Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: Not Forgotten, by Toi Derricotte

We hope you’ll join us this week for a workshop with Toi Derricotte at 3 p.m. Wednesday, April 12, and a reading at 7 p.m. the same day. Visit here for details.




I love the way the black ants use their dead.

They carry them off like warriors on their steel

backs. They spend hours struggling, lifting,

dragging (it is not grisly as it would be for us,

to carry them back to be eaten),

so that every part will be of service. I think of

my husband at his father’s grave—

the grass had closed

over the headstone, and the name had disappeared. He took out

his pocket knife and cut the grass away, he swept it

with his handkerchief to make it clear. “Is this the way

we’ll be forgotten?” And he bent down over the grave and wept.



Toi Derricotte, “Not Forgotten” from Tender. Copyright © 1997 by Toi Derricotte. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.



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. Edited 5/8/17 to include additional reflections.


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.



AWP 2017: A New Love for Literature

Arzelia Williams, Intern: MSU Arts & Humanities/Social Relations & Policy Sophomore

Everyone told me as a first time attendee to AWP, it is not wise to try to do everything in three days. When I walked into the Convention Center and saw giant signs with a directory listing of panels before making my way to the escalator leading me to the largest collection of books I have even seen outside of a library, I knew I would try to do everything anyway.

I wondered how many times on Thursday morning after my first panel whether or not my responsibility was to be an activist first and an artist second or reverse order. It was Eleanor Wilner during the panel that said “my mind is a dog without a master.” This reminded me that my art is freeing and speaks of truth. Even if that truth disrupts another fantasy. She reminded everyone of how Robert Hayden refused to call himself a black poet even if his poems were soaked in the meaning of being black. This encouraged me to question the meaning of blackness within my own art. Her words resonated with me. “The proof is always in the poem. It is then the poem may serve without being service literature.”

My favorite panel that I accidentally stumbled upon was “When a Poet and a Cartoonist Walk into a Bar: Collaborating Across Genres.” When reading it in the program book and looking at the title, I made the assumption that the panel would be focused primarily on animation. I was surely wrong. A poet and artist by the name of Jonah Mixon-Webster created a soundtrack of black laughter. He summarizes the project with “the sound of black joy is a pollutant to those who historically hate it.” This audio track was influenced by a 2015 incident on the Napa Valley Wine Train in which a black women’s book club was booted from the train after being accused of laughing too loudly. The ways in which we intersect poetry with other art forms to create a finished piece or collection is fascinating. He mentioned the process to create the project involved approximately 32 hours of audio recording to create a ten-minute clip. The way in which we are influenced by the things we hear and see transforms poetry into non-traditional works of art.

Overall, the most distinct part of AWP I remember most was the people I went with. Too often we see each other in the Poetry Center, at events, or passing by in the hallway but we rarely get to sit down and share stories with each other. All of us attended different panels that matched our own interests and we would share the best part of our day over dinner during our time at AWP. It provided an opportunity for me to get to know the other interns better, resulting in us becoming closer.


Community, Activism, and Empowerment: AWP 2017

Sydney Meadowcroft, Intern: MSU Arts & Humanites (m. Sociology) Senior

Community and activism were everywhere you looked at this year’s AWP conference. Although this was my first time attending the conference, and I had no frame of reference for the atmosphere of previous events, it was clear there was something in the air this year. Just blocks from the White House and Capitol Hill, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was abuzz with writers and readers eager to discuss how their craft can fit into and affect the contentious political and cultural atmosphere. The sessions were proposed and planned almost a year ago, but each I attended seemed to have taken on a new life, fueled by passion to stand up for human rights, equality, inclusion, and the arts.

For my fellow interns and me, AWP was an important form of self-directed and self-motivated education. Once we set foot into the convention center, we were set loose to explore, choose sessions to attend, wander the book fair, and essentially do as we pleased from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nothing but our commitment to the Center for Poetry and our paid registration fee really held us to absorbing all the knowledge we did. But all of us dove in head first to sessions close to the length of a typical college class, but that felt like a distinguished privilege to witness. Although some of us were a bit too eager and drained our mental and physical energy during the first day, we took advantage of all the knowledge and passion the presenters were pouring out across the vast convention center.

As a white, straight, cisgender female, I felt a pull to attend sessions outside of my own (largely privileged) identities, and learn from people working to make their voices heard and make room for others to do the same. I attended a panel discussion on how to write with or against your identity and how activism should play into your art. I listened as trans and gender non-conforming writers read their writing and expressed their experiences. However, I also let myself be drawn to events that spoke to my identities and interests, listening to messages of female empowerment, discussions of environmentalism in writing, and even analysis of “Hamilton: An American Musical” and its dealings with race, history, and the relationship between poetry and hip hop. Finding the balance of pursuing my own passions and learning about those of others was important to me in having an educational and successful AWP. As I listened to the wonderful experiences of my fellow interns as we shared highlights at dinner each night, I found myself wishing I had Hermione Granger’s time turner, or some kind of ability to spread myself at multiple events at once. There was so much to absorb and learn on such a variety of topics.

This atmosphere of many creative people coming together under a love of writing and reading, yet discussing so many different topics, reminded me a lot of the community in the RCAH. Although we study in and are passionate about so many different fields, we come together over a curiosity about the world and everything it has to offer. You will scarcely find an RCAH community member who isn’t interested in what you’re passionate about, even if their passions differ widely from yours. The same was true for AWP. Everyone was there to learn and share, to expand their knowledge and to come together to defend their right to speak out for their passions and values.

Our AWP experience (besides the night’s dance party and the 10 hour drive home) concluded in Lafayette Square across from the White House on Saturday night. Hundreds of AWP attendees gathered there for a candlelight vigil in support of free speech. Although it was difficult to hear the speakers on the makeshift sound system, just being there in solidarity was powerful enough for me. I enjoyed simply staring at the flickering of my candle, watching the strange and beautiful shapes the wax made as it melted and tumbled on top of itself. As I stared I tried to come up with a metaphor for the wax, but nothing came to me. But that was okay; I realized I needed that moment to just enjoy the beauty of the phenomena, along with the beauty of so many people coming together to defend their rights and what they’re passionate about.

There are countless beautiful moments I wish I had time and space to write about, from jokes and deep political discussions with my fellow interns, to witnessing two attendees who had just met shower each other with compliments and empowerment, to seeing Sarah Kay read again after discovering her at Wednesday Night Live as an RCAH freshman. The experience of AWP was greater and more valuable than I can describe. It felt like the first push of a send off into that ever-closer looming “real world” I will step into come May, both exhilarating and terrifying. Weeks later, I’m still struggling with that candle metaphor, but AWP taught me that what’s important is that I’m still trying; still fighting to express myself and explore my passions.


Excitement + Exhilaration + Exhaustion = Excellent Experience

Erin Lammers, Intern; MSU Arts & Humanities/History senior

Though it’s been almost two months since we attended AWP in Washington, DC, I’m still struggling to put the experience into words and tangible moments.  One aspect of the trip overall that most of us agree on is that none of us were prepared for the wonderful monstrosity that is AWP.  We were excited to visit DC—the first time, for some of us—we were excited to get to know each other better, and we were excited to gain further insight into the intent and impact of poetry.  Little did I know how relevant every single instant would be to redefining and affirming my conceptions of writing, poetry, narrative building, and community engagement.

By simply browsing the panel options offered during each time slot throughout each of the three days, we inferred stark differences in academic and literary interest.  This disparity was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed us to attend as many diverse discussions as possible.  At the end of every day, we chatted over dinner about which sessions we attended, which speakers were worthwhile, and what we took away from some of the best panels.  The first day, I felt like my head might explode from the sheer weight of new ideas and ways of conceptualizing writing; I attended six and a half sessions, and I was exhausted.  I was exhilarated, but exhausted.  Most of the panels that I attended ran along a similar theme: community building, accessible material, and inclusive practices.  While the entire conference was not solely about poetry, almost half of the sessions that I went to addressed or incorporated poetry in some way, which surprised and impressed me.  These academic-influenced combinations of literary activism with the importance of poetry – especially spoken word – provided reassurance that the aspirations I have after college are indeed possible.  Furthermore, many of the collaborative and inclusive tools and suggestions shared also stimulated new ideas for community/outreach events and programs related to my work in museums, where public enrichment and engagement is vital.

Prior to arriving in DC, I had laid out extensive schedules for every day of the conference, but on the second and third days, I had spontaneously altered my day plan.  On the second day, I made the mistake (or happy accident, depending on how you look at it) of wandering into the book fair, which consisted of over 900 booths and tables.  I was both overwhelmed and enthralled, given that fabulous and intriguing books of poetry and fiction sprawled endlessly, along with just as many interesting people visiting and hosting the booths.  Overall, I would argue that most attendees of the conference—presenters, panelists, booth operators, and average visitors—were welcoming, positive, and engaging professionals willing to discuss important, complex topics raised throughout the conference.  What further surprised me was the range of professions and interests that people ascribed to, and how these differences provided a plethora of platforms for learning and knowledge exchange.  Being an undergraduate student, I found that every session I attended was not only accessible, but relevant to my work within and outside of the Center for Poetry.  The applicability of various ideologies and practices to the fields of history, museum work, and community-based non-profit organizations is just one among many immeasurable benefits of experiencing AWP.

I will count attending the AWP conference as a representative from the Center for Poetry, RCAH, and MSU as one of the high points in an already spectacularly fulfilling and opportunity-laden academic year.  Not only did conference staff, presenters, panelists, writers, and other attendees establish and reinforce RCAH principles of learning and engagement, but they were also welcoming and encouraging.  AWP strove to create an intellectually and compassionately uninhibited atmosphere to confront complex, systemic societal issues alongside contemporary concerns, and why and how they affect all of us.  More importantly, it is so imperative that these narratives are recognized and told, specifically from their own perspectives, and that writing – poetry especially – provides a sometimes painful, usually beautiful, and always necessary way to experience the world.


Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the week: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” By Bob Dylan


Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off
Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did
God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way, lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap in the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put, plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway, Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May, orders from the DA
Look out kid, don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes, don’t try, ‘No Doz’
Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose, watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man, to know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well, hang around an ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell, if anything is goin’ to sell

Try hard, get barred, get back, write Braille

Get jailed, jump bail Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid, you’re gonna get hit
But losers, cheaters, six-time users
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool, lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift, twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid, they keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle, don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals

Don’t wanna be a bum, you better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles.

Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan, originally released in 1965 as a single on Columbia Records 

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,”by Natalie Diaz

Angels don’t come to the reservation.
Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.
Coyotes, too. They all mean the same thing—
death. And death
eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel
fly through this valley ever.
Gabriel? Never heard of him. Know a guy named Gabe though—
he came through here one powwow and stayed, typical
Indian. Sure he had wings,
jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. Wherever he stops,
kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.
Like I said, no Indian I’ve ever heard of has ever been or seen an angel.
Maybe in a Christmas pageant or something—
Nazarene church holds one every December,
organized by Pastor John’s wife. It’s no wonder
Pastor John’s son is the angel—everyone knows angels are white.
Quit bothering with angels, I say. They’re no good for Indians.
Remember what happened last time
some white god came floating across the ocean?
Truth is, there may be angels, but if there are angels
up there, living on clouds or sitting on thrones across the sea wearing
velvet robes and golden rings, drinking whiskey from silver cups,
we’re better off if they stay rich and fat and ugly and
’xactly where they are—in their own distant heavens.
You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, they’ll be marching you off to
Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they’ve mapped out for us.
Natalie Diaz, “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” from When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copyright © 2012 by Natalie Diaz. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.
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Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: Easter, 1916

100 years ago on April 24, an uprising took place against Great Britain’s rule of Ireland. Though the uprising was unsuccessful and many of the prominent Irish leaders involved were executed, the uprising exemplified national pride and revolution. Later that year, poet William Butler Yeats composed “Easter, 1916” describing his conflicted emotions towards the event.

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone.

Hearts with one purpose alone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Easter 1916,” by William Butler Yeats. As published in The Dial, Volume LXIX, No. 25 (New York, November 1920).




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 poem of the week

Poem of the Week: Eating Walnuts

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 11.07.54 AM

The old man eating walnuts knows the trick:
you do it wrong for many years,
applying pressure to the seams,
to split the shell along its hemispheres.

It seems so clear and easy. There’s the line.
You follow the instructions, then
your snack ends up quite pulverized.
You sweep your lap, and mutter, try again.

Eventually you learn to disbelieve
the testimony of your eyes.
You turn the thing and make a choice
about what you’d prefer to sacrifice.

You soon discover that the brains inside
are on right angles, so the shell
must be cracked open on its arc,
which isn’t neat. The shattered pieces tell

a story, but the perfect, unmarred meat’s
the truth: two lobes, conjoined, intact.
One of two things is bound to break:
One the fiction, one the soul, the fact.

Poem by Jennifer Keith

Posted in news, Uncategorized

Beloved pair steps down from Community Council

By Kelsey Block

Glenn and Sue Stutzky, the longest serving members of the Center for Poetry’s Community Council, have recently retired from their positions. While they still support the Center’s mission, they finished their terms proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.

The Stutzkys have been involved with the Center for Poetry even before it began. They were first drawn to the Center because of their previous relationship with Center for Poetry Director Anita Skeen, who they met through the One Book, One Community workshops.

“We just need more investment in the arts. People getting involved in the community council, it’s actually a very low-cost way to further the arts,” Glenn Stutzky said.

Sue works as a legislative analyst for the Michigan House of Representatives, and Glenn is a professor in the school of social work at Michigan State University. The two don’t always have the chance to engage with poetry and creative writing in their professions, and they’ve welcomed the opportunities the Center for Poetry has provided.

“We’ve seen people who have had the same experience as us – writing was something that was accessible. We didn’t have to be in a degree program, we could still learn and create,” Glenn Stutzky said.

Since joining the Community Council, the pair has helped bring a number of new events to the Center for Poetry, including a pie and poetry night. They’ve also been instrumental in the Center for Poetry’s mission to establish a poet laureate in the state of Michigan.

The accomplishment they’re most proud of, however, is bringing Appalachian musician Elizabeth LaPrelle to East Lansing in 2012. The Stutzkys attended a music festival where LaPrelle was performing and asked if she would like to visit the Center – for free.

“We thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great to have a night of Appalachian music and poetry?’” Sue Stutzky said.

The Stutzkys turned LaPrelle’s visit into a fundraiser for the Center.

“She had her following (in Appalachian music) and I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t this be nice if she drew some people from there?’ Because chances are, there are also people who would enjoy poetry. And that happened, and a number of people got introduced (to the Center for Poetry) that way,” Sue Stutzky said.

Since LaPrelle’s visit , the Center for Poetry has expanded its programming to include not just poets, but musicians and writers in other genres. This past fall, the Center hosted another pair of Appalachian folklorists, Michael and Carrie Kline along with Iowa-native singer-songwriter Nathan Bell.

In the future, the Stutzkys said they would like to see the Center’s reach expand even further into the community, both within Lansing and even statewide. They also hope the Center works to increase its contacts with other arts organizations in the state.

“I think the Community Council could work in trying to be more of a bug whereby poetry enthusiasts around the state can connect with each other and be aware of what’s happening,” Sue Stutzky said. “Slowly, word is getting out. It’s expanding. More poets, both people who have had some poems published and people who just write for their own edification, are getting to know about the Center and are coming to events.”

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 news

An interview with Leila Chatti, poet and former RCAH student

Poet and RCAH graduate Leila Chatti’s poem, “What Do Arabs Think of Ghosts” was recently selected by Tracy K. Smith to appear in the annual anthology, Best New Poets. RCAH Center for Poetry intern Kelsey Block interviewed Chatti, who now lives in France, via email about the upcoming anthology:

KB: What first interested you in poetry/writing?
LC: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in poetry, so part of me thinks it’s innate, like a fondness for music or dance. As an infant, my parents gave me books to entertain myself with, and there are a number of photographs of me in a stroller or crib with a book open in my lap. I began writing poems when I was first able to write—my family saved some of my poems from Kindergarten, most them involve animals—and I guess I just never stopped! I do think I developed an ear for the music of poetry through my faith, however; I was raised Muslim, and began reciting the Qur’an at age 5. I was fascinated with the rhythm and rhyme of the recitation and I think hearing it around me every day had a significant impact during my formative years. To this day, I write first with my ear.

KB: In the true RCAH way, you seem to be interested in a lot of things – poetry, teaching, writing, photography, fashion, travel. How do you coordinate all of that into a career?
LC: Haha, thank you! I have a lot of interests, that is true (perhaps it has to do with my Gemini sign?). As far as turning that into a career, my father gave me the best advice when I was first beginning to ask that question; he said, “Do what you love and you’ll get where you need to be.” What I love most is what I work hardest at, and what I work hardest at is what I’m best at (which leads, hopefully, to a job!). Also, letting go of my need for a predetermined path lead me to opportunities I never imagined; I just followed my interests with feverish perseverance and dedication and, without “trying,” suddenly I’d accumulated knowledge and skills that I could apply towards a career. Does that make sense?

Of course, though, it’s a little scary to be in the field of arts and literature! You’re likely going to have periods of being broke, unless you have some rich benefactor (anyone out there looking?), and I don’t mean to downplay that bit of information. This isn’t a path to riches. But it’s also not impossible; I keep doing the things I love, and some of them make me money, and some of them “just” make me happy.

KB: This is always a fun one. Tell me about your best day.
LC: That I’ve actually had, or that I can imagine? Here’s both:

Real: I’m lucky to have had a lot of great days, but one that stands out was a sunny day in May a few years back, when I was teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area. My partner Henrik (another RCAH alum!), his best friend, my best friend, and I spent a day at the beach and then got a delicious lunch (at Burma Superstar, check it out if you’re ever in Oakland) and ice cream, and we laughed a lot that day and got that nice kind of sunburn that pinks your cheeks but doesn’t hurt. We took this Polaroid photo that still is a running joke with us because it developed overexposed and one of us only had eyes and a smile, and we thought this was hilarious (still do). It maybe seems unremarkable, but it was a really great day.

Imagined: Something similar to the above! I’m fond of beaches, warm weather, and my good friends. Maybe I’d have it in Tunisia so that I could also have my family join in. And I’d start it with writing poems in the early morning before anyone’s woken, and end it with dancing.

KB: This one’s a little more intense… But it helps me get a sense of who you are as a person: Tell me about your worst day.
LC: Unfortunately, I have also had a number of bad days. The one that remains the worst day, and I think will always be so, was the day my aunt died. It is the day that separates my life into two distinct parts: before, and after. I don’t think I can imagine a worse one.

KB: Now, I want to be a little more specific about your career as a writer. You recently earned your MFA, and there’s a lot of discussion going on about the reasoning behind advanced degrees in arts and humanities fields. What is your take on it? As in, was your MFA worth it (and if so, what did it help you do that you couldn’t have learned on your own)? Or do you feel like you could have been successful without it?
LC: I highly, highly, highly recommend an MFA. Getting my MFA was the best decision I have ever made. What a gift to be given time to write, funding to support myself, and mentorship to guide me! You could manage a career without one (many have!), but if you get the opportunity, why not take it? My writing improved significantly, I now have an incredibly supportive writing community, and there’s the added perk of a degree that could get me a job—the MFA is a terminal degree, so you can teach at universities with one. There’s not a lot of a downside, in my opinion—but I absolutely do not recommend paying for one. It’s not worth going into debt for because it’s not a degree that will make you any money, and with so many programs out there that will fund you, there’s no need to shell out thousands of dollars. I’d advise anyone interested in an MFA to apply, and apply again if you don’t get in the first time (or second or third)—the odds are small, but not impossible, and plenty of great writers get in after a few years of rejection. Persevere! And if you don’t want to get an MFA, you can create a similar experience by reading everything you can get your hands on, joining or creating a writing community to exchange work with, and finding a mentor. There are many paths to a career in writing; I’m satisfied with the one I chose! J

Oh, and a little pitch—I received my MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University and I can’t say enough positive things about it. My mentor, Dorianne Laux, is one of the most brilliant, generous poets teaching today. You also receive full funding, Raleigh is beautiful, and the writing cohort has been consistently friendly and talented throughout the years.

KB: Who would you say have been your mentors so far? In what ways have they helped you shape your writing?
LC: Can I take a moment to say how grateful I am to all the talented writers out there giving their time to those just beginning their careers? It is a labor of love, and it makes all the difference. The support and guidance they provide is invaluable.

My first writing mentor was my high school English teacher Marianne Forman, though I’m not sure she knows it! I will never forget the day we first met: I was in the eighth grade, a “troubled” student who didn’t fit in or turn in schoolwork, and she approached me in the hallway to tell me she had heard I wrote poems, good ones. She said she was looking forward to having me as a student. And sure enough, when I got to the high school, she lent me books of poetry, met with me over coffee, read my poems—she was the first person who made me feel like I had something worthwhile to say.

In college, my mentor was Anita! But “was” is wrong, she is my mentor—I still look to her for guidance, and I am so grateful for her warmth, insight, and enthusiasm. You all are very lucky at the RCAH to have her! Anita insisted I read, read, read, which is the best advice anyone can give a poet. My thesis was a collection of poems on the topic of “Home” and those pieces were the first seeds of my later work—poems about family and culture.

When I moved to the Bay Area to teach high school special education, I went a whole year without a writing community, and it was hell. Luckily for me, one day I was reading a book by Kim Addonizio, a poet I greatly admired, and I noticed she lived in Oakland too; I sent her an e-mail, and a couple days later, I began studying with her! Serendipity. J Kim is funny, quick as a whip, and so generous; some of my fondest memories of Oakland were those Monday nights drinking wine and reading poems aloud to her cat, Vincent. She encouraged me to write the poems I was most scared of, which made me a much better poet. She also encouraged me to apply to MFA programs, in particular one that a friend of hers taught at—Dorianne Laux.

Dorianne is my poetry mother, sister, guiding star. I recently called her my poetry fairy godmother, and that sounds about right because she’s definitely got some kind of wonderful magic in her. She has the best ear I’ve ever encountered; she can hear a poem once and know exactly where it needs tweaking, and just how to do it. Magic! I have learned more from her than I can list. My favorite piece of advice: be strange.

John Balaban, the other half of the poetry faculty at NC State, is responsible for my love of formal poetry. He pushed me to master classic European forms like the sonnet and villanelle, as well as forms from my part of the globe like the ghazal and rubaiyat. I write a lot of formal poetry now, something I previously had felt intimidated by; I find that forms help me control difficult subjects.

This summer, I was lucky to gain two new mentors: Joy Harjo and Mary Szybist. They are wicked smart, fiercely kind women. Their advice has been similar: write the hard poems, listen closely, and nurture yourself. Joy is astutely observant, and taught me how to tune in to my body and the natural world. Mary, through gentle guidance, led me to the project I’m currently working on. Both have had a profound impact on my work in a very short amount of time.

KB: Your work deals with culture quite often, and I read a bio that referred to you as a Tunisian-American poet. Does your background ever provide inspiration for your writing? In what ways?
LC: I would definitely say it does. I think every writer is influenced by their background: it shapes our beliefs, preferences, and even how we perceive the world. Every poem I write is an “Arab” poem or a “Muslim” poem—or any other identity I claim—because I can only ever experience the world through the lens of who I am. I make a point to always identify first as a Tunisian-American poet because, growing up, I couldn’t find literature written by someone like me and that made me doubt whether my experience was worth writing about. I also think it’s helpful in breaking stereotypes about what can be part of the Arab/Muslim experience; there is one narrative that pervades, and it is one that is told by an outside, oppressive voice (that Muslim women are meek and obedient, that Arabs are violent and barbaric). I’m hoping to contribute to a greater conversation of voices that challenges these assumptions and diversifies the stories told. So when I write a poem that’s about desire, or grief, or the body, I want people to realize, “Oh yeah, her too.” It’s not all bombs and camels.

I do, though, write poems that are recognizably influenced by my background: I write about my faith and the rituals that were iconic of my childhood, such as fasting for Ramadan and the daily prayers; a number of my poems are set in Tunisia, where I have spent nearly every summer of my life and lived for a year as a child; and I write poems in response to the present political and social issues that affect my community, topics such as refugees, prejudice and violence in the United States, and the Arab Spring. I write what presses on me, and these provide steady pressure.

KB: You’ve won the Academy of American Poets Prize earlier this year, and the Pablo Neruda Prize, along with being featured in a number of other publications. Do you remember the first time you were published? What was that moment like?
LC: Yes I do! Vividly. It was May of 2014; I was packing up my apartment in Raleigh to move and was stressed to the gills. I took a break to check my e-mail and when I saw the message from Rattle I let out this huge scream. Henrik nearly had a heart attack, and my roommate came out of her room to see what was the matter. I spent much of the night afterwards dancing. There’s no thrill quite like that first one. 

KB:Your poem, “What Do Arabs Think of Ghosts?” was recently selected by Tracy K Smith (a former poetry center guest) as part of the Best New Poets anthology. What were you doing when you found out?
LC: I was in Tunisia, and was actually in a really bad mood. My cousin Hend was with me, and we were just idly surfing the web on our computers. I screamed (evidently that’s my M.O.) and once I read it again to be sure and explained it to Hend, she made me read the poem to her.

KB: What does it mean to be selected as a part of this particular anthology?
LC: To me, a lot! It’s been a long, difficult year. I was advised to divert all my energy into poetry whenever things were particularly difficult, so I spent months just writing and reading and sending work out to distract myself. To see that work pay off as I was finally emerging from the worst of it was immensely rewarding. I cried later that day; it was such a sudden, clear relief.

KB: I think you’re also working on a book, is that correct? Is it a book of poetry? (Just clarifying!)
LC: I am writing a book, and it is a book of poetry!

KB: How far along are you in the process of writing/publishing?
LC: Well, that’s a little complicated. I’m working on a long poem that may end up being the entirety of the book, but I haven’t decided yet. I’m also working on a series of poems that would work well in conversation with the piece, so maybe I’ll have the book include both. When I’m not working on those projects, I’m getting work together for a chapbook. I guess you could say I’m juggling a few things at the moment and focusing on writing first, organizing later.

KB: And now you’re living in France. What inspired the move?
LC: I needed a break from the U.S. I’d had an exhausting year and I needed a change to get my head back on straight. I find that being in a new place helps me get better in touch with myself and my goals when I start to lose track of it in the hubbub of daily American life. (We’re too busy in the U.S.!) Also, I had no plans for a job after graduation and I wanted to focus on writing, and, because of family connections, it was actually cheaper for me to go abroad than to stay in the U.S. So, multiple reasons! It’s been a very good experience.

KB: What advice do you have for other RCAH students?
LC: Don’t worry too much about the future! Or worry, and use that energy to do something about it; use it to motivate you. Don’t feel guilty about pursuing what you love, or ashamed if it doesn’t make you a lot of money. And don’t let failure stop you—I’ve failed many more times than I’ve succeeded. I just keep going at it.