By Kelsey Block
A smiling face beneath a rabbit-eared winter hat greets those who are curious enough to wander down to the office of Anita Skeen – animal lover, sports enthusiast, scholar, teacher, mentor and poet.
“She wears a lot of hats, and she does it with grace and humor. She takes it all in stride,” said Linnea Jimison, Assistant Director of the RCAH Center for Poetry, just one of Skeen’s many projects.
Skeen has been an educator and scholar for the last 46 years. In that time, she’s published six books of poetry, taught at three universities, and been a part of countless committees, projects and organizations. Most recently, she received Michigan State University’s William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award.
“She’s a very important voice in American poetry,” said Steve Esquith, dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. “Her poetry is outstanding. It can be joyful; it can take pleasure in the world of nature and ordinary surroundings, but it can also plumb the depths of really deep and difficult human feeling and emotion and relationships without being at all predictable.”
Skeen began her teaching career at Bowling Green State University, where she received an MA in English literature and an MFA in creative writing. Later, she went on to teach in the MFA program at Wichita State University, where she received the Kansas Board of Regents Award for Excellence in Teaching. Skeen then made her way to Michigan State University, where she taught in the Department of English and served as the director of the Residential Option in the Arts and Letters program before joining the Residential College in 2007.
Skeen is the first RCAH faculty member to be honored with the award.
“It’s an important benchmark for us,” Esquith said. “She’s an extraordinary colleague and teacher who is adored by all. She always gives positive encouragement, even if it takes a long time to find out where to put it, she’ll find it. It’s easy to say, ‘This is wrong, you made a mistake.’ It’s a lot harder to say, ‘Underneath this rock, there is a really good idea. You need to move the rock, or stretch a little higher for that high note you’re not quite reaching.’ She’ll work as long as it takes to help a student find that.”
One such student is RCAH senior, Jenny Crakes. Crakes has taken Skeen’s classes in addition to working alongside Skeen as an intern at the Center for Poetry.
“She’s really enthusiastic and encouraging of everybody she works with,” Crakes said. “She’s very creative in thinking of ideas and she’s always ready to try something new. She has a lot of respect for other people’s work as well as being an amazing writer herself.”
Crakes said one class in particular had a large impact on her education: an arts workshop Skeen co-taught with professor and anthropologist Laura DeLind. The class, RCAH 291, focused on using oral histories to create a play about Lansing’s Urbandale.
“(Skeen) taught us a lot about how to take truthful information and create an imaginative project that would stay true to the people and their goals for the community, while at the same time being a way to express it to outsiders,” Crakes said. “It was a lot of learning about how creative writing can be used for meaningful and real work.”
Skeen has a great interest in the community outside the classroom. In addition to serving as the Director of the Center for Poetry, she teaches City of East Lansing’s One Book, One Community writing workshops, serves as the director of the Creative Arts Festival and Fall Writing Festival at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and is involved with the Appalachian Immersion Weekend for RCAH students at Water Gap Retreat in West Virginia. She’s also led countless writing and poetry workshops with students of all ages.
Skeen is the kind of professor who focuses on students above all else. When she first heard that she won the award, Skeen was in the middle of the annual RCAH 111 Open House. Her hands were full, her mind was occupied and she was focused on the task at hand when a fellow faculty member, Eric Aronoff mentioned that she should listen to the message on her answering machine. Earlier that week, Skeen had been chatting with Aronoff about his daughter’s application to a university, and as Skeen headed toward her office, she was hoping to hear news that his daughter had been accepted.
“I turned on the answering machine, and it was a message from the provost’s office telling me I’ve won the award,” Skeen said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, it’s not Maya. She isn’t calling to tell me she got into the university! But this is a good thing.’”
Skeen said she couldn’t be happier to have received the award.
“There’s recognition I did a good job, I did what I was supposed to do, and maybe a little bit more than what I was supposed to do. It just makes all those days that started at 7 a.m. and didn’t end till 10 at night and the weekends worthwhile,” she said. “I think it’s such an important award for the college to have an outstanding faculty member among the crew. We’re such a small college … It took a lot of effort on a lot of people’s parts for me to get this award. All of those people who did all that work are people I respect and admire, and they thought I was worth taking the time and energy to put forward.”
Skeen was first attracted to poetry as a child. She was an only child in an Evangelical Christian family until she was 14. The rhythm of the hymns and the Bible verses coupled with the time she spent by herself drew her to poetry.
“What I liked about poetry as a young kid was that you could memorize it. You could memorize those little rhymes and carry them around with you,” Skeen said.
Still, Skeen didn’t always plan to be a poet. She studied history and physical education in college. When it came time to graduate, she realized she had more credits in English than anything else, and she went on to grad school to study American Literature.
Perhaps underestimating the challenges of writing poetry, Skeen enrolled in a poetry workshop at the last minute.
“I was the only woman in the class. Four of the guys were back from Vietnam, and they were writing poems that you might imagine men who had come back from Vietnam would write. And I was writing about birds and trees and flowers. My world, things in my experience,” Skeen said, adding that, at the time, she felt that was wrong, somehow. “But now I realize that my world was not what was wrong. What was wrong was that I took a course I had no background knowledge in, and the poems I wrote were terrible!”
Still, the professor offered Skeen a chance to improve her poetry. She took it.
“The more I understood about poetry and the more I learned how people translated their experiences into poems, the more I wanted to be able to do that, too,” she said. Skeen went on to get her MFA and ended up a poet. She started her job search in the early ’70s.
“I wrote over 100 letters and I didn’t get a single interview,” Skeen said. Still, she wasn’t discouraged – she knew there was a job out there for her if only she could find it. She continued teaching, part-time, at Bowling Green State University until a position opened up at Wichita State University in Kansas, and she’s been teaching and writing ever since.
While she doesn’t always get to write as much as she would like, Skeen doesn’t want to slow down.
“I would have had a very different writing career had I not been teaching. I would have missed a lot,” she said. “It’s always hard to do something for yourself when there are other people out there … Sometimes, I’m very tired, but I never feel like I’m wasting my time. I was always busy as a kid, so I think I’ve just continued to be busy. And I’ll probably continue to be busy when I retire – what is retire?”