Tag Archives: Poetry

When a Student Teaches the Teacher


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Jennifer Perrine speaks April 6 at Mount Mercy.

When writing professor Jennifer Perrine read some of her poetry tonight at Mount Mercy University, one student surprised her a little with some discerning observations—about, for example, how two of Perrine’s poems seem connected, one being a bit of a sequel to the other.

It was a connection the poet had not intended, but recognized when the student asked about it.

“You’re teaching me things,” Perrine said. “I enjoy that.”

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Detail of cover of Perrine’s book, “No Confession, No Mass.”

I enjoyed Perrine teaching us some new things in her poetry reading. I like clever use of language, and I felt many of her poems contained interesting and provocative verbal juxtapositions.

She noted that she when she began writing poetry, it was often about love, and one of her poems was written to a lover who was a tooth grinder. She called that act a “meditation on the erosion of the body” and noted how “we learned to sleep with that hum of friction.”

In years of writing love poems, she noted some themes echo—one being the lover as a magician or con artist. In one poem, she said: “I trade my bones for your balm.” That’s a neat line.

One form of poetry she has explored is the “aubade,” the morning love song. “If we can’t hold back the morning, we will lean into it,” she wrote. Also, because when a lover has to face the separation of another work day there is always some regret: “We invent new languages where every word means ‘night.’”

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Author’s hands holding her book as she reads.

These are just snippets of poems, I know, but I appreciate the way in which the words are layered, sounding and working together to create lyrical, interesting thoughts. I’m a strictly prose writer, so a poet has some challenge in holding my interest, but by that narrow standard, Perrine was a winner.

She also noted how, early in her writing career, she absorbed what she said was the wrong message: That a poet should not write about politics. She read from a poignant poem that spoke of her celebration of her 21st birthday in a gay bar the same day that Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming. Shepard, targeted for the killing because he was a homosexual, was himself only 21 when he died.

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Perrine signs books.

The poem, she noted, was partly fictional, because while she did celebrate her 21st birthday in a gay bar the day he died, she did not learn of the murder until the next day. Still, she captured the kind of shock a crowd can suffer when unexpected bad news spreads. In her imaging of a bar crowd’s reaction to the murder, a TV is turned up and the crowd falls silent: “A chorus of coughs trudges uncomfortably around the room.”

It was an interesting, enlightening night. And at the end of it, when students were asking questions, one asked her what she likes to do when she is not writing—a question that took her a little aback. “That is a good question,” she said. “Nobody ever asks me that.”

She hikes and she gardens. Well, those sound like good things, noted the man whose blog is partly called “garden.”

After the program, I returned to my office to pack some things for the ride home. As I headed outside to unlock my bike, I turned on my bike helmet headlight to see. As I was standing in the shadowy spot where the bike rack is located next to Warde Hall, I heard furtive, slightly nervous laughter.

“We thought you were a ghost,” said Mary Vermillion, English professor who was returning to Warde Hall with Perrine. “We were just talking about the paranormal.”

I’m not a ghost yet. But I would gladly play one in a Perrine poem, if it came to that. And I don’t aspire to always be normal, so I’ll take the “para” as a compliment. Somehow, it seemed like the right note to end the night on, so I hopped on my bike, partly packed with petite fours I had absconded with for my wife and daugher. I pedaled off into the night.

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Is This Blog Post Ready For the Done File?


Dr. Carol Tyx discusses her poetry at an afternoon session Sept. 19, 2013, at MMU.

Dr. Carol Tyx discusses her poetry at an afternoon session Sept. 19, 2013, at MMU.

I’m definitely a prose writer. I’ve done some poetry in the past, mostly for classes when I was undergraduate or high school student, but in terms of expressing myself, prose is where it’s at.

But, it was interesting listening to Dr. Carol Tyx this afternoon. A poet, she read some of her works and answered questions during a visiting writers program at Mount Mercy University.

For one thing, her poetry seems in touch with narrative and description, which are two aspects I aim for in my own writing.

Dr. Carol Tyx pauses to think during a poetry Q and A Sept. 19 at MMU.

Dr. Carol Tyx pauses to think during a poetry Q and A Sept. 19 at MMU.

But what struck me the most were her remarks about her writing and editing process. I didn’t take notes, so this is all from memory, but in short:

  • She seems to write mostly about real life. Granted, sometimes, she uses a character from a book she has read, but a lot of her poetry is intensely personal. Of the poems that she read, I think the one about her father’s death struck me the most—it was well crafted and full of emotion. Dr. Tyx was asked whether she prefers happy or sad poetry subjects, since her latest book has both, and she said it doesn’t really matter. I find the same, in some ways. Not that I don’t like happy, but what usually moves me is what is important to me, and the more intense an experience is, the easier it is to write about it. I find that writing is a way for me to process life experience, and that partly seems to be her approach, too.
  •  She has an interesting editing process. Dr. Tyx described how she has files on her computer of raw work, work that is being edited and work that is ready to release. “My poems go on a journey,” she said. She has written many, but notes that only two or three emerged whole—the rest take more crafting. “I can spend an inordinate amount of time on whether to place a comma,” she said. Maybe it’s because I deal strictly in prose, but I don’t tend to get so caught up in the mechanical details—but for me, most writing does evolve. If I’m struggling with a blog post, I’ll let it sit a day and come back, and sometimes what gets posted is far from where I started. Granted, other times it just flows. It seems to be flowing, now, which I hope is OK. Anyway, that idea of writing going on a journey is a pretty close description of what I do.
  • Dr. Mary Vermillion introduces Dr. Carol Tyx Sept. 19 at MMU.

    Dr. Mary Vermillion introduces Dr. Carol Tyx Sept. 19 at MMU.

    She is inspired by nature. She described being assigned a poem to write in sixth grade, and refusing to come in for dinner because she wanted to stay in the backyard until a poem emerged—and how she discovered it doesn’t usually work that way, but, on the other hand, the maple tree in the yard proved to be her inspiration. I don’t always write about nature, but I do spend a fair amount of time in my backyard, at least in summer, and there’s a reason I use “garden” in the name of my blog. I also draw inspiration from planet Earth. It was comforting to read a headline today that scientists predict this planet should remain in the Goldilocks zone for more than a billion more years. It’s a nice planet, full of gorgeous maples to inspire young poets in plenty of backyards. In fact, plants such as tomatoes and raspberry bushes where featured in several of the works Dr. Tyx read.

I enjoyed the afternoon. I hope the evening reading went well, too. And it was nice to see the Flaherty Community Room pretty packed for this program. More of my photos.

Write on, Dr. Tyx, right on.

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Some Prose and Poetry and Cowboys


Seminal Murder and author

Yeah, it's here. Mary is so excited. So am I.

Audrey and I attended an eclectic and fun program Thursday night at Mount Mercy University.

The student English Club hosted an “authors’ night” that featured five MMU English Professors.

Well, I enjoyed it all. The free food, the readings, the insight into James Joyce (whose novels I have not yet read, but I’ll check the Kindle site and see if Ulysses is a free classic), etc.

Christopher DeVault

Christopher DeVault speaks about his new book on James Joyce.

Christopher DeVault’s opening reflections on Joyce were the most cerebral part of the evening, but all five English profs had interesting points to make.

Jim Grove shared insights into one of the first movies I saw and enjoyed in the theater as a kid: The original “True Grit” starring John Wayne came out when I was 11 years old. Maybe it helped that I was 11 when I saw it, but I’ve always liked that movie. I’m not big into John Wayne, and the follow-up movie with Katharine Hepburn didn’t do much for me, but True Grit was colorful and captivating. Not all movies I liked as a kid have aged well, and I cannot honestly say True Grit is among my all-time favorites now, but I still find it a pleasant flick.

I think that one reason I enjoyed the movie when it came out was that it featured a strong female character. I was a lone boy in a family with seven children, and, surrounded by six sisters, I had plenty of real-life object lessons in proto-feminism. As Grove noted, the girl in the movie True Grit was not near as strong as the character had been in the source book, and the opening song cast her in a decidedly dependent role.  Still, even in the movie, the girl had spine.

His commentary was on the 1969 movie. I have not seen, but am now more anxious to see, the more recent version. Sounds like a DVD rental for the day after graduation.

Joy Ochs spoke compellingly about her work with a program at Zion National Park that takes honors students and gives them more insight into the natural wonder of that area. I have not been there, but now I want to be.

Yet, I have to say (well, I guess I don’t have to say—there is a First Amendment that provides both freedom of speech and freedom from speech—but I’m willing to say) that the night’s two other speakers were the highlights for me.

Carol Tyx has a new book of poetry and read a few. And Mary Vermillion shared the opening of her new mystery novel, due out in May.

Carol Tyx

Carol Tyx reads and talks about poetry.

Well. Tyx read poetry on topics that felt like an emotional roller coaster ride, to me. We got everything from the wonder of a grandchild to the gravity of death—thoughts about her father’s final moments and a poem about a racial murder in Texas. There even was an analogy of love in a cereal bowl. Trust me, it worked.

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Cover of Mary's new book (and Paha)

And Mary’s opening scene felt like hearing from old friends. I think there was a visible stir of pleasure in the room when Mara’s flamboyant male gay housemate sashayed into the scene. I’m already ready to grab “Seminal Murder” as soon as it comes out, just to see what my favorite carrot-topped, radio host, lesbian amateur sleuth is up to.

Carol, I think you almost did the impossible. You’ve probably sold me a book of poetry. Mary, you’ve done the quite likely. I would have bought your mystery novel anyway, but am even more excited to do so, now.

Chris, I don’t promise I’ll rush to get a book of analysis of Joyce, but this half Irish boy is now more curious about him.  Joy, I think you and I share a love of nature, and it was a pleasure to finally see your fine photos at the end.

Mary Vermillion

Mary Vermillion brings back Mara, her crime-solving sleuth, in "Seminal Murder."

And Jim, Jim, Jim. Yeah, you rusty old cowboy. I’m going to rent the new “True Grit” soon. And watch the old one right after it. And probably enjoy them both, even the bad Glen Campbell song.

Thanks, English Club, it was fun. English profs, you have another year to write your next books. Let’s do this again.

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The Crabapple’s Body is a Fountain


Camille Dungy

Poet Camille Dungy answers a question after reading a poem April 7 at Mount Mercy.

I’m not a big fan of poetry. Sure, I like the occasional Billy Collins creation.

But, much of the literary poetry my junior high and high school teachers sent my way didn’t move me or speak to me. Maybe it was due to 8th grade, where a nun was a bit too fond of Joyce Kilmer. I think I will never see a poem that stinks so much like “Trees.” Too bad Kilmer hadn’t been a Protestant—then Sister Rose would have probably stayed away from him.

Well, it’s not Kilmer’s fault his lines didn’t exactly awaken any poetic sense in me. I suppose poetry is a bit like food—different people have a taste for different kinds.

Camille Dungy

Camille Dungy, answering a student's question about why she became a poet: "I just like to hear myself." Seems like an answer an active blogger can understand.

Then again, in my formative teen and young adult years, the great poets of society were busy writing popular tunes. But, sadly, a serious lyric shortage (did OPEC ration vowels, too?) hit during the disco era which tarnished the poets’ works during the late 1970s. Consider, for example, this epitome of verse from 1979:

“Gonna have some lovin’
Got to have a love tonight
I need hot stuff, hot love
Lookin’ for hot love

Hot, hot, hot, hot stuff
Hot, hot, hot
Hot, hot, hot, hot stuff”

OK, that was cruel (to be kind). Anybody from anywhere near my generation now has a persistent Donna Summers earworm going.

So, with a personal history like that, poetry was not my thing, my bag, my hobby or shtick. When differential equations persuaded me that engineering would not be in my future, and maternal genes suggested writing might be, I went totally prose, man.

Like Sgt. Friday on Dragnet. Just the facts, ma’m.

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Poet Camille Dungy in a lighter moment during her April 7 reading at MMU.

I was pleasantly surprised by poet Camille Dungy, who read tonight at Mount Mercy University. I enjoyed her poetry, partly because it was all about “real” topics, but also partly because it was artful.

Like Kilmer, Dungy wrote about trees. But her springtime poem, almost guaranteed to appeal to a guy who calls his blog “Crgardenjoe,” had interesting comparisons and imagery about plants. She personified different trees, and had them thinking pretty lewd thoughts, which seems appropriate, when you think about what flowers actually are.

I’m not great at quoting, so I hope I’m not messing the line up, but she described one tree’s spring attitude: “The crabapple acts like her body is a fountain.” Dungy, in the poem, urges her reader to “drink” in spring, “drink from the poplar’s grail.”

Pretty heady stuff, and it beats “Trees” upside the head and down again.

She had me with spring. Then the lady got into African-American history, reading poems with characters like a 19th century freeman kidnapped back into slavery or a slave girl shutting herself in a crate to be shipped north.

I was a history major as an undergraduate and, while not a historian, always enjoy interesting tales from the great human narrative. I think Camille nailed it when she said “in history, we find the now.”

Well, it was an interesting evening. My “to read” list is taking some interesting twists this semester. I’m almost done with “This Flowing Towards Me” and have a second MMU reading program book waiting on my nightstand. But what next?

Poetry? Poetry that is not by Billy Collins? Yeah. Maybe I should read that.

Camille Dungy

Poet Camille Dungy. She moved from California to Iowa as a teen, but is a professor in California now.

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A Very Short Faux Haiku Blog Post


Tristan rhymes
with piston and
this is no coincidence

OK, OK, it’s not much, and not even structurally really haiku. I just got done playing with the cute little ball of energy, and also, after engorging myself on chili and pumpkin bars, was bounced on by his 2-year-old sister.

“Nikayla” should rhyme with “piston” too-and she does, even if her name doesn’t.

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