effect, and I wanted to be able to do that too,” he said.

Later, as an undergraduate student Hinrichsen abandoned his studies in math and switched to creative writing. Since then, he’s completed nine works, six of which are books of poetry.

Hinrichsen said his work changed significantly between his second and third books.

“The biggest challenge was recognizing that I didn’t like the way I sounded in a poem and having to completely change myself. It took me nine years to do, but at the end of that, I had developed my own point of view,” he said.

Hinrichsen said he’s always trying to challenge himself as a writer.

“When you’re writing, you’re constantly trying to crash things together. You’re this mad scientist trying to do a fusion and see what happens, if you can sustain something or if you have to recombine to push this stuff. That’s where it’s really exciting for me, because that’s me going into new territory and trying to follow that thing,” Hinrichsen said. “I try to find things I can’t possibly write about, and try to write about it… It’s being brave enough in the act of drafting those things, to find cliff edges and continually jump off them, to constantly risk writing badly.”

Hinrichsen has another book, Skin Music, coming out this fall.

“The poems sort of look at hard things for a variety of reasons,” he said, adding that many of the poems take place in Grand Ledge where he grew up. “When you’re writing poetry, you have no clue what the poem’s about – you write to discover what it’s about.”

In addition to writing, Hinrichsen taught writing at Lansing Community College for a number of years. He said it’s important for students to learn to write with abandon.

“You come into creative writing class and you’re going to be writing for the next four years. It’s going to be the most important writing you’re doing, and you’re going to throw away everything you write,” he said. “It’s just practice to get to the point that you get old enough to have that skill set.”

Hinrichsen said students also need to read as much as they possibly can.

“The reading component is plugging into what’s going on around you. It’s learning how to read like a writer and recognize (writing) is a practice,” he said.

Poem of the Week: “April Midnight” by Arthur Symons

“April Midnight”
by Arthur Symons

Side by side through the streets at midnight,
Roaming together,
Through the tumultuous night of London,
In the miraculous April weather.

Roaming together under the gaslight,
Day’s work over,
How the Spring calls to us, here in the city,
Calls to the heart from the heart of a lover!

Cool to the wind blows, fresh in our faces,
Cleansing, entrancing,
After the heat and the fumes and the footlights,
Where you dance and I watch your dancing.

Good it is to be here together,
Good to be roaming,
Even in London, even at midnight,
Lover-like in a lover’s gloaming.

You the dancer and I the dreamer,
Children together,
Wandering lost in the night of London,
In the miraculous April weather.

Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Poem of the Week: “Resurrection Yoga” by Dennis Hinrichsen

In celebration of an upcoming visit by Lansing poet Dennis Hinrichsen, we present his poem “Resurrection Yoga” from Kurosawa’s Dog (Oberlin Press, 2009). Dennis will visit the RCAH Center for Poetry on April 1, and at his reading, the Center for Poetry will release handmade broadside sheets with the poem “Resurrection Yoga” printed in-house on the RCAH Art Studio letterpress.

%22Resurrection Yoga%22 by Dennis Hinrichsen

 

Poem provided courtesy of the author.

Center for Poetry celebrates women’s history with Robin Silbergleid reading

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By Kelsey Block

The RCAH Center for Poetry and the MSU English Department celebrated Women’s History Month with a reading and workshop by Robin Silbergleid, associate professor of English and director of creative writing at MSU. A small gathering of about fifteen women joined Silbergleid in the RCAH LookOut! Gallery to discuss ekphrasis (the phenomenon of one art form commenting on another) in her work, Frida Kahlo, My Sister, which was published by Finishing Line Press last June.

The title of the book comments on a triangulated relationship between Silbergleid, her sister, and Kahlo. Some of the poems in the book focus on Kahlo’s work, which famously focuses on the female body, while others are written about Silbergleid’s own miscarriages and her sister’s car accident and resulting disability.

In order to make it easy to have a discussion about ekphrasis, Silbergleid presented photographs of Kahlo’s paintings alongside her work at the reading. Still, she said she doesn’t think ekphrastic writing always needs to be accompanied by the piece that inspired it.

“I hope that the poems kind of stand on their own, because they tell the story of the painting,” Silbergleid said, adding that she often talks about ekphrasis in her classes. “Poems should stand on their own as independent works of art, and if I have a student who says, ‘I need to give you this painting,’ the poem’s not working; they haven’t found the language they need to render that image in a new medium.”

Silbergleid said she was first drawn to Kahlo’s work in the early 2000s, around the time she started writing about infertility and reproductive loss.

“They say you read things at the right time, and it was the right moment for me,” Silbergleid said. “I think if I’d seen her work five years before it would have been stunning, but I don’t know that it would have had the same impact on me… Everything was pointing in that direction for me.”

In the conversation after her reading, Silbergleid showed other works of art that focus on the body, such as the work feminist artist Jenny Saville and menstrual art like “Red Is the Color.” In regard to these works, as well as her own writing, Silbergleid said, “There’s no denying that it’s graphic in terms of talking about bodily stuff, but I don’t think it’s excessive or gratuitous. It needs to be there and these are conversations we need to have culturally, but it’s a tricky thing. Art has to take risks, or what’s the point?” she said. Silbergleid’s The Baby Book will be published by CavanKerry Press in November.

"Poetry is life distilled." Gwendolyn Brooks

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