Posted in community outreach, education, news, workshops

RCAH Center for Poetry Intern Jenny Crakes Visits Lansing STEM Academy

Center for Poetry intern Jenny Crakes visited the Lansing STEM Academy on Tuesday, Oct. 29, to conduct a poetry writing workshop for the students there. Here is her account.

The Center for Poetry had a wonderful opportunity this week to collaborate with the Lansing STEM Academy, where middle school students are writing poems to enter the national River of Words poetry and art competition. Mrs. Karen Duquette, a volunteer and substitute teacher, runs Youth Mentoring Poetry Programs (YMPP), a creative writing workshop with 40 current student members. She provides writers’ prompts, a weekly after-school workshop, and individual mentoring during school hours. It’s a great way for the students to find opportunities for creative expression, and the kids we met at our assembly were enthusiastic about writing and intrigued to participate in discussions and activities.

All middle schoolers at STEM are entering the River of Words contest through an assignment to write a poem about either Michigan and water, or Michigan and a critical environmental concern. They must write a personification poem from the first person point of view (for example, from the voice of one of the Great Lakes), incorporating simile or metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and at least one rhyme. As well, they’re encouraged to do additional research and gather information on the topic they choose to write about.

Mrs. Duquette asked our Center to help inspire and excite the students to write their own poems. With her help and three other MSU student volunteers, I was able to put on a special assembly this Tuesday morning for about fifty 6th-8th graders, including an English class and all members of YMPP. RCAH freshman Libby Hoffman, and MSU slam poets Josh Schriver and Justin Cook, also came to the assembly and were tremendously helpful. As MSU students, our main goal was to interact with the kids about poetry and help create enthusiasm for their project; I was also asked to teach about personification and the first person point of view, as well as current environmental and water issues in Michigan. The best parts of the assembly for me were the opportunities to get to know the kids and answer questions, to hear their insight into the poems we presented, and to do activities with audience volunteers.

The school librarian, Mr. Fisher, helped us set everything up including our microphone and PowerPoint. Before starting the assembly, we had about 20 minutes to mingle and get to know the YMPP members, who arrived early, talking with them and answering questions about all sorts of things, including their writing. Some of them had brought their poetry notebooks to share with us. One student talked with me about the novel she was writing, and several students who write music sang together for everyone. As we got to know each other, topics such as nose rings, tattoos, and the U.S. Poet Laureate came up as well.

We began our presentation by playing highschooler Sabrina Walker’s performance of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” then asking the audience how they felt about the poem and what they thought made it powerful. The kids responded well to it and had insightful comments on dealing with prejudice and being comfortable with oneself. To discuss poetic tools such as simile and metaphor, Libby read aloud Mary Oliver’s “Mindful” and we called volunteers for a “Detective Focus Group” to search for poetic devices used in the poem. Josh and Justin performed their slam poems as we talked about personification and first-person point of view; they’d written ingenious original work to reflect the students’ assignment, taking on different voices, including that of water: “God surfed me before he said let there be light…You humans are about as much me as the earth is.” I presented some environmental issues the kids could research further, specifically the Enbridge oil spill into the Kalamazoo River, and the potential Asian Carp invasion of the Great Lakes. Finally, more audience volunteers came up to write a collaborative poem, pulling together their creative ideas with everything we’d discussed. They decided to write about the issue of deforestation through the voice of a tree whose forest was being cut down. Together, we brainstormed what the tree could say, and they wrote lines of the poem on a large poster, which they read to the audience. They seemed to enjoy the assembly, which is what I’d hoped for most.

I’ll be going back to the STEM academy with others from the Poetry Center next Friday. We’ll run a small workshop with 10 students to work on editing and revising their poems. This has been a great experience so far and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the students write. The enthusiastic help of volunteers and of my fellow staff has really helped to make this positive for the students.

Posted in community outreach, education, news, workshops

Writing Workshop a Success

The RCAH Center for Poetry welcomed about 20 people to the “If Your Clothes Could Talk” writing workshop. Anita Skeen and Ruelaine Stokes facilitated the two-hour long discussion.

If you missed the fun, remember to come on out to the RCAH LookOut! Gallery on Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. for a reading and reception to welcome Barbara Presnell as our guest as a part of the Fall Writing Series: In Person.


To see more photos from the event, check out our Facebook page.

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Une Charogne (A Carcass)” by Charles Baudelaire

                          A Carcass

My love, do you recall the object which we saw,
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed,

Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman,
Burning and dripping with poisons,
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way
Its belly, swollen with gases.

The sun shone down upon that putrescence,
As if to roast it to a turn,
And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature
The elements she had combined;

And the sky was watching that superb cadaver
Blossom like a flower.
So frightful was the stench that you believed
You’d faint away upon the grass.

The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,
From which came forth black battalions
Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid
All along those living tatters.

All this was descending and rising like a wave,
Or poured out with a crackling sound;
One would have said the body, swollen with a vague breath,
Lived by multiplication.

And this world gave forth singular music,
Like running water or the wind,
Or the grain that winnowers with a rhythmic motion
Shake in their winnowing baskets.

The forms disappeared and were no more than a dream,
A sketch that slowly falls
Upon the forgotten canvas, that the artist
Completes from memory alone.

Crouched behind the boulders, an anxious dog
Watched us with angry eye,
Waiting for the moment to take back from the carcass
The morsel he had left.

— And yet you will be like this corruption,
Like this horrible infection,
Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being,
You, my angel and my passion!

Yes! thus will you be, queen of the Graces,
After the last sacraments,
When you go beneath grass and luxuriant flowers,
To molder among the bones of the dead.

Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will
Devour you with kisses,
That I have kept the form and the divine essence
Of my decomposed love!

— Translated by William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

In Person With George Ellenbogen

By Kelsey Block

The RCAH Center for Poetry welcomed Canadian Poet and Memoirist George Ellenbogen to East Lansing last week. During his visit, Ellenbogen visited several classes, conducted workshops, and gave readings of his work.

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George reads at “Poets Without Borders: An Evening of Untranslated Poetry” on October 17, 2013

Ellenbogen studied as an undergraduate at McGill University. He said he had begun working toward his Master of Arts degree when he realized his heart just wasn’t in it.

“I was bored out of my skull. I told my folks I was going to drop out of school, that I was going up to the arctic the next day and that I was going to become a poet,” Ellenbogen said. “I was up there for six months. I would work any job that paid. When I’d saved enough money, I’d quit, and write until I ran out of money.”

Ellenbogen said he eventually obtained his Master of Arts degree from Universite de Montreal. After he became a father, Ellenbogen decided that his on-the-fly lifestyle wasn’t sustainable enough to raise a family, so he began teaching at Bentley University.

“At some point, when I thought, ‘How am I going to earn my living?’” he said. “I thought, ‘Hey, they pay you for talking about books that you like, about poems that you like? I would do that for free!’”

He said he didn’t have a specific moment of inspiration – he simply always knew he wanted to be a writer.

“Sometimes in retrospect you can look back and say: ‘This is what motivated me to choose,’” the 78-year-old writer said. “The fact is there have probably been tons of things that I wanted to do. Clearly there’s a satisfaction in writing. There really is a satisfaction in putting something into our time and space which wasn’t there before. Imagine what it’s like to create the earth.”

Ellenbogen said the writing process is all about stages. He said he generally works with anywhere from six to twelve drafts at a time.

“The idea is to keep pushing them ahead,” the Montreal native said. “Then when I’m working new things will come.”

When he’s finished with a poem, Ellenbogen said it’s important for him to change roles – from writer to editor.

“I’m no longer George Ellenbogen, the writer; I’m George Ellenbogen, the reader of my own poem. The idea is to be able to work at your own work objectively,” Ellenbogen stated. “Making changes should not be a personal thing … When you’re writing you’re so vulnerable, you put yourself out there. It’s important to develop that toughness of skin that allows you to weather criticism and reach the point where you aren’t defensive about it.”

A Stone in My Shoe is Ellenbogen’s first foray into memoir – he says he’s primarily a poet.

“I try to remember hard. You know, ‘What are the things that come up when I think about the past?” he said, bending over the table and gesturing with his hands to the shadows underneath it. “I can’t see it, basically, but it’s like there are these prisms that reflect. It’s through associations that I know my past.”

While travel has been influential in his work, Ellenbogen said he does not think it is absolutely necessary for a writer to travel.

“You read about places, and even if you don’t visit them with your feet, you visit them with your mind,” the poet said. “I don’t feel my world is limited to which borders I’ve crossed; I think it’s more than that. You read a lot and you enlarge your sensibility and you travel to places your feet have never been.”

Ellenbogen’s work has been translated into French and German.

“If you’re working with a loom, you’ve got to have an affection for the material, for the process,” Ellenbogen said. “Writers have to be activated by sounds, by words, by the visual aspect of words, the oral aspect, the intellectual aspect. If a person doesn’t have that, he’s not a writer, and he should do something else.”

Ellenbogen even offered up some advice for aspiring writers.

“Don’t get discouraged,” he said. “Stick with it. It’s a tough business. You put yourself out there. There are always people out there to say discouraging things, people to put you down. It’s very important to develop a mental toughness that enables you to grow.”

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Courtesy of

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

George Ellenbogen at the Center for Poetry

The RCAH Center for Poetry is thrilled to welcome our first visiting writer of the Fall Writers Series, George Ellenbogen. He will be reading from his latest memoir, “A Stone In My Shoe: In Search of Neighbourhood” as well as that of his late partner, Evelyn Shakir: “Teaching Arabs, Writing Self.” If you’re around MSU’s campus and looking for something to do, please join us for any of the following events!

  • Wednesday, 3 pm, Snyder C302: Informal conversation with George on memoir
  • Wednesday, 7 pm, RCAH Theater (Snyder C20): Reading with George
  • Thursday, 7:30 pm, RCAH Theater (Snyder C20): “Poets Without Borders: An Evening of Untranslated Poetry”

All events are free and open to the public. We hope to see you there!


Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “The Exam” by Joyce Sutphen

The Exam
by Joyce Sutphen
It is mid-October. The trees are in
their autumnal glory (red, yellow-green,
orange) outside the classroom where students
take the mid-term, sniffling softly as if
identifying lines from Blake or Keats
was such sweet sorrow, summoned up in words
they never saw before. I am thinking
of my parents, of the six decades they’ve
been together, of the thirty thousand
meals they’ve eaten in the kitchen, of the
more than twenty thousand nights they’ve slept
under the same roof. I am wondering
who could have fashioned the test that would have
predicted this success? Who could have known?
Courtesy of the  Poetry Foundation

Poem of the Week: “Now it is fall” by Edith Södergran

Poem of the Week: “Now it is fall,” by Edith Södergran

Now it is fall
by Edith Södergran
Translated from the Swedish by Averill Curdy

when all the golden birds
fly home across the blue deep water;
On shore I sit rapt in its scattering

departure rustles through the trees.
This farewell is vast and separation draws close,
but reunion, that is also certain.

My head on my arm I fall asleep easily.
On my eyes a mother’s breath.
from her mouth to my heart:
sleep, child, and dream now the sun is gone.—

Source: Poetry, (March 2012)