Posted in workshops

2016 Haiku Hike at MSU Science Festival

HaikuHikePhoto by Michael Rehling


On Sunday, April 17, the Center for Poetry took part in the 2016 MSU Science Festival, a 12-day annual event that takes place not only on campus, but at various locations in the East Lansing region, and also in greater Detroit.

The Center’s contribution was the haiku hike, during which participants learned a bit about haiku from haiku poet Michele Root-Bernstein, then took a gentle and observant hike led by Laurie Hollinger to the MSU Horticulture Gardens, where they made textual snapshots from a vast array of choices. Back in the classroom, Anita Skeen directed participants to construct haiku from their images and notes, which were then shared.

The day was one of the very first this spring to feel truly springlike, with not a cloud in the sky and with the season’s earliest varieties popping. Here are a few of the resulting haiku:


botanical signs

a bare tree blooming

with finch song


nature walk

the persistent sound

of a low flying plane

sunny day

a bird chirps loud and proud

from a perch unseen


New Skin

Under peeling bark

Michele in sneakers


magnolia buds

slipping out

of our jackets

still wind

something rustles in the shrubs

heard but not seen

building crane

nesting material hangs

from the lamppost

in the trees

a squirrel shakes a pinecone

in my direction


Under the big top

Wisteria on the high wire

Dandelions laughing




through forsythia

a plastic bag

scorching sun

red and shriveled berries cling

to branches and dirt



daffodils nod

keeping time for the

song of the sparrows


pink blossoms peering

from beyond the Center

for Interactive Plant Systems



the seagulls

swing back toward the shore

spring thaw



greenhouse shade

robin perches on the

shadow of a branch

Photos from the 2016 haiku hike, courtesy of Michael Rehling, may be viewed here.

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.”

Posted in community outreach, education, news, 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.

Posted in Fall Writing Series, news, visiting writers, workshops

Folklorists visit Center for Poetry as part of Fall Writing Festival

My heart, my soul, my spirit flies,

As I walk with granny one more time…

Folklorists Michael and Carrie Nobel Kline joined the RCAH Center for Poetry as part of the annual Fall Writing Series. Throughout the week of October 27, the musicians visited classes, facilitated conversations and gave a performance in the RCAH Theater.

The two met in Massachusetts in the 1980s while Michael was working on a folklore project and Carrie was working at a summer camp.

“I became enamored, at least admittedly with the work, and about eight months later with the folklorist himself,” Carrie Nobel Kline said.

“There was no romance that developed in this, initially. I wanted to make very sure I didn’t allow my personal attraction to muddy the waters we were trying to work in together. And she was just very eager to learn,” Michael Kline said. “We just grew together over time.”

Their first interview project together involved a 106-year-old man who had served in a Russian czar’s army in the early 1900s.

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Since that first interview, the Klines have talked with perhaps a thousand people about their stories. They’ve interviewed people in a number of different communities about a variety of subjects, but Carrie Kline says one thing always stays the same.

“The main thing is to admit to not knowing,” she said. “Really, all I can do is ask to be taught, to be schooled, to show interest… We try to create a situation where they know that I believe they’re the expert and they’re the teacher and I want to be sitting at their feet.”

Over the years, the Klines have continued to share stories and music in workshops, recordings, radio broadcasts and live performances.

In all of their work, whether it’s with fourth graders or college students, the Klines are careful to contextualize the stories and the music.

“Kids don’t like history – it’s all about rich men with suits and ties and presidents and politicians and generals. They don’t see any place in that for themselves,” Michael Kline said. “So we sing these groovy old songs and ask them to talk about the song, retell the story, learn the song, sing it and then try to provide a context for the song which is the history we’re after teaching.”

“We’re not just choosing to play the banjo because we think it’s a groovy instrument but we’re excited about the culture from which the banjo came,” Carrie Kline said.

Story, photos and video by Center for Poetry intern Kelsey Block

Posted in community outreach, Spring Poetry Festival, workshops

RCAH Center for Poetry Hosts Conference for Educators and Writers

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By Kelsey Block

On March 28, 2015, the RCAH Center for Poetry hosted its first-ever conference, titled: “Exploring Our Own Amazement: Learning the Language of Poetry.”

A crowd of approximately 40 people filled the RCAH Theater to participate in workshops and discussions with a number of presenters, including the Center for Poetry staff, associate professor of MSU’s College of Education Laura Apol, and local poet, teacher and coordinator of the Old Town Poetry Series, Ruelaine Stokes.

Laura Apol started out the day with a discussion on how to teach poetry effectively. Ruelaine Stokes followed with a lively presentation on strategies for oral performance. Center for Poetry Assistant Director Linnea Jimison and interns Jenny Crakes, Sarah Teppen and Kelsey Block followed with a panel on community outreach and public relations. Anita Skeen closed the day with her talk on the “compass points of poetry” and helping young writers find direction in a poem. For more information, visit our website.

The Center for Poetry plans to host another conference next year. We welcome your suggestions.

Posted in Fall Writing Series, news, visiting writers, workshops

2014 Fall Writing Series wraps up with nonfiction writer

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By Kelsey Block

On Wednesday, Nov. 19, the Center for Poetry welcomed nonfiction writer Jim Minick as the last guest in the Fall Writing Series. Throughout the week, Minick visited two RCAH classes in addition to reading from his memoir, The Blueberry Years: A Memoir a Farm and Family and an essay in which he explores the question, “How can I be both a vegan and a deer hunter?” He concluded the reading with a poem titled “The Intimacy of Spoons,” which you can view here.

Minick said he’s always loved blueberries. He and his wife, Sarah, planted their organic blueberry farm in the spring of 1995. He said they decided to farm organically because they couldn’t see a reason not to.

“There is so much poison already in our world that I didn’t want to add to it if I could. But, there are organic poisons as well. Some of the organic pesticides are just as bad. It’s not a clear black and white but at the same time it’s a much healthier food system,” Minick said.

While the book is mainly a memoir, it also contains other morsels about the history of the blueberry, poetry and recipes.

“Our story is the main story, but I also wanted this to be a book about all things blueberry,” Minick said. “So it’s a celebration of the fruit and the bush … It was just a fun way to explore the history of the plant.”

Minick said much of his inspiration comes from family stories and the environment.

“I’ve been writing most of my life and I figured there was a story to tell,” Minick said. “Most writing projects for me involve some kind of a question, so I wanted to try to understand why this young couple pursued this crazy dream, so that’s why I tried that in a book.”

In writing nonfiction, Minick said he was conscious of the fine line between being truthful and being hurtful.

“If you really want to write important words, you have to tackle the hard questions. That’s always something that you encounter in whatever genre, even in fiction. If you are writing something important, there has to be risk,” Minick said. “You hope you’re serving the story, you hope you’re serving beauty, that’s kind of the ultimate goal. In addition to that, you want to be honest, but you don’t want to be hurtful. That’s a hard, hard line so there’s no set answer. I think it’s case by case.”

In addition to writing, Minick teaches creative nonfiction at Converse College. Currently, he’s working toward his MFA in fiction at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, and is also the fiction editor for the Greensboro Review.

“The farming keeps me grounded and gets me outside, the teaching keeps me connected to other people and is a way of giving, and then the writing keeps me grounded in the creative world,” Minick said.

Posted in Fall Writing Series, news, visiting writers, workshops

Writing pair visits Center for Poetry

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By Kelsey Block

The Center for Poetry welcomed writers and teachers Rick Mulkey and Susan Tekulve for round two of the Fall Writing Series. Mulkey is the author of five collections of poetry and Tekulve is a short story writer and the author of the novel, In the Garden of Stone. Currently, Mulkey and Tekulve teach in the English department at Converse College in South Carolina. The pair visited East Lansing for three days last week, conducting workshops, visiting classes and performing a joint-reading.

The couple has been married for 23 years, but Mulkey and Tekulve said they don’t often share their work with one another.

“We have our own patterns, we have our own things we do as writers. Sometimes those things cross,” Mulkey said. “We do share a lot of books together, we do share writing, but probably not as much as people imagine. Very early on in our relationship, before we were married, we made the decision to be very careful about sharing our writing and getting feedback from each other … I usually don’t see Susan’s writing until it’s published and she often doesn’t see mine until then.”

Tekulve said she thinks it can be beneficial for married writers to keep their work separate, even though much of the inspiration for their material comes from similar places.

“It’s really a lot easier to have a first reader whom you’re not married to … If you say the wrong thing, it can be taken a lot more personally,” Tekulve said. “We do so many things as a couple, we raised a child, we created three degree programs within the English department that I think it became sort of difficult to be a writing couple along with being a teaching couple and an academic couple as well as raising a child.”

Both authors have been influenced by the time they’ve spent in Appalachia. While Mulkey grew up in Virginia, he said it took traveling to Scotland for him to write about his home.

“When I was in Scotland, there was something about the landscape, there was something about the life, something about the people that felt to me like I knew them and so, while I wasn’t necessarily writing about Scotland, it became a way for me to think about the region I grew up in, and I did start writing about it more, and more personally in a lot of ways, too.”

Tekulve, on the other hand, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She said, at first, she didn’t really consider place much in her writing, but her novel changed that.

“In the early part of my career, people were my sense of place. I really didn’t think much about the physical landscape and the setting, but In the Garden of Stone, place is very much a character in the novel. It wasn’t until I discovered the setting of the novel that it started moving forward,” Tekulve said, adding that book was originally set in two different places before she settled on West Virginia. “As I was writing the novel, I was literally living in the novel, going back to Virginia and living in the mountains and listening to people talk. Setting does pretty much everything for the novel, it unifies it, it forms the characters.”

They said they’ve noticed a few differences between fiction and poetry students, as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

“Undergrads are a bit more fearless than my nontraditional students. The traditionally aged students, they’ll put it out there, they’ll write about something that’s pretty deep and pretty personal. They’re willing, and if they’re willing, you can hand them a book and they’ll just drink it up, and they will have some really surprising and interesting insights into fiction,” Tekulve said.

Mulkey says the opposite is often true in poetry.

“My own experience with undergraduate students writing poetry is that they are not fearless enough, they’re a little too worried about being exposed,” Mulkey said.

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

Canadian poet grants Center for Poetry endowment

Canadian-born poet and memoirist George Ellenbogen reads from his collection, "Morning Gothic."
Canadian-born poet and memoirist George Ellenbogen reads from his collection of poems, Morning Gothic. (Photo: Ian Siporin)

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.”

Posted in news, visiting writers, workshops

Storyteller weaves tales at Poetry Center

By Kelsey Block


Michigan storyteller, musician and educator Robin Nott visited the RCAH Center for Poetry last week as the first guest of the 2014 Fall Writing Series.

The 64-year-old said he first became interested in storytelling as a child at camp, but didn’t explore it in depth until he saw Storyteller Donald Davis speak at Ferris State University in 1981. From there, Nott said he combined his love for folk singing with storytelling.

“For me, music fits in as a part of the common cannon of our heritage. The story of our tradition is as musical as it is story-like … To me, they’re equal in appeal and age,” Nott said.  “All communication is negotiation, and oral tradition is the first negotiation … It’s really fundamental to our existence. Our lives are narratives… People sometimes perceive story as purely entertainment, when actually it’s fundamental communication.”

Nott teaches oral tradition at Gull Lake Community Schools in southwest Michigan. Many of his lessons and workshops incorporate movement as well as music and storytelling.

RCAH students Josh Schriver and Elsa Finch follow Nott's instructions during a workshop in RCAH professor Estrella Torrez's civic engagement class.
RCAH students Josh Schriver and Elsa Finch follow Nott’s instructions during a workshop in RCAH professor Estrella Torrez’s civic engagement class.

“When I educate on a daily basis in public schools, I educate utilizing the whole person, and I make sure that all of their domains of learning are covered – the sensory as well as the intellectual,” Nott said.  “The body is a huge learning device, and a mistake a lot of people make in education is that they view the body as only something to carry the head around from class to class. The body is a very powerful stimulator for learning. It fires people up to move, to touch each other, to express with their whole body. It really activates their depth and range of learning.” 

Also prominent in Nott’s work is a sense of place.

“It’s about me being able to invite you to a place so that you’ll join me there, and proceed to also involve you in what happens there and who’s there, so a sense of place is huge,” Nott said, adding that the listener is just as important as the story itself.

“It’s a two-party system. You’ve heard ‘if a tree falls in the forest’? It’s very similar. If a story is told in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, is it really a story? In one sense, it is, because of the need for the person to tell that story, but in another sense, it isn’t, because nobody heard the story,” he said.  

Nott said one of the biggest challenges storytellers face today is our increasing reliance on technology.

“Oral storytelling has a lot to do with people getting back to evaluating their story and realizing its significance,” he said.