Cherry Pie

We are just back from a lovely trip to see my mother in Osage, Iowa, where I grew up. It is always great to get back there and see neighbors and friends, many of whom have been around since I was a boy.

Like most visits, this one was filled with great food. In the summer we often time our visits to coincide with the North Star cherry harvest from the tree in Mom’s back yard. This year there was a bumper crop, which the birds didn’t destroy for some reason, despite the fact that Mom didn’t put up much netting, which she usually has done. We picked for several days and made cherry jam, cherry sauce, and a couple of delicious cherry pies, picking enough to freeze the fillings for several more!

North Stars are a deep, dark red, very tart cherry that is hard to beat in a sauce over chocolate (or vanilla) ice cream or in a pie. I’ve never seen them in a store, and they wouldn’t be as fresh and delicious if you hadn’t picked them yourself, so I’m afraid if you don’t have a tree in your or a neighbor’s back yard, you’re out of luck.

In case you’re wondering, we use a lattice-top for the cherry pie crusts and made homemade pie dough. I made the first crust, and Mom helped with the second so I could take Aidan swimming in the new Cedar River Complex one afternoon. Of course, I learned to make pies from Mom, so she should get all the credit anyway. We use Crisco, rather than lard, but other than that, it is the same old-fashioned recipe… 2 cups of flour and 2/3 cups (plus two tablespoons) Crisco cut together with a pastry cutter (and a little salt), then mix in 5-7 tablespoons (or more as needed) ice water and mix with a fork after each spoonful of water. Don’t handle the dough much and refrigerate before rolling out into two crusts.

In memoriam Bill Whitehead, 25 October, 1937 – 24 June, 2010

Bill was the strongest, most caring of men–a wonderful father to Kim and her sisters and grandfather to Aidan and his cousins. He was a millwright and in later years, a farmer. He passed away tonight at about 11:00 p.m. For the past year we knew he suffered from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). He may have had symptoms for several years but never complained, and he fought the good fight, surviving much longer than his doctors expected thanks to his incredible heart and the care of his wife, Betty. Though he suffered the ravages of this disease, he rarely complained. In the end, he found peace from his suffering. Many thanks to the Hospice of Marshall County, Alabama, and to the ALS Chapter of Alabama for their support and care throughout this trying illness. Bill will be greatly missed–he is deeply loved.

Back to Normal

Zinneke and Buford
Zinneke and 'Buford'
Life must be getting back to normal a little (if summer can be considered normal around here). Despite the fact that we were heading into finals, we made the plunge to foster another puppy. Tomorrow he leaves for a new home in the North, but we’ve enjoyed him for nearly three weeks in the meantime. There’s no stress-reliever quite like having a puppy crawl all over you or take little nips out of your ear. Of course, there can be stresses related to barking all night or doing things in the house that shouldn’t be done, but “Buford,” as the Humane Society dubbed him, has been very good in this regard. He sleeps most of the night and is happy to spend most of his days in our fenced-in back yard with our dog Zinneke.

Still, as I was walking them this morning and thinking about writing a cute puppy post, he grabbed something unmentionable off the side of the road and tried to eat it. Let’s just say that, though I’m not squeamish and normally wouldn’t hesitate to stick my fingers in his mouth to remove the offending substance, this was not one I wanted to get my hands on, but I was able to get him to drop most of it, reminding myself that puppies can be gross as well as cute. In fact, maybe it’s a good thing they can be so cute…

Other signs of normalcy: I raked up magnolia leaves yesterday and will soon mow the lawn (as soon as the dew is off the grass). I’m no longer grading, but am working on grant reports and scholarship applications (reading and evaluating them, not writing them, of course). And soon 130-some haiku will arrive at my door for judging, as I’ve answered the call of the Iowa Poetry Association once again. I’m looking forward to it!

I have a few more books to send back and payments to make for the Southern Literary Festival (including those grant reports). Then I can begin serious work on the Welty Symposium and hopefully take some time for my own writing, not to mention the summer projects we have around the house! August will be here before we know it, but for now the long expanse of summer seems like a welcome sight. We’re looking forward to some travel and, who knows, maybe even another foster puppy or two or perhaps a cycle of puppy haiku.

What has kept me busy?

Southern Literary Festival 2010 PosterAnyone who has visited my blog has noticed that there’s been a hiatus in my writing since February. Hopefully, with the end of the semester drawing near, that is about to change! But it hasn’t just been teaching four classes (two sections of Survey of World Literature, one of Creative Writing, and one of Modern Poetry) that has kept me from blogging. The course prep and the grading has been enough to keep me busy, but I’d still be able to squeeze in some time for this.

I did manage to squeeze in time for a conference paper and moderating the panel at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in April. Our panel was on assessing creative writing, and to help carry the conversation forward, I created a wiki — my first foray into wikidom — where we all posted our papers and handouts. It can be found at

However, the main thing that has kept me busy this semester (and last) has been the Southern Literary Festival, which was held last weekend at MUW. Despite thunderstorms (no tornadoes in Columbus, thank goodness!) and lots of rain, everything went very well. Of the 20 schools in the association, 12 had students enrolled in workshops and another 3-4 came for the other Festival events, which included three featured readings in the evenings and nine readings and craft talks by our workshop leaders during the day. With 60 students in 12 workshops, there was a lot to coordinate, especially when some students dropped out at the last minute and others had to be helped with getting their files turned in. But all our campus coordinators were great at communicating with their students and sending the ones who needed the most help to me.

To keep track of all those student files and allow them to exchange stories, poems, plays, and essays with each other, I set up another wiki. This one was private, so there’ll be no link, but it had space for each workshop, and several lists of workshop participants to allow a couple of ways for everybody to find where they were supposed to be and when. Setting up the website wasn’t so hard, but keeping up with constantly changing schedules and helping students upload their files took a fair amount of time.

It was all worth it, however, as students and their faculty coordinators have generally given us good marks for the festival we put on. Besides the workshops, we also organized three student panels so the prize winners of the literary contest would have more time to read from their work, and they would get their name on the program. This is the kind of exposure that can really help someone out as they continue on in their education and apply for graduate schools.

But now, rather than basking in the glow of success, I need to pay invoices, request travel money and honoraria for our authors, work on submitting our grant reports (grants from the Mississippi Humanities Council and Mississippi Arts Commission helped us fund the Festival). Oh yes, and turn back to grading and preparing for exams! And as I write, our roofer is over my head, figuring up an estimate to replace shingles damaged in a major hail storm in March. One car is back from the shop, and mine is in getting repaired after the same storm. It’s been a busy spring!

Tribute to Jean C. Lee

Jean Lee was an amazing artist, writer, editor, and human being. I first met her when I was a student at Knox College and she was the technical advisor for Catch, the student literary magazine. She taught me most everything I know about editing and design. Later, after I had worked in Chicago for a couple of years and was returning to reality after an extended European trip one summer and fall, Jean and Robin Metz took me in. Jean offered me a job typesetting the mammoth Siwasher/Catch Alumni Edition and helping with typesetting and layout of Farmer’s Market, a regional literary magazine that had developed quite a reputation after she took it over. That is when I became acquainted with Jean’s graphic arts work on the covers. The series was to extend through the alphabet, though unfortunately I never collected more than the ones I’ve posted here as a tribute to her life and creative genius. I would love to see more of those covers, if anyone has them. I’m not positive whether she was able to complete the series of linoleum block prints before circumstances caused her to give up the magazine and leave Galesburg. I regret that I didn’t maintain contact with Jean in recent years. She was a wonderful person and a gifted artist. Our world is poorer for her passing.

Where do we go from here? One faculty member’s perspective

[The following is a column originally printed in the Commercial Dispatch, Columbus, Mississippi, on Sunday, February 7.]

I ended a recent letter stating MUW needs to look to the future and be proactive. The issues of changing our name or merging with another university appear to be behind us for now, and no matter what our positions have been, we must face the reality that we remain Mississippi University for Women. We are capable of facing the tough challenges ahead, so the question that will determine our future is: How? I believe we must stick to our mission and capitalize on our strengths.

Clearly, the budget is our most pressing issue. We must work diligently to assure fair and adequate funding from IHL, including a funding formula that does not discriminate against small teaching universities. MUW and any other university in this category must receive the small school supplement because we do not have access to as many grants, we do not have graduate students to teach our classes, and we do not have the economies of scale of the larger research oriented institutions. Yet the small schools serve a segment of the population that would not succeed in a large university environment. MUW has the smallest enrollment in the state, yet we are currently denied the small school supplement. This situation must be rectified.

We must also join alums in a capital campaign to raise private funds to offset some of the losses in state revenues due to the current budget crisis. Donations to our general fund will help us meet our immediate needs, and donations to scholarships will help offset increases in tuition, which MUW has requested along with the other IHL institutions. Higher tuition will not hurt our students, if we can help them find more financial aid to help cover the costs.

Maintaining access to higher education must remain one of MUW’s primary goals. Despite tuition increases, MUW remains the best value in public or private colleges in the state. In order to improve in this area, we also must find new ways to reach segments of the population who haven’t had access to higher education, while maintaining our unique mission.

Online education has been promoted as one way to “save the ‘W,” yet it seems unlikely that MUW will become the next University of Phoenix. One of our strengths is our small campus environment. which does not fit with a large online presence. Yet students are more likely to have full-time jobs and families. They are used to online classes and they demand some online options . Yet MUW must be careful how we implement them. Rushing into a major online presence would be detrimental to our image and our mission, and we may not be able to compete with other institutions who have a head start in this area. We must continue to develop the highest quality online or hybrid programs and classes that offer flexibility and a personal approach. Students will choose a class that is well organized over one that is not. They will choose a class where the instructor communicates with them and answers their questions promptly. And they will choose a class from an institution with a reputation like MUW’s.

To maintain and polish our reputation, MUW must reaffirm its mission as a small, liberal arts and professional university with a woman’s emphasis. It is easy to claim a woman’s mission, but it is another thing to define what that is and to show that it is still valuable. Many of our alumnae have extolled the benefits they received from attending MUW. In comparison to other women in their graduate programs and professions, they report they are more empowered to take part in discussions and participate in their fields. They do not even consider taking a back seat to their male colleagues, while many of their female colleagues do. Women students at MUW have not been coddled or protected. On the contrary, they have been challenged to succeed in ways that are not as available in traditional coed institutions.

It is true that MUW admits men, and the number of male students has steadily grown. Clearly these men find value in a university with a woman’s emphasis. As we reaffirm our woman’s mission, we must also evaluate how we can best serve this part of our demographic.

Men as well as women benefit from small class sizes and personal attention from faculty and advisors. Beyond the small college experience, our male students benefit from a woman’s emphasis where issues of gender are at the forefront, and men benefit from learning in a collaborative teaching environment. The men at MUW learn valuable skills for working with women in leadership positions, which are skills they will need in a modern work environment where more women are becoming managers and executives.

MUW also offers leadership opportunities to men. We have had male Student Government Association Presidents and officers. We have fraternities, and our male students are active in other student groups. Men at MUW do not take a back seat to women, but they also do not assume they will take the front seat. In many ways, men at MUW learn to compete and cooperate better than they would in an environment where they still have an advantage because of their gender.

MUW must market itself as the right choice for both men and women because of its woman’s mission, not despite it. To do so, MUW must tout its successes. We must let the world know about our alumnae and alumni who have gone on to successful careers. We must also promote our many successful programs, from art exhibits and auctions, to music concerts, theatre productions, and literature conferences such as the Eudora Welty Writers Symposium and Tennessee Williams festival, and to our excellent programs in Education, Nursing, Culinary Arts, and Business (to name but a few and leave out too many). MUW is a vibrant campus serving the needs of its students and benefiting the community at large, and too often we are too humble about our accomplishments.

Finally, MUW must reaffirm our woman’s emphasis by engaging in a dialogue about how we define it and why it is vital to the MUW experience. This must not be a topdown process, but must come from our three main constituent groups: faculty and staff, students, and alums. These three groups, more than any others, must define our future. Our alums are our link with the past and tradition, but they are also our first line of support and they are committed to our future. Our faculty and staff, including administrators, represent continuity. Many of us have been here a decade or more. We are engaged with students every day, and we all participate in the governance of the university. Our students are our present and our future. They can best tell us why they chose MUW, how it meets their needs, where we need to improve, and what our prospective students want and need. Only a process that truly engages the university community as a whole and from the ground up will have a chance of uniting that community and renewing the strength we need to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Vegetarian Hutsepot: Warm food for a cold night!

A winter storm with up to an inch or two of snow is predicted to hit Mississippi tonight. People were already in the grocery store stocking up, when I stopped after dropping the kids off at school (we just needed a normal grocery run), talking about the possibility of being stranded for a few days. That always makes the Iowan in me smile, but temps are low for Mississippi, and may get down into the single digits. It’s a good time of year for comfort food, which has me thinking of our time in Belgium and one of our favorite winter dishes Flemish ‘hutsepot’ (the Dutch version is a little different, as is ours!).

There are many versions of hutsepot online, but the basics are a warm, white stew with lots of meat, beans, potatoes, and carrots. There have to be two kinds of meat, and as with lots of stew the cut isn’t always the best. The version made in Ghent that I ate before becoming a vegetarian had mutton, beef, and pork, maybe veal. That was the dish I wanted to replicate without the meat when we were living there, and though I’m sure many would consider it sacrilege, this is what I remember we came up with.

Essentially you take carrots and potatoes and cut them up for stew. Start with a leek or two and sautée it in olive oil or butter, then add several Belgian endive (witloof), if you can get it. I’ve seen Savoy cabbage substituted, but it doesn’t have the same slightly bitter flavor. Still, it would be better than regular green cabbage! We’ve used Chinese cabbage in a pinch. Sautée, adding potatoes, carrots, and white beans (1 can or about half a bag (cooked), depending on how much you’re making). Add salt, pepper, spices (bay leaf is often used), and water or stock and let simmer until it’s very thick. Towards the end, add some milk and cheese. We prefer Gouda when we can get it. In Belgium, we usually used a mixture of Gouda, Emmenthal, and one other cheese that came in a bag, was very cheap, and already grated. Tonight I’m sticking with Gouda, but Swiss would do pretty well, if you don’t want to splurge.

Anyone who knows me, knows better than to expect precise amounts. I bought half a pound of Belgian endive: more might be nice, but it’s expensive in the states. I’ll probably use two or three potatoes, depending on the size, three or four carrots, a leek or two, and as much cheese as I care to grate, depending on taste and texture. This one-dish meal would be good served with a nice warm baguette. We’ll see if I get that industrious! Then we’ll sit back, enjoy, and wait to see if they cancel school before the first snowflake falls… (of course, there could be ice, too).

Resolutions for 2010

December was a month for family (and finals), and I fell behind in my blogging. That’s all right, though. Family is important, and time away from technology can be time very well spent, especially when travel is involved. So I have a few resolutions for the new year: getting back to the blog is only one… continuing to spend time with family is another, and finding time to write poems (and send them to magazines) is a third. All will be a challenge this spring, since in addition to my full teaching load, I have a conference presentation at AWP and the Southern Literary Festival to organize for April 22-24 at MUW.

Christmas was a great time, though! Posole with my sister’s extended family (and our family) in Albuquerque was a great twist to the tradition. We usually have it in Iowa, but this year everyone went to New Mexico to be with my sister while she was having chemotherapy treatments. Fortunately, she had changed medicines and was feeling better and well enough to host us around town. Trips to Old Town and to Acoma Pueblo to see the Christmas dances on Dec. 26 were highlights. Deer and Buffalo dancers in the old mission church, now the pueblo’s public kiva, were highlights. It was moving to see the Acoma doing traditional dances, not for tourists (though we were allowed to watch and even encouraged to participate in the festivities) but primarily for themselves. Men with deer antlers on their heads and their faces covered in evergreen branches or men with buffalo hides covering their heads and shoulders were joined by young boys, girls, and women dancers, led by excellent drummers. It was certainly a celebration of their culture and community that inspires us to value family and community in our lives as well.

Happy 2010 — may your lives be filled with good poetry, art, family, and friends.

Making Money

Recently, I’ve been designing money — not real money and not Monopoly Money, but W Dollars to help show the economic impact MUW has on its local community and state. The idea is that any time someone from the W spends money, they should give a W Dollar with their payment: that might be a purchase in a store, gas station, or restaurant, or it might be for paying the rent or other bills. Students, faculty, and staff live in the area and we spend money here. We also save money, and could include a W Dollar when we make a deposit or put a W Dollar in the offering plate at Church or when we make a donation to a charity. If MUW is merged, there may be a campus in Columbus, but many of the students and faculty will have to move — either to Starkville or even further away, depending on what happens to our jobs or where we decide to go to school. These dollars won’t be spent in our community if we aren’t here.

The university itself brings about $17 million in state money to the area, much of which gets spent locally. In addition to the state appropriation, students pay tuition, we receive grants, and alums and other donors contribute to scholarships and the general fund. Futhermore, MUW alumns are leaders in their fields and add to the economic impact to the state. Many attribute their success to the education they received at MUW. MUW Graduate Dollars honor this aspect of MUW’s legacy.

For those who would like to print their own W Dollars, here are two files with 6 bills per page (please print front and back).
W Dollars with Lines for Cutting
W Graduate Dollar with Lines for cutting

Poetry and Politics

This has been another busy week, which is to be expected, since it’s the last full week before finals. What I didn’t expect (until recently) was the news of Governor Barbour’s proposal to merge MUW with MSU. This has put everyone in high gear to respond and keep up with classes!

I’ve laid down the poetry pen and picked up the letter-writing pen this week, with a couple of letters to the editor of our local paper. The first was in response to an editorial on “denialism” and the second to several letters pronouncing the death of MUW and an editorial about how Grandma needs to get out of the kitchen. This has me thinking about the connections between politics and poetry.

I haven’t written a poem about the merger yet, and I don’t know if I will. Sometimes letters are the most poetic form for the message that needs to be said, though if the occasion arose (a demonstration or other public event where a poem might be fitting), then I might see the point of writing a poem. I have written political poems, though, and some have even made it into my books. “Reflections on Tora Bora” is one, and I kept it because, though the initial situation that inspired it was long over by the time the book came together, I felt it spoke to bigger issues that the book also addressed: what it means to be an American, how we use language to name our weaponry, and our history of violence and war. Maybe I haven’t written a poem on the university merger proposals because I haven’t connected them to a larger issue yet — or maybe it’s just because I’ve been too busy with other forms of writing to process it as poetry.

I did get a chance to read poetry in a political context this week, however. I had already been asked to speak to the Lowndes County Chapter of MUW’s Alumnae Association, which I was happy to do. Their meeting was this week, a few short days after the Governor announced his budget, and after I’d published one letter to the paper and submitted the second. Reading poems in this politically charged environment automatically became a political act, so I chose to read “Spring Beauty,” written about another completely different political situation (or several on both the world and the local stages). It ends with the image of spring beauties, wildflowers, as a symbol of resistance to oppressive forces in the world. Several other poems that I read, which I don’t think of as overtly political, can be seen in the same light. The natural cycles of death in winter and renewal in spring inspire resistance to the destructive forces around us, even as winter poems can inspire an acceptance of the things that can’t be changed. Death can’t be avoided forever, but college mergers can be resisted right now.

What I’m getting at is that any poem or any strong statement is political in the right context. The beautiful poem that is simply beautiful when ensconced in a literature anthology, may have begun its journey with a more political intent, and regardless of the original intent, when taken out of that context and placed in the real world, it can have a political effect. The act of writing poetry is in some historical situations a political act, and I would argue in any situation it can be political. That is why I’ve never bought the artificial distinction between poetry (supposedly apolitical, disinterested, neutral, more than likely masculine) and political poetry (which is somehow deemed inferior, as if the desire to have an effect with what you write is somehow a flaw). If poetry is powerful language, then it must by definition have the power to move and therefore must be political.

But sometimes letters are what is called for (or Declarations, Constitutions, or Addresses — I heard on the Writer’s Almanac that yesterday was the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a political prose poem of the highest order). But now I’ll probably have to write a political poem after all…