Posted in news

AWP 2017: It Takes a Village

In February 2017, the RCAH Center for Poetry staff made the trek to Washington, D.C. for AWP. We thought the trip was worthy of some reflection, and will be sharing attendees’ thoughts over the next week or so.


Day one: Director Anita Skeen leads the way into the vastness that is the AWP Bookfair. See more snapshots of the adventure on Instagram.


Anita Skeen, Director, RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU

This February was the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU’s first excursion to the Associated Writing Programs Conference (AWP) in Washington, D.C. I have gone many, many times in all my years of teaching but this was the first time I went with five of the six interns from the Poetry Center: Grace Carras, Erin Lammers, Sydney Meadowcroft, Sarah Teppen, and Arzelia Williams. The original plan was for all 8 of us to go, but Laurie Hollinger, the assistant director, was laid low by the flu a few days before we were to leave and Alexis Stark had a commitment with her honor fraternity the weekend of the conference. But they were with us in spirit. Without all the logistical arrangements Laurie had made for us—hotel rooms, registration, rental car, etc.—and Alexis’ box of goodies she packed for us on the trip—fruit snacks, applesauce, cereal, granola bars—things wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun. We had financial help for the interns from Lizzy King, the assistant director in the Office of Undergraduate Research, and Dean Steve Esquith who paid our transportation costs. Lori Lancour in the RCAH office was wonderful in suggesting avenues for additional funding and when February 8, 2017 rolled around, we had everything we needed to set out on our 10-hour drive to the nation’s capitol. Spirits were high as we sang and ate our way through four states. I was a little worried about driving into D.C. at rush hour and not knowing exactly where our hotel was, but then I realized I had five people in the car under the age of 22 all of whom had navigational devices in their pockets. We would be just fine.

It’s hard to explain to someone who has never attended AWP what it’s like for three days. With 30-35 sessions in every time slot beginning at 9:00 in the morning and ending at 6:00 at night (and then there are the evening events which run from 8:30 until midnight), there’s a real danger for intellectual, emotional, and physical overload. Several weeks before AWP, individuals who have attended the conference before post on their blogs and websites “How to do AWP.” The advice includes everything from “DO NOT try to do everything,” to where the nearby Starbucks are, from what tables at the Bookfair are “musts” to stop at, to what restaurants are where and, this year, where and when the protests would be held. I’ve been attending AWP since 1974 when, I believe, the conference was held in Kansas City and had 300 people in attendance and I still have never learned how not to be overwhelmed. Sessions I attended this year that were particularly meaningful were ones that focused on social justice and activism in the literary community; writing about place; recovering neglected poets; the poem as invocation, the poem as persona; crafting the feminist historical lyric; rural America in contemporary literature; and the importance and power of the work of Adrienne Rich. That last one left me in tears. The keynote address on Thursday night by Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Teheran, was powerful, political and personal in extraordinary ways. Readings by Sonia Sanchez, Ocean Vuong, Terrence Hayes, Rita Dove, and Eileen Myles reminded me why I do what I do, why I write what I write, why we need so many writers to remind us, in the words of Audre Lorde, that poetry is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

Finally, I have to reflect on what it was like to be with these five young, bright, energetic, funny, highly-motivated women who were wide-eyed and breathless about what they were experiencing. They attended such a cross-section of sessions from those focusing on social justice and activism, translation, minority writers, publishing, community engagement, literary history, spoken word art and just about every other content area offered. They wandered the Bookfair finding treasures (let me say there were over 900 tables at the Bookfair), getting writers to sign books they had purchased, and spreading the word about the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and our new Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Series. I asked them to compile a list of writers whom they heard or met that they thought might be possibilities for visiting writers to the Poetry Center or for Wednesday Night Live. Their lists were epic, and I am sure will result in having some writers come to the Poetry Center whom we might not have known about had the interns not attended the conference. Above all, I watched their excitement about literature and its power, about ways of taking poetry out of the academy and into the community, about what it was like to be in the middle of 12,000 people all of whom cared about language, about diversity, about the necessity for free speech and for everyone’s voice to be heard and valued.

It took the work of a village to get us to AWP. We saw the critical and necessary work of a village as we participated in AWP. Now it is our job to help our village grow and thrive.


Posted in news

RCAH Center for Poetry, Lansing Poetry Club, LEAP seek Lansing Poet Laureate

This spring, the RCAH Center for Poetry, in collaboration with the Lansing Poetry Club and the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), will appoint the first Lansing Poet Laureate. Applications from tri-county area poets are being accepted through March 3 for this culturally significant position. Not only does this appointment honor the selected poet, it also provides increased opportunities for the community to engage with poetry.

The Lansing Poet Laureate will serve as an ambassador for poetry, holding a 2 year term while receiving a $2,000 per year stipend from LEAP. A minimum of three readings and/or workshops will be offered in the tri-county area’s schools and communities, with the intent to foster a love of poetry.

“At a time when so many in this country seem to be focused on technology, trade, and business investment it’s important to realize that not all investment is calculated in dollars and profits,” according to Anita Skeen, director of the Center for Poetry. “We have under-invested in the arts and humanities for years, and as the winds of change threaten both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s very important that we here in the Lansing area who believe that poetry enriches our lives in ways that nothing else can take delight in and support the coming appointment of the first Lansing Poet Laureate. I look forward to the work that our poet laureate will do and to hearing how poetry is reaching new audiences and finding new venues.”

The state of Michigan is currently one of six states without a Poet Laureate. The first and only holder of the position, Edgar A. Guest, served from 1952 until his death in 1959.

Last year, the Lansing Poetry Club and the Center for Poetry were involved in efforts to pass House Bill 4763, introduced in July 2015 to establish a state poet laureate. The efforts were stalled when the bill did not make it out of committee.

The establishment of a Poet Laureate representing Michigan’s capital city is expected to raise awareness of the issue and increase support for a state poet laureate.

For more information and to apply, click here.

The Lansing Poetry Club is hosting an application workshop, Sunday, Feb. 4, from 3-4:30 p.m.

View press release here.

Posted in Balocating Prize for Poetry, news, Spring Poetry Festival, visiting writers

Spring Poetry Festival Lineup Announced


The Center for Poetry has confirmed the spectacular lineup of poets for the 2017 Spring Poetry Festival. Funded in part by the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, three poets known world wide will be visiting campus for afternoon conversations and evening performances during the month of April.

Tina Chang, born in New York City, is the first female to be named Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. She currently teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and she is also a member of the international writing faculty at the City University of Hong Kong.

A Michigan native, Toi Derricotte‘s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, the Paris Review, The New Yorker and Poetry. She also co-founded Cave Canem in 1996, a summer workshop for aspiring African-American Poets.

Mark Doty is the author of three memoirs and nine books of poetry, one of which won the 2008 National Book Award. Doty’s performance will also be coupled with the announcement of the Annie Balocating Prize for Poetry.

Each visiting poet will have an afternoon conversation at 3 pm in Snyder Hall’s LookOut! Gallery and an evening performance at 7 pm in the RCAH Theatre.

For more information on Spring Poetry Festival and the poets, visit the Center for Poetry’s website. 

Posted in Balocating Prize for Poetry, news, Spring Poetry Festival

Annie Balocating Prize for Poetry winner to be announced this week

anita and annie

By Kelsey Block

On Wednesday, April 20, the Center for Poetry is hosting poet and MSU alumna Lindsay Tigue as a guest in the annual Spring Poetry Festival.

In addition to her reading, Tigue will announce the winner of the 2016 Annie Balocating Undergraduate Prize for Poetry.

This has been the contest’s biggest year yet, with 65 entries.

The prize is named for another MSU alumna and poet, Annie Balocating.

Balocating bought her first poetry book—a collection of Emily Dickinson’s work—from a Troll Book Order when she was in 8th grade. Her class had been learning to diagram sentences and scan poetry at the time.

“I loved learning about Emily Dickinson’s life, and dissecting her poetry through scan and diagramming felt like unraveling hidden treasures,” she wrote in an email.

Balocating was a student in the Residential Option in the Arts and Letters (ROIAL) program at MSU. Even after she completed the ROIAL program, Balocating wanted to stay involved. She belonged to a writing group with several MSU faculty and students and she kept in touch with Center for Poetry founder Anita Skeen.

“After completing ROIAL, I approached Anita Skeen and asked if I could work for ROIAL because I felt a student voice would help strengthen the program curricula by providing a student’s perspective. I also loved working with the faculty and visiting artists, and providing administrative and event-planning support,” Balocating said.

When the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities was founded in 2007, Balocating was so excited she decided to donate to the program.

Skeen established the award in her name in honor of her work as an undergraduate poet.

“I appreciate that this award invites all undergraduates from any major to submit their poetry to be considered for the award,” Balocating said.

Balocating currently resides in New York City. She teaches at City University of New York.

Posted in news

RCAH Center for Poetry, Lansing Poetry Club making the bid for Michigan Poet Laureate

By Kelsey Block

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” –Mary Oliver

On Thursday, March 31, the Historical Society of Greater Lansing hosted “Michigan, My Michigan,” a celebration honoring the contributions of the Lansing Poetry Club. The evening ended with a call to action by Center for Poetry Director Skeen and Lansing Poetry Club President Ruelaine Stokes for the creation of a Michigan poet laureate.

Michigan is one of only five states without a poet laureate. California was the first to establish the post in 1915, and Ohio added their own last year. The laureate’s duties and compensation vary from state to state.

“Usually the duties are broadly outlined, and involve the central mission of promoting the reading, writing, and an appreciation of poetry among the general public. While occasional poetry readings and other events may be required, laureates otherwise tend to fulfill their missions as they see fit. Leading poetry workshops, organizing and participating in reading series, visiting local schools, and organizing conferences are some of the ways laureates typically fulfill their duties,” Skeen said.

In July 2015, House Rep. Sarah Roberts introduced House Bill 4763, calling for the establishment of a Michigan state poet laureate. The bill, which can be viewed here, proposes that the poet laureate be appointed by the Governor, and receive no compensation other than reimbursement for “his or her actual and necessary expenses incurred in the performance of his or her duties as assigned by the governor.

This isn’t the first time a poet laureate has been proposed. According to the Library of Congress website, Michigan had a poet laureate in the 1950s. Edgar Guest served as the laureate from 1952-1959. In 2005, the Senate passed Bill 0181, but the House did not approve the bill.

The current bill has since been referred to a committee. House Reps. Bradford Jacobsen, Michael Webber, Andrea LaFontaine, Tim Greimel and Sam Singh are on the committee. Three of the five committee members are needed to get the bill out of the committee and into a hearing.

Skeen gave a speech at “Michigan, My Michigan” that explained the value of poetry.

“Poetry builds bridges – between individuals, communities, racial and ethnic groups, those with different sexual orientations, between the young and the old, between those who read and perform, and those who simply listen,” Skeen said.

Skeen also noted the healing power of the arts in times of political, economic and societal tensions.

“When we are facing the disasters of global warming, poverty, unrestrained access to firearms, racial violence, restrictions on women’s rights, voting rights, gay rights, where are the voices that can reconnect us with our humanity and unite us in community? Poets are doing this day in and day out in weekly newspapers, literary magazines, open mike events, spoken word performances and national events such as Poetry Out Loud where high school students all over the country interpret, memorize, and deliver poems with intensity and passion.”

For more information on poets laureate or to help establish the position in Michigan, please contact Center for Poetry Assistant Director Laurie Hollinger at or Lansing Poetry Club president Ruelaine Stokes

Posted in news

Center for Poetry, College of Music host Voicing Poetry II


By Kelsey Block

On Tuesday, March 15, the RCAH Center for Poetry and the MSU College of Music hosted the second performance in an ongoing collaboration that pairs the work of composition students with the work of local poets.

Voicing Poetry II featured ten performances – almost double from last year – by a number of poets, musicians and composers.

See the program below for more information.
voicing poetry II program.jpg

Posted in community outreach, news

Center for Poetry plans to build Little Free Library

This spring, the Center for Poetry is constructing a Little Free Library to be installed in East Lansing and filled with wonderful books of poetry.

The Little Free Library Organization established its roots in 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a small wooden schoolhouse on a post and put it in his front yard, in tribute to his mother. The house was filled with books people could take and exchange for free. Ms. Bol was a lover of reading and learning, and her legacy lives on through the 36,000 Little Libraries, sharing free books across the world.

The Center for Poetry heard about the phenomenon, when director Anita Skeen shared a clip about the fad from The Lansing State Journal and decided books of poetry needed to be added to the mix.

“I originally learned about Little Free Libraries from poet, Jane Taylor, but had never actually seen one. I immediately thought, this is the kind of project RCAH would produce, and East Lansing could use a library of poetry, to help spread an interest for poetry.”

Shortly after discovering the article, the idea was set in motion. Center for Poetry interns Sarah Teppen and Alexis Stark began brainstorming ideas for the structure and what books to fill it with. With the help of Steve Baibak, RCAH professor and LookOut! Gallery curator, the interns were able to purchase supplies from the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center.

Sarah and Alexis are both students in Steve’s art workshop, “Reclamation Studio”, in RCAH and were inspired to create the Little Free Library out of recycled materials. It would be a work of art, while giving a new life to old materials.

After obtaining licensing from the Little Free Library Organization and the city of East Lansing, the plan is to construct the library during the month of March. Then, the Center for Poetry will install it at the Beal Cooperative House on M.A.C. in April, to celebrate National Poetry Month.

“I was geeked about the idea of opening a little library in the name of the Center, and am so excited for our unveiling later this spring,” said Sarah. “Our stock will start out with mostly poetry, but who knows where how the stock will evolve from there. I can definitely see the Center for Poetry continuing Little Free Library Projects in the future.”

If you would like to find out how to start a Little Free Library in your area, go to The website is filled with information on the history of the organization, instructions for buying or building your library and how to register. Plus, you can read stories from other stewards around the world and become a pat of the global community.

If you would enjoy building your own project, or are interesting in creating art out of repurposed materials, visit the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center, open from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

Renowned Translator and nye musician bring new perspectives to annual Translation Conversation 

By Kelsey Block

On Monday, February 22, Director of Arabic studies at DePaul University Nesreen Akhtarkhavari visited the RCAH Center for Poetry to join in the Translation Conversation. The Translation Conversation focused on the work Akhtarkhavari translated, titled Desert Sorrows: Poems on Love and Politics by Tayseer Al-Sboul.

Akhtarkhavari’s reading and talk was accompanied by nye musician Nadim Dlaikan. The nye is a Persian reed flute. Dlaikan crafts his own instruments from bamboo he grows in his backyard in Detroit.

Akhtarkhavari grew up speaking Arabic, Persian and English. She started translating so she could use Arabic works in her classroom.

“A lot of the work that I’m familiar with and that provides an alternative view of the stereotypes of who Arabs are is not translated,” she said.

When the Jordanian Writers Society got wind of what she was doing in the classroom, they invited Akhtarkhavari to translate a novella, You As of Today by Tayseer Al-Sboul. She’s been continuing her translation work ever since. Her latest project is a translation of Rumi’s Arabic poems for the MSU Press.

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Akhtarkhavari is not a poet herself, but she works closely with Anthony Lee, a UCLA poet, on all of her poetry translations.

“He doesn’t speak a word of Arabic.  I like it this way,” she said. “It allows someone to look at the poems from the readers’ perspective in addition to being a poet. A reader doesn’t necessarily have to be familiar with Arabic but still can digest the poem in the English language without too many spices from Arabic.”

Some of those Arabic “spices” that are difficult to convey in English include an expression of grief in which the “she-camel is weeping,” a term of endearment in which parents call children their liver, and the seagull as a symbol of freedom rather than nuisance. In these instances, Akhtarkhavari does her best to convey content and sentiment, rather than opting for a direct translation.

“The distance between Arabic and English is so wide that there are very few words in common. So I’m not just changing sound, I’m changing structure,” she said. “That’s where it is important for me to understand the poem and then try to bring the pictures back to the target language as close as possible. To repaint the poem with the same colors … For me, the last thing that gets sacrificed is content.”

Context is also extremely important when translating poetry, Akhtarkhavari said.

“You have to really know your audience and you have to make sure you don’t let the transfer of metaphors distract from the meaning. That’s when you drop it, when it starts distracting from the meaning,” she said. “You want it to be different. You’re not turning an Arabic poem into an English poem. If you do that, it loses the novelty it’s bringing to the language. These translations help expand the imagination of the target language reader; that’s why they are profound.”

Astros y fuentes y flores, no murmuréis de mis sueños,
Sin ellos, ¿cómo admiraros ni cómo vivir sin ellos?
Rosalía de Castro

We’re now accepting readers for the Festival of Listening – An Evening of Untranslated Poetry at (scene) Metrospace on Tuesday, March 1.

Any and all languages are welcome! In the past, we’ve heard Spanish, French, German, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Dutch, Korean, Chinese, Farsi, and more.

If you’re interested in reading, email with your name and the title and author of the poem by February 22. Try to keep your selection under three minutes.

Festival of Listening Flyer

Call for Readers – Festival of Listening

Posted in community outreach, education, news, Uncategorized, workshops

Frogpond associate editor, Center for Poetry to start haiku study group

By Kelsey Block

Starting in February, the Center for Poetry is partnering with East Lansing haiku poet Michele Root-Bernstein to create a haiku study group.

The group will meet on the third Saturday of every month from 1 – 3 p.m. in Snyder hall, C302. The first session is on February 20.

The study group is open to anyone at any skill level. While each session will have a different topic, Root-Berstein said all the sessions will be structured similarly. Usually the group will start out reading haiku of their own or written by others, then consider—and play with—some aspect of haiku esthetics or composition, followed by time to write and to share their work (anonymously if they wish).The emphasis is on trying something new, stretching writerly skills and having fun.

“I’m there to learn as much as anyone else and keep getting inspired,” she said.

Root-Bernstein served as the associate editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America for the last four years. The journal accepts a number of forms of poetry, including renku, senryu, haibun, and rengay, along with reviews and essays.

In selecting poems for publication, she and Frogpond’s lead editor, Francine Banwarth, looked for signs of LIFE; that is, they were looking for poems that incorporated four essential elements of haiku: language rich with meaning, images that are fresh, form that enhances, and elusive evocation of experience. Banwarth and Root-Bernstein also considered what they called “the Goldilocks effect” of a poem—did language, image, form and elusiveness add up to something that was “too much,” “not enough,” or “just right”? (Readers interested in more can check this out.)

Root-Bernstein is especially excited about the haiku study group because haiku poets are reinventing and redefining the form.

“The field is under such ferment that there are so many different directions you could take the art,” she said. Some forms are collaborative, others incorporate prose poetry and still others include drawings or pictures.

“I got so involved I couldn’t give it up,” she said. “The thing is, it never quits. It’s not like all of a sudden I knew; I still don’t know how to write a haiku. There’s always something more to learn, always something that now you understand that you didn’t understand two months ago.”

Root-Bernstein was first drawn to haiku when her children were in elementary school. She worked as an artist in residence at her children’s school, visiting classes and teaching poetry.

Very soon after Root-Bernstein started writing her own haiku, one of her poems was published.  

“But I couldn’t repeat it because I didn’t know what I had done; I didn’t understand why that was a good haiku,” she said. “I had to keep at it, slowly find my way into other haiku journals, and about ten years later, stumble on the opportunity to place a dozen or so of my poems in the 2009 volume of A New Resonance (Red Moon Press).”

Perhaps because of that experience, Root-Bernstein encourages aspiring poets to keep writing and submitting their work.

“It’s not rejected, just returned,” Root-Bernstein said, quoting some advice she received years ago. “It’s not the end of the world. You’re just trying to find the editors who appreciate your stuff. And it’s true; it’s all subjective in some ways.”

She also suggests that early writers read, read, read – read anthologies and especially read the journals you’re interested in submitting to. She suggests reading journals online, like Heron’s Nest or bones, and subscribing to Modern Haiku or Acorn as well as Frogpond to get a feel for contemporary and exploratory haiku.