Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Olive Jar,” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Olive Jar
By Naomi Shihab Nye
In the corner of every Arab kitchen,
an enormous plastic container
of olives is waiting for another meal.
Green tight-skinned olives,
planets with slightly pointed ends—
after breakfast, lunch, each plate
hosts a pyramid of pits in one corner.
Hands cross in the center
of the table over the olive bowl.
If there are any left they go back to
the olive jar to soak again with sliced lemon and oil.
Everyone says
it was a good year for the trees.At the border an Israeli crossing-guard asked
where I was going in Israel.
To the West Bank, I said. To a village of
olives and almonds.
To see my people.

What kind of people? Arab people?

Uncles and aunts, grandmother, first and second
cousins. Olive-gatherers.

Do you plan to speak with anyone? he said.
His voice was harder
and harder, bitten between the teeth.

I wanted to say, No, I have come all this way
for a silent reunion.
But he held my passport in his hands.
Yes, I said, We will talk a little bit. Families and
my father’s preference in shoes, our grandmother’s
love for sweaters.
We will share steaming glasses of tea,
the sweetness filling our throats.
Someone will laugh long and loosely,
so tears cloud my voice: O space of ocean waves,
how long you tumble between us, how little you

We will eat cabbage rolls, rice with sugar and milk,
crisply sizzled eggplant. When the olives come
sailing past
in their little white boat, we will line them
on our plates
like punctuation. What do governments have to do
with such pleasure? Question mark.
YES I love you! Swooping exclamation.
Or the indelible thesis statement:
it is with great dignity
we press you to our lips.

-Naomi Shihab Nye, from 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins. 2005.
Posted in education, news, visiting writers, workshops

Looking Foward: Poets Laureate and The Spring Poetry Series

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

by Laurie Hollinger

The RCAH Center for Poetry will be celebrating Poets Laureate in Spring 2014, with a visit by United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on April 2, and Virginia Poet Laureate Sofia Starnes on April 16. A third visiting Poet Laureate has yet to be confirmed, but will be announced soon.

It is a rare honor to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. Since 1937, when the position of Consultant in Poetry was established, there have been thirty Consultants named, and since 1986, when the position title was changed to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, or Poet Laureate for short, nineteen poets have held the title.

Appointed by the Librarian of the Library of Congress, usually for a term running from October through May, the Poet Laureate works at the Library in Washington, D.C., and, according to the Library of Congress’s website, “serves as the nation’s lighting rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” The Poet Laureate’s duties include giving an annual poetry reading, and doing introductions at the Library’s annual poetry series. Additionally, each poet brings their own interests to the post, and works on a project of their choice. For instance, Gwendolyn Brooks (1985-1986) worked with elementary school students to teach them how to write poetry. Robert Hass (1995-1997) organized the “Watershed” Poetry Festival, from which a national art and poetry contest for students ages 5-19, “River of Words,” sprung. Rita Dove (1993-1995) gathered writers to explore the African Diaspora through the eyes of its artists, and coordinated jazz and children’s poetry events.

Virginia Poet Laureate Sofia M. Starnes

The current U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who was appointed in June for a second term, is doing a series of special reports from around the country for the PBS Newshour Poetry Series, where she and correspondent Jeffrey Brown will address various social issues through poetry. They recently visited Detroit organization InsideOut, a literary-arts project that brings professional writers to schools to engage students through writing. Trethewey also serves as Poet Laureate for her home state of Mississippi, one of forty-four states (plus the District of Columbia) that offer the position. Of these, forty positions are filled. Michigan is one of six states that have never offered the post.

While the Center for Poetry may not serve as “a lightning rod,” our mission is “to encourage the reading, writing, and discussion of poetry and to create an awareness of the place and power of poetry in our everyday lives.” By arranging visits by nationally recognized writers, outreach programs for the MSU and surrounding communities, and sponsoring poetry contests and workshops, we stay busy all year tapping and sharing the power of poetry. During one recent outreach activity, intern Jenny Crakes conducted a workshop at Lansing’s STEM Academy, a K-8 magnet school, in which she worked with middle school students on entries for the River of Words poetry and art contest, the same contest that sprung from Robert Hass’s Watershed Festival in the 1990s.

As Lucille Clifton said, “One thing poetry teaches us, if anything, is that everything is connected.”

~ For more information and a listing of past United States Poets Laureate, click here.

Posted in community outreach, education, news, visiting writers, workshops

River of Words Poetry Workshop at Lansing STEM Academy

By Kelsey Block and Jenny Crakes

Photos by Kelsey Block

On November 8, the RCAH Center for Poetry was proud to sponsor a poetry workshop led by intern Jenny Crakes at Lansing’s STEM Academy.  Approximately ten students in grades 6-8 worked with Jenny, Kelsey, MSU Writing Center outreach coordinator Ashley Gulker, and mentor and volunteer Mrs. Karen Duquette, to create poems themed on environmental issues for the River of Words poetry and art competition.

Ashley and Jenny
Ashley Gulker (left) and Jenny Crakes

Since the students were writing personification poems, we started out with a short writing activity on getting into character as the voice they were speaking from. Some subjects the students had chosen included winter, water, deer, Michigan wolves, and even a PS3. We considered questions such as what their character wants or hopes for, what it fears, its favorite sight, sound, and taste, what its voice sounds like and to whom it is speaking.

Next, we discussed how to create a supportive workshop community that helps a writer make their piece even better. Several students who had completed drafts of their poems read them aloud to the group, and we commented on them together, discussing strengths we especially connected with, and things they could incorporate or expand on.

Finally, we broke into three small workshop groups, each led by an adult, so all students could share their writing in process and get one-on-one feedback, encouragement and suggestions. The authors were enthusiastic and came up with many new ideas, including wonderful images.

Ashley with Ayanna, Daniah, and Valerie

Overall, the students said they enjoyed the workshop.

Katia Dodd, an 8th grader at STEM, said she appreciated sharing her work with others.

“It made you think,” she said. “I could add more to my poem to make it better.”

Valerie Zamora, 6th grader, said that she thought her classmates’ poems were “pretty good.”

“They gave me a great idea for what I’m going to do with mine,” she said.

We also discussed ways for the students to become further involved at MSU. Ashley brought information about open mic nights at MSU where they could come and read their work. Also, following the workshop, Mrs. Duquette brought two students to visit the RCAH for a reading by North Carolina poet Barbara Presnell from her book Piece Work.

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

Documenting Barbara Presnell

By Kelsey Block

Last week, the RCAH Center for Poetry was delighted to welcome North Carolina native Barbara Presnell to East Lansing. During her brief visit, Presnell conducted a workshop on documentary poetry and gave readings of her work.

Barbara Presnell (right) and RCAH Center for Poetry Director Anita Skeen at the “Documentary Poetry” workshop on Wednesday, Nov. 13

Presnell said she began writing when she was a child. As the youngest of three children, she said her older siblings often left her to invent her own fun. She said she read her first stories to her parents, who were very supportive throughout her life.

“When I had my first book published, I really felt like, ‘I don’t have to do anything else,’” Presnell said, adding that she felt she had accomplished what she set out to do. “It felt that good. It just felt right.”

Presnell said that her favorite part about writing poetry is striving to be accurate.

“I usually write about people and real life situations, and I like when people tell me that I’ve gotten it right, that I’ve portrayed them accurately, truthfully and respectfully,” the 59-year-old writer said. “I love just building imaginary worlds, like I did when I was a kid.”

Presnell said her childhood has played a big part in her work.

“I didn’t know that it was doing it at the time,” she said. “But now that I’m older, all I do is write about family or write from family. My work is really rooted in the south and in those values that I learned when I was in my family, which was a real tight family.”

Presnell’s family is still close-knit, she said.

“My parents have both died, but my brother and sister are both real supportive,” Presnell said. “They read everything I write, which is scary, but they do.”

Perhaps what is more frightening is how much time Presnell has to spend in writing “documentary poetry.” She places a lot of emphasis on truth, and said the process involves a lot of research and phone interviews.

“I didn’t coin that phrase, but somebody call what I do that (documentary poetry), and I like it. It fits,” she said. “It’s work that’s historically based or based on current events or based on some real even or real time, but yet it’s imaginative. But, it has to be authentic, so it’s researched.”

Presnell said she hopes that her work might inspire others to start writing themselves or to look a bit deeper into their own pasts.

“The family research that I’m doing now is something that a lot of people can get into. The documents are there, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look and taking the time to do a little looking,” she said. “As soon as I start talking about it, people will start talking back. It always makes folks think of their own story.”

“My work is all about digging up the past and also preserving the present, preserving the month,” Presnell said. “Documentary poetry in particular preserves a time and a place and a lifestyle and a culture … My work is very understated. It’s just like snapshots in a way. Hopefully, there’s  lot of truth to it in that little snapshot, but I think understatement can be real powerful, it can sneak up on you.”

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

Barbara Presnell at the Fall Writers Series

Today, the RCAH Center for Poetry is pleased to welcome North Carolina poet Barbara Presnell to our Fall Writers Series. At 3 pm in Snyder C302, she’ll be leading a conversation about documentary poetry, which includes exploring family documents (letters, journals, and such), census reports, and family legends and giving them life on the page. Then, at 7 pm in the RCAH Theater, she’ll be reading from her collection of poetry, Piece Work, about a community of Appalachian mill workers. The reading at 7 will open with the winners of our 5th Annual Richard Benvenuto High School Poetry Competition. Hope to see you there!


Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

In Person with Carolyn Gage

By Kelsey Block

The RCAH Center for Poetry was pleased to welcome Lesbian Feminist Playwright Carolyn Gage to East Lansing last week. During her visit, Gage visited several classes, conducted her workshop, “Interrupting Racism,” and gave performances of her work.

Gage, 61, said she has been performing since the 1980s. She described the year 1986 in particular as “an explosion of creativity.” In order to become an artist, she said that she had to know her own history to discover her voice and her vision, which she did that year.

“I recovered my memories and realized I was an incest survivor, and I also realized I was a lesbian and I realized I was an artist,” she said. “I was 32 years old. For me to realize all of those identities, I had to have reached a certain level of independence and maturity. That was a huge year for me. Everything was the same and everything was completely different.”

As a writer, Gage said she knew that she wanted to fill a gap in literature. She said she wanted to acknowledge the difficult aspects of her past that weren’t openly discussed.

“I wanted to tell the stories that would’ve really helped me as a young person,” Gage said. “If I had been exposed to survivor culture, and it is a culture, then I might have come to an understanding that that was my own story sooner.”

Gage said she uses her activism to drive her writing.

“I am on fire all the time,” Gage said. “I always know what’s next. I feel like my writing is about salvation, especially for survivors of incest. You can feel so alone, so stigmatized and so crazy, then you read something from a survivor and it can save your life.”

Gage said she gets a lot of satisfaction from being a playwright, even though she  hadn’t always known she wanted to be a writer.

“Somebody said your major themes in life are set by age 5, and by age 5 I was wildly invested in dolls. I had a large collection of dolls and I told stories with them, which I realized was actually playwriting.  I feel like very early on it sort of found me.  And I would enact it like they were puppets or something,” Gage said of becoming a playwright. “I was writing stories where goodness prevailed, and order was always restored to the kingdom, so I think a thing that save my morality was that I could create alternate worlds where things really worked out the way they should. In the family, I was powerless, and it seemed like evil won every time. But [playwriting] satisfies you. Some part of the brain is like, ‘yes, that was a good day, I spent the afternoon in a right world.’”

Gage said she remembers the first publishing experience perfectly.

“It was a small women’s press. I’d just been writing for years and felt like nobody knew I existed. I felt like I was in a little lifeboat watching the big-liners go by, waving and yelling, and they’d just go by. I felt like I hadn’t been spotted,” she said. “Then my publisher called me up and said ‘Andrea Dworkin just endorsed your book.’ Dworkin is a huge activist and iconic feminist, so if you’d asked me who’s attention on the whole planet do you want to get, I would’ve said hers … I had been seen, somebody knew my coordinates, I was not drifting in the ocean anymore. Everything changed that day, which was just an amazing thing. Andrea wrote a wonderful endorsement of the book and said everything in my fantasy that I would’ve wanted. The impact I wanted to have, I’ve had, and it was just like, ‘ahh,’ this big aching, it was complete closure. It was great.”

As for her identity, Gage said that she’s proud of being a lesbian feminist playwright.

“I sort of scream that out loud,” she said. “To not have that puts me in with all the misogyny in the theater, so I think it’s one of those situations that, until the world changes, I will always lead with that. Because not to say it almost feels like there might be some chance someone feels like I’m closeted.”

Gage described experiencing discrimination in the publishing industry, and said that people would often do things that were “intentionally” cruel.

“In the first 10 or 15 years, there were no theaters that would touch a work with a lesbian theme or lesbian character, so to take myself seriously, I kept submitting work knowing that it would not be accepted. But I felt like not to submit was worse. I kept seating myself at the table and they kept asking me to leave. But I heard myself say ‘I belong here,’ and I did that for years and years and years. It was wearing, and the work was often treated very disrespectfully.

“They were like, ‘you can come into this party if you crawl, and you can sit at the table but you have to sit on the floor,’ and I’d have to say, ‘well I guess I’m not going to your party,’ and you feel crazy. That kind of thing was enraging, but you can’t go there because it will make you crazy. It was just hard,” Gage said. “A major drama press offered me a book contract, and I read it and it was so unprofessional I couldn’t sign it. This was the biggest drama press in the US, they sent real contracts to people, but they sent me the lesbian contract. To me it was a cruel joke … I’ve never talked to anybody that had a contract like that; it’s just things like that where you’re like, ‘am I crazy?’”

To combat this feeling, Gage said she went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to vent about her experiences.

“I would find appropriate places to go and tell, but it was frustrating,” she said. “It was hard not to get bitter. For 15 years I put myself places that I knew there was no hope of being accepted, but you do it for your own sanity. ‘I’m sending it in,’ and I think that helped me keep going. It required a massive amount of denial but it kept me going. I knew I was in it for the long haul.”

Gage’s performance on Wednesday night included excerpts from several of her one woman shows.

“The one-woman show is economic necessity, because nobody’s producing my work. A lot of lesbian theater is one woman shows, because that’s the level of resources in my community at this time.”

As for performing one-woman shows, Gage said that the burden of memorizing makes it different from other types of theater.

“If you’re out there with other actors, they’ll save your bacon, but you’re out there by yourself and you just stand there, and 20 years go by. And it’s just you and it’s all on you. That’s a lot of pressure,” she said.

While she was here, Gage also conducted her “Interrupting Racism” workshop, which she has been putting on for 20 years.

“I think it was just because I write dialogue, and to me it’s always interesting to shift a scene. You’re basically interrupting and derailing a scene, and I know how to do that because I’m a playwright,” Gage said. “Suddenly people are wanting it. As the workplace has become more diverse, I think people are more comfortable talking about racism, I think we’re just more ready to deal with it. We’re all understanding now we have to change, and people are wanting to step up.”

In closing, Gage offered up some advice for beginning artists.

“I also encourage people starting out in the arts to learn what settling feels like and to know not to do it. I see a lot of people sidetrack into something that pays better. It’s seductive to settle, you’re often paid far better for settling than not,” Gage said. “Being an artist is a calling and a sacred fire, you have to look for it. You follow the light, don’t waste your time where the light isn’t, you have to follow your own light.”

Posted in poem of the week, visiting writers

Poem of the Week: “The Unwearing: A Benediction” by Barbara Presnell

Then, at last, when machines shut down,
the crank and clatter of their work
quiet at this long shift’s end,
when the bobbins are empty,

whistles have stopped blowing,
freight has been loaded on its beds
and is gone, when sore backs
and burly afternoons behind

concrete walls have gone,
when all the plants
have closed their doors,
there will be nothing left

but the spinning earth,
its tight weave of water and root,
soft fabric of morning,
each imperfection counted one

by one, nothing left but the world’s
rhythm, the manufacture of its seasons,
nothing but the voices of our ancestors
talking above the roar,

and then we will take off the cloth
and there will be only thread
and then not even thread
or the need for thread

and we will bless each day’s creation,
the sweat and rip that wove it,
the oily grace that gave it to us,
how it feels against our skin.

Posted in education, news, visiting writers, workshops

The Winners of Our 5th Annual High School Poetry Competition

Congratulations to Jessi Bowser (1st Place), Jenna Wang (2nd Place), and Katie Peterson (3rd Place) for winning our 2013 High School Poetry Competition! We had over 250 poems submitted from high schoolers across Michigan, and the winners will read their selections on November 13 at 7 pm in the RCAH Theater in conjunction with a poetry reading by visiting poet Barbara Presnell.

1st Place: Jessi Bowser
High School: West Bloomfield High School
Year in School: Junior
Sponsoring Teacher: Jennifer McQuillian


when i was 11 i wore basketball shorts and a wife beater every day.
to my friends it was funny, to adults it was cute
i was just confused on what little girls should wear

im 17 now and i no longer dress like a little boy
but i still do not dress like my friends.
i despise ruffles and i refuse dresses
and they do not laugh anymore, adults no longer think it is cute

there is a stigma in this society that women are fragile
we are taught this from a young age; girls are petite
and girls are thin and they are soft, and they are not made to withstand hard times

i wonder if society has realized that we are not what we eat
we are what we wear

we are the ruffled shirts that easily rip, we are frequently stained white skirts
and we are the heels that were never made to be run in

you wore your heels the night he chased what was designed to be caught
and you ripped with the shirt he tore off you, a shirt manufactured to be torn
and your soul is still stained by the bruises that he left the night he decided that you were his to take,
constricted in the compression top you wore instead of a wife beater
a minnow trapped in the fishnets that you wore for him

so i wear jeans and they are so tight that i have to cut them off at the end of each day
and i wear tshirts that go up to my neck, and i do not wear clothes that tear
and i do not wear shoes i cannot run in, and i do not let myself get caught in a net of expectations
and i do not consider myself delicate, or fragile, or feminine

i am the same girl who is afraid of dressing like one

Second Place: Jenna Wang
High School: International Academy Central
Year In School: Junior
Sponsoring Teacher: Kayla McCabe

Missing In Action

In sixth grade my grammar teacher told me
a comma indicates a temporary pause between two sentences.
I drew a small round dot in my notebook
and said nothing when she said my name

In fifth grade my art teacher said
shadows must be painted with overtones of purple
deepest plum, frostbitten lilac,
because that way you can see the darkness is multidimensional

I watched you bend over the sink
under the harsh tungsten light of the bathroom,
a hand cupped around your nose
while gleaming red rivulets ran between your raw knuckles.
You said nothing when I screamed your name

In fourth grade my history teacher told me
many brave men were killed in the Great War.
Some of them had even left home to fight
long before they walked out of the front door

The worn photograph of a soldier
still lays on your desk where you left it three years ago
I see you in it now, limping from snowbank to snowbank,
only temporarily late between two jobs
one foot a smear of purple on this world
and the other already in the next.

Third Place: Katie Peterson
School: Brighton High School
Year in School: Senior
Sponsoring Teacher: Kelly Armstrong


It is sometimes surprising,
The value of childhood keepsakes.
I carefully slide the drawstring bag open
And tip its contents onto my hand.
One jack, five jacks, ten!
It is worn and faded and smells the way warm sweaters smell.

Out tumble the jacks,
Bright pointed plastic things
Clacking against one another.
One jack, five jacks, ten!
I never knew how to play jacks,
I would just stare and finger the starry trinkets in my hand.

I sprawl across
The warmed pink carpeting,
Soaked by the afternoon sun.
One jack, five jacks, ten!
My brother laughs,
We delicately arrange the piked figures as they scatter across the floor.

Now the bag is crumpled,
The velvet worn, the threads frayed.
But sometimes I slide the drawstring open
One jack, five jacks, ten!
I peer into its depths
And smell warm sweaters and sun-splashed carpets and think of home.

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

Carolyn Gage at the RCAH Center for Poetry

We’re thrilled to welcome playwright Carolyn Gage to the Center for Poetry. A feminist, lesbian playwright, she specializes in non-traditional roles for women, especially those reclaiming famous lesbians whose stories have been distorted or erased from history. Please join us for the following events surrounding Carolyn’s visit: