by Kelsey Block
Last week, the RCAH Center for Poetry was proud to host Canadian-born poet George Ellenbogen. Ellenbogen celebrated a $50,000 endowment established in his name along with his late partner, Evelyn Shakir, and Center for Poetry director Anita Skeen.
Ellenbogen said he first decided to gift the Center for Poetry with an endowment after chatting with Skeen during his visit in 2013.
“I thought it was a brilliant idea. I thought I would do it in the name of my late partner because Anita was very helpful to Evelyn,” Ellenbogen said. “I think the Poetry Center clearly is (Anita’s) work, and there ought to be something there that states that very overtly, like an endowment that has her name attached to it. This is almost cliché, but I’m really privileged and honored to be involved in something like this.”
Ellenbogen first met Skeen at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony in Amherst, Virginia that awards fellowships to writers, visual artists and musicians who live in residence for anywhere from a few days to a few months.
“I remember this individual came from this impossible place in the Appalachians called Big Chimney, and she had this wonderful oak cropping of red, red hair. She’s a wonderful writer, a wonderful poet, and I think we hit it off. I have great admiration for her as a writer,” Ellenbogen said.
Since his last visit to the Center for Poetry, the retired professor has started two new projects. One is a play based on “Rhino Gate,” a poem that tells the story of an African planter’s aging wife, who tries to reconstruct her life so it means something to her.
“Her story is the text of the poem on one side of the page. The other side is something I call the counter text, made up of voices responding to her,” Ellenbogen said. “It’s an experimental piece that I’m reconfiguring for the stage. It’s a project that probably is one of the most challenging that I’ve ever embarked on. I come to it with no theater experience, which makes it challenging and also fun to work on.”
The other project is a collection of poems and illustrations.
“It’s almost a kind of dialogue,” Ellenbogen said.
He’s also been traveling around the world, promoting his books, A Stone in My Shoe, and Shakir’s posthumous memoir, Teaching Arabs, Writing Self: Memoirs of an Arab American Woman.
Ellenbogen said living with another writer was interesting.
“After 32 years, you either murder one another or you love one another,” he said, adding that he and Shakir had very different writing processes. “I think it probably affected my teaching, because my advice in the end was to do whatever works for you as a writer. There’s so many ways of getting there,” he said.
During his visit to Michigan, Ellenbogen will also be working with the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, where he’s established awards for both poetry and nonfiction in his and Shakir’s names.
“The institution responds to any knock on the door. It’s for anyone,” he said. “The thing I noticed that really struck me when I was there is that they’re not watching the clock. I think how lucky these people are. Most people we know have jobs that are simply repetitive, but these people can go home every day and feel that they’ve helped to shape lives, they’ve made things better for individuals. I mentioned that every day they should go home and crack open a bottle of champagne and toast themselves.”