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Virginia poet laureate visits RCAH

By Kelsey Block

“What I like most is following the words, following their sounds. A poem for me always starts as a phrase, a couple of words I hear together that just intrigue me,” Sofia Starnes, the poet laureate of Virginia, said. “Where will this word take me? It might open up a memory, something you’re concerned about, something you haven’t resolved inside your heart. And you start following that word through that emotion and through whatever it wants to include.”


Starnes said she started writing at a very young age, at the encouragement of her mother.

“My mother had four daughters. I’m the second one, and she named me for a great aunt she had who was a writer,” Starnes said. “So I think she decided that of her daughters, I was going to be the writer… I didn’t write poetry at that time, always short stories.”

Starnes said she turned to poetry when she and her family left the Philippines for Spain.

“It seemed like poetry became my best medium because it’s so concise. The same way I couldn’t take my country with me, I couldn’t take people with me, I couldn’t take a lot of words with me,” she said.

Starnes studied English Philology at the University of Madrid. As such, her poems are written in English, a language her mother could not easily read.

“She would say, ‘I am touching the poem, now you tell me what it’s about,’” Starnes said of reading her work to her mother over the phone. “She would understand more than anyone else the kind of world that I wanted to create.


“I love words so much,” Starnes said. “Words don’t just define – they suggest. And that is a big difference … English is particularly rich because so many of the words are made by connecting words: knapsack, kneecap, ribcage. So you have little poems in the making because you already have the relationship.”

Starnes said it felt like “coming home” when she was named the poet laureate of Virginia.

“My writing career really grew very much in Virginia, and my husband is from Virginia,” Starnes said. “This was the place where the community welcomed me enough to say, ‘You’re a Virginian.’”

The next thing Starnes decided to do was to get to work.

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got two years, what can I do?’” Starnes said. “They’re going to listen to me in these two years in ways they haven’t listened to me before… I decided immediately that I wanted to focus on the reader. If we don’t have a reader, it doesn’t make any sense. I wanted to tell [readers] there’s a poem for you – even if you don’t like poems. Everybody has a poem in this world that was written for them, they just have to find it.”

Starnes’ newest anthology, The Nearest Poem Anthology encompasses this idea.

“A poem is not finished until it finds a home in a reader, and I wanted to have a book that would show how valuable the reader was, how the reader gave a poem a new life,” Starnes said. “So the focuse of the book is not so much on the poets, but on the response of the reader.”

The collection of 112 poems was published in early March.

As far as her own work goes, Starnes she deals with things that are universal, rather concepts than specific to a certain time or place.

“You’re so used to reading things that are specific,” Starnes said. “But for me, it’s the opposite. It requires something of the reader the other poem may not require – it requires that you participate in the poem. I am putting some burden on the reader that other poems may not.”

Starnes’ work also focuses on spirituality. As a catholic, she places a lot of emphasis on ideas like the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation.

“Trinity for me is all about relationship,” she said. “It’s the God I know of, it’s a family, a father a son … You look everywhere and there’s a trinity. The moment the two connect, there’s a creation, that’s the third thing. There’s always a third. It’s the underlying thing that I’m writing that will influence the way the poem is going to unfold.”

Still, Starnes said she does not believe in writing to preach. Rather, she believes spirituality is just something from the inside that comes out in her work.

“It’s just in you. It imbues the way you look at things, it colors the way you look at things,” she said.

Posted in news, Uncategorized, visiting writers

“Watchers: A Journey To Alberta” by Jenny Crakes wins the 2014 Balocating Prize for Poetry

Congratulations to Jenny Crakes, a Junior in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and Professional Writing at Michigan State University. Crakes won the Center for Poetry’s 2014 Annie Balocating Prize for Poetry for her poem, “Watchers: A Journey To Alberta.” The judge for the 2014 Balocating Prize was Virginia Poet Laureate Sofia M. Starnes, who visited the Center for Poetry on April 16, 2014, to do a poetry reading and announce the winner. Starnes said the following about the winning poem: “The writing is uncluttered, yet rich in metaphor. The scenes are clean and fluid, the language flows seamlessly, the emotion — like centering prayer — gathers the scene around itself, yet is remarkably open. There is mystery, too, which I always value, a layered quality that leaves the reader wondering about the solitary traveler, the ‘what for’ and ‘why’ of the journey, even as the landscape becomes central to the experience.”

Watchers: A Journey To Alberta
by Jenny Crakes

Like elderly neighbors, they listen
as I tell them I am going east.
They send me on my way,
their icefields clinging to peaks
against fierce July heat,
cavern walls so high I can see only blue,
streams etched in chalk.
From the Rockies to the prairie, I cross a line
a sudden exit, a blink
from still granite folds
to yellow fields, the road tapering
straight and swift for miles.

Over my shoulder, the watchers hunch and draw together,
knuckles propping up the chin of sky.
They remain, formidable and brooding,
slowly growing pale, slippery. Ghostlike
they breathe themselves back into the horizon
and disappear.

Descending into boomtown,
I arrive at the
Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush.
Oil patches and fossilized bones,
help wanted in every window,
and men in steel-toed boots eating ice cream
on their way to rescue houses full of flood.

On the way back, thick wind pushes hair
into my eyes.
The road curls like smoke.
The watchers fade in like a crown, an echo
on the edges an hour before I reach them.
I am drawn forward like a magnet
in the white glare of afternoon.

Mountain photo
Photo of British Columbia, by Jenny Crakes
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Center for Poetry intern wins poetry prize

By Kelsey Block

Visiting writer Sofia Starnes, the poet laureate of Virginia, announced at her reading last night that RCAH Center for Poetry intern Jenny Crakes won this year’s Annie Balocating Poetry Prize.

Crakes said she was both surprised and excited to have won the $500 award.

“The poem was about a road trip that I took with my family last summer in July and we were going to see The Royal Tyrrell Museum,” Crakes said. “It just made me think of watching the mountains as you drive away from them and drive back. They’re sort of just perched there watching you. And when you’re driving back they just appear really shadily on the horizon and you get close and closer. It was just so beautiful.”

Crakes, 21, started as an intern at the center in September. Her work focuses largely on community engagement, and entails conducting workshops with elementary school students and senior citizens at Edgewood Village.

“I think I try to focus on things that will make poetry seem accessible to people, like activities or really specific writing prompts,” Crakes said. “What I really like is seeing how everyone is willing and able to express themselves. Often, I’m surprised by the ideas people come up with so quickly.”

The RCAH and Professional Writing junior said she has been writing since childhood – her first piece was a series based on her twin cousins.

Now, Crakes’ favorite genres are poetry, short stories and plays.

“I love writing purely for the imagination of it, but I’m also really curious about how I can use it in bigger ways,” she said. “I’m really interested in the different ways that creative writing can be used for good in the world – to bring awareness of political issues or how people are feeling in different situations, or whether it’s used to interest people in life again.”

Currently, in honor of National Poetry Month, Crakes is working on a blog. “The April Project” is a collection of previously published poetry juxtaposed with Crakes’ own work. She said she decided to take on the project to inspire herself.

“As I’m going with it, it makes me look at things in the day differently because I’m looking for details or things that might be interesting later,” she said.

Sofia Starnes and Anita Skeen on WKAR 90.5’s Current State

Sofia Starnes and Anita Skeen on WKAR 90.5’s Current State

Each year, in honor of National Poetry Month in April, the RCAH Center for Poetry brings a series of poets to campus to conduct readings and workshops with the public. Current State spoke with Center for Poetry Director Anita Skeen and Virginia Poet Laureate Sofia M. Starnes about this year’s festival, and both read from their works. Click on the title to listen to their radio interview!


Posted in poem of the week, Uncategorized, visiting writers

Poem of the Week: “Nightlife” by Sofia M. Starnes

The moon dissolves in mist
and flower; the window balances the outside dark

against a single lamp—
and underneath, a rose. Some nights, I know

three things: the being rush,
bone sequence, hide and blood, bliss of these rudiments,

from them to make a life.
And then, some slower

things: the being wait, a portal, mouthful, ache;
the knob that clicks comes loose; the hinge that stalls

holds hard.                    Pause, pause.
The evening brings the undisguise of things:

the bow tie stars, the myrtle crook still blooming,
humped beside the drive;

the moonlight satisfies the alcove glow of what I know.
The being pluck,

the toughest being of all, out of the garden lush,
ten thousand reds, ten thousand fickle golds, toadstools

on grass. At last, the unequal rose
climbs on the bow-blade clip, a summer-seize.

I do not fear the many from which I come.
I do not fear the many to which I go. 

Some nights, a single look for everything I lose,
a single hope

by which I’ll candle back.
A nipple dribs its moon, the moonbeam dries, lipborne

into a child.
Between the moon and rose, the hourglass.

(via Blackbird)

Posted in poem of the week, Uncategorized, visiting writers

Poem of the Week: “I Don’t Miss It” by Tracy K. Smith

But sometimes I forget where I am,
Imagine myself inside that life again.

Recalcitrant mornings. Sun perhaps,
Or more likely colorless light

Filtering its way through shapeless cloud.

And when I begin to believe I haven’t left,
The rest comes back. Our couch. My smoke

Climbing the walls while the hours fall.
Straining against the noise of traffic, music,

Anything alive, to catch your key in the door.
And that scamper of feeling in my chest,

As if the day, the night, wherever it is
I am by then, has been only a whir

Of something other than waiting.

We hear so much about what love feels like.
Right now, today, with the rain outside,

And leaves that want as much as I do to believe
In May, in seasons that come when called,

It’s impossible not to want
To walk into the next room and let you

Run your hands down the sides of my legs,
Knowing perfectly well what they know.

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MSU Slam Team presents Buddy Wakefield

Next Tuesday, April 8, the MSU Slam Team is sponsoring a performance by slam poet Buddy Wakefield.

MSU Slam Team Vice President Marianne Caddy said Wakefield has visited campus once before for a workshop.

“It was so meaningful to a lot of people that I wanted to make sure it happened again,” Caddy, 20, said. “He’s so uniquely himself and so true.”


The performance starts at 7:00 p.m. in Snyder Hall in the LookOut! Gallery. A $7 donation at the door is requested, but not necessary.

Caddy said she hopes that people will come to the reading to hear the messages in Wakefield’s poems – something she found helpful last year.

“Personally, last year, that performance was at a transitional point in my life, and the messages he sends through his poetry were something I needed to get through the things I was dealing with,” Caddy said.

For more information, check out the MSU Slam Poetry Team’s Facebook page. The group meets every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. in MSU’s Bessey Hall in the Writing Center.

Posted in news, Uncategorized, visiting writers

Detroit Poet Jamaal May visits East Lansing

Last week, the RCAH Center for Poetry in collaboration with the MSU English Department was proud to host a reading by Detroit poet Jamaal May.


May’s first book of poetry, Hum, was published in 2013 and won the Beatrice Hawley Award.

May said he first got interested in poetry while recording a hip hop album. With a little nudge from his sister, May said he rearranged two of the songs he had been working on and performed them at a poetry slam.

“The only way to grow is to do what you cannot do, and the thing I could not do was crowds,” May said.

May noted that his weakest moment was early on in his career as a performer. He said he had done well at a slam in Baltimore one year, and went back the next year to prove himself again.

“It was the first time I went to a slam specifically to win it,” he said, noting he was not able to win the second time around. “It was a low point that I was driving all the way back to Detroit, alone. I couldn’t afford to be there. I vowed to never go to a slam just to win again.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, May said that wining the Spirit of Detroit Award as a poet was one of the best moments in his career.

“It was a very Detroit thing,” May said. “It was straight up like poetry was relevant in this way to Detroiters, and people are actually paying attention. That’s crazy.”

May says reading is an integral part of his writing process.

“I cut any poem that I don’t want to read out loud,” he said. “If I had a poem that didn’t work in the air, I wouldn’t think of it as a poem. I would think of it as some other form of writing. It’s a genre, so part of the genre is how it sounds – what it was created to do is to be read out loud.”

May noted that his ties to music factor in to his writing, but he tries to keep them separate.

“There’s all these natural rhythms we have when we’re speaking, and that was always a starting point for me. Like, ‘how does this sound?’” May said. “But it’s important to keep music separate because that’s how I learned… I’ve tried poems that use music as subject matter and that was always weird for me so I moved away from it.”

Similarly, May said he never intended to write about Detroit. In fact, he set out to do the opposite.

“I got around to writing about Detroit by avoiding writing about Detroit,” May said. “I was trying to look at interpersonal relationship and solitude … If I was trying to write about all that stuff in the framework of Detroit, I probably would have failed.”

May advises young writers to use the craft to get to something that’s real and emotionally raw.

“The idea of writing as a political act is that you’re writing toward understanding,” May said. “It’s about really trying to connect [with people] and knowing you will fail. It has an ache of me trying to understand something but not getting it.”